By Bob Allen
A for-profit, Christian university once owned by Arizona Southern Baptists edged out the Southern Baptist Convention North American Mission Board in a contest for a 217-acre campus in Massachusetts offered free to a deserving Christian charity by owners of the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby craft store chain.
Phoenix-based Grand Canyon University plans to open an extension center on the former campus of Northfield Mount Hermon School, a secular boarding and day school founded in 1879 by legendary evangelist D.L. Moody. The property was donated by the billionaire Green family, which purchased the campus three years ago with plans to launch an evangelical college named after author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.
After fundraising for C.S. Lewis College came up short, the family began accepting alternative proposals for the property worth an estimated $20 million, including $5 million in upgrades by the Greens.
Other applicants included Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, turned down after Northfield Mount Hermon alumni objected that Moody’s legacy was more inclusive than Falwell’s, and Olivet University, currently under review for theological compatibility in a bid to buy Glorieta Conference Center from LifeWay Christian Resources.
“We hope this campus will provide a home for students to find their purpose in Christ and realize their full potential in life,” Hobby Lobby President Steve Green said in a statement Sept. 21. “We look forward to seeing what the future holds for this historic campus and for this community.”
The other finalist, the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, expressed interest in using the campus as a year-round ministry, retreat and missionary training center. NAMB President Kevin Ezell, congratulated Grand Canyon University in a statement to Baptist Press.
The Arizona Southern Baptist Convention opened Grand Canyon College in 1948 in Prescott, Ariz., and challenged churches to raise money for its support. Three years later the school moved to Phoenix. The faith-based school, established so local Baptists could obtain college degrees without going east to Baptist colleges in Texas or Oklahoma, was for many years Arizona Baptists’ flagship institution.
The school’s athletic programs excelled during the 1970s and 1980s, producing major league baseball stars including Tim Salmon, a right fielder and designated hitter considered one of the greatest players in the history of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim franchise.
It was renamed Grand Canyon University in 1989. GCU trustees severed official ties with the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention in 2000, and facing $15 million in debt and on the brink of bankruptcy, sold the school four years later to California-based Significant Education LLC, a for-profit subsidiary led by executives formerly associated with the parent company of the University of Phoenix. It made Grand Canyon the first for-profit Christian college in the United States.
In coming months the Green family will transfer the Massachusetts property to Scholarships for GCU Students, a nonprofit that will then lease it to Grand Canyon University’s holding company, GCU Education, which trades on the NASDAQ.
Plans call for initially establishing an extension site, and then after three or four years to form an independent university owned by GCU Education likely to be named “Grand Canyon University, Northeast” or “Grand Canyon University, Moody Campus.”
The campus consists of 43 buildings and includes the gravesite of Moody and his wife, which is visited by Christians from around the world.
Moody was born in Northfield, Mass., in 1837 and in the later decades of the 19th century traveled the globe as an evangelist. He started a church in Chicago originally called the Illinois Street Church, renamed the Moody Church after his death. He began a Bible study course that eventually became Moody Bible Institute, and later spun off Moody Publishers, Moody Radio and Moody magazine, which published until 2003.