As AU’s centennial approaches, many departments, staff and faculty members are contributing to the festivities in a variety of ways. One of the standouts is a book encompassing AU’s 100 years of history, written by Dr. Merle Strege.
Strege retired as a professor in the Department of Religious Studies last year, but is still using his gifts on campus. He was asked years ago by Carl Caldwell, the former vice president for academic affairs, if he would be willing to write a book of AU’s 100 years of history.
“My many years of study as the historian of the Church of God, along with an ongoing interest in the nature and challenges of Christian higher education, working on the centennial history seemed the natural thing to do,” Strege said. He also remarked that it seemed fitting that the conclusion of this project coincided with the end of his career.
It took Strege nearly eight years to complete the work for the centennial book. He was teaching a full course load during the school year, so he mainly worked on writing and research during the summer breaks. However, in addition to that time, he was also able to take a sabbatical leave and had a reduced teaching load for two semesters, which allowed him more time to devote to the book.
Strege’s research included reading letters, memos, president’s reports, trustee minutes, financial records, some personal journals, back issues of the Andersonian as well as interviews with important people from AU’s history. “From all this material, I constructed a narrative that will, I hope, explain AU’s development from 1917 to the present,” Strege said.
“Many American historians, here at AU and elsewhere, are fond of saying that history is the study of us,” Strege said. “It’s not merely the study of the past. To read the history of AU is to come to understand and, perhaps, appreciate how we have come to be the kind of community we are today.”
Through the course of his research, Strege found many interesting tidbits in AU’s history as it relates to American history. In 1924, William Jennings Bryan spent a day on campus, and during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks visited the campus.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my colleagues’ reactions when I shared these discoveries,” Strege said. “You should have heard Dr. Shrock when I told him about Bryan’s and Parks’ visits.”
From the process of research and writing his book, Strege commented that he came to the conclusion that “AU really is peculiar among church-related and/or Christian colleges. It sounds counter-intuitive, but AU’s brand of academic freedom stems from its relationship with its sponsoring church, despite the fact that the Church of God is a theologically conservative community.”
Strege hopes that people who read his book will be able to learn lessons from the past that can be used for AU’s future. “Narrative history is—or can be—a moral and political art,” he says. “Moral in the sense that we come to understand our character and [politics] in the sense that it gives our forefathers and foremothers an opportunity to cast a vote in the present community’s deliberations about the kind of institution we want AU to be.”
“It is folly to deliberate the future without a knowledge of the path by which we have come to the present,” Strege continued. “I hope all those who enter into conversations about AU’s future—students, staff, faculty, administrators, and trustees—will do so having read the book because narrative history of the kind I attempted to write in The Desk as Altar concerns AU’s future as well as its past.”