Editor’s Note: Though Belmont University is no longer an institution of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, it would not be here today if not for dedicated Tennessee Baptists who gave sacrificially to purchase the current Belmont campus and establish the school in 1951.
By Albert W. Wardin Jr.
Professor Emeritus of History, Belmont University, Nashville
The school has proclaimed its longevity by billboard, stickers, and other means.
This effort has come as a surprise to faculty and alumni who know that Belmont University (then known as Belmont College) was formed in 1951, but is now claimed to be twice as old. The Belmont Vision in 1976 included a lengthy article in its March issue, “Belmont Celebrates Silver Anniversary,” and an additional article, “Banquet To Mark 25th Anniversary” with Dr. Herbert Gabhart, president, presiding along with four of the original trustees. A graduate of the school in the 1970s has proudly shown me his graduation ring inscribed with the year 1951.
In writing my history of Baptists in Tennessee, Tennessee Baptists: A Comprehensive History, 1779-1999, published in 1999, and also having served many years as professor of history at Belmont, I was careful to write an account of Belmont’s origin, not a continuation of any other school. When former president Bill Troutt once approached me of possibly shifting the date of Belmont to 1890, I gave a negative reply.
How was the 125 years determined? It is the conflation of two distinct schools, Ward-Belmont College for Women and Belmont University. In 1890 the Belmont College for Young Women was founded and in 1913 merged with Ward Seminary to become Ward-Belmont. In 1951 Ward-Belmont went bankrupt, which enabled the Tennessee Baptist Convention, which was looking for a headquarters, to acquire the campus for payment of its debts. The TBC contemplated moving Cumberland College (now University) in Lebanon, which it then controlled, to the Nashville campus. But this effort failed from the opposition of the people of Lebanon and the earlier Cumberland trustees. Alumnae of Ward-Belmont, realizing that their school was closing, attempted to buy Ward-Belmont from the TBC. Rebuffed, they then formed Harpeth Hall.
The TBC decided to form Belmont College as its own school.
Ward-Belmont and Belmont College were two entirely different schools. Their trustees and administrators were different. Ward-Belmont was independent while Belmont College was controlled by a denominational body. Ward-Belmont was for women. Belmont College was coeducational. Ward-Belmont was mainly a high school and junior college, while Belmont College was organized as a four-year college. In fact, the new history of Belmont University in its chapter, “Belmont College: Early Days as a Coeducational School,” actually supports what I have narrated, thus undermining the subtitle of its own book.
Do dates make a difference? The existence of two different and distinct institutions with separate origins that happened to be located on the same campus does not give license to appropriate the founding date of the earlier institution. It then projects on the public a far greater longevity to which it has no claim. In fact, it diminishes the achievements of the new institution by giving it far more years than actually occurred.
It also has helped to minimize the role of the Tennessee Baptist Convention in founding the school. But it also reflects on the institution itself in that it is so eager to get all the prestige it can gain, even if history is distorted. It is a matter of truth and integrity.