Duke University's Relation to the Methodist Church

The relationship between the institution now known as Duke University and the United Methodist Church has evolved over more than a century and a half. In governance, the Charter of Duke University notes that the Trustees "shall be a body politic and corporate under the name and style of `Duke University,' and shall have perpetual existence." The purposes for which the body is organized are, among others, "to acquire, own, operate, provide, maintain and perpetuate an institution of higher learning." Membership of the Trustees shall be, in addition to the President of the University, "thirty-six elected Trustees, twelve elected by the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church; twelve by the Western North Carolina Conference of the said church; and twelve by the graduates of said University; provided, however, that no person shall be elected a Trustee till he has first been recommended by a majority of the Trustees present at a regular meeting.." The by-laws spell out the means of nomination and replacement.

The origin of administrative authority by the Board of Trustees and of a self-perpetuating Board first appeared in the Laws of North Carolina in an Act to Incorporate Union Institute Academy in 1841. These stipulations were continued in the Charter of 1859 when it noted that the trustees of Trinity College "hold and use all the authority, privileges, possessions and liabilities it had under the former title and name."  The charter of 1903 reiterated the provision of nomination by the Board as well as powers of removal and filling vacancies. When Duke University was established in 1924 these same provisions were carried over without change. Thus historically and technically, Duke University has a long history of a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees.

During the nineteenth century, ownership of property was vested in the Board of Trustees, but the Charter of 1859 stated that the trustees shall operate Trinity College "for the uses and purposes of a literary institution for the North Carolina Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South." However, the Methodist Conference was not able to adequately support the school financially because of hardship brought on by the Civil War and era of reconstruction. In 1892, ownership by the Board of Trustees became explicitly clear through resolutions concerning the relocation of the college to Durham and by the transfer of deeds of gift of land and money specifically to the Board of Trustees. The reference in the charter to the College existing for the use and purpose of the North Carolina Conference ceased with increased reliance for financial support on the Duke family and upon the move to Durham.

The University has historic ties to the United Methodist Church. The institution was begun in 1838-39 when Methodist and Quaker families in northwest Randolph County united to transform Brown's Schoolhouse into Union Institute, thus providing permanent education for their children. A formal agreement with the Methodist Church was entered into in 1859 when the name of the school was changed to Trinity College. The motto, Eruditio et Religio, which is based on a Charles Wesley hymn, and the official seal, both of which are still in use today, were adopted in 1859. The name of Trinity College continues as the undergraduate college of the University.

The most significant development in the history of the school came with the adoption of Trinity College as the primary beneficiary of the philanthropy of the Duke family in 1889. This occurred in part because the college was an institution of the Methodist Church and Washington Duke practiced stewardship as taught by his church. His sons Benjamin N. and James B. continued the philanthropy of their father with James B. Duke making the spectacular gifts in 1924 that created The Duke Endowment (the family philanthropic organization) and permitted the construction of two new campuses and the transformation of Trinity College to Duke University.

Symbolically, the religious ties are dramatically illustrated by the dominating Chapel tower on campus. This reflects the wish of James B. Duke and the history of the institution. However, the college and university have always been nonsectarian, a fact amply documented even during the presidency of John Carlisle Kilgo (1894-1910). He was a noted preacher, the most fervent Methodist administrator in the school's history, and was elected Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South in 1910.

The exact relation of the school to the church has varied from time to time but over the years Duke University has matured into a leading research university. In the history of the Methodist Church and higher education in the United States, Duke has much in common with other Methodist related universities like Northwestern, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, or the University of Southern California. However, each institution has its own history. Duke University would not be the institution it is today without its historic and symbolic ties to the Methodist Church, but it always has been independent in its governance.


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© William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002