The Story Behind the Liberal Arts at Westmont

The genesis of the liberal arts at Westmont is a singular story, because the founders of “proto-Westmont” had in mind something quite different. In 1937, President Leland Entrekin opened the doors of the Bible-Missionary Institute, committed to education in “the Whole Word of God Free from Fanciful Interpretations,” to fit young Christians for missionary service. Seed money for BMI had come from Ruth Kerr, a member of Entrekin’s congregation. Since 1930 she had successfully directed the glass manufacturing business left to her (along with six children) at the death of her husband, Alexander, in 1925. Her commitment to Christ and to education for Christian service was unflagging. Without her passionate involvement, it seems unlikely that BMI would have been launched or that Westmont could have survived.

After BMI’s first year of operation, Kerr had begun “hearing from the mission field that they wanted students who had a more complete training than just the ordinary Bible courses that the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (Biola) would offer.” Accordingly she abandoned the idea of a Bible institute per se and strongly endorsed a recourse first proposed by Mabel M. Culter, the school’s superintendent of women: adding a junior college program to the Bible curriculum. “This will be virtually a junior Wheaton College,” Kerr announced to students Jan. 3, 1939, expressing the hope that eventually it would be “a large Wheaton of the West.” No longer would “students desiring both Bible and college [have] to sacrifice either.” Students could pursue liberal arts and Bible school programs at the same time.

Just one academic year would pass before the school, reorganized a second time and renamed Westmont College, set out to become “a liberal arts college with a strong Bible department” — which eventually, its first president hoped, would become “one of the strongest . . . in the United States.” Western Bible College had no president, and in the search for Westmont’s first president it was natural the board should look to Wheaton, the country’s most eminent Christian college of the liberal arts. In May 1939, Kerr sounded out Wallace Emerson, dean of students and professor of education and psychology at Wheaton.

He agreed to accept the presidency, provided that the appointment and dismissal of faculty would be his prerogative alone — and also that the transformation of Western Bible College into a college of the liberal arts would be entire. Many evangelicals of the time were persuaded that “the young person who takes four years of study at Biola with the Bible as his chief textbook, will receive cultural advantages equal to those acquired in a similar period of study of the arts and sciences.”

But Emerson disagreed vigorously. He noted, for instance, that the Latin American Mission would accept “only college and seminary graduates.” He consistently resisted pressures to add purely practical courses for the prospective missionary, such as those characteristic of Bible institutes. “I felt,” he recalled, “that the most good that could be done to the young people of our clientele was the liberal arts concept with plenty of Bible, plenty of supporting material to the Bible and then very, very good basic work in math and science and languages and things of that kind. . . . These young people are going to have to go out and fight the devil on a number of fronts, all of which requires an intelligent understanding of their own position.” Not only could the Bible illuminate other spheres of learning; the converse was equally important.

“There is a type of Christian student,” he wrote later, “who, if a psychological or philosophical fact be not immediately referred to a verse in Scripture, . . . refers it to the ‘limbo’ of . . . unimportant facts. . . . The late R. A. Torrey . . . said that ‘he who understands only the Bible does not understand the Bible.’” This latter emphasis, which Harold Heie argues has been neglected among evangelicals in more recent times, Emerson regarded as essential in 1940.

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