Bible Institute History and Movements

A Brief History of the Bible Institute Movement in America

By Jonathan N. Thigpen




In 1930, J. W. Cook presented his master’s thesis, “The Bible Institute Movement,” to the faculty of Northwestern Evangelical Seminary of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Although Bible institutes had been in existence almost 50 years in America and had trained hundreds of ministers and missionaries, Cook was apparently the first to do a formal study of the history, scope and purpose of the Bible institute. Cook’s work was later joined by that of Lenice F. Reed, who wrote her master’s thesis at Wheaton College in 1947 on the same subject. Both of these works helped lay a solid foundation of research for later scholars to build upon.


Since 1947, a number of dissertations and books have been written on the history of the Bible institute movement, most of them, like the works of Cook and Reed, are more descriptive than critical. An exception to this is Virginia Brereton’s Training God’s Army: The American Bible School 1880-1940. This work, an adaptation of Brereton’s doctoral thesis at Columbia University, thoroughly documents the history and rationale of the Bible institute movement and is clearly the standard in this uncrowded field. What sets this volume apart is that Brereton writes as a historian outside the evangelical subculture within which the Bible institute movement originated.


As someone who has grown up within evangelicalism my vantage point is somewhat different from Brereton’s. However, my intention is to be interpretive in approach rather than merely descriptive or critical. I am concerned about why the Bible institute movement began, why it flourished, and why over the course of many years it evolved into institutions somewhat different than their founders envisioned. Finally, I will seek to answer the question of what an understanding of the history of the Bible institute movement means for the evangelical church today. In other words, what can be learned from the beginnings of the Bible institute movement which can help Christian educators today as they plan the educational forms of the future?


The Foundations of the Bible Institute Movement, 1882-1915


The late 1800′s were times of rapid change throughout the world. The twin developments of industrialization and urbanization brought unparalleled opportunities as well as difficulties. In the midst of societal upheaval in Europe and in the United States, there were signs of genuine spiritual renewal on both sides of the Atlantic. The most popular leader of this “evangelical” movement within the protestant church was an untrained lay preacher named Dwight Lyman Moody. Although not a product of any formal theological education, Moody was a man of vision and a man of the people. His down-to-earth style of preaching drew crowds by the thousands in America as well as Great Britain.


While conducting evangelistic meetings in England in 1873 and again in 1882, D. L. Moody came intocontact with the ministry of Dr. H. Grattan Guinness who had founded the East London Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in 1872 (Cook 1930, 11). This “institute,” also known as the Harley House Bible Training Institute, challenged Moody’s thinking about his own involvement in training laymen and laywomen for more effective ministry.


While D. L. Moody dreamed of starting a school of some kind in his adopted home town of Chicago, A. B. Simpson (known today as the founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination) was beginning training classes, in Bible and basic ministry skills, for young men and women in New York City (Cook 1930, 12). Simpson rented space on the stage of a New York theatre and began his classes in 1882. One year later, Simpson formally organized his school as The Missionary Training College for Home and Foreign Missionaries and Evangelists. The school later moved to Nyack, New York and eventually changed its name to simply Nyack College.


Although he adopted the name “college” for his school, what Simpson had in mind was definitely not a traditional college education by the standards of the late 1800′s. In a magazine article published in July 1883, Simpson detailed his educational vision for the school:


It will not aim to give a scholastic education, but a thorough Scriptural training, and a specific and most careful preparation for practical work. It will receive students of both sexes, and at the close of the terms of study will give a Diploma and Certificate to all graduates….The aim of the Institute will be to qualify consecrated men and women who have not received, and do not wish to receive, a regular scholastic education….The students will be afforded the utmost opportunity for testing and putting into practice the principles they study, by being employed in actual Mission work as leaders of meetings, visitors, etc., in the wide field afforded by a great city. (Talbot 1956, 17-18)


Simpson’s vision, to be joined by Moody and others, was primarily to train lay people for ministry within the local church at home and abroad.


S. A. Witmer spoke of these beginnings while writing in 1964:


The first Bible schools in America were purposely begun as nonconventional institutions. They came into being in response to Christian compassion for human need and for the practical purpose of implementing the Great Commission. . . . Conventional seminaries fell far short of preparing enough workers for the vast frontiers of human need at home and abroad. Further, the task was far too great to be undertaken by the professional clergy alone. There was an urgent need for many trained laymen. (Hakes 1964, 380)


This “urgent need” to train laymen and laywomen was at the heartbeat of Moody’s vision to start a school in Chicago. The story is told that one day, early in 1886, someone saw Moody standing, with hat in hand, in the middle of a vacant lot behind the Chicago Avenue Church. When he was asked what he was doing he said, “I am praying that God will give me this land to start a training school” (Cook 1930, 12). A few days later, Moody preached what is now known as the “gap man” sermon when he said:


I believe we have got to have “gap men,”-men who are trained to fill the gap between the common people and the ministers. We are to raise up men and women who will be willing to lay their lives along side the laboring. (Reed 1947, 24)


Moody’s vision was clearly focused on the training of lay people, not professional clergy. After raising $250,000 in less than a year (a phenomenal achievement), Moody started his school. Dr. James M. Grey, who served as president of Moody Bible Institute from 1904 to 1934 wrote:


The purpose of Mr. Moody was not to establish a school for ministers or pastors. He thought only of lay workers. He had in mind men and women of advanced years who had been denied schooling opportunities in their youth, but who with a knowledge of the Bible, gospel music, and personal work for souls, might be equipped for better service in their churches, and in the slums and destitute places of our great cities. (Cook 1930, 1)


It is clear that the heartbeat of the two primary founders of the Bible institute in North America, Simpson and Moody, was to train laymen and laywomen. There was no conscious attempt to supplant the work of seminaries in the beginning, in fact, many of the leaders of the movement, as well as institute faculty members, were seminary trained. What was unique about the Bible institute was its focus-thorough knowledge of the English Bible coupled with practical experience in hands-on ministry. Lenice Reed wrote:


When the seminaries of the nineteenth century could not supply missionaries for difficult foreign fields, the Bible Institutes were raised up, and during the six decades of their existence they have trained thousands of faithful laborers whose stations now dot the mission fields all over the world. When the churches needed personal workers, Sunday School teachers, and helpers for many humble places in the homeland, the Bible Institutes filled the need and trained the lay Christians for these positions. Even when the Institute faculties were often poorly qualified and when equipment was scant, yet their efforts were blessed and the results more than justified the attempts. (Reed 1947, 108)


Simpson and Moody’s efforts were the beginnings of an avalanche of Bible institutes which were started from 1886 to 1915. In this 30-year period, no less than 32 institutes were formally organized. These schools spanned the geographical as well as theological spectrum. Many of these schools are still in existence today, although now as colleges or seminaries. Well-known modern institutions of higher learning such as Biola University, Northwestern College (MN), Gordon College, Toccoa Falls Bible College, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School were all begun as Bible institutes during this time period (Brereton 1990, 71-72). All of these institutions emphasized the need of training lay people for Christian service, although this focus decreased for many of the Bible institutes as the years went on.


An additional reason for the impetus of school founding in the late 1800′s and early 1900′s was the feeling among many evangelicals that the established seminaries were heading toward spiritual bankruptcy. In addition to what they saw as theological weaknesses was the fact that they saw the existing seminaries as failing horribly at providing men and women with basic ministry skills. In spite of these negative feelings toward the established theological institutions, the leaders of the Bible institute movement did not see the movement as competing with the seminaries. Rather, they saw their work as complementing the seminaries. Virginia Brereton wrote:


With few exceptions, fundamentalists did not as a matter of preference substitute Bible schools for colleges and seminaries. They well knew where academic respectability resided. Had they been able to establish an entire system of regular colleges and seminaries and get them accredited without abandoning their educational and religious requirements, they might well have done so. (Indeed, they did so later.) In general, however, they did not possess the financial resources for an effort on this scale early in the century. The Bible school proved to be a satisfactory educational vehicle for those groups with limited budgets and an urgent desire to instruct the faithful in as brief a time as possible. (Brereton 1990, 36)


Continued Growth of the Bible Institute Movement, 1916-1929


Between 1916 and 1929, at least 28 Bible institutes were established in the United States (Brereton 1990, 72-73). As in the period between 1886 and 1915, these new institutions were not limited to a particular denominational group or geographical area. Some of the older schools, such as Moody Bible Institute and The Missionary Training Institute (Nyack), experienced solid growth and expansion. While the basic pattern of education was similar from school to school, there was no accreditation or standardization of any of the programs.


By 1930, the Bible institutes, as a group, were characterized by these traits:


1) Wholeheartedly evangelical in basic theology.
2) The central part of the curriculum was the study of the English Bible.
3) There was a emphasis on practical Christian service.
4) There was a strong emphasis on world missions.
5) There began to be a shift away from training only lay people to training men and women for “full-time Christian service” as pastors or missionaries. (Daniel 1980, 333)


While new schools were being started, some of the more established schools began moving into new ministries such as publishing and the new medium of radio broadcasting. Moody Bible Institute emerged as the leader in both publishing (books and magazines) and media (first in radio and later films). The Bible institute, a concept which started as a dream among a few godly visionaries, was beginning to see its graduates serving local churches all over the world. Bible institutes and their graduates were on the move!


Standardization of the Bible Institute Movement, 1930-1947


Between 1930 and 1947, 48 new Bible institutes were started (Brereton 1990, 74-76). By 1947, well over 100 Bible institutes/Bible colleges were in existence in the United States. Two organizations, which started on opposite ends of this time period, played important roles in the continued development of the Bible institute movement. Evangelical Teacher Training Association (ETTA, today ETA, Evangelical Training Association), founded in 1930 and the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges (AABC), founded in 1947, were the two key bodies which served to standardize the Bible institute movement.


Dr. Clarence Benson, head of the Christian education department at Moody Bible Institute, was concerned about the lack of standard courses for the training of lay Bible teachers in evangelical churches and schools. Benson, representing Moody Bible Institute, met with officials from four other schools (Biola, Northwestern, Philadelphia College of Bible and Toronto Bible Institute) to discuss their mutual concerns. ETTA was born as a result of that meeting and was designed to:


…set up standards for the training of Sunday school teachers with a view to giving them preparation comparable to that of public school teachers. The Association was the first and, at the time, the only agency affording Bible institutes means for obtaining some kind of uniformity among themselves. Its work and objectives met with the approval of most institutes as well as of some colleges and some seminaries. (Eavey 1964, 343)


While ETTA was not designed to be an accrediting body, it did set some general educational standards for its member schools. The primary focus of ETTA was the programs of Christian education in Bible institutes, Bible colleges, Christian liberal arts colleges and seminaries.


From 1930 to 1947, ETTA’s membership grew from the founding 5 schools to 50. During this same time, ETTA began developing curriculum materials to be utilized in local churches for the purpose of training teachers for ministry in the local church. As to the influence of ETTA, Lenice Reed noted:


With the founding and rapid success of this new standardizing agency, the Bible Institute movement took a new lease on life. In the fifteen-year period between 1931 and 1946, nearly three times as many new institutes were started as in the previous forty-five years of the movement’s history. (Reed 1947, 57)


By 1947, the Bible institute movement had expanded to over 100 schools of various kinds (Reed 1947, 138-146). There was the sense among the leadership of these schools that the time had come for an organization which would serve to standardize the academic programs of member schools. For those schools which were making the transition from being an institute, with an emphasis on training lay people, to a college, with an emphasis on training career pastors and missionaries, such an organization was deemed a necessity. The Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges began in 1947 and set immediately to work on a process of evaluation and accreditation to service member schools.


Institutionalization and Separation in the Bible Institute Movement, 1948-1969


The founding of the American Association of Bible Colleges marked a key moment in the history of the Bible institute movement. What had begun as a reaction against the established theological training schools and with the avowed purpose of equipping lay people for ministry was slowly but surely parting company with its roots. The Bible institutes who had become degree-granting colleges began to see their mission more as professional training schools to prepare men and women for full-time Christian service. Bible institutes who sought to maintain the distinctives of the early days of the movement were on the outside looking in as the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges sought to lead the way to academic respectability at the undergraduate level.


This shift in the thinking of the leadership of the leading schools which began as Bible institutes is seen in this quote from William Culbertson, who was at the time president of Moody Bible Institute:


The Bible institute has a genius all its own. It is an undergraduate professional school (emphasis mine). It trains for Christian service with a large emphasis on the practical so far as that training is concerned. By its very nature it attracts students who love the Lord, who want to serve Him and who have a seriousness of purpose. We do not mean that other types of Christian schools do not attract such students, only that by and large the very nature of the course and of the environment tends to bring students thus qualified. (Getz 1969, 9)


Culbertson’s quote stands in contrast to what Dr. David R. Breed, a professor at Western Theological Seminary, wrote in an article which was published in July, 1927, in The Biblical Review Quarterly:


The institute developed to meet a demand for Christian training for many who could not have a college education but were worthy candidates for Christian service. It would be a wonderful thing if the practical training for Christian work secured in the institute could be added to the work of the seminaries. In this feature the institute excels. In the vast majority of cases the institutes have remained orthodox in their teachings, which cannot be said of all the seminaries. I think this one thing more than anything else has drawn men away from the seminary to the institute. (Cook 1930, 31)


Breed’s statement shows that in 42 years (1927 to 1969) the emphasis of the Bible institute movement turned from training those who “could not have a college education” into a full-fledged program of undergraduate studies leading to a degree. This is not meant to imply that the movement toward accreditation by the Bible institutes-turned-colleges was wrong but simply that it clearly represented a change from its focus on non-degree training for lay adults.


What happened to the traditional Bible institute from 1947 to 1969? Even as the AABC was experiencing growth and receiving long sought for academic recognition, ETTA continued to work with Bible colleges, Christian liberal arts colleges, seminaries and traditional Bible institutes. From 1947 to 1969, the ETTA membership roll grew from 50 schools to over 100, with much of the growth coming in the Bible institute area.


In some cases, denominations began extensive programs of establishing Bible institutes, based on the traditional lay-training model, in local churches around the country. For example, the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, had established 130 such institutes in their denomination alone by 1965 (Harrison 1978, 6). The history of many of these institutes is difficult to trace because these schools are often not officially affiliated with any group outside of their own denomination. The Southern Baptist Convention also encouraged the development of Bible institutes as it was growing to become the largest protestant denomination in America.


Continuity, Change and Crisis in the Bible Institute Movement, 1970-1995


In the last twenty-five years the Bible institute movement has been greatly effected by at least five factors, three negative and two positive. First, the 70′s and 80′s were a time of great economic uncertainty. Thus, schools on the brink of economic disaster were pushed over by a non-discriminating economy. Still others merged with schools in their local area.


Second, the 80′s saw a drop in the number of college-age youth in America as the baby-boom became the baby-bust. With fewer college-age students to go around, student recruitment for evangelical schools of higher education became more intense and thus Bible institutes were often the ones left with a shrinking student body.


The third factor which effected the Bible institute movement was the proliferation of so-called “diploma mills.” This phenomenon, well-documented by author-researcher Steve Levicoff in his book Name and Frame It (Institute on Religion and Law), is where an institution grants undergraduate and graduate degrees in return for some type of “academic” work and a sizeable amount of money. These schools are not accredited by a recognized academic body and operate mainly through the mail. This type of school is strongly criticized by those who are offering legitimate work in a correspondence or extension format. The criticisms against the “diploma mills” are not usually focused at the mode of education employed, but rather that degrees granted by such schools are simply not equivalent to those granted by accredited schools.


Unfortunately, this relatively small number of schools (who serve mainly for profit to trap the unaware who seek a short-cut to academic respectability) make it more difficult for the Christian schools who offer legitimate programs through extension studies.


In part to counteract the damage done by “Christian diploma mills,” Moody Bible Institute led the way in the establishment of ACCESS (Association of Christian Continuing Education Schools and Seminaries) in 1971. While not an accrediting body, ACCESS does require its institutional members to adhere to a strict code of ethics. Although diploma mills are still operating, ACCESS has served to raise the standards in distance education for the evangelical world.


Fourth and on a positive note, the explosion of the charismatic movement within the evangelical church in the 70′s and 80′s prompted the establishment of a multitude of Bible institutes across the country. In many of these schools, the spirit of the original Bible institute movement was seen as they were non-traditional, designed primarily for lay people, and motivated by a strong zeal to change the world for Christ.


Fifth, there has been in the past twenty-five years an overall resurgence of interest in the traditional Bible institute movement. Currently, ETA has a total of 59 active member schools in its Adult Education Division; 20 of which are outside the United States. All of these schools are non-degree granting institutions who primarily serve lay adults who are training for ministry within the local church. This has been especially true among the black evangelical church in America. For example, in 1996, ETA reported that almost 25% of its distribution of materials was to predominantly black churches and Bible institutes.


In addition, ETA has developed a “Bible Institute Nurture” program which serves to encourage the establishment of Bible institutes in local churches and within groups of churches across the United States. In the past year, over 35 new Bible institutes have been started. This rebirth of the original purposes of the Bible institute was foreseen by Lenice Reed in 1947 when she wrote:


No changes in the Bible Institutes, such as the development into Bible colleges, will ever cause the disappearance or elimination of the type of school which has served as a community center. Nothing else can take its place with American Christians. With its evening classes, its conferences, its lending library, and its many activities, it has ministered to the general welfare of humble people. There will always be a need for this sort of Institute which serves community interests, even though many of the larger schools may re-organize into colleges. (Reed 1947, 108)




The history of the Bible institute movement in America is an excellent example of the evangelical church reaching out in an innovative way to meet the educational needs of its times.


It is clear that in the beginning of the Bible institute movement, the educational focus was on the training and equipping of lay people. These trained lay people would in turn assist pastors and missionaries both at home and abroad. As the movement grew and schools became more organized and institutionalized, there was a strong desire by many schools to seek formal academic recognition. Schools which often began as training centers for laymen and laywomen for service along side “full-time” Christian workers, eventually turned into four-year colleges designed to train professional ministers and missionaries.


The founding of the ETTA served to give needed continuity to the fledgling Bible institute movement but with the organization of the AABC, academic respectability and acceptance became a high agenda item and real possibility for many such schools. Although some of the Bible institutes clung to their original vision and mission of training lay people for service in the local church, for others this became a low priority item.


At the same time Bible institutes were becoming Bible colleges, new institutes sprang up in their place. These new institutions had no plans to become colleges but rather to fulfill the original purpose of the Bible institute concept.


As one looks at the Bible institute movement in America since 1882, it is not hard to see the parallels between that time and the present. Both were times of economic upheaval and dramatic societal change. Both were times when increasingly the cost of a Christian college or seminary education was out of the reach of the average “person in the pew” who wanted to receive more training in Bible and ministry skills. Both were times when evangelicals found themselves as part of a world, and even a Church, that did not appreciate its zeal for seeking to build the kingdom of God through aggressive evangelistic and missionary efforts. Both were times when biblical illiteracy was on the rise and the need for renewal in the Christian education ministries of the church was great. God choose to use the Bible institute movement which started in the 1880′s in a mighty way to prepare several generations of Christian workers for the church in America and around the world. What is God planning to do with and through the Bible institute movement of the 1990′s?


I believe the Church today can profit greatly from the continued health of its established Bible institutes and will see an increase in those spiritual dividends through the birthing of even more such institutes-institutes which are begun in the spirit of those who started the movement over a hundred years ago. In reflecting on his institute ministry, Dr. A. B. Simpson wrote:


This work originated in the felt need for a simple, spiritual, and scriptural method of training for Christian work the large class of persons who desire to become prepared for thorough and efficient service for the Master, without a long, elaborate college course. It aims…to lead its students to simple and deeply spiritual experiences of Christ, and to recognize the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Ghost as the supreme and all-essential qualification and enduement for all Christian ministry; and to give them a thorough instruction in the Word of God, and a practical and experimental training in the various forms of work. (Cook 1930, 4-5)


Amen. May God give us more Bible institutes in the spirit of Dr. A. B. Simpson!




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Cook, J. W. 1930. The Bible Institute Movement. Unpublished master’s thesis: Northwestern Evangelical Seminary.

Daniel, Eleanor & John W. Wade & Charles Gresham. 1980. Introduction to Christian Education. Cincinnati: Standard Publishing.

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Hakes, Edward J. ed. 1964. An introduction to evangelical Christian education. Chicago: Moody Press.

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Person, Peter P. 1958. An introduction to Christian education. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

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Talbot, Gordon Gray. 1956. The Bible institute movement in the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Master’s Thesis: Wheaton College.

Witmer, S. A. 1962. The Bible college story: education with dimension. Manhasset, NY: Channel Press, Inc.

_________. 1962. Report: preparing Bible college students for ministries in Christian education. Fort Wayne, IN: The Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges.