Celebrating the Vision: B.T. Roberts, Then and Now

18 Years Later: A Reflection of Northeastern Seminary’s Past, Present and Future
August 19, 2016
From the President: Summer 2016
August 22, 2016

Celebrating the Vision: B.T. Roberts, Then and Now

By Darryl Smith


Ellen Stowe-Roberts, 24 years old


Benjamin Titus Roberts, 28 years old

Imagine the deep grief in our country at the close of the Civil War – torn apart by years of intense and violent conflict.

Imagine the elation of Susan B. Anthony, getting ready to cast a vote for the first time, after the long, slow, arduous efforts of the suffragettes.

Imagine the power of the preaching and pen of Fredrick Douglass, which effectively procured the full rights of citizenship for African Americans.

Imagine the frustration of earnest and humble Christians facing the reality of churches, inspired by the ministry of John and Charles Wesley a century earlier, now charging rent for pews, caught up in fashion, style and politics.

Imagine the helplessness of immigrants, farmers and merchants, caught between opposing political interests, left without markets, transportation, or a voice in government.

Imagine the desperation of families in grinding poverty, uneducated and ignored, categorically denied the respect and opportunities of the wealthy.

It had been said that words create worlds. History tells us the world of the United States of America in the 19th century, where our story began, was created, indeed re-created, by the powerful voices of such notable men and women as Abraham Lincoln, Charles Finney, A.B. Simpson, Frederick Douglass, Henry Ward Beecher and William Booth…and Pheobe Palmer, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frances Willard, Hannah Whitall Smith and Susan B. Anthony.

This was the world of B.T. and Ellen Roberts. Biographer Howard Snyder notes, “They advocated and sought to live a life of freedom, holiness, and justice that was for all the people, and especially for the poor – because that is what they saw in Jesus Christ.” Their work and their words contributed to the social, political and church reforms of their day, in response to issues of slavery, bigotry, unjust economic policies, the rights of farmers and Native Americans, and the rights of women to vote and to serve in ministry.

According to Northeastern Seminary Dean and Professor Doug Cullum, B.T. Roberts had specific hopes for the school he founded, and he faced specific challenges:

  • He hoped for an institution where high-level academics would be integrated with earnest Christianity — he wasn’t willing to sacrifice either side; he saw no conflict between science and biblical faith.
  • He sought to cultivate a context in which vibrant, heart-felt faith in Christ could be nurtured while never compromising academic excellence.
  • He hoped for an institution where social and cultural barriers, boundaries and biases would be broken down for the sake of the Gospel and that provided an education that truly mirrored surrounding culture: he would never settle for the status quo.
  • His unwavering anti-slavery stance made him unpopular with some key leaders and educational institutions.
  • His advocacy of the equal rights of women put him at odds with the Victorian mores of his day, and even many within the church.
  • His commitment to ministry to the poor insisted that the value of a person can never be measured by economic status or social standing.

If B.T. Roberts were able to see Roberts and Northeastern today– 150 years later—we believe he’d rejoice that many of his hopes have become reality!

  • He’d give thanks to God when he saw a Seminary launched and focused on vocational preparation for ministry.
  • He’d give thanks that the institution he started in 1866, essentially as a boarding school, had grown into a comprehensive Christian college, offering bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in numerous liberal arts and professional fields to prepare people of all vocations to be Christ’s presence in the world.
  • He’d be delighted that the Seminary has over 30% women and over 40% African Americans.
  • He would be shocked and thrilled to see that the College has 60% women.

Then and now, there were, and are, tough issues and challenges. But today we celebrate our Sesquicentennial with good reason: Roberts Wesleyan College has received recognition in over 18 different categories or listings, including ranking in Best Christian College in New York State, Best Value Christian Colleges and Universities and Great Colleges to Work For. We now operate as five distinct Schools, have been granted the approval to offer our first doctoral program, and we continue as a fully accredited institution. We have online and hybrid (online plus classroom) programs, are launching new programs and majors each year, are members in NCAA Division II athletics and sponsor a nationally ranked ENACTUS team.

More than these achievements, though, B.T. Roberts would be’ proud of our family of alumni, numbering over 17,000, who serve in communities around the world as teachers, nurses, business owners, social workers, musicians, missionaries, parents and professionals. He would be most grateful to know that out of the convictions of our faith, we continue to articulate in speech, and persevere in work and prayer, in order to see transformation happen in our students and community. President Porterfield calls this a connection of head, heart and hands. May our Christianity always be earnest, and may Education for Character remain our operating motto, in order that may we honor our founder and his legacy, and create a world bright with hope.

Chili Seminary, 1869-1890

Chili Seminary, 1869-1890

A.M. Chesbrough Seminary c. 1930

A.M. Chesbrough Seminary c. 1930