BETHANY, W.Va. – Bethany College on Thursday marked its 181st year with a digital convocation that celebrated founder Alexander Campbell’s accomplishments while examining his flaws.

Douglas A FosterHistorian Douglas A. Foster, author of “A Life of Alexander Campbell,” spoke of how a culture of Christian nationalism, domestic terrorism, and white supremacist racism influenced Campbell’s thinking.

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“In Campbell’s day and in ours, these three things were interwoven, forming a web of strands that influence and drive the others,” Foster said.

Foster is a scholar in residence at Abilene Christian University, where he was a full-time professor for more than 25 years. His book was published in June and is considered the first critical biography of Campbell.

Foster spent 10 years studying Campbell and the influences in his life and way of thinking.

Campbell was a leader in childhood and adolescent education and championed universal female education. He also was one of the principal founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and of Bethany College.

In 1809, Campbell arrived in New York with his mother and siblings and traveled to Pennsylvania to join his father, Thomas. Alexander Campbell felt strongly that the freedoms he enjoyed in the United States were because it was a Protestant nation.

In his 1852 address, “The Destiny of Our Country,” Campbell outlined how the American destiny was influential to the destinies of the world.

“Campbell accepted, as did most white Americans, the myths that defined the nation then, and even still today, that America was the chosen nation, the Christian nation, the innocent nation, the white nation,” Foster said.

That nationalism, Foster said, is at the root of the threat of domestic terrorism today. Campbell experienced domestic terrorism both in his homeland of Ireland and in his adopted America, which had a lasting effect on his faith.

Campbell did not make a conscious choice to be a white supremacist, Foster said, and most people who assume that whites are superior are not violent extremists. But it is an important part of his mind-set and it had repercussions in his own life and on the churches that descended from him.

“He could not see that slavery was built on the ideology of white supremacy, which contradicted the very Gospel that he sought to restore – that God … has created all people of one blood,” Foster said. “To put this truth on the table is not to diminish his accomplishments … It’s simply a truth that calls on us to examine our own deeply embedded racial assumptions, because they have an effect on the way we live our lives, on the individual level and on every social institution of the nation, including the churches.”

Foster said Campbell’s example at the end of his life is perhaps his most important legacy.

“He had a grand vision for America and for his reform, and he accomplished amazing things,” Foster said. “When many pieces of that vision seemed to collapse as the Civil War tore the nation and his movement apart, he surrendered fully to God’s will – whatever that might be.”

In her opening remarks, President Tamara Nichols Rodenberg reflected on what Campbell envisioned in 1840, while also recognizing the college’s ability to adapt to current and future needs.

“At Bethany College we move forward, carrying with us student success stories that inspire; teaching excellence that unites students and colleagues alike; service that transforms lives; an uncompromising commitment to diversity, inclusion, and social justice; and the beginning of a new chapter in the lives of our graduates at commencement this year.”

Founder’s Day is typically celebrated as the first time that graduating seniors wear their academic regalia. With this year’s convocation moved to a digital format, Rodenberg asked attendees to pause and reflect on the accomplishments, both academic and personal, of the class of 2021.

Senior Riley Meyers delivered the student address, encouraging her fellow students to honor the past while looking to the future.

“I can say with 100 percent certainty that my fellow sisters and brothers of the class of 2021 will leave Bethany in a short two months carrying wisdom, faith, and love wherever we may go, showing people what it truly means to be a Bethanian,” Myers said.

Rodenberg also recognized the 47 students who were named to the fall 2020 President’s List, which recognizes those who achieved a perfect 4.0 grade point average. Dr. Joe Lane, provost and dean of faculty, recognized the 100 students on the dean’s list, which honors students who earned at least a 3.65 grade point average.

The digital event also kept alive the tradition of a wreath-laying ceremony at Campbell’s grave in God’s Acre Cemetery.

In a pre-recorded ceremony, Disciples of Christ students Eden Rice, Haddae Allen, and Marci Mazza-Fredley spoke about some of the women in Campbell’s life and their contributions to the Stone-Campbell Movement. Bethany Student Government President Geoffrey Foster placed the wreath on Campbell’s grave.

In memory of Campbell, alumni were asked to participate in a day of giving by selecting to support the departments of Communications & Media Arts or Psychology, the revival of the band program, or conference travel for students.

Founder’s Day is celebrated annually on the first Thursday of March. Bethany College received its original charter March 2, 1840, from the Legislature of Virginia. It was reaffirmed on June 20, 1863, by the legislature of newly formed West Virginia.


Bethany College, founded in 1840, is the oldest private college in West Virginia. The Bethany experience focuses on academic excellence in the area of liberal arts and prepares students for a lifetime of work and a life of significance.