Presbyterians have long been advocates and partners in education. When Whitworth was founded in 1890, the Presbyterian Church was a leader in establishing colleges, having founded nearly one-quarter of the 180 church-related colleges across the country. George Whitworth founded his academy in Sumner with fellow Presbyterian clergy; that academy would become Whitworth College, named for the father of Presbyterianism in the Pacific Northwest.
While many colleges and universities have severed their denominational ties, Whitworth’s relationship with the Presbyterian Church is rare in its steadfastness. During the enrollment crisis during World War I, which closed the school for a year, there was much pressure for Whitworth to merge with a Lutheran college in Spokane. Trustee Mark Matthews, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Seattle, was adamant that the college could be saved. His strong support helped Whitworth survive the 1920s. To this day, Whitworth elects Presbyterian pastors to its board of trustees to maintain its important connection to the church.
Each Whitworth president, though not all have been Presbyterians, has helped Whitworth define its identity within the framework of its Presbyterian roots. This is an identity inextricably tied to the belief that higher education does not have to make a choice between academic excellence and a Christ-centered mission.
While the characteristics of a Christian college have evolved over time, so too has the church itself. In 2012, when Whitworth’s covenant agreement with the Synod of Alaska-Northwest expired following the synod’s cessation of operations, Whitworth’s trustees and campus community spent the year providing feedback regarding the university’s ongoing relationship with the Presbyterian Church.
In 2013, the Whitworth board of trustees agreed to affirm and expand the university’s historic relationship with Presbyterianism and to elevate the university’s core theological identities as evangelical, ecumenical and reformed. That fall, President Beck A. Taylor signed agreements to enter into partnerships with the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities, the North Puget Sound Presbytery, and the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest, all part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “These partnerships detail important and practical ways that Whitworth and the churches within the presbyteries, and other Presbyterian-related institutions of higher learning, will support one another going forward in ministry and collaboration,” said Taylor.