A Mindset for a Lifetime: Evangel University’s Journey
The story of Evangel University’s founding and journey over the years is a long one with various detours that have made the college what it is today. KSMU’s Bailey Wiles reports about the school’s history, its current accomplishments, and its struggles in the second part of a three-part series about religiously-affiliated universities in the Ozarks.
Walking around Crusader Dining Hall at Evangel University, I see many smiling faces of students sharing some free time together between classes. There are those hanging out with their friends over a game of pool, others chatting amongst themselves, and a handful cramming for an upcoming test while hurriedly chowing down on today’s special of Chinese noodles.
When asked why he chose to go to Evangel, Austin Beshuk tells me that the initial reason was because he wanted a strong Christian education and environment. But following his freshman year it grew beyond just that.
“The reason I want to be here now is because of the people. I’ve never been anywhere I’ve gotten so much support, from my friends, from my teachers. College can be lonely, but that’s what helps get you through, is people,” Beshuk said.
This is Evangel University, a school of over 2,200 students and where, today, students can enroll in over 100 academic programs.
But how did it get this way? What is the history of this university that has led so many college students from around the U.S. and the world to Springfield, Missouri?
They are questions that Darrin Rodgers, the director of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center - the largest Pentecostal archives museum and research center in the world - can help answer. The Center has documented and preserved a large amount relating to Evangel’s heritage.
“Evangel believes that it is possible, and indeed, necessary to be faithful to God and to also have a very active life of the mind,” Rodgers said.
This is what founder, Rev. Ralph Riggs and the General Council of the Assemblies of God, really desired for their college when beginning Evangel. But getting others to stand behind them in their vision wasn’t easy.
Dr. John Schmalzbauer is a professor of Religious Studies at Missouri State University.
“Some people thought that the real urgency is just spreading the gospel. There was an expectation, which is still important in Pentecostal circles, of the second coming. So why would you bother and read Shakespeare or philosophy when you could be going to a Bible college? That was the model,” Schmalzbauer said.
Rodgers also speaks of this struggle; particularly in regards to AG’s fear that a liberal arts school would eventually lose its Christian message.
“The founders of the Assemblies of God did not want an Assemblies of God school to stray from its founding values. But Evangel has proven over the years that they could remain true to the values of the Church,” said Rodgers.
Furthermore, procuring the property in Springfield was not easy. The founders wanted this college to be in a central location and close to the headquarters of AG. When the property of the O’Reilly Army WWII Hospital, on what is now North Glenstone Avenue, came up for sale in 1952, the Evangel founders knew that the property was perfect. However, many people also wanted to own this prime piece of real estate, including the City of Springfield. It is alleged that Ralph Riggs, along with several other leaders in the movement, prayed while standing on the hospital grounds, asking the Lord to let the site be used for
Evangel College. Finally, after a fierce struggle between entities, the property came into final bid form.
“In this final bid form, education was one of the things that they said would be acceptable for the use of the O’Reilly property. To make a long story short, on December 10, 1954, the Assemblies of God received the deed to the O’Reilly property,” said Shedd.
That’s Shirley Shedd, a current Evangel archivist, who has been involved with the school since 1958, when she enrolled here along with 400 other students.
In a letter to the pastors of the Assemblies of God dated Dec. 14. 1954, the head of the education department for the Assemblies, J. Robert Ashcroft, announced that “our college will be named The Evangel College of the Assemblies of God." And thus Evangel was formed.
Shedd recalls what Evangel was like in its early years as a student, during her time as a professor from 1981 through 2006 and since then as an archivist. As an undergraduate, dress codes were required for all students. For girls, jeans were not allowed outside of dorms except for on days when they had hayrides. Furthermore, when Shedd attended Evangel, only a small radio and a phonograph player were allowed in rooms and there was only one television located in the student union. Students also couldn’t attend motion pictures. But as the technology changed, so did many of these rules.
Shedd also notes that while a student, women employees of Evangel were not allowed into leadership roles. Now, the president of Evangel, Carol Taylor, is a woman. Shedd admits that she wouldn’t have expected a woman would eventually be president when she was enrolled, but thinks it has been a positive progression.
Dr. Schmalzbauer doesn’t find this progression shocking, noting that the Assemblies of God had women in ministry very early.
“The first congregation in Springfield which was Pentecostal was pastored by a woman. So, when your first congregation, which turned into Central Assembly, has a woman at the helm, to have a female president just sort of makes sense. It’s who Pentecostals are, which goes against the stereotype.”
Fast-forward to today. As with some private liberal arts colleges as of late, Evangel has had its financial and recruitment challenges. However, the college has worked hard to weather these problems.
Paul Logsdon, director of Public Relations at Evangel, speaks to this subject, noting recent campus developments, for one.
“There was about a 10-year stretch where we built eight new buildings and essentially totally transformed the campus into a modern university.”
He also points to the 2013 consolidation of the school with Central Bible College and Assemblies of God Theological Seminary as an important step for Evangel.
“We have absorbed some debt, we have been in the process of totally reevaluating all the academic offerings, and pulling together a program that will hold well for the future of Christian higher education in this area.”
“I’m a transfer from CBC so when the merge happened I came with it. But it’s a great school, great teachers, great professors, so it’s been good so far.”
That’s Ryan Balderrama, a Junior & Youth Ministries major at Evangel.
Logsdon and others at Evangel are optimistic about the future for its students and the university.
“The national economic conditions, of course, affected everyone. But we feel like we have weathered the storm. Our future, we feel is very, very bright,” Logsdon said.
When Shirley Shedd looks towards the future, she thinks that the close bond that develops between students with each other and with faculty and staff members will continue to be the major strength of the university. Evangel is not just a university, she says, it is a mindset that lasts a lifetime.
See our entire 3-part series on faith-based schools in the Ozarks here.