Rooted in Mission, Rooted in Our City

A new book on SPU’s founding era reveals a campus and a city poised on the brink of change

By Jeffrey Overstreet
Photo courtesy of MOHAI, PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection

Like the unseen roots of SPU’s venerable campus trees, the University’s 125-year history could easily go unappreciated.

“The memory of an institution’s history can go through cycles,” says Free Methodist scholar Howard Snyder. “First and second generations celebrate the impulse of its founding. Another generation says ‘That was then, this is now’ — and there’s a tendency to forget. Over time, history is rediscovered by younger people who say ‘Why haven’t we heard this?’”

Snyder’s new book Rooted in Mission: The Founding of Seattle Pacific University 1891–1916 was commissioned by School of Theology Dean Doug Strong to serve as a definitive history of Seattle Pacific’s earliest years. Snyder — the visiting director of the Manchester Wesley Research Center in Manchester, England — invites us to rediscover the people, prayers, and proposals of SPU’s origins, before it was a university or even a college.

It’s a story, Strong writes in his introduction, of “adventurous educational pioneers, motivated by Wesleyan Holiness faith,” who establish a “seminary,” a term that then referred to a school for children and adolescents. That small school eventually became a university, keeping pace with Seattle’s expansion into a world-class city.

Snyder pays particular attention to SPU’s Free Methodist founders — Nils Peterson, Hiram Pease, John Norton, Alexander and Adelaide Beers, and B.T. and Ellen Roberts (the founding couple of the Free Methodist denomination, whose lives Snyder celebrated in an earlier biography).

“They believed they were doing God’s work,” says John Glancy, director of SPU’s 125th anniversary celebration. “And, as Snyder illustrates, they were.”

Glancy worked with retired University Librarian Bryce Nelson to assemble historic images of Seattle’s progressive-era growth, bringing the time period to life. Nelson says readers will marvel at how, between the turn of the century and 1916, the rural farms and woods of Queen Anne Hill became neighborhoods. “As the city explodes, in the middle of those changes there’s a school taking root.”

Snyder recounts the rise of landmarks like Alexander Hall, the original “Red Brick Building”; Peterson Hall, built for $9,000; and the Ladies’ Dormitory, later known as Tiffany Hall. He offers perspective on Seattle Seminary’s support of Prohibition; explains how “Pacific” landed between “Seattle” and “College”; examines economic crises that the school suffered and survived; and vividly depicts missionary trailblazers — such as Clara Leffingwell, who “swept over the Free Methodist Church like a flame of fire, setting missionary interest ablaze wherever she went.”

Snyder’s book, says SPU Archivist Adrienne Thun Meier ’04, “shows how what was important to SPU’s founders — their focus on being ecumenical, on character formation, and on broad education that goes beyond missions and ministry — is what SPU still does today.”

It’s to SPU’s advantage, Snyder says, that it be grounded in what God has done and in what God promises to do. Snyder hopes Rooted in Mission will reveal, especially for those who experience only a four-year “slice” of SPU’s history, the richness of its heritage. The following photographs, many of which are included in the book, offer glimpses of that heritage brought to life.

Rooted in Mission is available at the SPU Bookstore — call 206–281–2137 to purchase a copy.

Faces of the founding era

Seattle Seminary’s Free Methodist “founder-reformers” invested, donated land, broke ground, and planted. They sought to reform America and the world with church-planting revivalism, Christian liberal arts education, and global Christian missions. In other words, they set out not to withdraw from the world, but to engage it.

Photos courtesy of the SPU Archives and Marston Memorial Historical Center

A Growing City

At the dawn of the 20th century, Seattle was a place of exponential growth; the 1909 Seattle Seminary yearbook described Seattle as “situated like Rome upon her seven hills.”

Photos courtesy of MOHAI, PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, and the SPU Archives

Student Life

The early years at Seattle Seminary were a time of close-knit community. Students were together at mealtimes and for worship services; they founded clubs, the earliest being the Alexandrian Literary Society in 1895; and competed in intramural sports, including tennis.

Photos courtesy of the SPU Archives

Educating for Service

In Rooted in Mission, Snyder describes Seattle Seminary as “a vital campus community with a passion for world missions.” Though many students served in foreign missions, even in the early days, students were gaining preparation for service in all fields of work and all walks of life. The motto “not to be ministered unto, but to minister” that appeared in Alexander Chapel was a guiding principle for all.

Photos courtesy of the SPU Archives