Since its founding in 1876, Grove City College has sought to prepare its graduates to serve the common good. The college makes this commitment explicit in one of its state goals: to “promote a sense of responsibility to [the] large community and society” by providing “academic, spiritual, social, and cultural services.” The Center for Rural Ministry builds upon the college’s rich history of serving the churches in the region.
The roots of Grove City’s commitment to forging strong relations between the college and region go deep into the institution’s history. Beginning in 1895 and ending at the beginning of World War II, Grove City hosted a ten-day Bible conference each August. The moving spirit behind the conference, like virtually everything else at the college, was President Isaac Ketler (1853-1913).
In the late nineteenth century, summer Bible conferences gained popularity. Some of the more popular ones were the Chautauqua Bible Conference, and D.L. Moody’s Northfield Bible Conference. Ketler brought scholars to teach undergraduate and graduate courses during summer school and persuaded them to stay to lecture at the Bible conferences. The annual conference proved to be wildly popular. The first conference attracted some four hundred pastors, laypeople, and college students. Ten years later, more than two thousand people flooded into the town to hear respected scholars, popular preachers, and prominent missionaries lecture.
Theologically Ketler is best described as a stout evangelical Presbyterian with a progressive tendency and a broadly ecumenical disposition. Ketler's sermons reveal a deep commitment to a traditional evangelical understanding of the work of Christ. In one baccalaureate sermon, he reminded graduates of that the A gospel which saves men from their sins and gives them the assurance of salvation "is the gospel that gives people the right to become a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
Kelter's broadly ecumenical disposition is clearly manifested in the broad range of scholars he invited to the college. A.C. Dixon, the famous Baptist preacher and later editor of The Fundamentals, spoke in 1902 and 1903. The noted conservative N.T. archeologist William Mitchell Ramsay visited Grove City twice. Ketler also hosted prominent liberal theologians, including Union Theological Seminary's Charles Hall and Hugh Black. While the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the 1920s and 1930s eventually led to an ecclesiastical schism, good historians would caution us to avoid reading this later theological division back into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Although history does not repeat itself, we can learn from the past. The landscape we face is dramatically different than when Grove City opened its doors more than a hundred years ago. One thing, however, remains the same. Grove City is still a Christian college. We hope that the Project on Rural Ministry seeks to strengthen the relationship between the college, the community, and churches in our region.