The School That Vision Built: The Foundation Years 1882-1919
The Foundation Years: 1882-1919
Simpson was a troubled pastor as he scanned the crowded congregation at the 13th Street Presbyterian Church in New York City. His problem was success. Powerful preaching had attracted a cross-section of the city to his prosperous church. A sizeable group from the Italian community in Greenwich Village responded to his preaching in street meetings, but they were not allowed in his church.
A year passed, but not his burden. In the October 1881 issue (just one month before he resigned from the 13th Street church to begin a new ministry) Simpson wrote an editorial entitled “Lay Missionaries.” Why, he asked, did the church always have to depend on college-and-seminary-trained men since much of overseas missionary work was carried on among primitive, uneducated tribes? Why could not ordinary people be given basic Bible training in a missionary school and then sent out?
A Wandering School 1882 - 1890
Simpson answered his own question within a matter of months. Just one week after his farewell at the 13th Street church he gave “an address on the spiritual needs of the city and the masses” in Caledonia Hall, described as a “cold, cheerless dance hall.” Activities and attendance grew rapidly as the new church began to take shape in 1882.
The pastor needed no urging. An informal study class was formed immediately. The following year (1883) a training college was opened the first Monday in October on the first floor of a building on Eighth Avenue just about 32nd Street. Before the year closed, the school had moved four times and finished in a rough, uncarpeted room backstage of a theatre on 23rd Street. The school population consisted of forty students, thirty of whom graduated.
The ramshackle surroundings had nothing in common with the mature educational philosophy which guided the school from the start. John H. Cable described Simpson as a social realist in education. Proponents of that educational philosophy “regarded education, in the frankest and most utilitarian manner, as the direct preparation for the life of the ‘man of the world.’” Simpson sanctified that secular philosophy by advocating an intensive study of the Bible to achieve practical results of a spiritual nature.
Simpson was blunt in his distaste for the theoretical education that led nowhere: “We have no fault to find with the principles of the trained ministry. The only criticism is about the kind of training. How often it is merely intellectual, scholastic, traditional, and many of us have found by sad experience that God has to put us to school again to unlearn much of what man had crammed into our brains, and then to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn of Him.”
Far from being disdainful of higher education, Simpson, himself a seminary graduate with honors, had the highest regard for the academic world. When a certain Christian college decided to confer on him the honorary doctor of divinity degree, he replied that he did not feel free to attend the convocation. And when a parchment and hood were mailed to him, he returned them both, explaining that he did not wish “to be elevated above the lowliest of his brethren.” From that time on, however, his colleagues called him Dr. Simpson.
A School of Excellence
The brilliant Faculty was as incongruous with the school’s dilapidated surroundings as the mature philosophy of education. Dr. Simpson could count on such gifted lecturers as Dr. A. T. Pierson, pastor and apologist; Dr. A. J. Gordon, founder of Gordon College at a later date; and Dr. George F. Pentecost, author and theologian at New York University.
The intense study schedule, however, was laced with humor by great men who knew how to laugh when they taught. Dr. Pierson regaled the first graduating class in 1884 with the story of a young preacher who protested, “in English which only too painfully illustrated his views,” against the conference’s wasting time in discussing education. The presiding bishop interrupted the speaker to ask if he meant really to thank God for his ignorance. When the young man agreed, the bishop added, “Then, my dear brother, you have a great deal to thank Him for.”
At the close of the first graduation ceremony a student leader named John Condit presented to the school “a very handsome album containing photographs of the students.” Within a year, and still the leader, Condit succumbed to a jungle fever as he and four fellow graduates attempted pioneer missionary work in the Belgian Congo.
It had to be the high level of scholarship and spiritual dedication, tempered by humor that kept the school going. For several years it fulfilled little more than the most basic definition of a school – a teacher on one end of the log, and a student on the other.
A String of Changes
The school altered names several times in those beginning years. Before the school was opened, Simpson referred to it as the Missionary Training School for Christian Evangelists. It was then called The Missionary Training College for Him and Foreign Missionaries. Later the word Evangelists was added. Then the name changed to The New York Missionary Training College. In 1894 “College” became “Institute” and three years later the title changed to The Missionary Institute of Nyack.
The school campus changed even more frequently than its name. Miss H. A. Waterbury, who began as a student and remained as a faculty member and close associate of Simpson until her death in 1891, recalled that the school moved four times in the first year alone. It formally organized on the first floor of a building on the Eighth Avenue and ended backstage at the 23rd Street theatre. The site was moved four more times before it was finally settled for several years at the Gospel Tabernacle, 690 Eighth Avenue.
A Permanent Site 1890 –1897
The school seemed to thrive on the state of impermanence. Miss Waterbury noted that after each move the students gladly took hammer and paint brush to ready their newest hall of learning. Students and faculty realized they were making history, and they enjoyed it.
More than anything else during those foundation years, Simpson himself dominated the school, giving it stature and character, steering it to a stability of purpose that one hundred years later still clearly marks the school. The school, after all, was the man.
“It was difficult to recall the ways and methods in the classroom because of the overpowering sense of the Lord’s presence that abides in the memory as the aroma of his teaching ministry. Yet there are many hundreds scattered throughout the world, wherever need is greatest, who will treasure as their most valued recollection the picture of the simple chapel at New York or Nyack filled with a company of eager young students.
“The teacher’s chair is empty, for all have come early at Dr. Simpson’s hour. A happy chorus is started with exuberance of spirit, and the zest of it makes young blood tingle. Another chorus, perhaps a trifle boisterous, but suddenly a hush falls, for down the aisle comes the dignified form of Dr. Simpson. The massive head upon the broad shoulders is bowed as one who enters a holy place.
“The chorus dies away; he quietly takes his chair, opens his Bible, and smiles in a delightful comradeship upon his class. ‘Will you not sing another chorus?’ he asks. ‘Song is a little of heaven loaned to earth.’
“He is one of us, young as the youngest … He comes to our level, but brings the glory of the Presence with him. We can only sing, ‘My Jesus I love Thee, I know Thou Art Mine,’ or some similar hymn of adoration.”
The school’s eight years of wandering ended at a site that must have seemed like a dream to the students and faculty: a “substantial and commodious building: erected adjacent to the Gospel Tabernacle on Eighth Avenue, not far from where it was organized. The New York Training Institute stabilized and grew rapidly during the next seven years.
The Case for Nyack
Stephen Merritt, an undertaker who lived in Nyack across the street from the present Simpson Memorial Church, suggested the school move to his town. The suggestion made sense to Dr. Simpson and his associates.
“Again, in a city as large as Nyack, with population of 10,000, there is ample opportunity for evangelistic and mission work … Then, the cost of living is much less in the country, and it is possible by wise arrangement to provide a certain amount of manual work by which some of the students, at least to a greater or less extent, may be able to earn their board, and thus a considerable number added to our list whose means will not admit their meeting their own expenses.”
The laying of the cornerstone on April 17, 1897, was to be a gala occasion. Over 800 persons accepted tickets for the event. Two excursion trains were chartered to transport them from New York City to Nyack.
Dr. Simpson recorded what happened next. “When the morning dawned, lo, the heavens were black with clouds, the earth was drenched with pouring rain, and the faces of all but the believing ones were filled with dismay.
“The little prayer meeting gathered in the Tabernacle from 9 to 10 o’clock and the believing prayer was offered up to God while the heavens were still streaming with the heaviest showers and the roads and hillsides of Nyack were apparently ruined for the occasion.
“Before the prayer meeting was over, the sky cleared and the clouds rolled away, the sun shone in all its glory, and a stiff, drying wind blew briskly over the land. By three o’clock, when the services began at Nyack, one would scarcely have suspected that there had been a shower.”
The Final Move 1897 – 1919
“The Institute Building,” as the main structure was called, was rushed to completion before the fall semester in October. The original estimate of $40,000 was short by $20,000 – overruns were a problem even then. The “plain but handsome structure, with no costly or ornate details,” was designed to accommodate 250 residents, and contained a chapel with seating room for several hundred persons.
Along with the purchase of land at Nyack came a new, solidly built residence belonging to Reverend Ross Taylor. Know as the Berachah Home, the building served as a retreat center for spiritual renewal and physical healing.
Plans also called for private cottages to be built on the hill, making the area a large Christian settlement. The project did not materialize and the retreat center, named Berachah Hall, later became part of the school campus.
Twenty years after the first class was hastily assembled in New York, the Missionary Institute has some impressive statistics. Over 2,500 students had attended the school. Fully 1,000 had entered missionary service – 800 with the C&MA – and were serving in about forty countries.
The role of women seemed especially significant during those two decades. In that twentieth year the number of lady students so far outnumbered the men that is was recorded as a special matter of prayer. And of the 27 teachers and officers chosen for special recognition in the report, ten were women.
Tightening the Discipline of Learning
Dr. Simpson and his associates chose the twentieth year to make some sweeping changes. The school year was lengthened by about five weeks, from May 5 to June 13. The optional plan of attending classes and taking tests proved “very unsatisfactory.”
Unflagging Pursuit of the Practical
Still another dimension of preparation was the Home School in New York. It was first opened in 1896 and again in 1904. The six-to-twelve-weeks training course was compulsory for all graduates. It included special training in rescue mission work, visitation and tract distribution.
Speaking for Dr. Simpson, William C. Stevens concluded his 1911 annual report with the words, “Finally, brethren, the ‘Nyack Missionary University!’ It is already at least the cloud of the size of a man’s hand on the horizon.”
That cloud was not to become much bigger or more substantial for many years – not until the formation of the post graduate Jaffray School of Missions at Nyack in 1960. It took the spiritual children of A. B. Simpson nearly fifty years to catch up with his vision for a school of learning on the highest level for God’s servants.
Dr. Simpson’s last major contribution to the Nyack campus was a new administration building, now known as Pardington Hall. Watching the school grow, and with higher hopes for the future, he successfully pushed for a building that would house the school offices, classrooms, and an enlarged chapel.
The dedication took place March 25, 1913. The graduating class, with tongue in cheek, presented the first “chair” for the Biblical Department in the new building. Reverend W. C. Stevens, head of the department, soberly thanked the class for their gift, and promptly sat on it.
Although the founder’s pace slowed during his final years – after more than five decades of continuous service, who could blame him? – he kept the Institute on course with his dream.
“This makes necessary our Training School. It is not enough that we should grasp these mighty truths, we must commit them to those who will be able to teach others also, and provide, as the Master did, through His own disciples for the perpetuation of these principles, and for their propagation throughout the whole world.”
That spartan statement of purpose for the school could shelter seeds of fanaticism were it not graced with the fragrance of the living Christ. The school, like the man, had that grace. Dr. Turnbull noted, “Visitors to the Institute have often remarked that the very building seems to be a hallowed place where the sense of God’s presence lingers like the aroma of sweet incense …”
Dr. Simpson summarized that ideal in a hymn he wrote for one graduating class:
We are going forth from the school of Jesus
After some sixty years as both teacher and learner in the larger School of Jesus, Albert B. Simpson was graduated with honors on October 29, 1919.