The School That Vision Built: The Foundation Years 1882-1919


The Foundation Years: 1882-1919

An Early Graduating Class

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.

He recognized perhaps scores of his 13th Street parishioners as potential messengers of the gospel truth to spiritually needy in the city and to unevangelized millions overseas – if only they had vision and training.  But they were chained to their rented pews by the false notion that a person needed a seminary education in order to serve God.

So instead of spreading out like joyous evangelists, filling the earth with the knowledge of God, the well-to-do congregation turned to bickering about the undesirable elements the pastor wanted to bring into their comfortable surroundings.

Alliance at Nyack-on-Hudson
Numerous times, both from his vantage point at the pulpit and in his private study, Simpson recalled his conversation years earlier with Dr. Grattan Guinness, founder of The East London Institute.  The school was a missionary training center for lay Christians with all the qualifications for service except formal seminary education.  This kind of center, the troubled pastor believed, was just what North America needed as well.  Simpson’s thinking found expression in the second issue of The Gospel In All Lands.  Two months later, in the May 1880 issue, he repeated the call for a missionary training school to equip lay people for ministry.

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.

Class of 1897 does chores
In that same year missions-minded people formed a group to pray for the success of the gospel overseas.  Several of the group soon volunteered for overseas service and requested training to outfit them for that purpose.

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 Institute Orchestra 1918
The students had little time to stare at the abandoned properties and dusty props flanking their makeshift classroom.  They were bombarded not only with courses like New Testament Greek, pastoral theology and biblical exposition, but also a whole department of literary topics: logic, mental and moral philosophy, natural science, rhetoric, ancient and modern history, and geography.

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.

With nine moves in eight years, it seemed like a gypsy school just one step ahead of the bill collector.  More appropriately, someone likened the school to the tent in the wilderness that moved from place to place as the providence of God directed.

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.

What held the school together was a common set of convictions that remained constant despite the unsettled surroundings.  Those ideals were later published in a booklet fittingly entitled The Romance of The Missionary Institute:

  • An unmutilated Bible
  • Salvation through the blood of Christ
  • Entire separation from the world
  • The baptism of the Holy Spirit for life and witnessing
  • Victory through the indwelling Christ
  • Rugged consecration to sacrificial service
  • Practical faith in the sufficiency of Christ for spiritual, temporal and physical needs
  • Increasing, purifying hope of the Lord’s return
  • Burning missionary zeal to evangelize the world and bring back the King.

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.

Simpsons and Turnbulls
Dr. Walter M. Turnbull remembered the effect of the school’s founder and superintendent on his students: “Although Dr. Simpson was a strikingly handsome and attractive figure, was possessed of a resonant, captivating, voice, and was gifted with social graces that gave him advantage in any company, it was always to be noticed that the affection of his students seemed to be drawn to his Master even more than to himself.

“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 student population soon outgrew the new quarters.  While some fifty students found lodging at the school, another 150 or more had to find quarters in the city.  Many applications were turned down.  Further growth was stifled for lack of room.

The report on the fifteenth anniversary of the school indicates how large the school had become: “The class-roll of the fourteenth session just closing number of 135 ladies and 86 gentlemen, and total of 221 students.  It has been a session of profound interest and most satisfactory work for a large faculty of more than a dozen regular teachers (and) lectures given by a number of honored and gifted brethren in the ministry …”

The need for a larger campus became apparent and imperative.  But where?

New York City continued a prime consideration because of its many opportunities of ministry ranging from established churches to rescue missions.  But the city also had some drawbacks.  City life offered too many distractions to the students.  More serious, building costs were prohibitive.  What would cost a quarter-million dollars in New York could be had for about $40,000 in the suburbs.

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.

Dr. Pardington in his office
The April 16, 1897 issue of the weekly Christian and Missionary Alliance enumerated some of their thoughts: “The country affords much greater quiet and opportunity for study and saves students from a certain class of distractions which have been found to seriously interfere with solid work.

“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.

Students at Nyack 1917
The chapel served another purpose: “This chapel stands between the two sections of the building and separates them by an impassable barrier. The ladies occupy the one section and the gentlemen the other, and there is thus no possibility of that free interchange which would be so undesirable in an Institute of this kind, except on specified occasions and under proper oversight.”

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.”

Beginning in 1902 the faculty required students to attend class and take examinations on the material studied. A full second year of study was developed and the administration was revamped to distribute responsibility among several department heads, rather than centralizing power in the superintendent’s hands.

Academic life was well seasoned with prayer. The fifth annual report of the General Council of the C&MA commented on this aspect: “Everyone who comes to the Institute is at once struck with the quiet but intense spiritual atmosphere, especially manifest in the spirit of prayer. It is not forced or monkish. Neither is it effervescent. It is methodical while yet living.

“The quiet half-hour before breakfast in the private room, the morning chapel service, the half-hour missionary prayer meeting at noon, the evening worship after supper, and the evening ‘quiet hour’ make in all about three and a half hours of regular worship daily.”

The 1902 report made a significant reference to the West Point Military Academy’s importance in the nation and likened the relationship to the Institute’s value to the C&MA. The next several years witnessed a tightening of academic and spiritual discipline at the school to the extent that it became known to some as “The West Point of Missions.”

In that same year the entrance requirements were revised to exclude students below age twenty unless they gave evidence of unusual maturity. Young people with physical handicaps or health problems were also encouraged to look elsewhere. The school defended these restrictions as a means of concentrating on students best qualified for the ministry. They took for their rationale the words of Paul, “This one thing I do.”

The report to General Council two years later included a plea, no doubt at Dr. Simpson’s instigation, for a preparatory school and a missionary university. Commenting on the need for special training for the many opportunities of service open to overseas workers, the report concluded, “It is not an Institute, but a University that can alone fill the full demand.”

The General Council committee on education responded by approving the idea of a preparatory school, but for the university, “We believe the time premature.”

Despite this setback, Dr. Simpson and the faculty continued to upgrade the Institute. The school year was lengthened again, this time at the other end of the school year: the opening date was set for early September.

Wilson Memorial Academy opened in 1906 as a private school for children of Alliance families. When Dr. J. Hudson Ballard, a gifted administrator and educator, became principal in 1909, attendance doubled and the school gained a reputation for high scholarship standards.

Before it closed in 1918 by decision of the General Council, the academy started some students toward highly successful careers. Among them, these would become known as: John MacArthur, one of the nation’s wealthiest men; Charles MacArthur, noted playwright; Merrill C. Tenney, scholar and author; Gordon Brownville, pastor of famed Tremont Temple in Boston.

The faculty report in 1906 gave a frank appraisal of the students of that period: “Quite a number come to us under such serious disadvantage, that they need two years of preparation before they can get the just benefit of the further course [of study] and reach the end desired by them, their friends and all concerned.”

The report continued, “The students of these last years have been pressed almost to the point of resistance sometimes, and the only relief is an extension of time.” The faculty then requested permission of General Council to increase the course of study from two to three years, and this was approved.

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.

A major part of the Home School was given over to “meeting and hearing from the leaders of the many special forms of Christian work, for which New York and vicinity were unequalled, and in visiting the place themselves where these activities are carried on …”

Pardington Hall 1913
From 1910 to 1912 Dr. Simpson spoke out repeatedly in The Alliance Weekly for a junior college, a liberal arts college “which would give us a hold upon the best minds in the country, and a three-year seminary for college graduates offering three years of Greek, two years of Hebrew, church history, Biblical theology, homiletics, Biblical interpretation, public speaking, sermonic literature, American literature, philosophy, psychology, economics, logic, and ethics.”

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.

Dr. Simpson's Funeral Procession
In his last convention address at Nyack, Dr. Simpson expressed his unflagging convictions as an educator: “Just as God called Elijah to stand for a living God, so God is calling His witnesses today to stand for a supernatural life, for a supernatural work, dependent entirely upon the Master and the power of the Spirit.

“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

We have sat at His blessed feet,
We have drunk from truth’s celestial fountain,
We have tasted its honey sweet.
We are witnesses for our blessed Master
In a world where friends are few,
And He sends us forth with the watchword
Whatso’er it costs, Be true.

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.

Continue to The Consolidation Years: 1919-1939