Once upon a time in a land not so far away, there was a university called Vanderbilt. For the first 40 years of its existence, Vanderbilt was under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS), and it was the training ground for a great many Methodist pastors serving in the Southeast. That era came to an abrupt end in the spring of 1914, when the Tennessee Supreme Court decided that Vanderbilt’s board of trust—and not MECS—had the sole authority to appoint university trustees. Sufficiently rebuffed, MECS severed ties with Vanderbilt and set its sights on creating a new university where aspiring ministers could gain a first-rate theological education and the church could hold the reins.

Once the decision was made to start a new school, the wheels moved very quickly to realize the goal. In early summer, MECS appointed an Educational Commission, which met for the first time in June of 1914. Bishop Warren Akin Candler, an alumnus and former president of Emory College in Oxford, Georgia, was appointed the commission’s chair. The General Conference of MECS had recommended that the commission establish two universities, one west of the Mississippi River and one east. Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, already in development, was designated the western university. The Educational Commission would decide the site of the second university and organize it as an institution of broad higher learning. But the first order of business was to establish a church-sanctioned theology school where pastors-in-training who had been enrolled at Vanderbilt could continue their education in the coming fall.

The commission met again in mid-July, when Birmingham and Atlanta were still vying to be the location of the new university. At this meeting, the commission was presented with a letter from one of its own: Asa Candler, founder of The Coca-Cola Company, commission member, and brother of commission chair Warren Candler. In the letter, Asa Candler pledged $1 million dollars for the endowment of the second university, which he trusted would provide an education that “sharpens and strengthens the mental faculties” while “invigorating the moral powers and inspiring the religious life.” Though he did not stipulate that the school be located in Atlanta, he made reference to the assistance of “fellow citizens of Atlanta,” and the commission voted unanimously for the Atlanta location. Wasting no time, the commission at the same meeting appointed Warren Candler chancellor of the new university and authorized him to hire a theology faculty to begin instruction in September.

By the end of July, Bishop Candler had assembled the bulk of his theology faculty, and in an early August meeting, the Educational Commission added a final name to the roster, bringing the full complement to seven. The new faculty—Plato T. Durham, Henry Hugh Harris, Henry Clay Howard, William Arthur Shelton, Andrew Warren Sledd, Wyatt Aiken Smart, and William James Young—met for the first time in late August to begin developing a curriculum. Durham, who had served as secretary of the Educational Commission, was named dean of the faculty, a role he would fill in addition to teaching church history.

On September 23, the theology school began its first term at Wesley Memorial Church in downtown Atlanta, with 69 students enrolled. Some students were transfers from Vanderbilt seeking the bachelor of divinity, but others had no previous college degree and followed the diploma track resulting in a certificate in theology. Tuition was free, thanks to the Education Commission’s instruction that half of Asa Candler’s million-dollar gift be set aside as an endowment for the theology school. Fees, books, and room and board amounted to $187 for the year; the trustees set up scholarships of $100 to offset these costs.

In January 1915, the new university’s charter was granted, and campus construction began in the Druid Hills neighborhood of Atlanta, a location that was made possible by yet another gift from Asa Candler, this time in the form of 75 acres of land. One month later, the university’s trustees voted to name the theology school “Candler”—and though the meeting’s minutes do not indicate definitively whether the name is in honor of Warren or Asa Candler, it has long been presumed to have been named for the Bishop, a leading light in Southern Methodism and the driving force behind the school’s alacritous creation.

And the rest, so they say, is history.

Image at top: Detail of "Creation" in Die Guldin Arch by Sebastian Franck, Augsburg, Germany, 1538. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive at Pitts Theology Library.