Vanderbilt University and Southern Methodism

by Frank Gulley.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century some of the Methodist leadership in the South came to believe that the future prosperity of their church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS), was tied in important ways to higher education and especially to an educated ministry. Methodists ran numerous small, financially-struggling liberal arts colleges in every state of the Confederacy, but no university, no institution that could begin to compare to the prestigious universities of the North. They determined to remedy that situation.

Vanderbilt University 1889

In 1871 the Methodists of the Tennessee Annual Conference approved a resolution asking the bishops of the MECS to appoint a committee that would explore the possibility of founding a university. In January 1872 that committee convened in Memphis. By the time it adjourned, members had produced a plan to raise one million dollars, with $500,000 of that sum to be in hand before the university could be opened. Months later only $30,000 was committed, and much of that amount was needed simply to cover the fund-raising efforts. The project seemed hopeless; Southern Methodists at the time were too poor to support such an effort.

However, Methodist bishop Holland McTyeire had family connections with one of the wealthiest men in America — Cornelius Vanderbilt. In 1873 an unusual set of circumstances led McTyeire to New York and conversations with Vanderbilt. Within days Vanderbilt promised “no less” than $500,000 (In time his gift would approach $1,000,000.) for the project, but there were stipulations: the university was to be located near Nashville; McTyeire was to chair the board of trustees for life and hold virtual veto authority over board actions; and all endowment funds were to remain inviolate.

The MECS committee accepted Vanderbilt’s conditions and chose to name the university after its generous benefactor. Within days McTyeire was given authority to take the necessary steps to establish the institution. Vanderbilt University opened on October 3, 1875.

From the beginning the legal relationship between the MECS and Vanderbilt University was not clearly defined. Methodist leaders “assumed” the University was “theirs” and thus “assumed” that it would conform to Methodist understandings and sensibilities in every way. Prominent Southern Methodists, including all the bishops, were appointed to the Board of Trust, and careful attention was given by the University’s officers, who themselves were prominent in the denomination, to nurturing Methodist ties. But considerable suspicion persisted. Several incidents in the University between 1875 and 1905 led some Methodist leaders to believe that the University was not “thoroughly loyal” to the Methodist tradition. One of those issues was the appointment of several non-Methodists to the faculty. Misgivings reached a climax in 1905 when the Board of Trust voted to seek a new charter for the University, permitting only five bishops membership on the Board and clearly establishing the autonomy of the Board vis-à-vis the Church.

Bishop Elijah Hoss, a former faculty member, was furious. He led the group claiming that the University belonged to the Church and thus that the Church had final jurisdiction over all University matters, including the Board of Trust. The Board, of course, took the opposite position. The matter came to a crisis in 1910 when the General Conference of the MECS elected three new members to the Board of Trust whom the Board, in turn, refused to seat. To resolve the matter, the Church filed suit in Davidson County Chancery Court to establish its authority over the University. In 1913 that Court ruled in favor of the Church’s position. Vanderbilt immediately appealed. On March 21, 1914, the Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed the lower court’s decision, declaring that the founder of the University was Cornelius Vanderbilt, that the Board of Trust had authority to name its own trustees, and that the Church did not have veto authority over Board actions.

The leadership of the University and cooler heads in the Church hoped that, with the legal situation clarified, the two institutions could continue in the same relationship as before the crisis leading to the lawsuit, but that outcome was not to be. The General Conference of 1914 voted 151 to 140 to sever all ties with Vanderbilt and to establish two new universities. In time the MECS founded Emory University in Atlanta and Southern Methodist University in Dallas to compensate for the loss of Vanderbilt.

Frank Gulley is Professor of Church History Emeritus of the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University.

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