The Multiplication of Laborers: A Centennial of Fruitfulness

Asbury Theological Seminary
14th Convocation Address for the launch of Asbury Theological Seminary’s Centennial

A desert road leading to Damascus; a quiet garden in the city of Milan; a stormy day in Stotternheim, Germany; three women conversing in a doorway in Bedford, England; a Moravian prayer meeting on Aldersgate St., London; riding to the Oxford Zoo in a motorcycle side car; and a runaway horse in Perryville, Kentucky. What do these places all have in common? These are a few samples of moments and places which have changed lives and set forth new and fruitful trajectories in the grand, unfolding story of redemption in Jesus Christ.

Paul, in the early 30’s at the dawn of the Christian era, filled with murderous threats against the church was on the road to Damascus to arrest Christians, only to find himself arrested by Jesus Christ to become His bondslave and to give his life to releasing captives, and a new chapter in the church unfolded.

Augustine, brilliant in rhetoric, but beset with immorality, sat alone weeping in a backyard garden in Milan on April 24, 386. Quite unexpectedly, he heard the voice of children “tolle, lege; tolle lege, “pick up and read, pick up and read.” Augustine opened to Romans 16 and was gloriously converted and a new chapter in the church began.

Martin Luther on July 2, 1505, was traveling to Erfurt and as he approached the town of Stotternheim, he was caught in a massive lightning storm. A bolt of lightning struck so close to him that it knocked him down and he cried out, “St. Anne, help me, I’ll become a monk.” And a new trajectory was set forth which would lead him to the Augustinian monastery in Wittenburg and the rediscovery of the gospel in studying Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Luther was eventually excommunicated by the church, but the gospel could not be excommunicated, and a new chapter was unleashed on the world, and we have never been the same.

John Bunyan was walking through Bedford, England in 1655 and he happened to overhear three women discussing their conversion to Jesus Christ and he later wrote that right there on the streets of Bedford after hearing those women speak, his heart was pricked, and he received Christ into his life. By 1670 Bunyan was arrested for unauthorized lay preaching and spent 12 years in prison where he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress which became one of the most influential books ever written and the story of redemption continued to unfold.

John Wesley, on May 24, 1738, went unwillingly to a Moravian prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London and there as he listened to the preface of Martin Luther’s commentary on the book of Romans, his heart was strangely warmed and the world was set on fire. He eventually was banned from preaching in every pulpit in England, but the vibrancy of the gospel could not be banned, and a new chapter began in the unfolding history of redemption.

C.S. Lewis was deeply moved by a conversation he had with J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings, and he was deeply troubled by the thought that Christianity just might be the story that explains all other stories. He was reflecting on this on September 28, 1931, as he rode in a motorcycle side car going to see the Oxford Zoo, and as he himself later said, “I left for the zoo an unbeliever and by the time I arrived at the zoo, I was a convinced Christian.”

Every Seminary has a story and our story is as powerful and transformative as any of these I have recounted. Our story would not have been possible without these stories which have preceded it. Today, we officially begin the celebration of our Centennial—100 years of training ministers for the gospel and spreading Scriptural holiness throughout the world! Amen! Which brings me back to the “runaway horse in Kentucky.” Every seminary has a story and our story starts not in 1923 but back in 1877 when a young, 19-year-old man named Henry Clay Morrison found himself on a runaway horse right here in Perryville, Kentucky, and in the crisis of what seemed like the end of his young life, gave himself fully to Christ. He had responded to an altar call at a revival at age 13, but, by his own account, it was the runaway horse which was the real turning point in his commitment to Christ. It was his call to full-time ministry. His story should rank right up there with all of these other more well-known stories, because our history at Asbury Seminary is inextricably linked to the story of this man H. C. Morrison, our beloved founder. Morrison committed himself to Christ and the Christian ministry, joining the Methodist Episcopal Church South. He eventually attended Vanderbilt University where he was trained theologically. At the time Vanderbilt was the leading school for Methodist training and was fully committed to orthodoxy. Early on it was clear that young Henry Clay was a gifted speaker and anointed in the pulpit. Between graduation in May and September when he got his first official pastoral appointment, he preached 106 times and saw 215 people come to Christ. He soon became a sought-after camp meeting preacher and that continued throughout his life. In 1885, when he was 28 years old, he was invited to come to a little town called Wilmore, Ky., and preach a revival service at the Methodist church here. It was his first visit to Wilmore, and he held what in those days was called “protracted meetings,” which was a succession of revival meetings that would go on as long as people were coming and responding. It was here in Wilmore that Morrison had his first big breakthrough as an evangelist. One hundred four people came to Christ during those meetings and the city of Wilmore was changed by it. It was also at those meetings that Morrison first met John Wesley Hughes who told him of his vision to start a holiness college somewhere in Kentucky.

Henry Clay Morrison went on to pastor a church in Covington, Kentucky. It was in Covington that Horace Cockrill, a ministerial colleague, introduced H. C. Morrison to John Wesley’s classic little book, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. This book convinced Morrison about the life of sanctification and his preaching was changed by it. Before he focused on justification, but now he understood the larger meaning of the word “salvation.” Eventually, Morrison was given a prestigious appointment, pastoring a large Methodist church in Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky. He became a chaplain to the politicians there and his notoriety grew. By 1890, Morrison was being considered to be a bishop when he realized that was not the path for him. Instead, he made the bold step of leaving the pastoral ministry and becoming a full-time traveling evangelist. He began to conduct revival services all over the country. We cannot survey the vast number of revival services Morrison held. But, we must remember the revival in Winchester, Kentucky, where 150 people came to Christ. Morrison was amazed that those meetings resulted in raising $38,000 to start Kentucky Wesleyan College in Millersburg, later moved to its current location in Owensboro. It was also the Winchester revival which led 100 of the men who had come to Christ in that meeting to take up a collection and give H. C. Morrison a pocket watch which he carried with him until the day he died. It is now presented to each President of Asbury Seminary as a reminder that we all stand in kairos moments – redemptive time – in this sacred role. I am holding this watch now and it is now housed in our alumni center for all to see.

Meanwhile, John Wesley Hughes was working to start a holiness college right here in Kentucky. The Methodist bishop of Kentucky was adamantly opposed to Hughes starting a college. He wanted everyone to go to Vanderbilt. But, Vanderbilt was by that time coming under the sway of the so-called Modernist controversy and was no longer well situated in historic orthodoxy. Hughes, like H. C. Morrison, was a graduate of Vanderbilt, but the school had drifted from historic orthodoxy and Hughes understood that as goes the seminary, so goes the church. John Wesley Hughes faced so much opposition from the Methodist bishop of Kentucky (Bishop R.K. Hargrove) that he decided the only way forward was to give up his ordination credentials and pursue the founding of Asbury College as a lay person. When asked why he was willing to give up his ordination to start Asbury College, now University, Hughes prophetically stated, “what is more important, that a college is authorized by a Methodist Conference or that it teaches Methodist doctrine.” Wilmore had been so transformed by the gospel during those revival meetings five years earlier, Hughes decided to start the college right here. Wilmore citizens were challenged to consider supporting the founding of a Methodist college in Wilmore, Ky., in honor of Francis Asbury’s work 100 years earlier. Time does not permit to tell the full story, but if you know earlier Methodist history you will know that Francis Asbury met with all the key Methodist leaders like Thomas Rankin and Robert Strawbridge in Philadelphia in 1775 to plan a strategy to bring the gospel to the American frontier. Just two blocks away, on 6th street, in Liberty Hall, at the exact time, was the meeting of the 2nd continental congress. This is the congress that would declare war on England, ratify the Declaration of Independence, and appoint George Washington as the Commander General of the Continental Army. It is widely regarded as one of the most important meetings in American history. It is unlikely that Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson and the rest would have even known that just two blocks away Francis Asbury was meeting with his preachers at the same time. This led to them starting a training school in the heart of the frontier. They choose Kentucky and built Bethel Academy, a three-story brick building for training pastors, just a few miles from here on Handys Bend Road. In honor of that early effort, Asbury College was started exactly 100 years later – yes, at the centennial of the founding of Bethel Academy. Hughes challenged the citizens of Wilmore to raise $1,600 in one week. If they did, Hughes would take that as confirmation that the school should be started here in Wilmore. This is exactly what happened, so in 1890 Asbury College was founded. Four acres were purchased on Main Street, roughly where the Methodist church is today (not on Lexington Ave). and a four room, two story building was constructed for the college. They later built an administration building, and in honor of that early effort by Francis Asbury, built it on a massive foundation of stone carried from the Bethel Academy site on Handys Bend Road up to Wilmore. This is part of our story, all long before 1923 when we were founded. Fire burned down the whole of Asbury College in March of 1908 just after the buildings had been paid for. Providentially, Henry Clay Morrison was on a train headed to Wilmore to meet his friend John Wesley Hughes. On the way, Morrison fell asleep and had a dream of Asbury College. But, rather than a few small clapboard buildings, he saw it with brick buildings and tall white columns. He arrived in Wilmore to learn that Asbury College had burned down the very night while he was sleeping on the train. Hughes and the Trustees decided to sell the property and relocate to Lexington Ave. where it currently stands with brick buildings and tall white columns just like in Morrison’s dream.

It is important to remember that twice Morrison had seen revivals result in the formation of centers of higher education, a revival in Wilmore which led to the founding of Asbury College and a revival in Winchester which led to the formation of Kentucky Wesleyan College.

The founding of these schools, and many others across the country at that time, were founded in response to the massive upheaval taking place in the church at that time. The last two decades of the 19th century and the first two of the twentieth century brought profound and sweeping changes to the climate of theological education in North America. Morrison’s life coincides with the movement in mainline Christianity to embrace progressive versions of Christianity which denied the authority of the Bible, downgraded their Christology and lost the evangelistic mandate. Meanwhile, as a full-time evangelist, Morrison was becoming so popular that he could not possibly accept all the invitations he was receiving. He was brought into a stage of holy discontent. As early as the Fall of 1888, two years before Hughes started Asbury College and 35 years before Morrison would found Asbury Seminary, he was holding revival services in Maysville, and fell into a holy discontent and wrote something in his diary which would be another turning point in his life. I want to quote it to you because it is so significant. He wrote, “I felt if I had the power to multiply into a score of men, I could make every one of them an earnest preacher of the gospel.” This is the Matthew 9:37 moment in the life of H. C. Morrison. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord of the Harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” This led him first to extend his ministry through the founding of a journal or circular known as the Old Methodist. The title “old” Methodist was a direct challenge to the most prominent circular of his day in Kentucky known as the Kentucky Methodist which was penned by prominent pastors calling Methodism to embrace novel doctrines and so-called “progressive Christianity.” The word “old” here meant “historic” – the remembering of the apostolic message. Everyone was scrambling to be ten minutes ahead of the truth, when H. C. Morrison understood that the church was actually 2,000 years behind it. The first issue came off the press on December 14, 1888. In 1897 the name was changed to the Pentecostal Herald and it continues to this day, though we now call it simply The Herald. He later wrote that a two-horse wagon bed could not contain the number of letters he received from people who got saved or sanctified through reading the Pentecostal Herald magazine.

The next turning point for Morrison happened in July 1897. Morrison was asked by a group of laity to preach a revival in Dublin, Texas. However, the Rev. E. A. Smith, the presiding elder over Texas, they are known as bishops today, opposed him coming and preaching this radical message of holiness in Texas. He told him that if he came he would be brought up on charges and his ordination stripped away. It raised the question of whether someone could preach outside of their own conference without the support of the local bishop. But the meetings were not being held in any church, but in a city park. Furthermore, as I said, the meetings were not sponsored by any clergy in Texas, but the laity. Morrison agonized over whether he should go or not. Finally, he said, a private in the army has the right to disobey a captain if he has a higher order from a colonel. “It must not be forgotten that God still has some authority in this universe.” On September 4, 1897, the meetings began in Dublin, Texas. Morrison arrived on site with a crowd so large that it couldn’t be contained in the tent. But, Rev. E. A. Smith met Morrison there and told him to go back to Kentucky. Morrison politely refused. Four days later while he was still conducting service Morrison received written notice from Rev. Smith informing him that his ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church South had been terminated. The charges still had to be confirmed and accepted by the Kentucky Conference and this happened at Hill Street Methodist Church, today, First UMC of Lexington. The investigation into Morrison was led by the presiding elder (district superintendent) of the Lexington District of the Kentucky Conference, Rev. John Reeves. Reeves held no trial. Morrison was not even present for the meeting, but Reeves led the vote to officially remove Morrison from membership in the church and his ordination in the MECS. Morrison remembered how Wesley was banned from every pulpit in England. He remembered how John Wesley Hughes had to surrender his credentials to start Asbury College. So, Morrison surrendered his credentials and refrained from preaching in any Methodist Episcopal Church South churches. It is so important to recognize 100 years into our history here that neither Asbury College or Asbury Seminary would have ever happened if two men were not brave enough not to flinch in their faith or their calling, even when they had their ordination stripped away by the episcopal leaders over them. These men were captivated in the pursuit of a higher calling to not follow earthly leaders who have lost their way, but a heavenly Lord who always summons us forward in this great story of redemption. Morrison refrained from preaching in ME South churches but, instead, started preaching in the Methodist Episcopal Church, which was the northern branch of the Methodist church. He also started preaching in Baptist and Presbyterian revival services. This crisis in his life ended up being used by God to dramatically widen Morrison’s sphere of influence. The laity throughout the country were so supportive of Morrison in the wake of his ordination being taken away that the subscription rates to the Pentecostal Herald soared. Morrison noted in his journal that in one day alone during this period, he received 400 new subscriptions. Eventually, through the exemplary and anointed ministry of H.C. Morrison, sentiment changed and through the work of W. E. Arnold, possibly a distant relative of our Bill Arnold, the Kentucky Conference fully reinstated Henry Clay Morrison to the Methodist Episcopal Church South as an ordained minister. Morrison was reinstated and given full clergy credentials. For the rest of his ministry he had a thriving connection to the Kentucky Conference and was elected five times as a delegate from Kentucky to General Conference.

In 1905 the country went into a depression. It wasn’t the Great Depression which was still to come, but the country went through a challenging time economically for the next five years. John Wesley Hughes had stepped down after fifteen years as President. In the next five years, 1905 to 1910 the College went through four different presidents who were not well-suited for the position and did not enjoy the strength of Hughes’ visionary leadership. Asbury College fell into a crisis. Enrollment had dropped from 400 students down to 50, and faculty were looking for other places to teach. The Trustees asked John Wesley Hughes to consider returning to the presidency, but he had already moved away and was actually helping to start another school, so he declined. So, in 1910, when the school was only 20 years old, the Trustees of Asbury College met and decided that they would close the College, settle with their creditors and call the whole thing a failed experiment. However, one trustee challenged the rest and said, “What if we could get the famous evangelist H. C. Morrison to leave his evangelistic ministry and come to Asbury College as president.” If that happened, the Trustees agreed, perhaps the school might be saved. But, it was a long shot. It was a bold thought. So, in August of 1910, just weeks before the Fall semester was to begin, Morrison was contacted by Asbury Trustee A.P. Jones, who told him that the Trustees would like for him to serve as the president, and if he did not, they would close the college. Morrison had just come back from a world tour, including China and India. He was sick and he was way behind in the work for the Pentecostal Herald. In addition to this, hundreds of invitations to preach were waiting for him upon his return. Morrison was not at all interested in stopping his evangelistic ministry, but he agreed to pray about it. Morrison and his wife prayed into the night and at 2 a.m. God directed him to say yes. Thus, in 1910, H. C. Morrison became the president of Asbury College and through his vast network through the churches where he had preached and through the Pentecostal Herald, he was able to raise money and the College was restored and began to flourish under his leadership.

But, the march of theological liberalism continued in the country. H.C. Morrison was clearly deeply disturbed. In fact, he wrote the following in the Pentecostal Herald:

One is astounded at the number of schools, at the very fountainheads of our intellectual and religious life, that are becoming poisoned with skeptical teaching and the number of ministers that are boldly speaking out against the very foundational principles of divinely revealed religion. Shall we sit still? Shall we let the false teachers sow in [without] our schools, from our pulpits, and through our literature, teachings entirely contrary to the Word of God andChristian creeds?

The “shall we sit still?” question was directed at so many orthodox ministers who remained quiet while the church was being fashioned into this new image, so alien to the apostolic witness. He was shocked at the silence of so many ministers at the direct violation of the Book of Discipline. Does any of this sound familiar?

Morrison finally concluded that it was not enough to start Christian colleges. The country needed a new seminary, totally committed to historic orthodoxy and fully imbued with the Wesleyan message. This was the seed which led to the founding of Asbury Seminary. Every Seminary has a story, and this is our story. In 1920 Morrison had already founded a School of Theology within Asbury College. But, the time had finally come for the next step. Morrison sold one-dollar bonds through the readership of the Pentecostal Herald to construct a building to house a graduate school of theology. He began to recruit faculty to teach. He recruited G.W. Ridout from Taylor to teach apologetics, Fred Larabee to teach New Testament, Frank Paul Morris to teach systematic theology, Wilder Reynolds to teach church history, Walter Harrison to teach missions, Lewis Akers to teach Old Testament, and Daisy Gray, our founding female professor, to teach homiletics. The core faculty was prepared. It is astonishing to think that in order to start a seminary you have to begin with a faculty larger than the student body. We began with seven faculty and three students. In the early years they managed it financially by including undergraduates in the classes. But, Morrison from the start adopted the motto of the Seminary, The Whole Bible for the Whole World when he only had three students. The excitement was palatable. The vision was compelling. The need was profound. This was what it was like 100 years ago at the dawn of this new venture called Asbury Theological Seminary. Morrison summed it up well when at the launch he wrote in his diary, “The devil thought he had us beat, but God rebuked him and gave us the victory.” Of course, not everyone was excited. There was a bishop, predictably, who wrote Morrison and said, “you cannot survive, and your school cannot succeed.” Brothers and sisters, here we are, 100 years later, we have not only survived and succeeded, but we have prospered under the providential hand of God. Asbury Seminary is more vibrant today than any time in our history and we are not going anywhere. One hundred years later, we still believe that in “The Whole Bible for the Whole World.” One hundred years later, we still believe in the fully sanctified life and Trinitarian salvation. One hundred years later, we still believe that God’s work done in God’s way will not lack God’s supply. One hundred years later, we still believe in evangelism to a lost world. One hundred years later, we still believe in the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ! One hundred years later, we still believe in “spreading scriptural holiness throughout the world.”

So, on this historic day, let us thank God for the faith and courage which has gone before us. We stand today only because others have stood. Every Seminary has a story, and this is our story. We have been forged in faith, tried through fire, and tested in adversity, but here we are, 100 years later, still doing what we were founded to do. That is the greatest miracle of Asbury Seminary.

I thank God that the Risen Lord appeared to St. Paul on the road to Damascus. I thank God for those children who were playing that day across the garden fence in Milan. I thank God for that lightning storm over the town of Stotternheim, Germany. I thank God for those three women conversing that day on their doorstop. I thank God for that Moravian prayer meeting on Aldersgate street! I thank God that J. R. R. Tolkien shared his faith with C. S. Lewis. But, today, on this the advent of our Centennial year at Asbury Theological Seminary, I mostly thank God for a runaway horse in Perryville, Kentucky. I thank God that a 19-year-old boy named Henry Clay Morrison got caught on the back of a runaway horse. We’ve been running ever since. Great is Thy Faithfulness! Amen.


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