The roots of Bethel College run deep. Mennonite Brethren in Christ (MBC) founder Daniel Brenneman first called for a training institute in 1893. Then, for many years, J. A. Huffman pressed the case for a Christian liberal arts college, even suggesting the name Bethel, meaning “house of God.” Formal church approval finally came in 1944, and land was purchased in Mishawaka, Indiana during 1946 under the leadership of Q. J. Everest, Seth Rohrer, and Warren Manges. Twenty-seven-year-old Woodrow I. Goodman (1947-1959) was appointed the first president, at that time the youngest in the United States.
Bethel College opened in the fall of 1947 with ninety-four students. During that same year, the MBC became the United Missionary Church. The Administration Building was completed in 1951, the first of many projects dependent upon sacrificial giving and volunteer labor.
Bethel established some 11 academic programs during its first decade, capped by the Teacher Education Program in 1955. Intercollegiate athletic programs were approved in 1958, with the first intercollegiate basketball game played in 1959.
On March 31, 1971, President Ray P. Pannabecker (1959-1974) and Dean Wayne J. Gerber welcomed North Central Association accreditation. Bethel College grew steadily until it reached an enrollment of about 500. The college flourished because of what President Steven R. Cramer has called its “human endowment”—an extremely loyal, faithful, and hard-working faculty, staff, administration, and Board of Trustees.
Bethel College continued moving forward under the presidencies of Albert J. Beutler (1974-1981), James A. Bennett (1982-1988), and Walter L. Weldy (interim 1988-1989). Among the more notable additions and innovations were the adult programs, the division of nursing, and the Otis Bowen Library, which anchored a new architectural style. In 1986, the baseball team won the first of what are now over 33 team national championships.
Bethel experienced a remarkable renaissance under the presidency of Norman V. Bridges (1989-2004). A dynamic team of administrators, repeated record enrollments, greatly expanded curricular offerings, the hiring of nationally known scholars, an aggressive, aesthetically attractive plan of campus development, and notable periods of spiritual renewal have helped make Bethel College a school of choice for many from the region.
In addition to a burgeoning traditional student body, adult and graduate degree programs have helped fuel the growth of the college. With notable new majors in Sign Language Interpreting, Environmental Biology, Criminal Justice, Philosophy, and Spanish complementing traditional strengths in Music, Theatre, Religion, Business, and the service professions, Bethel College increasingly reflects a national and international student body. The college also participates in a broad range of study abroad programs and annually sends out dozens of students on Task Force ministry teams around the world.
Dr. Steven R. Cramer was inaugurated in 2004 as the sixth president of Bethel College, and his tenure extended the pattern of strong, progressive leadership. During his presidency, the music department received NASM accreditation and the campus became more intentional in its multi-ethnic programming. Senior administrators worked to secure the long-term financial future of Bethel during a period of national economic crisis. Dr. Dennis D. Engbrecht continued as Senior Vice President.
A $6.9 million addition to the Middleton Hall of Science is just one in a long string of major construction and landscaping projects since the early 1990s, including Founders Village Apartments, the Middleton wing for Nursing, an enlarged Dining Commons, the Everest-Rohrer Chapel/Fine Arts Center, Wiekamp Athletic Center, Shiloh Prayer Chapel, the campus ponds and waterfall, Morey Soccer Field, Taylor Memorial Chapel, Jenkins Stadium, Sailor Residential Center, Miller/Moore Academic Center, Campus Store, and a new west campus entrance and a renovated Helm. A series of land acquisitions have shattered the myth that the main campus is landlocked. The Elkhart campus and the nursing program at Grace College are two of several emerging extension centers for Bethel. Total enrollment is now about 2000.
With the appointment of Dr. Gregg Chenoweth as the new president in 2013, Bethel College stands on the threshold of a new era, but does so deeply rooted in a past sustained by faith. “Forward, with Christ at the helm.”