What is it about?

In a convergence of land speculators, intense religious evangelism, and a surge of populist optimism, several hundred small Protestant denominational colleges were founded in the Midwest and Great Plains during the western expansion of the United States in the nineteenth century. The Methodist-Episcopal Church was the largest denomination and established the most colleges in these states. In Nebraska, Methodists experienced ongoing embarrassment in their chaotic failure to sustain over thirty years even a single college in twelve attempts. In 1886 there were three under-supported colleges in Nebraska representing three administrative Methodist Conferences in the state. Bishop Charles H. Fowler, former president of Northwestern University, convened out-of-state bishops and wary local clergy, college administrators and supporters to a conclave in Lincoln to unify higher education. The hostile gathering came down to a bitter contest between the M-E College in York, the largest and healthiest existing institution, and the proposed new Nebraska Wesleyan University (two others by that name had previously failed) in Lancaster County, supported by Lincoln businessmen and Methodists who desired a nearby alternative to the perceived “liberals” who were “infidels and skeptics” at the secular University of Nebraska. In the vitriolic proceedings the latter institution emerged successful. However, conflict continued between the York college and the founding of the new Lancaster County institution. The unification plan did not bring unity, financial stability or peace to Nebraska Methodists. As the existing colleges were demoted to two-year feeder schools that eventually closed, the new Nebraska Wesleyan University at University Place on the prairie east of Lincoln also struggled to survive with a smaller enrollment than the closed York college amid ongoing rivalries and dissension fueled by the university’s unpopular Chancellor, Rev. Charles F. Creighton. After a devastating arson fire and scandalous embezzlement, the institution came to the brink of closing in 1898, but was saved by the energetic charisma and determination of the new Chancellor, Rev. Dewitt Clinton Huntington. This 1880's top–down Nebraska model by bishops to unify Methodist higher education did not catch on in other states; for example there are four existing colleges with Methodist origins in neighboring Iowa, and three in Kansas.

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Why is it important?

The growth of denominational colleges is essential to understanding the history of higher education in the United States. Using Nebraska as a case study, this article traces the often difficult founding and sustainability of small Protestant colleges in the Midwest and Great Plains in the nineteenth century.

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This page is a summary of: The Nebraska War of the Roses: The Conflict in Founding a Methodist University, Great Plains Quarterly, January 2020, Project Muse,
DOI: 10.1353/gpq.2020.0001.
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