Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri is a small college with a big mission; that is to produce students who are knowledgeable and have a strong walk with Christ. This mission has not come without its struggles, however, both in the present and in its heritage. KSMU Radio’s Bailey Wiles reports in the third and final installment of our series on religiously-affiliated universities in the Ozarks.
But it was a long journey in history before SBU became a place that attracts so many students today; a journey that Charlotte Marsch, the Director of Marketing and Communications at SBU and a graduate of the college in 1997 finds particularly interesting.
“James Roger Maupin and Abner Ingman were roommates at Hannibal Lagrange College in the northeastern part of Missouri, which was affiliated with the Missouri Baptist Convention. When they graduated, they wanted to work together to start a Southern Baptist College in Indian territory; in Oklahoma. But they never made it that far; they ended up staying in Southwest Missouri. They founded the university in 1878 in Lebanon, but then a year later moved it to Bolivar,” Marsch says.
These founders were two young men with an unwavering faith and a call to help others acquire the kind of Christian education which they had enjoyed. Interestingly, the founders had to ride on horseback through southwest Missouri to encourage students to enroll in their college and to gather financial support.
Like other colleges in the area, SBU had struggles with constructing and maintaining its infrastructure.
“One of the biggest challenges was in 1910 when the college’s only building burned. It was three years later before the college reopened. But it was really local residents in the Bolivar community who went to that site the day it burned and knelt in the ashes and prayed for God to raise a phoenix out of those ashes,” said Marsch.
And raise up it did. Bolivar residents pledged $6,500 to a building fund and offered six and a half acres of land for the college.
“In the early years, one phrase that was often used was ‘by the grace of God we will succeed;’ really God has just led the right people to our university at the right time to lead it through all of the different challenges that have been faced throughout the years,” Marsch says.
Today, over 4800 students are enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs at SBU and the school is an essential part of the Bolivar community and economy. Furthermore, it is the only distinctive Southern Baptist college in this area.
Dr. John Schmalzbauer, a professor of Religious Studies at Missouri State University, talks about SBU’s importance to the area.
“Given that Southern Baptists are the largest religious group in Greene County; that is a real asset for the school. They reach beyond this area, but it’s quite a distance to some of the other Baptist universities in the state. I think that there’s still some value in their Baptist brand name,” Schmalzbauer said.
SBU also prides itself in its notable alumni. From Roy Blunt, a Republican U.S. Senator, to Buddy Baker, a film composer, best known for his long relationship and extensive work with the Walt Disney Company, many notables have walked through the SBU halls.
“Probably one of the top scholars studying religion in the United States from a Sociological perspective, Nancy Ammerman, and then if you look at other alumni, people who have really contributed to American politics, both in the state house in Missouri as well as a U.S. Senator. So, not too shabby for a small institution,” says Schmalzbauer.
Ammerman is currently a professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Theology at Boston University. She grew up around religion, and says it just felt natural to attend at school like SBU.
“I sometimes say to people, that I think I was incredibly lucky that I was able to really ask lots of hard questions about my faith in the context of people who modeled the possibility of both having a faith and asking questions. I also encountered a bunch of people, faculty members in particular, who really supported me and communicated to me that I could do whatever I put my mind to do,” Ammerman said.
Ammerman’s parents had attended SBU and her grandfather had worked as the head maintenance person there in the 1940s and 50s, so the school offered a real family link for her. Ammerman was at SBU herself in the late 1960s.
“Those were obviously pretty interesting historic years in American culture. I remember taking a class on social problems where questions about inequality and about race relations were clearly part of the conversation going on. And that was obviously so relevant to the larger social context that we were living in.”
She attended SBU at a time when students had a curfew of 9:00 p.m. every night. Ammerman and her classmates thought that they had a revolution on their hands when they pushed it from 9 to 11 on weeknights. However, these rules were not in place for everyone.
“The kinds of rules there were for women were much more strict than for men. In fact, I don’t think men ever had a curfew. In earlier years, there were rules about women riding in cars with men. There was such a strong sense that we have to protect the women.”
Although many of those rules no longer apply, the school still struggles with enacting rules in the current culture. Dr. Rodney Reeves, the dean of Redford College of Theology and Ministry and a Professor of Biblical Studies at SBU, explains.
“We come from a historic Christian faith that says that there are certain expressions of sexuality that we are not necessarily here to promote. So, it’s challenging, because what we don’t want is for students to think being a Christian is about keeping a bunch of rules, that’s not what our faith is founded upon. And yet, there are certain behaviors that we just don’t want to allow or encourage.”
Reeves has great passion for the school’s distinct mission.
“It’s a Christ-centered, caring, academic community preparing students to be servant leaders in a global society. The way we see our charge, they’re the product that we’re trying to introduce to the world and hopefully advance what we think is the ultimate goal, the cause of Christ to the ends of the earth.”
But Reeves acknowledges that the cost of an education has become an obstacle.
“Students are thinking, parents are thinking, ‘do I really want to spend that much money?’ There’s such a heavy emphasis in the social discourse of our country right now about economics, when we want students to say ‘you know this is a once in a lifetime chance, and you better do it right.’ And we think that one of the ways you do it right is to come to a place where we help you think about the most important questions in life.”
SBU is more expensive per year than many other area colleges, especially state schools. Tuition costs $20,000 per year, not including the cost of room and board. However, to offset this cost, SBU offers many scholarships to students; in fact, the average student’s financial aid package at SBU is over $19,500.
McKayla Green, a current student at SBU, spoke about why she decided to go to the college regardless of its high cost.
“I first decided to come here because of the scholarship. But after that, I definitely fell in love with the school and the people; it’s definitely what makes SBU.”
According to Reeves, SBU has worked hard to help all students who want to go to SBU to attend, regardless of their financial situation. Reeves and others at SBU are passionate about producing leaders who are prepared for the real world and who advance the kingdom by loving God and loving others, no matter what.
This story originally appeared on KSMU.com.