DAKOTA DATEBOOK: Red River Valley University
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm
February 25, 2019 — In his poem, “Reborn,” Bishop Ralph Spaulding Cushman wrote:
Deaf, dumb, and blind, I walked His earth,
I breathed His air, a thankless clod,
Until that blessed summer’s night
When my dead soul found life and God!
It was on this day in 1891 that the North Dakota Methodists founded a private school in Wahpeton — Red River Valley University. It was a school that would move several times before settling into its final phase. At one point, Bishop Cushman was on the board of directors.
Classes at Red River Valley University opened in 1893 with 85 students. Dr. Knox of the New Hampshire Conference served as president. From the beginning, RRVU struggled financially, so in 1905, RRVU made a historic move by affiliating with a state school, UND at Grand Forks, where it was renamed Wesley College.
Sixteen years later, Wesley College established a branch, the School of Religion, on the campus of the North Dakota Agriculture College in Fargo. Course offerings included the history, literature, philosophy, and psychology of religion. Wesley College provided the funding for the Fargo school, and NDAC provided academic credit to participating students.
Under the directorship of Walter Lee Airheart, the School of Religion enrolled its first four students in 1921. By 1929, just eight years later, there were 253 students attending. But in 1931, two serious problems threatened to shut down the School of Religion.
First, the Fargo-Moorhead Lutheran Pastoral Union protested the School of Religion’s use of NDAC classrooms, saying this violated the separation of church and state. Second, Wesley College was nearly broke and was forced to withdraw its funding for its Fargo branch.
That winter, Airheart and 16 Fargo businessmen organized the Fargo School of Religious Education, a private corporation that proposed to provide religious education at NDAC that was non-sectarian and non-denominational. They went looking for private contributions, and in 1936, a donation from Mr. and Mrs. S. Fred Knight allowed the school to construct a new building across the street from NDAC on land leased from Wesley College.
The Fargo School of Religious Education got off to a better start, and in 1962, it was renamed the North Dakota School of Religion. Then, in 1971, Wesley College donated the land on which the school sat, and in 1973, both the building and the land were donated to the NDSU Development Foundation. In exchange, the Development Foundation had to agree to operate the school as it was for two more years, and then maintain a professor of religion through a department of religion at NDSU.
Since that time, John Helgeland has served first as the director of the North Dakota School of Religion and then as professor of religion at NDSU. In 1996, the building was demolished to make way for the New Alumni Center, but the nugget of what the North Dakota Methodists began in 1891 still exists. Three cities and five names later, it’s the little school that could.