April 20 : Geneva College

This Day in Presbyterian History:  

Glorifying God by Education

Quiz time! What Christian college today came about as the result of the sharing of ideas in a general store by Scots-Irish bargain hunters? Or what sports team logo came from a tornado which swept the campus in the early part of the twentieth century? If you answered  Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, give yourself a hand.

The year was 1836. The place was Northwood, Ohio.  James Stewart Johnston was the keeper of a general store in that small town which did business with many Scots-Irish customers. Besides shopping, it was also the place to share ideas, one of which was the starting of an educational institution for the second generation. And the one who seemed best to do it was the Rev. James Black Johnston, the pastor of the Miami (of Ohio) Reformed Presbyterian church, and brother to James Steward Johnston. So on April 20,  1848, Rev. Johnston began to teach Latin to a group of seven male students. He called it Geneva Hall, so named after the city of John Calvin in Switzerland. The class became so popular at Geneva Hall that women were added to the mix shortly. Pastor Johnston had to move the location to a log house in the village of Northwood, Ohio.

Before long, the Civil War between 1861 – 1865 caused the school to close, at least briefly. But after that national struggle, some say that the school opened as a Freedman institution, in which freed blacks began to study. The very fact that the Underground Railroad operated nearby makes that story a possible reality. Soon white students were included in the mix of education.

Seeing the need to be closer to an urban center caused the school to move to Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania in 1880, close to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The land was given by a German society in that area. The school’s sport teams were known, understandably as the Covenanters. The first basketball game in the country was held by Geneva College  and  New Brighton YMCA in 1893. It wasn’t until early in the new century that the school’s sport team names was changed to the Golden Tornado after a literal tornado swept through the campus buildings, taking the golden dome of the oldest building off with it.

What is more important than these traditional facts which every college had to one degree or another, is that this college is a Christian college, both in name as well as in reality. All of the faculty must profess that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior. All of the professors and lecturers of the Department of Biblical Studies must adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith. This is the only college of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.  Its purpose succinctly is “to glorify God by educating and ministering to a diverse community of students for the purpose of developing servant leaders, transforming society for the kingdom of Christ.”

Words to Live By:   Their stated aim in education should be the stated aim of all Christians, that is, of seeking by their words and works to transform society for the kingdom of Christ. In what way will you be accomplishing that this week? Month? Year?

Through the Scriptures: Psalm 28 – 30

Through the Standards: Justification, according to the confession of faith

WCF 11:1
“Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.”

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  1. Isaac Pockras’s avatar

    Thanks for the write-up! Just one thing that I would like to point out – Geneva was actually started in Northwood, Ohio, not Norwood.

  2. archivist’s avatar

    Noted, and corrected! Thanks.

  3. Harry Halcro’s avatar

    I was thrilled to see my alma mater show up as an entry in Pastor Myers’s excellent “Day in Presbyterian History” series. It reminded me of the deep fondness and affection I still have for those walls old and hoary. Unfortunately, the commentary following reminded me of less fond memories of a certain parochial myopia that seemed prevalent in certain quarters of the professoriate.

    In keeping with both senses, affection and frustration, I offer the following responses:

    1. A typo or trivial error already corrected before the good retired laid up choral director chimed in.

    2. Not even a correction.

    3. The story references, correctly, James Stewart Johnston, as the shop owner who gave the idea to his brother to start an institution of higher education. It is true that his brother, the pastor, was named John Black, but the context of the blog makes it clear that this is again a typographical/trivial error. Worth pointing out, to be sure, but hardly earth shattering.

    4. I believe Copeland is wrong here. In fact, Geneva Hall enrolled and educated women alongside men from 1848 to 1851. In 1851 the women were moved to the female seminary.

    5. The writer’s reference to Geneva’s role in admitting freed blacks immediately after the Civil War has historical support. In fact, Geneva’s catering to the freedmen, and the subsequent backlash in rural Ohio, is cited in Cheryl Weller-Beck’s *The 20th Century History of Beaver County* as one of the reasons Geneva decided to move to the more urban Beaver Falls.

    6. Nothing in Copeland’s “correction” alters or contradicts anything in the writer’s original post on this point.

    7. Here, Copeland offers the only significant historical correction of any merit, but due to a boringly persnickety-ness ordinarily found in the curators of dead and dying traditions, he misses the more interesting historical myths and truths as they intertwine and form the substance of real living traditions. It is literally true that Geneva’s Old Main never had a golden dome. However, as an alum (of uncertain vintage) of this fine institution, I can vouch that this myth of the tornado and dome has currency within the Beaver Vale. In fact, it is likely that this myth is an amalgam of various historical events. First, the actual tornado that ripped the roof off of Old Main and second, a famous sports column from 1928. While Geneva’s Old Main never had a dome, the most famous “Old Main” of all, on the campus of Notre Dame, does have a Golden Dome. After Georgia Tech beat the powerhouse of Notre Dame in football for the first time ever in 1928, sports journalist Dick Hawkins penned what would become one of the outstanding exemplars of a style of “heroic” sports journalism that gave us such iconic cultural touchstones as the four horsemen of the apocalypse and win one for the Gipper. In that article, he christened, or at least popularized, the Georgia Tech’s football team’s unofficial nickname: the Golden Tornados. He wrote: “The colors atop the golden dome of Notre Dame are hanging at half-mast tonight, and the Gold and White of Georgia Tech is riding high with the breath of a real Golden Tornado whipping at the mast. It was a real tornado that swept the great Irish from the field a defeated team. Like the untamable tornado in nature’s storehouse of trouble, the forward wall of Tech’s gridiron tornado swept on and on like the hand of doom.”

    Now I don’t know about other readers, but this is much more interesting than the dry, excessively literal gate-keeping of the “historical record.” And c’mon, a myth that incorporates our Beaver Falls tornado and one of the most iconic defeats of the Irish Catholics ever!?!? Now that’s the college where I spent such happy days!

    I have suggested here that the good retired choral director is emblematic of a certain symptom of dying traditions, as they become encircled and entombed by an ever shrinking cast of tut-tutting curators who slap the hands of every curious onlooker until there are no more onlookers.

    Not only did Copeland apparently miss the writers’ clear statement that “What is more important than these traditional facts which every college had to one degree or another, is that this college is a Christian college, both in name as well as in reality. All of the faculty must profess that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior.” Apparently, he never learned the publicists’ first lesson that all publicity is good publicity.

    Thanks for the blog post Pastor Myers!


  4. Kathryn Stegall’s avatar

    Thanks so much for including Geneva, my alma mater, in your blog. Our family has a tree planted on Geneva’s campus representing four generations of graduates. Christian education is a precious thing and mandated by our baptismal vows for our children. Thanks for this good reminder that Christ is King over education! We honor those who worked so hard to make a Christ centered education available for our children and many others.


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