A Brief History of Heritage Christian University
Associate Professor of History
Heritage Christian University traces its roots to 1871, when T.B. Larimore opened Mars Hill Academy (College) on land inherited by his wife Esther Gresham Larimore. Located along Cox Creek near Florence, Alabama, Mars Hill Academy educated boys and girls, offering general education classes, as well as specialized courses, including those in business and the arts. Scripture was emphasized at Mars Hill with daily chapel services required for each student. In time, Larimore began to focus primarily on equipping ministers and other Christian leaders for service in the Churches of Christ. Bible students trained at Mars Hill established hundreds of congregations in Florence and surrounding communities in North Alabama and southern Tennessee. Initially housed in Larimore’s home, the Academy closed in 1887 in order for Larimore to devote himself more fully to evangelism. Reflecting on his school’s lasting legacy, Larimore observed, “Our school held its place on the hill and in the hearts and homes of its friends seventeen years—till it filled its mission and was mustered out of service that I might devote all my time and attention to evangelistic work.” The 12-room house was restored by the Associated Women’s Organization in 1971 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Among those educated by Larimore at Mars Hill were notable restoration preachers F.D. Srygley and J.C. McQuiddy.
Locally organized Christian education for the Churches of Christ resumed in 1947 when Mars Hill Bible School, an elementary and secondary school, began on the site of the old Mars Hill Academy. Local physician William Wallace Alexander purchased property for the school from T.B. Larimore’s son, Virgil, who still resided on the land where his father had operated the original academy. MHBS has been fully accredited since its founding, first by the Alabama Department of Education in 1947, and subsequently by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools beginning in 1971. Mars Hill Bible School continues to provide preschool through high school education and celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2017.
In November 1965, noting an extreme shortage of preachers, a number of Shoals area church leaders, including Drake Macon, Barry Anderson, Albert Hill, and Robert Willis, proposed to the Mars Hill Board of Directors the establishment of a school to help prepare men for ministry. A steering committee, functioning under the Mars Hill board, quickly assumed responsibility for the promotion of the school, curriculum planning, and the selection of teachers. Selected representatives for the school included Barry Anderson, Charles Coil, and Lois Behel. Supplementing the work of Mars Hill Bible School, the new T.B. Larimore School of Evangelists was seen as a restoration of the type of preacher training accomplished at Larimore’s original Mars Hill Academy (College) in the late 19th century. “Although T.B. Larimore is dead,” Albert Hill observed, “his life, work, ambitions and desires live on in the hearts and lives of dedicated Christians who know, love, and appreciate this noble soldier of the cross.”
Opening in January 1966 with 70 students enrolled, the T.B. Larimore School of Evangelists followed the model of a non-credit Bible institute or preacher training school. The school offered courses designed to meet the needs of those who could not “expediently attend one of our [Christian] colleges.” After operating in the spring and fall of 1966, the school’s steering committee, at the direction of the Mars Hill Board of Directors, transitioned from an administrative function to an advisory one. There is no known record of the school meeting for classes after December 1966. Reflecting on the legacy of the School of Evangelists, Hill concluded, “The training school offered night courses only, one night a week, with much interest and accomplished great good but was discontinued.” In 1967, to complement the ministry instruction that had already been offered in Florence, Harding University Graduate School of Religion located in Memphis, Tennessee began offering extension classes for local ministers.
The dream of providing locally based higher education in the Shoals, designed specifically for the training of preachers, did not lay dormant for long. Before the end of 1967, plans were already underway to establish a private college in Florence, independent of Mars Hill, to prepare students for ministry. In 1968, those plans began taking shape, when Malcolm Hill agreed to leave his work as preacher for the Forest Park congregation in greater Atlanta to become the inaugural president of the newly established Southeastern Institute (College) of the Bible in Florence. Inez Alexander, widow of Dr. William Wallace Alexander, donated land for a campus near the old T.B. Larimore home and local orthopedic surgeon, Dr. G.R. Melson, serving as chair of the Businessmen’s Advisory Board, began efforts to establish an endowment for the school. Initial faculty included Malcolm Hill, Charles Coil, Bob Bryson, Lamar Plunket, Barry Anderson, A.R. Hill, and Albert Hill. Charles Coil also served as chair of the Preachers’ Advisory Board. Founded in 1968, Southeastern classes met for the first time in January 1969. The institute would include a three-year program offering bachelor’s degrees in Sacred Literature and Religious Education. No accreditation from secular or academic associations would be sought. Instead, the school would simply “offer a man the courses which he [would] need to fully equip him for the task of preaching the Word.”
Soon after Southeastern was established, some questions emerged regarding how the new school was being operated. Prominent minister Gus Nichols from Jasper, Alabama chaired a meeting in July 1970 at the Eastwood Church of Christ in Florence to discuss a solution to the controversies. In October 1970, with the future of the college uncertain, the administration and board of Southeastern College of the Bible resigned and a new board was elected. Those selected to serve on the reorganized Board of Directors were Ellis H. Coats, Howard Morris, Glenn Skipworth, Jimmy H. Parker, Vestal Shipman, James G. Smith, and Roger Peck. During this time of transition, Barry Anderson served as interim president of the school. Early in 1971, Charles Coil was selected by the new board as the second president of Southeastern College of the Bible.
As president, Coil was empowered to establish a program unique among the Churches of Christ—the four-year Bible college. Neither a preacher training school nor a liberal arts college, the coeducational Bible college would have standardized admissions policies, academic calendar, and curriculum. In September 1971, Southeastern was renamed International Bible College. The administration explained that the name change was intended to distinguish the Florence school from an older institution in Birmingham bearing the Southeastern name. The new name would reflect the aspiration to train men and women for service in foreign countries and to develop “an international view.” Having a new designation served a practical purpose for the college as well by helping provide the administration the fresh start it desired in order to move beyond the disputes of the past and onward as “a new college with a new idea.”
IBC was initially accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of the Association for Biblical Higher Education in 1988. In 1989, after serving eighteen years as the college’s chief administrator, Charles Coil announced his resignation as president. He continued to serve as chancellor until his death in 1994. IBC alumnus, Dennis Jones, succeeded Coil as the school’s third president, taking office on January 1, 1990.
During Jones’ tenure, to help meet the need for advanced education for ministers and church leaders, a graduate program offering Master of Ministry and Master of Arts degrees was added in 2000. In January 2001, the institution changed its name to Heritage Christian University to reflect its status as offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees. In August 2001, the first graduates were awarded their master’s degrees. In 2011, the university initiated a Master of Divinity program with emphasis on small church growth and was acknowledged as a Military Friendly School, one of the Service Members Opportunity Colleges, and as a Yellow Ribbon School.
In April 2017, Dennis Jones retired as president and in December of that year, HCU’s Board of Directors announced the selection of W. Kirk Brothers as the institution’s fourth president.
Our History As Told By You
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1871 – T.B. Larimore’s Mars Hill Academy opens in Lauderdale County, Alabama
1887 – Mars Hill Academy closes so Larimore can devote himself to evangelistic work more fully
1947 – Mars Hill Bible School founded as elementary and secondary school
1966 – T.B. Larimore School of Evangelists, under the direction of the Mars Hill Board of Directors, begins classes as a non-credit Bible institute
1968 – Southeastern Institute (College) of the Bible founded in Florence with Malcolm Hill as inaugural president
1969 – Southeastern classes meet for the first time
1970 – Southeastern Board of Directors reorganized
1971 – Charles Coil selected as second president of Southeastern College of the Bible
1971 – Southeastern renamed International Bible College; transitions to coeducational Bible college
1972 – The World Evangelist begins publication
1972 – First annual Evangelism Workshop held
1986 – University library dedicated in memory of Timothy Overton, becoming Overton Memorial Library
1988 – IBC initially accredited by the Association for Biblical Higher Education
1989 – IBC first offers distance learning courses
1989 – Charles Coil resigns as president of IBC; named college’s chancellor
1990 – Dennis Jones takes office as third president of Southeastern/IBC
1990 – Dr. John Kerr Student Center dedicated
1994 – Charles Coil passes away at his home near Florence at the age of 64
2000 – IBC begins offering Master of Ministry and Master of Arts degrees
2001 – International Bible College’s name changed to Heritage Christian University
2001 – The University’s first master’s degrees awarded
2004 – Friends of OML established
2005 – William Delona and Othello Tuten McMeans endow McMeans Family Reading Area in honor of their son David McMeans
2006 – Heritage Marriage and Family Resource Center founded
2007 – Coy D. Roper Rarities and Antiquities Collection established
2007 – Kerr Hall constructed
2007 – Heritage Press created
2008 – Bagents Family Research Center dedicated
2009 – HCU’s accreditation reaffirmed by the Association for Biblical Higher Education
2010 – Frederick W. Danker Depositorium and Reference Collection created
2010 – Annual Charles R. Coil Colloquium instituted
2011 – HCU initiates a Master of Divinity program with emphasis on small church growth
2011 – HCU recognized as Military Friendly School
2012 – Joel Stephen Williams Collection added to Overton Memorial Library holdings
2012 – Olie and Cynthia Tillery Bible Collection inaugurated
2017 – HCU History Room and University Archives created
2017 – McCreary Cabins constructed
2017 – Dennis Jones retires as HCU president
2017 – Kilpatrick Restoration Chapel dedicated
2017 – W. Kirk Brothers selected as the institution’s fourth president