University recalls Baptist roots

George Washington University, a private institution of higher learning in Washington, D.C., got its start as Columbian College, founded by Baptist leaders including missionary Luther Rice.

By Leah Grundset Davis

George Washington University’s Baptist origins were celebrated Feb. 8-9 as representatives from the 191-year-old school, student Baptist ministries and the District of Columbia Baptist Convention and its affiliated churches gathered for GWU’s second annual Founder’s Day.

George Washington University was founded in 1821 as Columbian College by Baptist leaders Luther Rice and Obadiah Brown and other representatives from the Triennial Convention, the first national Baptist denomination in the United States. The leaders set out to create a nonsectarian institute of higher education, meaning anyone could attend or teach without regard to religious beliefs -- a stance the private university has maintained for nearly two centuries.

But GWU’s Baptist connections made for a Founder’s Day invitation that Ricky Creech, executive director/minister of the D.C. convention, said he could not turn down.

“Participating in Founder’s Day … was a reminder to me of dreamers of the past who were not only committed to Baptist principles but to educating the emerging leaders of the future,” said Creech. “Attending this event challenged me to think about the future role of D.C. Baptists on our local college campuses, the responsibility we have to emerging leaders, and how we intentionally build into our organizational and successful successors.”

gw cochranStudent ministry on campus is flourishing with weekly worship services, Bible studies and a new justice advocacy mission to the city, said Baptist chaplain J. Siafa Johnson, who also coordinates the Protestant Campus Ministry Association.

In the past year, the Justice for Juniors program has involved approximately 100 students in mentoring and tutoring about 150 youths in a juvenile jail in the District every month during the academic year. Johnson hopes the ministry, sponsored in part by the D.C. convention, will become a year-round event.

Each Justice for Juniors volunteer is expected to participate in an orientation that involves a juvenile jail tour and a campus orientation, said Johnson. The jail tour provides an overview of inmates’ experience: the booking process in the adjacent police station; health and educational evaluations of each detainee; and safety and security protocols.

Creech said the Founder’s Day event offered an opportunity to “celebrate” the justice ministry.

Other highlights of Founder’s Day included an address by Derrick Harkins, pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, and a historical interpretation by Robert Cochran, DCBC associate executive director, who portrayed Luther Rice.

“One of two burning passions for Luther Rice was Columbian College,” said Cochran. “For Columbian, he sacrificed his time, his treasure and his good name. He dreamed that graduates of Columbian would passionately embrace God’s mission, acting in it throughout their lives. Luther Rice is the principal pillar, along with other Baptist contemporaries, of the foundations of George Washington University.”

Participants in a worship service which closed out the event included leaders of St. Mary’s Baptist Church and the chapel ministry team of East Washington Heights Baptist Church, both in Washington, as well as the choir of Nineteenth Street Baptist.

GWU student Anastasia Foerschner said the story of the university’s founding was new to her.

“The leadership of Luther Rice coincides with many displays of strength, leadership, and community that I have witnessed since becoming involved with GW’s Protestant community, and experiencing the Baptist community in D.C.,” said Foerschner, a sociology major who plans to graduate next year.

“His actions were driven by a belief in the common good, and a vision of providing wider access to knowledge and opportunity for others,” she said. “He understood his responsibility of giving back to his community, and knew the power that resides within community. And he demonstrated the importance of acting upon one’s principles to procure effective change.”

“All of these principles of leadership are an inspiration to the student leaders of GW’s Protestant Campus Ministry Association,” she added.