TOUCHED BY THE 57-CENT OFFERING LEFT BY A POOR YOUNG CHILD who died in a tenement home, Russell Conwell, a Baptist pastor, was inspired to build the Baptist Temple in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Opening in 1891, the 4,600-seat megachurch was the largest Protestant church building in the U.S. at the time.
Seven years before, in 1884, Conwell founded Temple College to train young men in Christian ministry. It wasn’t long before the church became the most visible structure of the campus, and a beacon to the neighborhood.
While pastoring the church, Conwell also served as Temple’s first president, a post held until his death in 1925. But after Conwell’s death the church and college drifted apart. The college strayed from its Christian roots, evolving into a world-class research university with more than 39,000 students, 320 degree programs, and 17 schools. Temple University’s 270,000 living alumni include many artists, businesspersons, physicians, athletes—and this journalist.
Through the years the church and university worked together to maintain the church building. The landmark structure was noted for its ornate Romanesque Revival architecture with 140 stained-glass windows.
The building became a place where historic events took place in the life of the university. In 1938 the entire New Testament was read in 19 hours. U.S. president Harry S. Truman dedicated a chapel in the church in 1951. Graduation speakers included the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dwight David Eisenhower.
As the school moved toward state-related status in the early 1960s, the seminary moved away. In 1974 the church moved to a Philadelphia suburb and Temple bought the building.
For the next 30 years the structure was neglected as university officials struggled to come up with a renovation plan. In 1998 administrators announced plans to demolish the site. But the announcement met strong opposition. Sadly the historic icon had become a white elephant.
However, this year the Baptist Temple was reborn—sort of. In 2007 the university invested $30 million into a renovation that converted the structure into a 1,200-seat performing arts center. Opening this past April, the new Temple Performing Arts Center is a venue for concerts, recitals, theatrical performances, and community events. Once again the historic landmark serves as a focal point for the campus and the surrounding neighborhood.
While I’m happy that my alma mater has preserved the most visible symbol of its Christian roots, the Baptist Temple saga offers a classic example of what happens when a Christian institution veers from its original purpose and mission.
This story has implications for Adventist education. Like Temple, the Christian presence on many Adventist campuses around the world seems to be slowly fading.
In a recent interview General Conference education director Lisa Beardsley cited research showing that only 58 percent of the students in Adventist colleges and universities around the world are baptized Adventists or have Adventist parents. At the same time the percentage of Adventist faculty teaching in our schools is only 74 percent. That means that more than one of every four teachers is not Adventist. Furthermore, fewer than half of all teachers (41 percent) in Adventist tertiary schools graduated from an Adventist college or university. These combined factors are a recipe to turn Adventist campuses into mere church-related schools.
In her report to the General Conference Executive Committee, Beardsley announced plans to strengthen the Adventist mission and identity on our campuses. Among the many goals announced is the priority of increasing the number of Adventist teachers where needed, and helping all teachers model Adventist values and lifestyle. Another goal is to strengthen the role of religion and theology faculty and promote the integration of faith and learning in all course work.
While I’m encouraged to see our GC education leaders sounding the alarm and sensitizing church officials of these goals, it will take the full cooperation of pastors, parents, administrators, education leaders, and faculty around the world to make a difference. It will be an extremely laborious task, but one that can’t be ignored if we are to see Adventist identity and mission reborn in our schools.
Carlos Medley is online editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published December 16, 2010.