In July John Wesley Hughes, aged 38, a minister and evangelist of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, met with several citizens of Wilmore, Ky., to ask their support for a college.
Hughes was devoted to the cause of historic Methodism, based on the theology of John Wesley, and had enjoyed a modest career as a pastor and revivalist before being called by God to found a “real salvation school.” He was convinced that the doctrine of holiness, which formed the heart of John Wesley’s understanding of Christian theology, was sadly neglected in official denominational circles.
Hughes’ project became known among local Methodists. W.T. Grinstead, pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, of Wilmore spread this interesting news among Wilmore property owners. The July meeting came as a result of their invitation.
Wilmore appealed to Hughes’ practical side in several ways. The town was easily accessible. Wilmore was located on the Cincinnati, New Orleans and Texas Pacific Railroad. Hughes thought the countryside was beautiful, which made it easy for him to believe it was healthful as well. It was altogether a “splendid district” to him. Even considering the growth which a college would bring, the town was never likely to offer much in the way of conventional temptation to unwary youth and was far from anything like an actual city. Finally, Wilmore was in his Methodist Conference, in which he was obliged to operate for official purposes.
Whatever Hughes’ motivation, Wilmore’s leading citizens welcomed his project. Up to that point the town consisted of a railroad depot and a few buildings, but its citizens clearly had their eyes on bigger things. They wasted no time in raising $1500 as seed money for the project.
With this money, Hughes purchased about six acres of land next to the Methodist Church on Main Street. Although the deed for the property was not recorded until Aug. 19, construction on the first building began almost at once in July. The first building was simple, essentially a two-story wooden box divided into four rooms. It required only a few weeks to build.
The little school—“the embryo of Asbury College”—opened on Sept. 2, in this building. Originally, the school was called Kentucky Holiness School. In the first official catalog, Hughes described it as “ a distinctly religious school where young men and young women can get a thorough College education under the direction of a faculty composed of men and women wholly consecrated to God.” There were eleven students and three teachers.
Students of all ages were invited. It is clear that like many liberal arts colleges of the era, Hughes intended to offer instruction on the elementary, secondary and collegiate levels in the same institution. The local sponsors, while no doubt sympathetic to holiness doctrine, wanted Wilmore to have education in any form. At the time the town lacked an elementary and secondary school. Hughes was convinced that the “work is of God and will succeed.” He expected ”the hearty co-operation of Holiness people everywhere.”
In November the school moved into its “commodious” new building, built of brick with 23 rooms, which served as the main building until 1900. Although the new structure was called the “Ladies ‘Dormitory,” it housed the whole program. After 1900, when a new administration-academic building opened, this building was called “Music Hall.”
Several writers, and the founders themselves, believed with some justice that this was the “first holiness college started in the U.S.”
By the end of the first year, 75 students had enrolled, but no records show which were in preparatory classes and which were in collegiate. (In terms of total enrollment figures, the former were more important than the latter for decades. College publications did not distinguish between high school and collegiate enrollments until 1920.)
When Hughes sought official sanction for his new endeavor, the local bishop refused on the grounds that the name of the new college gave offense. All Methodist colleges were “holiness colleges.” Hughes asked sought suggestions for a new name. While reading the story of Francis Asbury in a history of Kentucky Methodism, Hughes was struck by the happy coincidence that the founder of American Methodism had started a school of his own in practically the same spot a hundred years before. To Hughes, the name “Asbury College” was inspired. (It is not likely he was aware that this was the first name of what is now DePauw University in Indiana.)
Construction continued. A new chapel building arose next to the “main building.” On the outside the chapel resembled a modest country church, but within was a single auditorium, with the college motto inscribed upon the front wall: “Industry, Thoroughness, Salvation.”
Contrary to the time, Hughes believed that men and women should be educated together, which he considered essential for the proper education of both genders.
A literary society was founded, and the public invited to donate “any good book” for the growing library. After a year’s operation Hughes announced that “the most sanguine expectations” were being met by the new enterprise.
In the fall eight persons were on the faculty. The school operated on two terms, with a break for Christmas vacation.
The official Catalog for 1891-1892 was the first to list social rules, then called “domestic regulations.” These included rules against excessive talking, “boisterous laughing,” passing notes among the students and, oddly, “too much letter writing,” which interfered with study. Girls were required to wear carefully prescribed clothing.
The arrival of Asbury College had the very effect for which the local sponsors had hoped. A school was opened for their children, and growth was in the air. Town lots were laid out. The Jessamine Journal observed that “much of the prosperity is due to the function of Asbury College at that place—a fact of which the people generally appreciate.” Official college publications sang community praises: “A more favorable location can not be found in any section of our country.”
The academic program consisted of the standard secondary courses of the day. The collegiate curriculum relied heavily upon the classics, and a thorough course in Bible. Vocal and piano music were included from the start.
In November Grover Cleveland, Democrat, was elected President of the U.S.
On Dec. 22, the campus held a “literary and musical program” to raise money for a laboratory. The admission was 25 cents for adults, 15 cents for children.
At the end of the 1892-1893 school year, Thomas W. Shannon became the first graduate of Asbury College. He remained as Professor of Natural Science until 1896. In later years, Shannon became a prolific writer and gained fame as a proponent of “eugenics,” a series of propositions that have long since been discredited. In less critical days, however, Shannon’s success as a writer and speaker was a source of pride to his alma mater.
Wilmore opened the first public school.
The Euphronian and the Sophonian literary societies formed from the root planted in 1891. To Hughes, the value of these societies was not primarily social, but educational. Membership in one or the other group was compulsory. For the next fifty years, clubs like these dominated campus social life.
In January the Central Holiness Campground was established on land purchased east of town.
At commencement F.B. Jones was the second graduate of Asbury College. Jones was a boyhood friend of Hughes, raised in the same Kentucky county. He was also the first Asbury graduate to offer himself for “mission work abroad.”
Ministers’ Hall was built, a two story frame building with 16 rooms, 2 halls. It was intended to house young men who were training for the ministry, a group which Hughes favored by constant encouragement and, more practically, by reduced expenses. Rent was only $10 per year. Men could eat on the “club plan,” by which a group would purchase and prepare food in common.
Chapel was now required. A rule against reading “light and trashy literature” was added.
C.F. Kolin, an Austrian immigrant and the first faculty member with a Ph.D., became a member of the Asbury College faculty. Instruction in German was added– offered not for scientific or theological subjects, but for “all practical business purposes.”
In November, the Asbury Sophrosyne, the first college publication, other than the catalog, appeared. It survived until the spring of 1895. It included an article in favor of co-education, which the college espoused. Sophrosyne displayed the first college seal—an open Bible surrounded by a circle, “Holiness unto the Lord” written on one side and “Industry, Thoroughness, Salvation” on the other.
After five years of successful operation, the college loomed large in Wilmore affairs. A visitor to Hughes remarked that the school was “about all there was of the town at that time.”
The Asbury Missionary Society was formed and included fifty members.
The “Boys’ Conference” was organized. This was based upon the conference system of the Methodist Episcopal Church, with a different “Bishop” elected every month and regular sessions for delivering practice sermons. The Boys Conference had a major influence upon the Christian life of young men on campus.
The literary societies’ compulsory element was dropped in favor of allowing an interest in literary things to serve as a motivation to join. Both secondary and collegiate students were welcomed. An additional society, the Aconian, was formed.
In November the national presidential contest was of particular interest to Methodists. The Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, was a leading exponent of both Holiness and total abstinence from alcoholic beverage. The Republican, William McKinley, was a devout Methodist. In the event, McKinley won by a landslide.
C.F. Kolin became an object of controversy and resigned. A number of pious students, encouraged by certain faculty, charged that Kolin, an Austrian immigrant and an ex-Catholic priest, did not attend church regularly, smoked a pipe in his own house and was probably a spy for Rome. The first charges were true enough, but Hughes gallantly defended Kolin, who had apparently given up much as a younger man in the pursuit of spiritual truth. In the face of this, a large group of students left campus in protest, but returned the next day—perhaps, as Hughes’ son suggested, because of Hughes’ soft-hearted policy of allowing a large number of students to attend without paying.
Indeed, Hughes was committed to the impractical principle that any earnest young person who desired an Asbury education should be allowed to have it.
Also in this year, a holiness magazine that had been published in Louisville since 1888, changed its name to The Pentecostal Herald .The publisher and editor was Henry Clay Morrison, a devoted friend of Hughes, Asbury College and the cause of holiness. For many years The Pentecostal Herald played an exceptionally important role in recruitment and fund-raising for the College.
At commencement, the College gave diplomas to its first foreign graduates, J. M. Matsumoto of Japan and B. L. Sarmast of Persia. This was doubly significant in that the remaining students undertook to support these as missionaries to their homelands. They became not only the first foreign-born graduates, but the first “native missionaries” whom the college supported.
Hughes visited the national convention of the Student Volunteer Movement in Chicago to study student missionary organizations. Founded in 1886, the Student Volunteer Movement was interdenominational and independent, dedicated to encouraging interest in foreign missionary work on American campuses. This was the largest and by far the most effective of such groups, with hundreds of branches in American colleges and universities.
Later in the same year the Student Volunteer Missionary Band was officially started at Asbury.
The Catalog for 1898-1899 was the first catalog to display the college seal, which had first appeared in 1894.
The College added a “business course,” which consisted of typewriting, taught by a “specialist,” bookkeeping and shorthand. For the first time musical instruction included more than voice and piano; now the College offered a program in “the stringed instruments, including the violin, guitar, and mandolin.”
The College built a new girls’ dormitory.