Bethel College marks 125 yearsBy Melanie Zuercher Bethel College
NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — Bethel College is celebrating 125 years of educating young people, serving its community and just plain resilience.
Bethel’s founders — prominent citizens of the railroad town of Newton and leaders of the Mennonite community recently immigrated from Prussia, south Russia and other areas of eastern Europe — were part of a wave that washed over the United States in the late 1800s.
Small, liberal arts colleges, many of them church-affiliated, were springing up, especially in the Midwest. But, says historian Keith Sprunger, author of Bethel’s quasquicentennial history, only about half of them survived.
Bethel’s denominational affiliation was the Kansas Conference of Mennonites, which would become the Western District Conference of the then-fledgling General Conference Mennonite Church. Chartered in 1887, Bethel was the first Mennonite college in North America; Goshen (Ind.) College, which began as the Elkhart Institute, would be next, in 1894.
While this school year will see a number of anniversary events at Bethel, the bulk of them will come during Fall Festival Oct. 10-14. One highlight is the release of the book on which Sprunger has worked for five years, Bethel College of Kansas, 1887-2012.
The book goes on sale in Thresher Bookstore beginning Oct. 8. On the Saturday morning of Fall Festival, Oct. 13, Sprunger will sign books just down the hall from the bookstore in Schultz Student Center. Later in the day, he will speak on the sources he used to write the history.
On Oct. 28-30 Sprunger will deliver the annual Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel with a focus on Bethel history and the book. The fourth and final lecture will be a panel looking at the process of writing the history of a Kansas Mennonite college. In addition to Sprunger, the panel is set to include Richard Kyle and John Sharp, co-author and author, respectively, of centennial histories of Tabor College, Hillsboro, 1908-2008, and Hesston College, 1909-2009.
Although the Bethel board of directors invited Sprunger in 2007 to write the Bethel book, in a sense he has been working on that history much longer.
Sprunger, who taught history at Bethel from 1963 to 2001, has kept a store of resources — memos, correspondence and minutes — from that time and amassed a collection of old postcards that feature the college. He has a long-standing interest in community historic preservation, and he wrote the centennial history of Bethel College Mennonite Church, 1897-1997.
Bethel’s only other history in full-length book form is The Story of Bethel College, begun by P.J. Wedel in 1944, picked up after his death in 1951 by Ed G. Kaufman and published in 1954.
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