When Bethel Had a Sibling

In 1910 just over 350,000 Americans (not quite 3% of the total population) were enrolled in a total of 951 institutions of higher learning; by 1920, enrollment neared 600,000 (almost 5% of population) and there were over a thousand colleges, universities, law schools, business schools, medical and dental schools, normal schools, seminaries, and other such institutions. It’s not quite the boom that came after 1945, but it seems that World War I did little to slow down the growth of higher education in this country. (See pp. 75-76 of this Department of Education report.)

Hidden in those statistics, however, is the fact that at least 150 institutions of higher learning closed during the 1910s. That’s over 15% of the number open in 1910 — the highest such rate for any decade in the 20th century. (I wrote about this at greater length at my Pietist Schoolman blog last April, drawing on research by Ray Brown.) The state of Texas alone had nine schools close in 1917-1918.

There are many reasons for such a high failure rate, not least the unstable finances and unregulated operations of the higher ed sector early in the 20th century. But surely the United States sending millions of young men and women to war didn’t help matters.

Bethel Academy was somewhat protected from an enrollment crisis because the government hesitated to call up military-aged high school students. Yet the school was on shaky financial ground in the best of times, and the war made the situation bad enough that in late July 1917 president G. Arvid Hagstrom had to beg donors to fill their pledges early:

Owing to the unsettled condition of our country caused by the war, we find ourselves in the most pressing financial stringency. We have been unable to raise sufficient funds during the past year to meet the current expenses. If we are going to carry on our school work during the coming year, we must raise $5,000 before the Conference meets in September.

Hagstrom’s school survived the war — and the Academy actually saw enrollment rise significantly in the 1920s — but Bethel’s sister school in Seattle, Washington didn’t fare as well.

Adelphia College ca. 1905

Adelphia College in Seattle, ca. 1905 – Courtesy of Museum of History & Industry, Anders B. Wilse Collection

“What sister school in Seattle, Washington?!?”, at least one Bethel reader just asked.

Yes, the same year (1905) that a Swedish-American secondary school called Bethel first offered classes at Elim Baptist Church in Minneapolis, a group of Swedish Baptist businessmen founded Adelphia College on a Seattle site facing Lake Union. Though the original intention was for Adelphia to include a four-year college and theological school, the “College” was actually similar in structure to Bethel Academy, having a high school and “commercial” department.

One key difference that may help explain why one failed and the other is still with us: In 1905-1906, the Western Washington Conference of Swedish Baptists had just over 1,000 total members scattered among its thirteen congregations, plus two unattached churches in Spokane that totaled fewer than 100 members and 229 more Swedish Baptists in Oregon; Bethel could recruit from a Minnesota Conference that had eighty-eight congregations and just over 6,000 members, plus those in the Dakotas, Iowa, and Wisconsin, which totaled another 3,000 in membership.

Whatever the reason, Adelphia could not sustain early success, as J.O. Backlund reported in his 1933 history of the denomination:

The work was carried on for a number of years under very satisfactory conditions. But the institutions fell on hard times. Several of those who had been depended on to back the school were caught in the financial back-wash of the World War and could no longer continue to stand by it as they had done. As a result Adelphia College, which at one time had seemed so promising, came to an end in 1918. (Swedish Baptists in America, p. 117)

One year later Seattle College expanded onto the former Adelphia campus. (Or, as Bethel historian Adolf Olson put it, rather grandiloquently, “That splendid property fell into the hands of the Jesuit Fathers, and ‘Finis’ was written to the Swedish Baptist educational work in the Pacific Northwest.”) It’s still the home of Seattle Preparatory School, which branched off from what’s now Seattle University in 1933.

Adelphia’s first and only president, Emanuel Schmidt (here’s a brief biographical sketch), relocated to Bethel Seminary in 1919. In addition to teaching Hebrew and Old Testament, the University of Chicago-educated Schmidt ran a theological library that had dramatically expanded with the addition of the 10,000 books he brought with him from Seattle. (Which he, in turn, had acquired from the Swedish theologian Carl Wilhelm Skarstedt.) Among other volumes, Schmidt contributed 16th and 17th century editions from the likes of Martin Luther and Philipp Jakob Spener.

Adelphia Bible School ad

As a postscript… In 2011 the northwest region of Converge Worldwide (the new “missional name” for the Baptist General Conference) revived Adelphia as a one-year Bible school at a camp thirty-five minutes from Seattle.

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