Last year Bethel University celebrated its 150th anniversary, dating back to its origins as a tiny Swedish Baptist seminary in Chicago. But arguably, 2022 marks an even more important anniversary for Bethel’s development as a modern university: 75 years since Bethel became a four-year college.

A little history here… In 1914 the Baptist seminary in Chicago relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota, where it merged with a secondary school called Bethel Academy on a campus across the street from the Minnesota state fairgrounds. The academy lasted until 1936, five years after Bethel launched a two-year junior college. Its first dean was Walfred Danielson, who taught courses in history and sociology.

A Canadian Baptist who studied at the University of Alberta, Carlson later earned his doctorate at the University of Minnesota – Bethel Digital Library

One of the first faculty members in the junior college was political scientist C. Emanuel Carlson, who first came to Bethel in 1928 to teach civics and history to academy students. In 1945 Carlson was tasked with studying the possibility of converting Bethel College to a full four-year, baccalaureate institution. He concluded that such a change was necessary, for several reasons:

• A two-year college would struggle to compete as postsecondary enrollment was expected to surge after World War II, when millions of veterans would use their G.I. Bill benefits to continue their education. Bethel would not only have to compete directly with the University of Minnesota, but other private colleges that were also starting four-year programs.

• In theological education, ordained pastors were increasingly expected to have a master’s degree, not just the old bachelor’s of divinity. So Bethel Seminary not only would have to develop Bethel’s first graduate programs, but it would risk losing many of its natural applicants if Bethel College students had to go elsewhere to complete their bachelor’s degree.

• Carlson also envisioned a closer partnership with Mounds-Midway School of Nursing, whose students could earn their bachelor’s degree at Bethel, and the opportunity to start full-fledged teacher training programs.

• Perhaps most importantly, he warned that the junior college model hamstrung Bethel’s potential “educational impact,” forcing a smaller, less specialized faculty to teach a teenaged student body that rarely surpassed “a certain air of immaturity.”

Carlson’s argument carried the day. In 1947 the Baptist General Conference voted to convert Bethel College to a four-year institution, and Bethel’s first college juniors enrolled that fall. That group that included Marylander Roy Dalton, later known to generations of Bethel students as history professor “Doc Dalton.” C. E. Carlson became the first dean of what’s now the College of Arts and Sciences.

Students crossing campus in 1947-1948 – Bethel Digital Library

“More difficult, and less apparent,” he wrote in the denomination’s magazine in February 1946, “are the questions of what to teach and how to teach it so as to get the results desired. Science and technology demand attention, but it is now also apparent to thoughtful people that unless the spiritual can gain control of the material only chaos and destruction can lie ahead. The need for a spiritually consecrated and able leadership is unprecedented.” So it’s striking to look at just what the new Bethel College taught: a curriculum distinguished by its Christian character and able to help students to identify and prepare for their vocations, but all resting on a foundation of the liberal arts.

“From this point of view,” the Bethel catalog explained in the mid-1950s, “college experience is a broadly educative process rather than a specific preparation for life-work.” Such a program of study was meant to help each student “become a mature Christian in motivation, convictions, and conduct,” one who could communicate more effectively, appreciate “the esthetic elements of life,” care for her wellbeing, and “become broadly intelligent in the major areas of human knowledge.”

Initially the senior college simply expanded the old “liberal arts course of study” that had always been the primary track for junior college students. It wasn’t until 1950 that the catalog officially present the first six Bethel majors: a pre-seminary track in Religious Education, plus Literature, Psychology, Sociology, and two of our department’s core programs, History and Philosophy.

The old Bethel "History House"
The “History House” at 1446 Arona: academic home of History majors on Bethel’s old campus – The History Center: Archives of the Baptist General Conference and Bethel University

Political Science was first listed as a full major in 1957, three years after C.E. Carlson moved to Washington, DC to become director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty.


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