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The American University was founded in 1893 by the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (the predecessor of The United Methodist Church) as a national Methodist university to train those who would enter public service and government.
In the spring of 2015, the University Senate of the United Methodist Church voted to reaffirm American University as a United Methodist-affiliated university. This renewal continues a tradition that dates back to the university's founding by Methodist bishop John Fletcher Hurst in 1893, who dreamed of seeing a national Methodist university in our nation’s capital.
The relationship has greatly benefited the university throughout the years, most notably in the major role Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam played in the founding of the School of International Service in 1958. It was Bishop Oxnam who also brought Wesley Theological Seminary to Washington adjacent to the university campus.
Today, many are surprised to hear that American University is still affiliated with the Church. However, while the connection might not be as outwardly visible as it used to be—mandatory monthly chapel attendance ended in the mid-1950s for example—the Methodist heritage of the university can be found deep within the university’s strong and lasting commitment to openness, compassion, social justice, and public service.
To learn more about AU’s United Methodist Affiliation, read the information below, or visit the University Archives located on the third floor of the Bender Library.
American University's Act of Incorporation (its "Charter") and bylaws connect the University and the Church in perpetuity. According to that Charter, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Chuch must approve the election of members of the AU Board of Trustees. In addition, the Bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference and the GBHEM General Secretary are ex officio members of the board.
That Charter also states that all university property "...shall be held in perpetuity for educational purposes under the auspices of The United Methodist Church." If there is any violation of that provision of the charter by the corporation or the trustees, then "all right, title, and interest of the corporation shall vest in the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church...." If AU stops teaching, all the property goes back to the Church.
No proposed amendment to the Charter can be submitted to Congress without prior approval of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church.
The University Chaplain is required to be an ordained deacon, and is preferred to be an ordained elder, of The United Methodist Church.
Values, Traditions, Culture
The culture of service, and the values under which the University operates are rooted in Methodism. AU's commitment to social justice is part of a tradition of affirming human rights and dignity, freedom, and diversity that make up the core of United Methodist values as expressed in the Church's "Social Principles." Similarly, the University has a culture of service that reflects The United Methodist Church's long standing commitment to public service and social justice.
The AU United Methodist-Protestant Community continues to witness to this tradition of justice and service, and is an active presence in the American University community. The AU United Methodists have been instrumental in helping AU remain committed to justice, lending our support to labor rights issues for Aramark workers, holding AU accountable for its investments and corporate contracts, and supporting AU's commitment to diversity and inclusiveness.
There are plenty of signs of Methodism's connection to the campus. Here are some:
- AU is located in a neighborhood called Wesley Heights, after John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. AU, together with Metropolitan Memorial UMC, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Sibley Hospital comprise what some call "Methodist Hill", the association of these United Methodist institutions on the Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenue heights.
- The American University Library, has compiled information on the relationship between the University and the Church.
- Asbury Hall. Named for Francis Asbury, the first Methodist bishop in America, and coincidentally, along with John Wesley, Methodism's founder, the only other non-president, non-military leader with an equestrian statue in Washington, D.C. (It's in Mt. Pleasant).
- Hughes, Hurst, Leonard, Letts, and McDowell. Named after Bishops of the Methodist Church. Anderson was named after University President Hurst Anderson (a Methodist) and the Mary Graydon Center was named after a prominent Methodist lay woman.
- The SIS Plaque. In the old SIS building (now the East Quad Building), is the following plaque:
The School of International Service of The American University
Established by the Methodist Church Dedicated to the Glory of God and the Service of Humanity and pledged to the study, proclamation and practice of the principles of freedom and the maintenance of civil, economic, and religious liberty by training competent and consecrated men and women for the international service of the state, the community and the church.
G. Bromley Oxnam, Bishop of the Methodist Church, Washington Area 1958
- One other SIS related tidbit: the EQB commuter lounge is the former location of the Davenport Coffee Lounge, which itself was formerly the Davenport Chapel.
The United Methodist Church is the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with a worldwide connection of 12.8 million members. The United Methodist Church was formed when the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church merged in 1968, but traces its heritage back to the movement begun in 1729 in England by John and Charles Wesley.