Ask The UMC: What was the first school started by Methodists?
Education is a core value of The United Methodist Church that dates back to the earliest days of the Methodist movement in 18th century England.
Founder John Wesley believed education was the key to a fuller, richer life. “Knowledge, for him, was not so much a purely intellectual attribute but rather a channel of self-understanding, which is crucial for salvation,” writes Richard Heitzenrater in a summary of Wesley’s educational principles.
Wesley believed everyone should have access to education regardless of gender or class. In 1748 he enlarged a school he had opened for the children of coal miners near Bristol and named it the Kingswood School. His goal for the school was to give young people a high quality education so they could aspire to Cambridge or Oxford and to the professions. He championed education as a way to assure that leaders would act ethically and responsibly.
As the Methodist movement took hold and spread in the United States, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke demonstrated the same attitude in founding Cokesbury College, the first of many colleges started by the denomination. Russell Richey writes: “The General Conferences of 1820 and 1824 charged annual conferences with the establishment of schools, literary institutions, and colleges. By the Civil War, Methodism had established or was affiliated with some 200 such institutions.”
John Wesley’s vision of making higher education accessible to all has inspired seminal acts on the part of the church. Nineteenth century church leaders established colleges that granted degrees to women and African Americans. Beginning in the 1860s and continuing today, the church initiated robust programs of scholarships and loans to provide financial support to students. The denomination’s commitment to education accessibility was reaffirmed in the 1970s with the creation of the Black College Fund and the HANA Scholars program, and again in the 1990s with the establishment of Africa University.
Today The United Methodist Church supports a network of 119 outstanding United Methodist-related schools, colleges, and universities in the United States, including 13 schools of theology, and relates to more than 700 institutions in the Methodist tradition globally.
Adapted from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry
This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications. First published Aug. 6, 2018.