Freed-Hardeman University traces its history to 1869 when the Tennessee legislature incorporated Henderson Male and Female Institute, authorizing it to offer high school and college courses and to confer degrees. Eleven prominent Henderson citizens were named trustees, including Henderson’s founder, Dr. John P. Smith. The school operated for 15 years in a two-story frame building on the northwest corner of Main and White on land donated by John West. It was designed to accommodate 250-300 students.
Classes began in 1871 under the direction of George Martin Savage who ran the school for most of the next 13 years. The local Masonic Lodge supported the school financially. In 1877, the state approved changing the name to Henderson Masonic Male and Female Institute. The school attracted both local and out-of-state students who stayed in the town’s boarding houses.
In 1877, the nation’s growing temperance movement impacted the school when the state legislature prohibited the sale of alcohol within four miles of a chartered rural school. The institute then assured parents of potential students regarding the physical and moral health of Henderson, noting the town had “three elegant church-houses” but “not a drinking saloon in the place.”
While the institute educated both young men and young women, they did not receive the same education. Boys were to be to be offered a “practical education” including “penmanship for correspondence and mathematics for accounting—in other words, preparation for the world of commerce.” Girls, on the other hand, were to be educated “for that responsible position for which they were created—helps for men.”
Information and quoted material are drawn from Dr. Greg Massey’s forthcoming book, “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University,” which will be published and available for purchase from the university in Spring 2020.
When George M. Savage, leader of Henderson Masonic Male and Female Institute for approximately 13 years, left in 1885, the school’s governing board was unable to continue operation. However, I. J. Galbraith, an Institute trustee and a local leader of the Christian Church, as well as other church members, purchased the property and a new board of trustees asked the Tennessee General Assembly to change the school’s name to West Tennessee Christian College.
The name marked a significant change. For the first time, the school was specifically identified as religious. John Bunyan Inman, former Institute teacher, now led the school. He sought to recruit faculty, build enrollment and increase public support for a Christian school. In the Gospel Advocate, Inman urged parents to consider where they educated their sons and daughters. “Shall I give my money and influence to build up institutions whose course I do not fully endorse, and where the Bible is not the only standard of faith and practice?” he asked. While not compulsory, the Bible was taught daily at the school.
Inman also stressed the college’s commitment to academic excellence and an equal education for men and women. “There will be no sham work in this college,” he said. “Young ladies will be taught that their education should be as perfect, and their lives as independent as their young gentlemen friends.”
Inman and his faculty valued moral and intellectual excellence more than a large enrollment. “We do not want any immoral students, for we shall send them away,” he said. “We prefer a smaller school of good students to a large one made up of disagreeable ones, and whose influence would be detrimental to others.”
In 1890, a young man arrived in Henderson to attend West Tennessee Christian College. He would remain here for most of the next sixty years, impacting the history of higher education, the community and churches of Christ. Nicholas Brodie Hardeman came to Henderson from Milledgville. His father, John B. Hardeman, was well known as a doctor, farmer and businessman.
In Henderson, N.B. Hardeman boarded with an aunt and uncle while attending WTCC. That fall, he heard a sermon at the Henderson Christian Church and was baptized by R.P. Meeks who thought young men should leave the school “with a goodly list of well-prepared and carefully criticized sermons.” Hardeman, however, was not particularly interested in preaching. Instead, he took courses that prepared him to be a teacher.
West Tennessee Christian College, which in 1892-93 had announced its intention to build a new building, found itself financially insecure and the building was not begun. Two leaders of the school left, further complicating the situation, and a financial panic in 1893 led to an economic depression in the United States that continued for five years.
Meanwhile, roughly 30 miles from Henderson, a school was flourishing. In 1898, a 25-year-old Indiana educator responded to an ad in the Gospel Advocate seeking someone to establish a school in Essary Springs. Arvy Glenn Freed moved to Tennessee and became the president and principal teacher of Southern Tennessee Normal College. His optimistic nature, faith and hard work led to rapid growth of the school.
Freed taught and presided over his school during the week and preached on weekends, including at the Christian Church in Henderson. This gave the trustees of West Tennessee Christian College, now looking for a new administrator for WTCC, opportunity to hear him preach. In 1895, Freed accepted a 10-year contract as president of WTCC and he and his wife Belle moved to Henderson.
Although conflict will rear its ugly head, the principal characters have now arrived on the scene. Two men who will one day construct a new building and establish a college that today bears their names have come to Henderson.
Declining enrollment and disagreement over the use of instrumental music in worship eventually led to the dissolution of Georgie Robertson Christian College in 1907. As early as December 1906, talk of a new school in Henderson had begun among members of the Henderson church of Christ. Local businessmen who feared Henderson would soon be without a college were also interested. The two groups joined forces and met with N.B. Hardeman, who contacted A.G. Freed then living in Texas.
Five men, nominated by Hardeman, became trustees of the new school and Freed agreed to return to Henderson. Hardeman drafted a charter for National Teachers Normal and Business College. The board authorized him and Freed to buy land for a building. The simplest thing would have been to buy the GRCC building, but that was not to be. The Tennessee Christian Missionary Society, hoping to re-open the school, refused to sell it. The GRCC building remained vacant until 1913 when the town of Henderson purchased it for the county high school which occupied it for about 40 years.
Freed and Hardeman looked across the street to a lot on the corner of Main and Cason. Purchasing it for $3,775, they hired architect Hubert T. McGee to design a building. Despite a financial panic in the country, supporters continued trying to raise money. At a Nov. 7 ground-breaking ceremony, Hardeman broke ground and Spencer Rice, who would work as the school’s janitor for many years, shoveled the second spade of dirt.
Later in the month, the cornerstone reading, “Laid By Citizens Of Henderson Nov. 30, 1907. A. G. Freed And N. B. Hardeman Founders” was set in place.
Construction began with local labor using local materials. Brick, brought from Mill Street in wheelbarrows were used to construct “exceptionally thick walls.” When pledges failed and costs rose, Freed and Hardeman pledged their own money and credit to complete construction and guarantee the mortgage. “The enterprise is falling heavily on Brother Hardeman and me,” Freed announced. “Brother Hardeman and I are making this the work of our lives. Our great object is to plant a permanent institution where the youth of our country may secure a thorough education under the influence of primitive Christianity. The Lord has blessed our labors. With him we shall succeed.”
Information and quoted material are drawn from Dr. Greg Massey’s forthcoming book, “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University,” which will be published and available for purchase from the university in Spring 2020. A Grand Re-opening of Old Main is scheduled for 2:00pm Friday, Nov. 8. The public is invited to attend.
Information and quoted material are drawn from Dr. Greg Massey’s forthcoming book, “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University,” which will be published and available for purchase from the university in Spring 2020.
National Teachers Normal and Business College, under the direction of President A.G. Freed and Vice President N.B. Hardeman, opened in September 1908 for its first term. Other than the notable absence of furniture for the classrooms, the opening had few glitches.
With classes for kindergartners through college, all offered in the same building, enrollment for the first year peaked at 450 students. Encouraged by the good opening, Freed order 25,000 copies of the next year’s catalog and made plans to hire additional faculty.
By the second year, 1909-1910, 80 percent of the students came from out of town. Typically, they came on one of the four daily trains servicing Henderson. In September, some trains were full of students. New terms brought more new students.
Since NTNBC had no dormitories, students boarded with local families and, as advocates had said, bolstered the town’s economy. Families received daily grocery deliveries from local stores via horse-drawn hackneys navigating Henderson’s dirt, or mud, depending upon the season, streets. They delivered enough food to keep three local stores profitable. The boarding houses were not equipped with electric lights or central heat and air. However, many of them did have pianos and some of the female students took piano lessons at the college.
The experiences of Clifford Paul (C.P.) Roland, who enrolled at NTNBC in 1910, were likely that of many students. Roland came to Henderson from Essary Springs. He had boarded a morning train in Pocahontas, Tennessee, gone “to Corinth, Mississippi, switched to a northbound train on the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad and arrived in Henderson that afternoon at 4:30pm” For comparative purposes, Henderson is approximately 36 miles from Pocahontas. Today’s traveler could drive the distance in less than an hour.
When Roland arrived at the Henderson train station, he got off the train and walked to a boarding house on Main Street adjacent to the railroad overpass. At the boarding house, Roland began each day by “shaking the coal grate, putting in kindling and starting a fire to warm the room he shared with two other male students.”
Sometime in 1917, N. B. Hardeman, vice president, approached A.G. Freed, president, with an idea. “Why not launch a campaign to sell the school to the brethren?” he asked. For his part, Freed said he was agreeable to that, if it were “the will of all,” and supporters of the school were invited to a meeting to consider the idea.
At least one consensus was reached: the school needed money if it were to expand. Hardeman spent much of the 1917-18 school year attempting to raise the necessary funds. He asserted the money would assure Freed’s legacy as a school builder in West Tennessee. “He (Freed) has been a pioneer and pathfinder in the matter of Christian education in this territory. He has gone before, blazed the way and fought the battles, and now he wants to see the fruits of his labor preserved for future generations,” Hardeman said.
A series of meetings on campus convened to consider the idea. Ultimately, the attendees, who came from seven states, agreed on changes to ensure the school’s viability beyond the lives of Freed and Hardeman. They wanted to buy the school for $30,000 and entrust it to a board of trustees. Furthermore, they thought the school needed a new charter and name. They also initiated a campaign to raise $100,000 for expansion, beginning with a dormitory for female students.
At a follow-up meeting May 21, the new charter and deed of transfer were approved, and Freed and Hardeman signed five-year contracts to continue their work at the school. NTNBC would now have a new name and be under new ownership. It officially became Freed-Hardeman College and governing authority transferred to its board of trustees. The new charter announced that the school was to be “owned and controlled by members of the Church of Christ.”
Other changes also resulted. Friends of the school at that spring meeting had been concerned about the institution’s independent stance, believing it had held the school back. The new board of trustees instructed Freed and Hardeman to transition to a junior college and adopt a systematic curriculum and schedule. They were also to seek accreditation, which would allow FHC graduates to transfer their credits to other institutions. Freed’s normal school was no more.
Despite the benefits of the normal school method: allowing students to work at their own pace and tailoring the curriculum to their needs, the educational climate of the time had made the changes necessary. Schools began to professionalize and standardize. Normal schools became teachers’ colleges, focusing less on a classical liberal arts education and more on preparing students for careers. A standardized model of education became the norm. Freed’s system was not outmoded, nor were the new trends necessarily better. It had become a matter of survival - if Freed-Hardeman wanted to survive, it had to conform.
The 1920s brought more change to Freed-Hardeman College. The 1921 session began with a significant advance; the college moved from a boarding school toward a college with dormitories. Freed and Hardeman had promised a building designed to accommodate 100 girls, supervised by a Christian family. It was to have the “modern conveniences” of steam heat, electricity and running water. The four-story Oakland Hall (now called Hall-Roland Hall) for female students opened that fall. Like the administration building, it was constructed of locally made bricks and complemented the style of the earlier structure.
“So soon as the Ladies’ Home is ready, the ‘Home for Boys’ will be rushed to completion,” Freed and Hardeman wrote in the 1919-20 College Bulletin. “The boys will have the same kind of a home and accommodations as the girls. In the meantime we have the best Christian homes in Henderson to care for the boys.” The dormitory for boys came near the end of the decade. Paul Gray Hall, named for a Detroit businessman who contributed funds for the project, was built in 1928. Like the girls dorm, it had four floors and was constructed of matching brick and followed the style of the other two buildings.
Although the curriculum and student housing changed, the administration’s attitude toward extracurricular activities did not. “Freed-Hardeman College is not a society school,” the school’s administrators announced. “We are not spending our lives in the schoolroom to teach young people how to dance, play forty-four, nor serve frappé.” The school continued its disdain of intercollegiate athletics, believing competitive athletics led to rowdy behavior and gambling.
The school might be seeking accreditation and conforming to prescribed academic standards, but Freed and Hardeman insisted that their school remain distinctive. Its distinctiveness was its reason for being. Since they believed spiritual and moral development were most important, “We teach the Bible—the only textbook in morals the world has—just the pure, unadulterated Bible; not what men say about it, but the book itself,” they wrote.
The academic and social life of National Teachers Normal and Business College was conducted almost exclusively in the building A.G. Freed and N.B. Hardeman had constructed in 1908. It housed a primary department (kindergarten through third grade) and an intermediate department (fourth through eighth grade) as well as the college program. College students met in six large classrooms while the younger students met in smaller rooms.
Classes met Tuesday-Saturday. Sundays and Mondays were days off. Unusual as that sounds today, practical reasons actually existed for the schedule. Many young men preached on Sundays. The schedule allowed them to travel to and from their appointments, return to Henderson on Mondays and get ready for Tuesday classes.
Furthermore, Saturday was the day farmers from outlying areas came to town to take care of their business, shop and visit. Mondays in Henderson were quieter, making it easier for college students to attend to their personal business and do their laundry. By Monday afternoon, preachers had returned and other students had finished whatever they needed to do in town.
Therefore, Monday afternoons were devoted to meetings of the literary societies: Eupathian, Philomathean and Sigma Rho, forerunners of today’s social clubs. Unlike today’s clubs, which compete in sports and host a variety of events for their members and sometimes the wider community, these clubs were more like debating societies. Two speakers took an affirmative position on an issue while two others assumed the negative position. Among the topics, which may sound strangely current, were the place of women in politics and the appeal of socialism. The debates in Chapel Hall attracted local residents as well as students. “We had no athletics,” Clifford Paul Roland remembered, but “we had great contests among leading speakers in societies on opposite side of the various questions.”
The college, including its classes and literary societies, were coeducational. However, fraternization between the genders ended there. The school catalog proclaimed, “There will be no associations of ladies and gentlemen outside of the class room.” There were times, however, when “the rules were off.” When the school hosted a guest speaker or musical performance, young men were permitted to meet escort young ladies to Chapel Hall for the event. Then, “the rules were on” again, and men were not allowed to visit women. Violators could be suspended from school.
Some couples were willing to take the risk, but their success was usually short-lived. If they managed to escape the notice of Freed and Hardeman, they were unlikely to evade Spencer Rice, the janitor. Apparently gifted at impersonating Freed, who spoke with a lisp, Rice surprised couples by calling to them in Freed’s voice, effectively ending the romantic encounter.
National Teachers’ Normal and Business flourished in its early years. In fact, during the first half of the 1910s, NTNBC was the largest of the schools administered by members of the churches of Christ. Students came from as many as 15 states and attendance averaged more than 600. By contrast, Nashville Bible College, which became David Lipscomb University, enrolled 215 students in 1914-15. Abilene Christian College enrolled 207 students in 1912.
The influence of NTNBC over churches of Christ was also significant. Bible courses were offered but not required, and Bible was a relatively small part of the curriculum. However, drawn by the reputations of Freed and Hardeman as preachers and debaters, many young men who wanted to be preachers chose to come to Henderson. Hardeman taught Bible survey courses and Freed, as his schedule permitted, taught homiletics. During the 1930’s and 40’s, Gospel Advocate out of Nashville and Firm Foundation, published in Texas, ran articles featuring up-and-coming preachers. A substantial number of those highlighted had attended NTNBC during those years.
The school’s influence was not restricted to the pulpit. True to its name, it also prepared teachers and businessmen for successful careers. The normal school, Freed had observed two decades earlier, prepared students for useful lives. In fact, NTNBC founders said, “NTNBC had more students in life ‘making good’ than any other school of the brotherhood.”
But, the times are changing. Public schools are being opened and will become a threat to NTNBC’s primary, intermediate and high school departments. The nation’s economy is on shaky ground, and a world war is in the offing. Freed and Hardeman disagree over the nature of the school. Freed is a product of and an advocate for normal schools; Hardeman sees the future in a standardized curriculum and accreditation. Can the school survive? Will the partnership remain intact?
Other changes also resulted. Friends of the school at that spring meeting had been concerned about the institution’s independent stance, believing it had held the school back. The new board of trustees instructed Freed and Hardeman to transition to a junior college and adopt a systematic curriculum and schedule. They were also to seek accreditation, which would allow FHC graduates to transfer their credits to other institutions. It was the death knell for Freed’s normal school.
Despite the benefits of the normal school method: allowing students to work at their own pace and tailoring the curriculum to their needs, the educational climate of the time necessitated change. Schools began to professionalize and standardize. Normal schools became teachers’ colleges, focusing on preparing students for careers. Freed’s system was not out-of-date, nor were the new trends necessarily better. For FHC, it had become a matter of survival—if Freed-Hardeman wanted to survive, it had to conform.
In 1921, N.B. Hardeman accepted the greatest preaching opportunity of his life. More than 40 congregations of churches of Christ in Middle Tennessee planned a cooperative gospel meeting in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. They chose Hardeman as the speaker. Despite his increasing reputation as a preacher, he had never before spoken in Nashville.
Beginning March 28, 1922, Hardeman preached 39 sermons over a three-week period, speaking at afternoon and evening sessions. Large crowds flocked to the services. According to reports, 7,000 people packed the auditorium on opening night; another 2,000 were “turned away for lack of room.” Both Nashville newspapers, The Tennessean and The Banner, covered the event and reprinted the sermons. Hardeman employed literary allusions, historical examples and much quoting of scripture, all without the benefit of notes.
Known as the “Tabernacle Meeting,” these sermons established Hardeman’s reputation as the leading preacher among churches of Christ. Two of the meeting’s organizers, J. E. Acuff and Wayne Burton, reflected on the meeting’s success, noting some 160,000 people had attended and more than 200 people were baptized or restored to the church. The organizers had paid all of the expenses without collecting funds from the audience. Acuff and Burton concluded that it was “perhaps, taking it all in all, the greatest meeting conducted by the churches of Christ since New Testament times.”
Prominent Middle Tennessee preacher F. W. Smith described Hardeman’s powers of oratory: “He has all the elements of an orator, and, if he had been so disposed, could have gone to the top in the political world, but chose rather to consecrate his God-given powers to a better cause. . . . This man of God is, beyond any question, a master of assemblies, and sways his audiences with an ease and grace of voice and manners that attracts and holds almost the breathless attention of his auditors.”
For Hardeman, it must have been quite the experience. He shared his impressions in letters to his wife. “Hilary Ewing Howse (a prominent Nashville political leader) said, ‘I was the greatest speaker he ever heard,’” Hardeman wrote. In addition, “Lots of big men of the city hear me every time,” he noted. Also, “prominent preachers were amazed that he preached fluidly without reference to a Bible,” according to Hardeman. Tennessee churches and communities eagerly scheduled him to preach gospel meetings.
The Tabernacle Meeting had forever altered his life, and he knew it. Preaching engagements would take him away from Henderson and Freed-Hardeman College. “With reference to school,” he wrote, “I fear ‘them days are gone forever.’”
Over the next twenty years, Hardeman delivered four more series of Tabernacle Sermons. The printed volumes, particularly the first series, became the model for a generation of young preachers. Hardeman’s increased reputation brought greater visibility to the school that wears his and A. G. Freed’s names.
In the early 1920s, tensions between A.G. Freed, president, and N.B. Hardeman, vice president, continued to flare. College trustees had decided that the school curriculum should be standardized and accreditation sought, both positions Freed opposed. To further complicate matters, Arkansas Christian College in Morrillton, a predecessor of today’s Harding University, was courting Hardeman and had attempted to hire him as president.
Hardeman seriously considered the proposal and, in fact, asked to be released from his FHC contract. Two influential faculty members, L.L. Brigance and W.H. Owen, let it be known that if Hardeman left, they would also resign. Placed in a difficult position, trustees asked Hardeman to stay and agreed to his conditions for continuing. Trustees then proposed to Freed that he “take a much-needed vacation.” Instead of teaching, they wanted him to go on the road to secure funds. Freed agreed. He became a fund-raiser and when in Henderson, a consultant. For his part, Hardeman became the acting president.
Hardeman hired former student Clifford Roland, who had been a public school administrator, to teach mathematics and science and establish the school’s first science laboratories, allowing students to go beyond lectures. In addition, Bible courses became a more prominent feature in the school’s curriculum. A majority of the students voluntarily took Bible courses. As the school transitioned from Freed’s leadership to Hardeman’s acting presidency, the administrators announced, “The school is seeking to be guided in all things by ‘Reason and Revelation.’” In a Gospel Advocate article, they described their Bible teaching as “sound and free of theological fads.” “You never heard of a hobby or speculative theory originating in Henderson. . . . We are perfectly content to walk in the ‘old paths,’” they wrote.
Nevertheless, enrollment remained stagnant, never rising above 250 students. Factors beyond their control affected the school’s stability. With the nation facing an economic depression in 1920-21, parents were unable to send their children to FHC.
Freed had returned to the classroom at FHC for a five-week period to replace Hardeman while he was in Nashville preaching at the Ryman. In 1922-23, he resumed his duties as president with the school facing a debt of $43,000 and a decreased enrollment. Hardeman pledged $10,000 of his own funds to help pay the debt, but rescinded the offer when trustees re-elected Freed president. Unwilling to cause the school to lose the $10,000, Freed offered his resignation.
Freed pledged to work “to liquidate the debt.” Furthermore, he said, “The school shall have my loyal support and friendship when the Institution shall be relieved of all financial embarrassment, and you and I [Hardeman] are entirely disconnected with it.”
After more than 25 years, the partnership ended with both men cancelling their contracts with the board. They agreed not to be employed as teachers in FHC for the next two years and pledged themselves “to be its friends, lend it our moral support, and work for its interest.”
158 East Main Street
Henderson, TN 38340
FHU / Dickson
FHU / Memphis
5565 Shelby Oaks Drive
Memphis, TN 38134
855 Highway 46 South
Dickson, TN 37055
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