Westmont Magazine The Story Behind the Liberal Arts at Westmont

Historical students
Courtesy of the Westmont College Archive

In 1937, President Leland Entrekin opened the doors of the Bible Missionary Institute, committed to education in “the whole word of God free from fanciful interpretations” to fit young Christians for missionary service. Seed money came from Ruth Kerr, a member of Entrekin’s congregation. Since 1930 she had successfully directed the glass manufacturing business left to her (along with six children) at the death of her husband, Alexander, in 1925. Her passionate involvement and unflagging commitment to education for Christian service led to the establishment of Westmont.

After BMI’s first year of operation, Kerr began hearing from the mission field that they wanted students who had a more complete training than just the ordinary courses available at Bible institutes. Accordingly, she strongly endorsed a proposal by Mabel M. Culter, the school’s superintendent of women, to add a junior college program to the Bible curriculum. “This will be virtually a junior Wheaton College,” Kerr announced to students January 3, 1939. Eventually, she hoped the new institution, Western Bible College, would become “a large Wheaton of the West.” No longer would “students desiring both Bible and college [have] to sacrifice either.” Students could pursue LIBERAL ARTS and Bible school programs at the same time.

The next academic year, the school reorganized a second time under the name Westmont College, “a LIBERAL ARTS college with a strong Bible department.” In May 1939, Kerr sounded out Wallace Emerson, dean of students and professor of education and psychology at Wheaton College, about leading the new institution. He agreed to accept the presidency on two conditions: he alone would appoint and dismiss faculty, and the curriculum would be entirely LIBERAL ARTS.

Many evangelicals of the time believed “the young person who takes four years of study at Biola with the Bible as his chief textbook, will receive cultural advantages equal to those acquired in a similar period of study of the arts and sciences.” But Emerson disagreed vigorously. He noted, for instance, that the Latin American Mission would accept only college and seminary graduates. He consistently resisted pressures to add purely practical courses for the prospective missionary, such as those characteristic of Bible institutes.

“I felt,” he recalled, “that the most good that could be done to the young people of our clientele was the LIBERAL ARTS concept with plenty of Bible, plenty of supporting material to the Bible and then very, very good basic work in math and science and languages and things of that kind. . . . These young people are going to have to go out and fight the devil on a number of fronts, all of which require an intelligent understanding of their own position.” Not only could the Bible illuminate other spheres of learning; the converse was equally important.

“There is a type of Christian student,” Emerson wrote later, “who, if a psychological or philosophical fact be not immediately referred to a verse in Scripture, . . . refers it to the ‘limbo’ of . . . unimportant facts. . . . The late R. A. Torrey . . . said that ‘he who understands only the Bible does not understand the Bible.’” Emerson regarded this latter emphasis as essential in 1940.

From that time, Westmont has embraced an especially strong commitment to the LIBERAL ARTS within the five planks of its educational program — liberal arts, Christian, undergraduate, residential and global.