Ashland University attempts to model a third way in higher education among institutions that tend to be either Christian or secular. It is an institution where students pursue their educational aspirations in a context that both supports Christian faith and moral principles and is committed to the free inquiry that sustains a university. Ashland University’s identity is simultaneously church-related and officially non-sectarian; this is a genuinely distinctive quality that has always been part of its history.
Founded by the Brethren Church in 1878, Ashland College was designed from the start to be non-sectarian. Its purpose was to train teachers for public school, provide courses in the classics, humanities, and sciences to form well-rounded thinkers and leaders; and to make higher education available to the “young people of the church.” Faculty members were never only members of the Brethren Church, but reflected the College’s partnership with the wider community and the city of Ashland.
Ashland Theological Seminary was founded in 1906 and drew from various Protestant denominations for its faculty. Today the seminary describes itself as “a broadly evangelical seminary.”
The Brethren Church’s influence on the shape of Ashland University is subtle but profound. Ashland has always been a college that values the religious freedom of the individual. As part of the Anabaptist tradition, the Brethren Church—in contrast to state churches and groups that persecuted those they deemed heretics—believed that faith “requires no swords.” For this reason, the Brethren Church does not subscribe to a set of creeds or a specific theological system, holding instead that Scripture, especially the New Testament, is its sole doctrinal standard. This explains why the Brethren Church resisted the idea of a college that demands subscription to a creedal statement from either its teachers or its students. In 1939, the Brethren Church split over this issue. Ashland College remained a liberal arts college and those who wanted students and faculty to subscribe to a statement of faith left the denomination and went on to found their own college.
Instead of subscribing to a set of beliefs, today faculty are asked to support the Christian values that informed the university’s founders and undergraduate students are required to take one Religion core course.
Religious Life on Campus
Just like the world in which we live, Ashland University is made up of students and teachers of all faiths and none. They study and work at an institution where students can choose to explore their faith academically through classes in the Religion Department and deepen and strengthen it in the context of one of the university’s worshipping communities.
Unlike at a Christian college, there is no compulsory chapel service. There is something just as meaningful. There is a vibrant and ecumenical religious life on campus — 45% of students choose to take part in Religious Life programming. The Well, a Brethren-run worship service, regularly sees 250 students on a Thursday evening and the Newman Fellowship is the largest Roman Catholic campus ministry at a non-Catholic school in Ohio.
Involvement of the Brethren Church
The Brethren Church contributes roughly $120,000 a year to the university (20% of the church’s national budget); half of these funds go to the seminary and the other half to Brethren initiatives in Religious Life. Fifty-one percent of the Board of Trustees are Brethren.
— Jason Barnhart (Christian Ministry), Craig Hovey (Religion), Peter Slade (Religion), Dale Stoffer (Seminary); Fall 2014.