An Unwritten History: Greenville University and the women who deepened its faithfulness

Published: February 25, 2024

In December, 2022, Greenville University was awarded an Institutional Saga grant from the Council of Independent Colleges' Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE), to recover, discover, and compose a largely unwritten history

of the lives of key women who have shaped the university over its 130-year history. The project is currently underway and will create a collection of vignettes that provide a fuller picture of GU' s longtime commitment to women in leadership in the context of its mission to educate for character and service.

Christian education at Greenville University has always been about helping students discover their vocation. Discerning one's calling is the heart­ beat of education for Christian character because the heart of discipleship is about embracing, each in our own way, Jesus's invitation to follow him.

Professor of Theology and Dean Emeritus Dr. Brian Hartley, grant writer and director, noted that since GU's founding in 1892, three themes have endured:

(1) learning integrated with the Christian faith;

(2) partnerships with the greater community and with the Free Methodist Church; and (3) raising up leaders, particularly women. Mary Alice Tenney's Still Abides the Memory tells the development of the University's missional focus up to 1942, but the nar­ ratives connecting the dots from subsequent years to the present lie buried in campus archives and in the memories and voices of persons who served GU.

The unwritten history aims to dis­ play the pioneering role of Greenville University in train­ ing, empowering, and employing women for leadership. It's perhaps providential that the College's start coincided with the groundbreaking work, Ordaining Women (1891), by the founder of Free Methodism, B.T. Roberts. The book's re-release in 2015 includes an introduction and notes supplied by Dr. Ben Wayman, chair of Greenville Univer­ sity's theology department. While the church did not fully recognize and implement Roberts's vision until much later, Greenville College became a hub for training and deploying women for leadership throughout the church and the world.

From its beginnings, Greenville College recruited women of character and competence to teach on its faculty, including Tenney, the author of its published history. These women exercised an outsized influence on the ethos of the institution and the education of students. Their leadership at board level, in executive leadership roles, and in key leadership positions across campus put Greenville at the forefront of the Christian college move­ment. Countless women alumni have served, and continue to serve, in posi­ tions of leadership within the institution and across the church, including Suzanne Davis, the current President.

Through this proj­ ect, Greenville Univer­sity is telling this story of growth, influence, and faithfulness through the lens of women connected with it. The stories that are emerging are reminding those connected to Green­ ville University, the Free Methodist Church, and the University's larger constituency of the contributions of the leading women of our collective history.

One of the most striking stories and lives is that of Dr. Elva McAllaster (pictured, right).

McAllaster was a professor of English at Greenville College from 1956-1988, after having served in the same role at Seattle Pacific College from 1948-1956. McAllaster's influence on undergraduates at these two Free Methodist schools over the course of forty years was monumen­ tal, and such influence was how she understood her vocation. Discovering and embracing one's vocation is, after all, not limited to students, but rather was a joint endeavor of the whole academic community of faith - students and employees alike. In his recent biography of the late Eugene Peterson, Winn Collier calls McAllaster his "first true editor," and later com­ ments, "She stayed in touch with Eugene for decades (after his graduation from Seattle Pacific in 1954), encouraging him as he deepened his writing skills (and reading list) and commenting on each piece he published," (A Burning in my Bones, 2021, p. 58).

In his study of the McAllaster materials, Mikey Ward discovered that "McAllaster articulated her teaching career as the ultimate opportunity 'to train leaders of Free Methodism,' in order to have 'far-reaching consequence,' for the Free Methodist Church." In an unpublished vignette of McAllaster, Ward recovers three documents that particularly "reveal how McAllaster's experience at Greenville not only fundamentally altered her life's vocation, but in turn, helped give rise to the development of a national organization, the Conference of Christian­ ity & Literature (CCL). In this way, research on the vocation of Dr. Elva McAllaster reveals how women leaders of Greenville's English department were influential in both Free Methodism and Christian literary scholarship throughout the 20thcentury."

A crucial component of her formation was under the tutelage of Dr. Mary Alice Ten­ney, whom McAllaster described as her "patron saint and guardian angel."

For McAllaster, Greenville was uniquely prepared and positioned to help her live into her vocation of training up the next genera­tion of leaders, even though at that time, the Free Method­ ist Church did not receive women into its highest levels of leadership.

Though women now receive ordination and lead ministries within the Free Methodist Church, the battle for full inclusion has been a slow process and even now is not fully realized. This project seeks to highlight women while also including women in the leadership and composition of the history. In the fall, several female participants will come alongside grant researchers in the creative process of discovery, recovery, and writing of this more inclusive history. In addition to Hartley and Wayman, participants include Dr. Sharon Grimes (interim archivist),

Rev. Keli Pennington (campus chaplain and director of the Women in Leadership program), Dr. Kollin Fields (assistant professor of history and political science), and Dr. Steve Tungate (director of the Center for Pastoral Formation). We are collectively committed to recovering the stories of these women of faith and Christian character and are confident that the history that emerges will deepen our own faithfulness as we participate in God's work at Greenville University in the present and into the future.

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