Celebrating Lon Morris College: A Sermon on Isaiah 51: 1-3
The Rev. Ted Campbell preached this sermon Saturday, Jan. 26, at the “final homecoming” for UM-affiliated Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, Texas.
It seems like I’ve lost two mothers in the last couple of years. My biological mother, Lucretia Cammack Campbell, died on September 30, 2011. My alma mater, another “beloved mother,” Lon Morris College, seems to have died over the last few months with the auctioning of the College’s property in the last two weeks as the final breath of a dying institution. We come here today not so much to bury as to celebrate the College, but this is not an easy task for any of us.
My mother brought me up to Lon Morris College one beautiful spring day in May of 1972. I had taken a day off from High School, and we drove up to Jacksonville, talked to Dean Matthews about what I would need to bring (not much) and what the dorm arrangements would be. We had lunch in Lufkin, drove back to Beaumont, and I was back to my High School English class before 3:00 pm, in time to receive my graded senior paper on Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage.
I later learned that my mother had thought, or at least she had hoped, when she was in high school, that she would go to Lon Morris College and marry a Methodist preacher. Why anyone would aspire to such a thing still eludes me, but that was her dream, and a dream that her family was not able to afford. When she drove me up to Jacksonville in May, 1972, I’m sure she was thinking about her youthful aspirations and perhaps how those had come around to be fulfilled in her son.
She and my dad did come to Lon Morris College for Methodist summer camps – this was prior to the development of Lakeview – and they learned much of the culture of the school, including the school song. And as my mother slipped deeper and deeper into Alzheimer’s disease in recent years, and could not remember where she was or what we were doing, when I would drive her and Dad from Beaumont to Dallas, we would stop in Jacksonville for a restroom break. And when I said we were at Lon Morris, my mother would begin singing the school song, and she could sing remember every word of it.
So I went to Lon Morris College and at the Howdy Dance I met Dale Marie Fick, whose parents Carl and Wava Fick had met each other at Lon Morris College, and Dale and I were married, and after a few years of thinking about it we begat a lovely daughter who, in her senior year in high school, ended up quite confused as to where or whether she should go to college. But as we were packing up Elizabeth’s things in the summer of 2001, we found that she had filled out and signed an application to Lon Morris College without sending it in, and without her permission we put it in the mail with the appropriate check and a few weeks later she received a letter from President Clifford Lee informing her that she had been accepted at the College and given the Carl and Wava Fick Scholarship. And she went to Lon Morris College and became a cheerleader, but our Elizabeth was no stranger to the culture of the school. When she was a baby, I sang her the Lon Morris College school song when I put her to bed at night, and by the age of two, she could sing it pretty well herself. So Lon Morris College is a deep, family matter for us, and the loss of the College is very much like the loss of a family member.
Now the prophet Isaiah urges us,
Look to the rock from whence you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you (Isaiah 51:1b-2a).
Abraham and Sarah lived a long, long time ago, long before the founding of Lon Morris College. Perhaps we should look back at least beyond the recent decades of the College and ask ourselves why Methodist people founded schools like the Alexander Collegiate Institute that grew into Lon Morris College.
What I know as a historian is that in founding schools like these all over the United States, Methodists were building and transmitting a rich, intergenerational Christian culture: a culture with a core of historic Christian teachings and practices, with a strong overlay of Methodist culture, and with plenty of broader culture as well. Truth be told, a Methodist college like Lon Morris really was something like a Methodist breeding ground. A friend who had served as a missionary in India told us that, in her view, denominational colleges were the American equivalent of arranged marriages. (And that worked very well for us, thank you very much!) But denominational schools existed for more than procreational evangelism. (And I want to go on record that I’m down for that.) They have functioned as centers of Christian and denominational cultures, and as centers for humanistic learning.
Folks knew what they were doing in establishing denominational schools. They were one element in a rich filigree of literature, music, and institutions designed explicitly to promulgate their church cultures. Methodists published official hymnals and catechisms, theological tracts and pamphlets, works of systematic theology and church history, biographies of Methodist founders, saints, and ordinary believers, church manuals, and books like The Methodist Armor explaining and defending Methodist beliefs and practices. They built schools, colleges and Universities. They developed Sunday School literature and summer programs for children and young people. They developed books and pamphlets of Gospel songs used in Sunday School assemblies and young-peoples’ meetings and covered-dish suppers. They developed camp-meeting sites into Chautauquas and other seminars advocating their church culture. They designed a course of studies for preachers and ordained elders, and eventually formed biblical institutes and theological schools to complement the courses of study. Through these publications and media and institutions, Methodists offered a rather tight and consistent vision of Christian faith that they transmitted across generational boundaries for a couple of centuries. Alexander Collegiate institutewas one link in that filigree of institutions transmitting a rich Christian and Methodist culture.
Some of that stuff may seem terribly old-fashioned today, but my question for you this morning is: if not by Lon Morris College, then how will we transmit a rich, Christian and Methodist culture to future generations? Sharing the school song through three generations of my family is an outward and audible sign of this multi-generational sharing of a culture. But more important things were transmitted than just the school song. If the expression “Christian culture” conjures up images of contemporary right-wing American gay-bashing “Christian culture,” please think again. That’s not, at least, the Christian culture I imbibed at Lon Morris College. And of course, it was more than just Christian culture. Lon Morris tried to form us in broader cultures of the world. The motto on the College seal was pro ecclesia, pro humanitas, “For the Church; For Humanity.” The Latin is incorrect, and I did send President Lee a memo suggesting that the trustees correct it to pro ecclesia, pro humanitate. He seemed to think that the College had higher priorities. Maybe this is all just God’s judgment on a public display of bad Latin?
But Lon Morris College did convey a rich Christian and Methodist church culture. It took Dale’s Lutheran Dad and made him a Methodist. It took me, fresh from an evangelical conversion experience, and immersed me in the documentary hypothesis about the Pentateuch and the synoptic gospels, Luther and Wesley and Barth and Bonhoeffer and contemporary ethical issues faced by Christians. It took a seriously underperforming high school student from Beaumont—I managed to place in the bottom half of my graduating class in high school—and formed me in such a way that I was accepted as a graduate student at Oxford University in three years. Lon Morris College took me to Dallas to hear Albert Outler’s lectures on “Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit,” and that set me on my life’s work. Perhaps by the time our Elizabeth arrived here, elements of Christian and Methodist culture were fading from the College, and, truth be told, it has been very difficult in recent years for denominational schools to retain their roles as transmitters of church cultures. I do not envy those who were administrators or board members of the College in recent decades. It may well be that their task was an impossible one.
But if not by Lon Morris College, then how will we transmit a rich, Christian and Methodist culture to future generations? I bear no apologies for wanting to transmit a Wesleyan and Methodist vision of Christian life. True, our primary job is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” but we do not become Christians in a vacuum; we do not become Christians apart from particular traditions that God has used, I believe, to shape and form us as Christians. Maybe it’s not cool to advertise denominational labels these days, but any well-versed interpreter of contemporary church life can tell you which specific denominational cultures are represented by the major “mega-churches” that are often depicted as “non-denominational”: Fellowship Church of Dallas (it’s Baptist); Willow Creek Community Church (Evangelical Free Church); Southeast Christian Church of Louisville (Disciples of Christ); Saddleback Church (another stealth Baptist congregation). And here’s the deal: if mega-congregations fail to transmit their cultures across generational boundaries, they are doomed to a single generation of existence.
The spectacular demise of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California, and the purchase of the property by the Catholic Diocese of Orange in the last year, stands as a signal instance of the failure to build and transmit a church culture across generational lines. Appointing your own kids as your successors seldom works. I learned in Mr. Burton’s English history class at Lon Morris that Oliver Cromwell had tried that with his dim-witted son Richard. Didn’t work. In recent years, Oral Roberts tried it with his own son Richard. Didn’t work. It takes more than a charismatic individual or his kids to transmit a culture.
I think it will remembered that Dr. Robert Schuller gave us the basic mega-church formula for how to attract people to new, non-traditional congregations in the post-World-War-II era in the United States. No doubt we have to learn from that and attract new constituencies to our congregations. But I have to tell you that it’s going to take more than that to transmit a culture across generations. For one thing, it’s going to take a rich body of literature and music and other media to transmit a culture.
And yes, it’s going to take institutions. For all the institution-bashing that seems to have hit a fever pitch in recent decades, even in our churches, institutions can accomplish what a charismatic individual cannot accomplish. They carry cultures across generations. They carry on missions across generations. They carry memories across generations. Two cheers for institutions! But today’s event reminds us how very difficult it is to carry on the life of institutions and to hold institutions to their foundational tasks.
So again I ask, if not by Lon Morris College, then how will we transmit a rich, Christian and Methodist culture to future generations? The way we have done it in the past involved all that stuff that was sold last week for a mere $2 million, including athletic fields, gymnasium, library, classrooms, laboratories, administrative offices, rehearsal rooms, theater, chapel, dormitories, and cafeteria.
But those physical plant facilities were there to support a particular and traditional style of learning that was at the heart of Lon Morris College. These facilities enabled person-to-person learning with that rich and sometimes eccentric group of individuals who were the Lon Morris faculty. We did not simply sit in front of screens or read texts in books. We interacted with real human beings who became—and in many cases, still are—our life-long mentors. Quirky human beings: a descendant of the Beall family who enjoyed nothing more than teaching English literature, a former basketball star who remembered being the first white student to share a dorm room with a black student at Southern Methodist University, a triathlete who eventually became a Methodist Franciscan, a president who had astronaut buddies, a math teacher who could recall how his wife cried when she first saw the campus of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Quirky, but real people. I only later learned that quirkiness is actually a requirement for tenure for college and university faculty members.
That’s the kind of education I had at Lon Morris College and at Oxford University and at Southern Methodist University. But this traditional model of person-to-person education and formation is being severely challenged today. At our university faculty meeting at SMU on Wednesday our Provost reported about current speculation that community colleges may actually begin shrinking in the next few years, because it’s hard to show that they accomplish much that cannot be accomplished on-line. Not so with traditional, person-to-person education, but this traditional model of a college takes enormous resources to make it work. Our provost actually called it “elite” education. And none of us could really deny the fact.
I confess now that I do not really have easy answers to this question of how we will transmit a rich, Christian and Methodist culture across generations and form new generations of Christians and Christian leaders. My hope, my prayer, is that it will involve not only books and music and liturgies, but that it will involve some version of this lovely, quirky, very human vision of education and formation that we found at Lon Morris College. In the end, it is God who will preserve the church:
For the Lord will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song (Isaiah 51:3).
So we conclude with some words of thanksgiving. Thanks to all of you who served the College, especially those who served without appropriate compensation in recent years. We owe you more than thanks, but at least we offer this: thank you. And thank you, administrators, board members, and College faculty members. You were the ones who made Lon Morris College the formative institution that it has been.
Thank you, Lon Morris College, for what you did for the church and for humanity, pro ecclesia, pro humanitate. Thank you, Lon Morris College, for what you did for Dale and her family, for me and for my family, for Elizabeth and our family. It’s very hard to say, but goodbye, alma mater. Goodbye, Lon Morris College, “dear Lon Morris!” You are indeed “worthy of our homage.”
The Rev. Ted Campbell is associate professor of church history at Perkins School of Theology, part of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.