Lee University at 100: The Second 25 Years

In recognition of the 100th birthday of Lee University this year, Faith News is presenting a series of four articles on the history of the Church of God’s premier educational institution. This second in the series recalls the years 1943 – 1968. The article is a reprint from an appearance in the Lee University Torch, written on the occasion of Lee University’s 75th birthday in 1993. The writer was the late Charles W. Conn, a former president of Lee College (1970-1982) and general overseer of the Church of God from 1966-1970. Conn is also author of Like A Mighty Army, a history of the Church of God.

To access the first installment of the series, click here: www.faithnews.cc/?p=26244

Between Two Wars

The second 25 years of Lee College (University) history was as persistent as the first 25 had been tentative. Both generations knew the stress of a world locked in global war; World War I in 1918 and World War II in 1943. The lessons learned between the two were beneficial to the cause of higher education.

By 1943 the simplicity of an earlier time had given way to the complexities of the new; it was recognized that the church as well as the world that a college education was no longer a luxury for a privileged few, but a necessity for all who wished to be effective in life. That was especially true for those who wanted to be acceptable workmen for the Lord. The mandate to “show thyself approved unto God” became very real. Uncertainties toward education held by the earlier generation were absent, or at least quieter, in the second.

An unprecedented boon for military veterans who wanted an education came with the end of World War II: The G.I. Bill of Rights provided college grants for those who had been in military service. This act moved college education form a privilege of the rich and gifted to an opportunity for ordinary, working class would-be scholars. It was a wonderful time to advance the cause of Christian education, and Lee College was poised for a remarkable advancement.

Post War Leadership

Zeno C. Tharp. B.T.S. president since 1935, continued at the post until 1944, at which time he concluded a nine-year stint at the school’s helm. In concern for its future, the board looked to its past by naming J.H. Walker, who was elected General Overseer from the presidency in1935, had served the school with distinction. It was hoped that he could resume the leadership he had once given, but, however attractive the past may seem, time and circumstance do not stand still for any man. That was the case in this instance.

Although the student enrollment set a record of 630 in 1944-45, in the eyes of some, things had not gone well otherwise. So Walker’s return to the school was terminated after only one year. It is with some irony that World War II ended that year, which enhanced prospects for the school’s future, and the General Assembly of 1945 convened on the B.T.S. campus in Sevierville. Tennessee. Walker retired to a local pastorate.

The college then looked to another veteran of the Church of God, E.L. Simmons, to lead it forward. Under his leadership there was notable property enlargement, with the completion of a new dormitory and extensive improvements of other facilities. The greater advancement, however, was made in academics. Earl M. Tapley, with degrees in education from Vanderbilt University and Peabody College, was added to the faculty and named Dean of the College.
A New Campus, College and Name
Under the guidance of Simmons and Tapley, the school began to be noticed in the academic world. Graduates were soon able to transfer to major colleges for completion of their education. The eager stride toward accredited college status was quickened. And then, in 1946, a golden opportunity came to the Church of God—purchase of the Bob Jones College campus in Cleveland, Tennessee, which had been built originally in 1885 as Centenary College, a Methodist institution. Occupancy of the campus meant that B.T. S. would return to the place where it began in 1918, the headquarters city of the Church of God. The move was made in time for the 1947-48 school term with the name of the school changed to Lee College in honor of its second president, Flavius J. Lee. President Simmons remained with the college only one year after the return to Cleveland. But the upward move in the field of education was determined.

A Glimpse of Greatness

J. Stewart Brinsfield, a personable and progressive leader, at age 35 was appointed president. In many ways his presidency was a herald of the future. He and Tapley formed a capable and compatible team, with the continued building of a competent faculty one of their high priorities. The faculty included such attractive teachers as Hollis Gause, Mary Elizabeth Harrison Green, Leon Green, Robert Humbertson, Lacy Powell and A.T. Humphries. Recruiters and music groups were sent out in an aggressive search for students and financial support. Efforts were launched to acquaint both the church membership and the general public with the educational aims of the college. The resulting college spirit was unmistakable on campus.

Off campus, there seemed to be a divided opinion about exactly what Lee College should be. Some felt that it should be a liberal arts college with a strong curricula in theology and biblical studies, while others felt that it should be strictly a Bible College for training Christian workers, with only necessary courses in arts and sciences. The question to identify virtually ended the excitement and growth. A decade would pass before that matter was finally settled.

A Treadmill Decade

Although he was popular with the faculty, students and public, Brinsfield was dismissed as president during the 1950-51 school term. The change was followed by a period of frustration that saw the loss of Lee’s recent gains, and the spread of a regrettable malaise toward Lee College. The loss of enthusiasm was caused by, or resulted from, the enrollment and financial problems that plagued the college through most of the 1950s.

E.M. Tapley served as acting president for the remaining semester of Brinsfield’s 1950-51 term, until the college appointed John C. Jernigan president for the 1951-52 term. This was not intended to be a long-term appointment and Jernigan served for only one year.

In 1952, R. Leonard Carroll, a South Carolina pastor, became president. His academic credentials recommended his appointment, and his presidency was initially well received. Yet a time of student decline commenced. By 1954, student enrollment dropped to 530, which was 100 below that of 1944 when the school was still in Sevierville. And it would drop more.

Rufus L. Platt, dean of the junior college, was appointed president in 1957. Despite Platt’s many efforts to stop the decline, it was not stopped, or even slackened. College property was sold in order to pay its obligations. A sense of discouragement was perceptible in students and faculty. Some felt that the college was being liquidated, and wondered, not always privately, if it could survive. Enrollment, down to 436 when Platt took office in 1957, dropped to 337 in the spring of 1960. Prospects for Lee College indeed seemed dim.

Lights in the Dimness

Despite these conditions, there were numerous, little-noticed successes on various fronts. At the beginning of Platt’s presidency, the already capable faculty was strengthened by the addition of J. Herbert Walker, Jr., and Lucille Walker. In 1959, the Bible College was accredited by the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges, which was followed in 1960 by accreditation of the Junior College by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

Equally significant spiritual attainments kept hope alive during the period. As early as 1956, Carroll’s last year, a vibrant personal evangelism program was born on the Lee College campus. Charles R. Beach, a language professor, utilized a campus Youth for Christ club to lead students in evangelistic efforts to nearby cities and states. The idea took hold and the Pioneers for Christ movement was born. PFC flourished throughout Platt’s presidency and grew into one of the most inspiring youth movements of recent times. It stands today as one of the Church’s remarkable evangelistic efforts, a witness that God is at work even in tough times.

The 1950s also saw the advent of great music festivals that thrilled hundreds who came great distances to hear college choirs and musical groups. The tradition of Christian music established earlier by such men as J.H. Walker, Otis McCoy and Owel Denson was carried to exciting heights by A.T. Humphries.

The End of Apathy

An unusual thing happened in 1960. The Executive Council of the Church of God set aside an earlier decision of the board of directors and appointed Ray H. Hughes to be president of Lee College. Then, almost simultaneously, the Council called for a committee on Educational Aims and Accomplishments “to make a careful and comprehensive study of the entire educational program of the Church of God.”

After suffering through a decade of decline, it seemed that the church was eager to comprehend the problems of higher education, and roll up its collective sleeves in order to avoid such difficulties in the future. The committee, James A Cross, chairman; Charles W. Conn, secretary; Ray, H, Hughes, James L. Slay and Lewis Willis worked for two years, 1960-62, with research, church-wide surveys, in-depth considerations and debate. The committee report included, in part, the following recommendation: “…it is our responsibility to sponsor one four year liberal arts college, strong in education and the arts. It is our further responsibility to sponsor a strong school of theology and Christian training. We recommend that our efforts and attention be directed toward the full realization of such an institution, which is and shall be Lee College.”

The Climb Resumes

President Hughes, who was also speaker for the Church of God’s radio program, Forward in Faith, was best known as an evangelist. And for six years, 1960 to 1966, he led Lee College with a youthful zeal and evangelistic ardor. At age 36, he was one of the three youngest men ever to serve as president. And, as Walker and Brinsfield had done before him, he gained the allegiance of the faculty and strongly identified with the students.

Several projects of campus enlargement improved school morale and confidence in the future. Among these were a modern administration building to replace Centenary’s “Old Main” in 1963, and a science building, which also housed Brown Auditorium in 1965.

Among efforts to stimulate enrollment and financial support, an annual “College Day” was initiated, when promising high school students were given a taste of college life. Enrollment thereupon rose remarkably to 629 in 1963, and up to 897 in 1965. A “President’s Council” was created to encourage donors to support Lee College. The cumulative result of all this activity and energy was a resumption of campus growth and a renewal of enthusiasm toward it.

Passing the Torch

When Hughes resigned from Lee at the close of the 1965-66 term, he was succeeded as president by James A. Cross, a church leader of tremendous influence and ability. Cross’ appointment was an unexpected but popular one. A lifelong supporter of the college, he kept it on its positive course and led it to great academic distinction.

The faculty was noticeably enlarged during Cross’ four year tenure. He brought to the body such learned scholars as James Beaty in 1967, whose theological credentials and skills enhanced the Bible College. Then Cross, along with Donald S. Aultman, vice president and Dean, and their able administration and faculty, merged the former separate colleges into one unified institution of three divisions: Arts and Sciences, education, and Religion. That was an important step toward fulfilling recommendations of the Board of Directors and Executive Council.

In physical expansion, two dormitories were completed during Cross’ presidency: one for male students (Hughes Hall) in 1967, and one for female students (Cross Hall) in 1969.

It was fitting that, in 1968, President Cross led Lee College through its 50th Anniversary Celebration. The college was a mature and efficient extension of the dreams of half a century.

Probably the greatest achievement of Cross’ years at Lee would come in 1969, with the college’s accreditation as a four year liberal arts college by SACS. With that recognition the faith and labors of all the previous years were rewarded.

Next Installment: 1968 – 1993

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