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Austin Grad: “A Bible Chair on Steroids”

Posted by Dr. Stan Reid on August 6, 2015 at 9:00 AM

Bible_Chair_Steroids_-_full_facultyProfessors (left to right): Michael Weed, Mark Shipp, Daniel Napier, Todd Hall, Keith Stanglin, Jeff Peterson, and Allan McNicol


During a lecture at the Austin Grad Sermon Seminar several years ago, Professor Jim Baird of Oklahoma Christian University quipped that “Austin Grad is like a Bible Chair on steroids.” Lest anyone is concerned, Jim was not accusing the faculty of using anabolic steroids. The picture of faculty should confirm that. On second thought, Professor Napier looks to be in pretty good shape, but that is because of a strict diet and rigorous power lifting. He does not use steroids.

The abuse of anabolic steroids has received much negative attention in recent years. The criticism is justified. Yet, Professor Baird’s simile, offered in good humor, was well-received. His point was that among all the Church of Christ Bible Chairs, the one at the University of Texas (UT), was strong and well-developed. In fact, Austin Grad’s seminary work is deeply rooted in the history of the Bible Chair work among churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement. It is a good exercise for me to reflect on that history periodically as we remember our roots when charting our future. 

The Founding of the Bible Chair Movement

The concept of establishing Bible Chairs on or near state university campuses arose among the Disciples of Christ in the late nineteenth century. The state schools were attracting many students away from colleges associated with churches. The study of the Bible and the Christian faith was emphasized in the curriculums of church-related colleges. That was not the case at the state-supported institutions of higher education.

Bible_Chair_on_Steroids_-_GHP_Showalter_in_1950The Bible Chair concept was to integrate the study of the Bible as an academic discipline into a student’s over-all educational experience. Of course, pastoral and evangelistic opportunities arose in that setting as well. In the arrangement, churches provided the professors, a building, and funds for the work. The universities retained the right to approve the appointment of Bible Chair instructors and whether credit for Bible Chair courses would be accepted.

The first Disciples of Christ Bible Chairs were established at the University of Michigan in 1893 and the University of Virginia in 1897. The latter was the first university to grant academic credit for courses taken at the Bible Chair. In 1905, the Disciples of Christ Bible Chair at UT was established. In the coming decades other church traditions began to establish Bible Chairs at numerous state colleges and universities across the nation.

Pictured above: G.H.P. Showalter, 1950

The First Church of Christ Bible Chair

In the second decade of the twentieth century, several leaders in Texas Churches of Christ began calling for the establishment of a Bible Chair at UT. In 1911, G.H.P. Showalter, minister of the University Church of Christ in Austin and editor of the Firm Foundation, reported that only 12 of the 153 members of the Church of Christ attending UT were present at church worship services. No later than 1917, Showalter was providing strong leadership for the establishment of a Church of Christ Bible Chair. 

Bible_Chair_on_Steroids_-_UA_CoC_1918
University Avenue Church of Christ, 1918

The Church of Christ in Austin moved into a new building adjacent to UT at 19th and University Avenue in May of 1918. Classes for the Bible Chair began in the fall of that year. Charles Roberson, who had taught at Abilene Christian College, served as instructor. In 1926, he reported that course enrollment had been 316 students since the Chair began.

After the initial success, funding became a problem even before the Great Depression. Although Showalter contributed generously from his personal funds, the Bible Chair was closed in 1928 due to lack of funding. It was reopened in 1951 when Ray McGlothlin came to UT in order to study Greek in the Classics Department. McGlothlin volunteered his time as the director of the Bible Chair. His efforts put the work on a strong footing and set the stage for a bright future. 

Over the next 20 years the work at the Bible Chair continued to influence many UT students. I continue to meet people who speak with fondness and appreciation for how their association with the Bible Chair positively affected, if not changed, the course of their lives.

By 1980, the UT Bible Chair had four full-time instructors with advanced degrees teaching approximately 700 to 800 UT students in-depth Bible courses each year. But that was not to last. Elements within the UT administration and faculty were not supportive of the Bible Chair arrangement. That, along with voices of dissent within the state government, led to the demise of the Bible Chair arrangement at UT in 1987. However, that decision could not bring down the “Bible Chair on steroids.”

Be looking for Part II where I will discuss how the Bible Chair became one of the top seminaries in Texas. 

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Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others.  Austin Grad -- one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas -- is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.

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