From its beginning, Candler has stood in the intellectual and imaginative space between the university and the church. From that location, it communicates the questions and answers of the church to the academy and, in turn, reflects back to the church the academy’s questions and answers. Such a task is always difficult, and finding faculty members who are good at both is challenging. One might easily find teachers who speak only to the church or teachers who speak only to fellow scholars, but finding teachers who can do both is no easy assignment.

Indeed, if you ask good deans about their most important responsibilities, they will, almost without exception, put the selection and cultivation of a faculty at the top of the list. Great schools don’t exist without great faculties, and great faculties result from deep deliberation, high standards, and careful cultivation.

Making Change

Though some things never change, others do. Here are a few things that have changed greatly between 1914 and 2014.


Then: 7, all white males
42 full-time faculty, including 12 women and 13 persons of color


Then: 69 
Now: 447, with 193 in the fall 2014 entering class


Then: $0; tuition first charged in $1945, $300 per year
Now: $20,800 per year (with $4.5 million in financial aid)

Student Body

Then: 0% women, 0% persons of color, 0% international
Now: 52% women, 35% persons of color, 8% international


Then: 100% Methodist Episcopal Church, South
Now: 42 denominations represented; 48% of students in the Methodist family


Then: Bachelor of Divinity, diploma, Certificate in Theology; 45 hours required for graduation
Now:  16 degrees, 7 single and 9 dual; 84 hours for Master of Divinity

Course Offerings

Then: 13 required courses, including pastoral theology, church history, homiletics, and Paul
Now: 18 required courses for MDiv; more than 350 courses listed in the catalog


Then: A few hundred books in the basement of Wesley Memorial Building
Now: One of the foremost theology libraries in the nation, with more than 610,000 volumes in a brand new 63,600-square-foot space

A great faculty can overcome a multitude of deficiencies in a school, a good one can sustain a school for decades, but a poor faculty can kill a school in a matter of years. The success of a school’s mission and the sustainability of its intellectual, collegial, and teaching life depend on making the right choices. More than a few colleges, seminaries, and departments have been brought to a standstill through missteps in the selection of new faculty members. Even with intense scrutiny and the time to exercise it, finding the right person is never easy, but it is always the goal, even though critics within the academy and outside it will always make themselves available to explain how the dean could have done better. To create and keep superior faculties, deans and faculty members need clear ideas about what they want to do and the will to maintain them. Great schools need people with strong convictions about freedom of inquiry and the pursuit of truth. Such people are not always easy to find.

Candler School of Theology went from an idea to a reality in the span of a few months in 1914. After the dissolution of the relationship between Vanderbilt University and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in the spring of that year, the denomination formed an education commission charged with establishing a new church-related university to open in the fall. The commission met for the first time in June, and by the end of July, the newly appointed chancellor of the university, Bishop Warren A. Candler, had chosen seven men to serve on the inaugural faculty of the school of theology. A lot was on the line with those choices.

Critics immediately took aim and fired. (Deans and presidents always stand at the wrong end of firing range.) But the bishop fired back. One of the original faculty members, Wyatt Aiken Smart, recorded the story in the October 1957 Emory Alumnus: “The principal of a preparatory school wrote Bishop Candler charging that every member of his new Emory theological faculty was a higher critic and denouncing him for having chosen heretics to teach in a Methodist seminary,” Smart wrote. The faculty had, at this point, offered no classes and delivered no lectures, but the absence of evidence did not deter the critic. Smart reflected that few people even knew what “higher criticism” meant. (It refers to historical methods of determining the authorship, date, provenance and literary relationships of biblical writings.) The “critics knew only that the new faculty used methods that called into question some popular beliefs about the Bible, and they would have none of it. They wanted ‘the scriptures as the Holy Spirit had dictated them to St. James,’” he wrote. Bishop Candler convened his faculty, discussed the criticism, and replied with a defense of scholarly inquiry and free critical exploration. And though he himself did not agree with everything that his faculty represented, he refused to bend to critics who wanted to prevent serious scholarship. He set a precedent for later Candler deans.

Theological study requires the freedom to ask about the church’s traditions, habits, and expressions. Theological schools need to test their possibilities and limits and invite students to join in the testing, because religious leaders unable to think critically about faith and unfaith cannot engage with parishioners who ask hard questions that resist facile answers. Theological education, done well, always produces challenging ideas and images, tests their capacity to evolve and expand, rejects those that cannot sustain the test, and advances those that can. In his brief note to a confused critic, Warren Candler created space for a theological faculty to do its work.

In effect, Bishop Candler followed the advice of St. Paul in the conclusion of his letter to Philippi: “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8, NRSV). Paul’s verb for “think” (logizomai) refers to critical reflection. Earlier in the letter he applies it to a rigorous self-accounting. It would be hard to find a better goal for a school of theology—sustained reflection on the nature and habits of the good, commendable, pleasing, and excellent. To reach such a goal, both students and faculty must be willing to explore the limits of these ideals and test their capacity to sustain thought and behavior. This is hard work, and it requires the creation and cultivation of a strong faculty.

There will always be critics, speaking from the right or from the left, who resist exploration and decry the testing of long-held traditions, but faculties must be resolute in pursuing the true, good, honorable, and just—and their deans must be equally resolute in protecting such pursuit, defining its purpose and explaining its necessity to those who do not comprehend it. With that kind of intellectual support, faculties thrive and theological education prospers.

As it enters its second century of scholarship, service, and instruction, may Candler become the great school its originators imagined. May it have great faculty members and courageous administrators. May the faculty hear the mandate to consider the good and the excellent and explore the limits of our expressions of truth, even when the exploration brings criticism. And may the school’s deans and overseers follow the precedent embodied in Warren Candler’s letter of response to the school’s first critic. May they always work to create and sustain the space, time, and intellectual atmosphere that enable Candler’s faculty to attain the school’s mission of training leaders for the church and the world.