Bethel and the G.I. Bill

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These men deserve well of us for their sacrifices, and democracy must do all it can in the future to give them those benefits of which aggressive totalitarianism has deprived them for the present. — Francis X. Talbot, S.J. (April 1944)1

With the battle for Normandy not even three weeks old and Japanese resistance continuing in the Pacific, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into the law the Servicemen’s Adjustment Act of 1944 on June 22 of that year. Commonly known as the “G.I. Bill of Rights,” the act made possible dramatic changes in postwar America. To mark the seventieth anniversary of the legislation, Pres. Barack Obama reflected on how the G.I. Bill affected Americans like his grandfather:

For some eight million World War II veterans, the original GI Bill meant the chance to realize a college education, get on-the-job training or buy their first home. They became teachers and small business owners, doctors and nurses, engineers and scientists. One of them was my grandfather. A soldier in Patton’s Army, he came home, went to college on the GI Bill and raised his family. In his later years he helped raise me, too.

The GI Bill also transformed America. With the careers it sparked, the homes it helped our veterans buy, and the prosperity it generated, it paid for itself several times over and helped lay the foundation for the largest middle class in history.2

The government-backed loans that let over two million veterans buy homes shouldn’t be overlooked, but without question the most famous provisions of the original G.I. Bill were those that helped pay for college: $500 per year in tuition (close to $7,000 in today’s currency), plus a living allowance. While less than 10% of the nation’s four million WWI veterans had gone to college after 1918, about half of the men and women who served in the military during WWII took advantage of the G.I. Bill’s educational benefits.

Now, most of the 7.8 million veterans-turned-students actually used their benefits for vocational training, not to attend college or university. Perhaps with an eye to the the economic problems that had plagued the veterans of the First World War, many former G.I.’s viewed their educational benefits more as a hedge against unemployment than as an opportunity for study. As historian Steven Keillor argues, people buffeted by the Great Depression and a world war “had no interest whatsoever in casting aside society’s long-accumulated testimony about marriage, raising a family, getting a secure job, saving money, owning a home, etc…. they saw this schooling in practical terms, as preparing them for careers, not as launching them on an experiment with their own lives.”3

And the legislation did less than it should have to expand access to higher education for the one million black men and women in uniform. “The bill had inequality built into it,” University of Minnesota professor Rose Brewer told the Star Tribune in November 2014. “The GI Bill was fundamental in moving the white working class into the middle class. Only a tiny number of African-Americans saw their prospects change.”4

Altschuler and Blumin, The G.I. BillStill, the overall effect on higher education was significant. “Most important,” argue Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin, “the bill demolished the contention that the core constituency of higher education was young men and women from affluent families and helped usher in an era of greatly expanded access to America’s colleges and universities.”5 In December 1941, there were 1.25 million college and university students in the United States. By the end of the 1940s, that figure had doubled to 2.5 million. By 1947, there were already 1.1 million veterans enrolled in institutions of higher learning, accounting for nearly 50% of the entire student population. While elite schools like Harvard continued to recruit primarily from the upper classes, new Bethel College dean C. Emanuel Carlson was generally proven right that the bill “constitutes an appealing invitation for the seeking of a formal education on the part of many who normally would have taken their places in industry, commerce and agriculture without such training.”6

Educational leaders who had been much less optimistic than Franklin Roosevelt about the potential impact of the G.I. Bill now endorsed the Zook Commission’s 1947 recommendation that the national college student population double within a decade.7 This lofty goal wasn’t quite met — the 3.6 million enrolled in 1960 fell a million short — but the attempt sparked enormous growth in community colleges and helped justify a general expansion of federal financial aid.8 Moreover, the influx of veterans pushed colleges and universities to offer better student services (e.g., counseling, vocational guidance, residence life) and fed the trend towards more “practical” degrees in sciences, engineering, and “applied” fields.9 (The latter trend worried Carlson, a popular political science and history professor before becoming dean; in late 1945 he warned that “Science and technology demand attention, but it is now also apparent to thoughtful people that unless the spiritual can gain control of the material only chaos and destruction can lie ahead.”10)

Just a year after the war, veterans accounted for the majority of the 48,500 undergraduates in the state of Minnesota. About two-thirds of those beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill attended the University of Minnesota. As journalist Kevyn Burger observed in a Veterans’ Day piece in 2014, that school’s sudden population explosion created WWII-like logistical challenges:

To accommodate the crush of new students, the U added temporary buildings, expanded class sizes and offered night courses. Housing was tight; students doubled up in dorms, and bunks lined the lower level of Memorial Stadium. Trailers and Quonset huts were hastily constructed for married students. Still, the lack of space spawned the first commuter students.11

Minnesota’s private colleges made gains as well. Their total enrollment in fall 1948 (15,000) was two-thirds higher than what it had been before the war started.12 Church-related schools faced the same shortages of space and facilities as the state’s land-grant university. While Augsburg College bought up neighboring houses and Minneapolis’ Tabernacle Baptist Church, it also had to rent space from the War Surplus Administration to accommodate its suddenly doubled student body.13

The leaders of Bethel College and Seminary (its new name as of 1945) hadn’t wasted any time trying to recruit from what C.E. Carlson called “a dammed-up reservoir of college students.”14 The July-August 1945 issue of the Bethel Bulletin was a four-page ad targeted at returning veterans from the school’s supporting denomination — which had just dropped “Swedish” from its name:

Halt! You G.I.’s in the armed forces from the [Baptist] General Conference, as well as others in the armed forces who might be interested, stop and consider what BETHEL has to offer returning service men and women.

A Q&A section addressed the details of G.I. Bill funding, Bethel president Henry Wingblade added his greetings, and Emery Johnson (whose departure in the summer of 1945 opened the dean’s office to Carlson) promised that

Individuals who register at Bethel will find a widened offering of courses, a balanced program of religious and extra-curricular activities, accredited curricula, and an opportunity for personal development. The future for the nations and for individuals is found in the Christian Way of Life. At Bethel the Christian Way of Life is the vital part of the school work.15

Bethel’s archives contain several letters from servicemen whose interest was piqued by such appeals. For example, one soldier wrote to Wingblade in October 1945, wondering if a two-year degree from Bethel would help him become a detective.16 Others inquired if their military training and correspondence courses would qualify for Bethel credit.17

In the event, Bethel experienced growth similar to that seen at peer institutions. At its lowest point during wartime (1943-1944), only 123 students had been enrolled in the Junior College; fall 1945 brought 230 college students to campus, with that number topping 400 one year later. The effect on the Seminary took longer to materialize, but enrollment surpassed 100 for the first time in 1948-1949, more than double what it had been ten years before.18 And there were so many veterans in the new and returning student mix that Bethel briefly had its own American Legion post; “Wingblade’s Crusaders” met in the college auditorium the first Monday of every month.19

As at Augsburg and the University of Minnesota, space soon grew cramped. Until Bethel’s new male dormitory, Edgren Hall, opened in November 1946, some students had to live across the street on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, in an unheated, overcrowded residence they called “Hotel El Barno.”20 A new wing of the Bodien women’s dormitory and the married student apartments of the Hagstrom Residence (Carlson estimated that 40% of returning veterans were married) also opened in 1946, part of a $200,000 expansion approved by the Baptist General Conference that eventually brought a new library (1948) and fieldhouse (1952).21

Full room in the Edgren residence, ca. 1956

A full house in one of the rooms in the Edgren residence, ca. 1956 – Bethel University Digital Library

Since its founding in 1931, Bethel College had been a two-year institution. Students who wished to continue their education did so either in a seminary like Bethel’s or, like Ens. Charles Berg (JC ‘44), in a four-year school like the University of Minnesota (which accredited Bethel’s collegiate program). But as he both celebrated victory over Japan in August 1945 and requested that Bethel forward his transcript to his new school, Berg wished that he could have used his G.I. Bill benefits differently:

I’ve wished a thousand and one times that Bethel was a four year college. How good it would be to return to the ‘House of God’ for a couple more years of school. At the rate progress is being made on dormatories [sic], etc, maybe that will be possible, a Swede Baptist fully accredited four year college.22

Roy Dalton as a Bethel College junior

One of Bethel College’s first juniors in 1947-1948 was Roy C. Dalton. He would later return to his alma mater as a history professor and be known to a generation of students as “Doc” — Bethel University Digital Library

It didn’t happen in time for Berg, but Bethel was about to fulfill the young naval officer’s wish. As C.E. Carlson moved from Bethel’s faculty to its administration in 1945, he completed an cost-benefit analysis of moving the school to a four-year program.23 He acknowledged the problems — above all, the need for better facilities and a larger faculty. (Not just any teachers would do: “To secure warmly Christian personality with the academic preparation needed in the fields that interest us will not be easy.”24) But in his judgment the opportunity and need were overwhelming.

Here too, the G.I. Bill was a catalyst for change. Carlson recognized that other Christian schools who made the four-year transition faster would have an advantage in recruiting from the swelling college-aged population. Indeed, when Bethel College’s four-year program began in the fall of 1947, 160 of the 440 students on campus were veterans.

Del Kuehl photograph as a Seminary senior in 1948

The Seminary valedictorian that year was Del Kuehl, the most-decorated Bethel chaplain of WWII – Bethel University Digital Library

But other factors also loomed large. Carlson reported that Bethel graduates were having a harder time finding places in other schools, in large part because the University of Minnesota was restricting out-of-state admissions and a slight majority of Bethel students came from beyond Minnesota. But he also feared that the junior college model “tends to give the student body as a whole a certain air of immaturity and tends to limit the educational impact of student relations.” (Or as new student Kiyoo Shimatsu put it in 1943: “Bethel seems like a glorified high school rather than a college.”25And Carlson believed “that our future lies in the selection of certain fields in which to prepare young people for Christian service and then specializing a program on a high plane of spiritual earnestness and academic achievement.” While he ruled out programs in medicine, dentistry, law, and engineering, Carlson hoped to see Bethel add teacher training and enter into an arrangement with the Mounds-Midway School of Nursing. (The former would come to fruition relatively quickly; the nursing program didn’t materialize until the early 1980s.26)

Perhaps most important in Bethel’s decision to grow into a full-year college was the fact that seminary standards were becoming more rigorous. Even after World War II, 35% of Bethel Junior College students were ministerial candidates.27 But as of 1948, Bethel Seminary would start requiring four years of college of its applicants28, meaning that after their sophomore year at Bethel, students would have to spend two years elsewhere and then return to campus for seminary.

There’s little doubt that World War II was an enormously important event for Bethel, but some questions remain open. For example, we’ll leave it to other scholars to assess the economic, social, and cultural impact of the G.I. Bill on Bethel’s constituents. Gerald Sittser has argued that “Catholic support of the GI Bill enabled many Catholics to move from blue collar to white collar jobs,” a shift that made American Catholicism “more middle-class, suburban, educated, and tolerant of other faiths.”29 Did a similar movement happen among BGC folk who had long tended to think of themselves, in the words of Bethel historian Virgil Olson, as “Poor Swedish Baptists”?30

Carl Lundquist and Bethel students in the 1950s

New president Carl H. Lundquist with some Bethel College students – Bethel University Digital Library

It might be that such changes came later. In the 1960s alone, the American college student population skyrocketed from 3.2 to 8.6 million — under influences far removed from the Second World War.31 Likewise, Bethel’s greatest growth would not come until the presidency of Carl H. Lundquist (1954-1982), under whom the undergraduate population doubled twice (from about 400 to over 900 in his first decade, surpassing 2000 by the end of his term), forcing the overcrowded school to make a costly move from St. Paul to the suburb of Arden Hills.32

But the postwar surge fixed a now-familiar pattern: perpetually short of money, Bethel would attempt to grow its way out of its problems. It would create new ones in the process — not just space and facilities; complaints of institutional “drift” grew as the student body and faculty grew somewhat more diverse — but Bethel’s leaders had tapped into the same optimism that fueled the postwar “Advance” in the history of the Baptist General Conference. It’s no surprise that the editors of The Standard responded so enthusiastically in 1946 to the prospect of a four-year Bethel College: “Perhaps not even the bravest of our forebears included such a picture in his dreams of faith. Doors are ajar to great vistas of service for Christ in the field of Christian education.”33

— Chris Gehrz


1 America, Apr. 8, 1944; quoted by Gerald L. Sittser, A Cautious Patriotism: The American Churches and the Second World War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), pp. 228-29.

2 Barack Obama, “Post-9/11 GI Bill keeps promise to newest vets,” Military Times, June 20, 2014.

3 V.R. Cardozier, Colleges and Universities in World War II (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993), p. 224; Steven J. Keillor, The Basis of Belief: A Century of Drama and Debate at the University of Minnesota (Lakeville, MN: Pogo Press, 2008), p. 174.

4 The [Minneapolis] Star Tribune, Nov. 11, 2014.

5 Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin, The G.I. Bill: A New Deal for Veterans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 111.

6 December 1945 report to the Baptist General Conference, reprinted in The [BGC] Standard, Feb. 1, 1946.

7 President’s Commission on Higher Education, Higher Education for Democracy, vol. I (Washington: GPO, 1947), p. 39.

8 Cardozier, Colleges and Universities in World War II, pp. 224-26.

9 Altschuler and Blumin, The G.I. Bill, p. 111. On the shift from liberal arts to applied studies, see Cardozier, Colleges and Universities in World War II, p. 227.

10 The Standard, Feb. 1, 1946.

11 The [Minneapolis] Star Tribune, Nov. 11, 2014.

12 On growing enrollment in Minnesota’s colleges after World War II, see Merrill E. Jarchow, Private Liberal Arts Colleges in Minnesota: Their History and Contributions (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1973), pp. 142-43.

13 Carl H. Chrislock, From Fjord to Freeway: 100 Years, Augsburg College (Minneapolis: Augsburg College, 1969), p. 198. By August 1946 over 100,000 military facilities nationwide had been transferred to colleges and universities, providing classroom space plus housing for an estimated 300,000 veteran-students; Altschuler and Blumin, The G.I. Bill, pp. 87-88.

14 The Standard, Feb. 1, 1946. Over four thousand members of the Baptist General Conference served in the military during World War II; Emery Johnson, “Let Us Not Forget the Servicee,” Ebenezer, 1945, p. 53.

15 Bethel Bulletin, July/August 1945.

16 Letter, Carl Dahlstedt to Henry Wingblade, Oct. 18, 1945, G. Arvid Hagstrom Papers, “Correspondence 3: Correspondence with Military Personnel, WWII” box, Folder 10, The History Center: Archives of the Baptist General Conference and Bethel University (hereafter HC).

17 The question of transfer credit was hotly debated among educators, since the experience of 1917-1918 saw colleges relax standards indiscriminately in order to lure more veterans than their competitors. In the end, 80% of WWII veterans were admitted to college by examination, despite not having completed high school; Cardozier, Colleges and Universities in World War II, pp. 221-22. Like most colleges, Bethel accepted courses offered through the U.S. Armed Forces Institute. See, for example: letter, Emery Johnson to Roy Nordstrom, Feb. 9, 1945, Hagstrom Papers, same file, Folder 33, HC.

18 Statistics cited from Norris A. Magnuson, Missionsskolan: The History of an Immigrant Theological School (St. Paul, MN: Bethel Theological Seminary, 1982), p. 160.

19 Bethel Bulletin, Oct. 1946.

20 The [Bethel] Clarion, Nov. 1, 1946.

21 Jarchow, Private Liberal Arts Colleges in Minnesota, p. 274; Magnuson, Missionsskolan, p. 88.

22 Letter, Charles Berg to Emery Johnson, Aug. 21, 1945, Hagstrom Papers,“Correspondence 3: Correspondence with Military Personnel, WWII” box, Folder 3, HC.

23 C. Emanuel Carlson, “Shall We Plan for a Four-Year Program?”, undated [1945]. While Carlson’s report is available in Bethel’s archives, I first came across it years ago in North Park University’s Brandel Library. In 1951 Carlson sent a copy to North Park president Clarence Nelson, who had preached in Bethel’s chapel during the war, while he was still a Covenant pastor in Minneapolis. The proposal languished in North Park and Covenant committees, with the school not graduating its first seniors until 1959. Letter, Carlson to Nelson, Sept. 13, 1951, Presidential Papers of Clarence A. Nelson, series 9/1/2/5, box 4, Covenant Archives.

24 One of Carlson’s early hires was geneticist V. Elving Anderson, brought back to his alma mater as part of a bulked-up biology department. Anderson (who served at interim dean after Carlson moved to the Baptist Joint Committee in 1953) wrote about “C.E.”’s commitment to faith and learning in The Baptist Pietist Clarion 4 (July 2005): 3, 8-9.

25 The Bethel Clarion, Nov. 17, 1943.

26 Many of Bethel’s peer institutions also added elementary education programs after the war, an innovation made possible by the Minnesota Legislature and state board of education in 1949; Jarchow, Private Liberal Arts Colleges in Minnesota, p. 143. On nursing at Bethel, see G. William Carlson and Diana Magnuson, “Bethel College and Seminary on the Move,” in Five Decades of Growth and Change, 1952-2002: The Baptist General Conference and Bethel College and Seminary, eds. James and Carole Spickelmier (St. Paul: The History Center, 2010), p. 33.

27 Magnuson, Missionsskolan, pp. 73, 160.

28 Ibid., pp. 86-87.

29 Sittser, A Cautious Patriotism, p. 229.

30 Virgil A. Olson, “The Baptist General Conference and its Pietistic Heritage,” Bethel Seminary Quarterly 4 (May 1956): p. 64.

31 Altschuler and Blumin, The G.I. Bill, p. 115.

32 On Bethel’s growth under Lundquist, see Carlson and Magnuson, “Bethel College and Seminary on the Move,” pp. 29-35, 37-39.

33 The Standard, Feb. 1, 1946.

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