Duke University has historical, formal, on-going, and symbolic ties with Methodism, but is an independent and non-sectarian institution.
The historical tie dates from 1838, when Methodist and Quaker families in Randolph County, N.C. joined forces to form a school they named Union Institute, the educational institution that has developed into Duke University.
Duke's formal association with the Methodist Church in North Carolina dates to the charter as revised in 1859. This specified that vacancies on the Board of Trustees were to be filled by the North Carolina Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (as it was then known). This privilege was given with the expectation that North Carolina's Methodists would support the school. However, candidates for election first had to be recommended by a majority of the Trustees before they could be elected to the Board. This is still the case. Of the 36 elected members of the Board, twenty-four are elected by the North Carolina's two Methodist Conferences; the remaining twelve are elected by the alumni, but all are approved by the Board before their election.
As an example of the on-going ties, the Divinity School of Duke University is a graduate theological seminary recognized and supported by the United Methodist Church. On average, about two-thirds of the candidates for the degree of Master of Divinity are Methodists.
Symbolically, the place of religion in the life of the University is shown by the Chapel tower dominating the central quadrangle of the West Campus. Duke's Methodist heritage is represented there by the carvings of Methodist leaders Thomas Coke, Francis Asbury, and George Whitefield, along with John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.
In the history of higher education, Duke has much in common with other Methodist related schools such as Northwestern, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, or the University of Southern California. Each is unique, and Duke would not be the institution it is today without its ties to the Methodist Church. However, the Methodist Church does not own or direct the University. Duke is and has developed as a private non-profit corporation which is owned and governed by an autonomous and self-perpetuating Board of Trustees.
A longer and more detailed article is available...
Duke University Archives, 2002