Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

Methodist mission – founding Kwansei Gakuin

by Ruth M. Grubel*

Seventy years after Methodist mission programs began, Methodist missionaries founded Kwansei Gakuin in Kobe, Japan. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, sent Dr. Walter R. Lambuth, his family, and two other missionaries who had been working in China. The missionaries were involved in evangelism and initiated a variety of educational programs. The church decided to fund the establishment of Kwansei Gakuin in 1889 under Lambuth’s leadership with the purpose of training ministers and providing education for young men, based on the principles of Christianity. Although it began with only 19 students and five teachers, the missionaries and devout Japanese teachers of Kwansei Gakuin nurtured many young leaders of modern Japan.

An unusual feature of Kwansei Gakuin’s history is that the Canadian Methodist Church joined its American counterpart in 1910 to support the school both financially and by sending additional missionaries. By combining the respective strengths of the American, Canadian, and Japanese Methodist churches, Kwansei Gakuin was able to overcome the crises of government regulation and economic conditions. In response to dramatic changes in Japanese society during the 20th Century, Kwansei Gakuin added a college department, moved to a new campus in 1929 to allow the development of a university, and continued to grow until political changes led the country toward militarism. Resources were stretched for the churches in North America too, so their financial contributions to Kwansei Gakuin declined.

Growing independence

Although Methodist missionaries continued to serve at Kwansei Gakuin through the challenges of the early 20th century, the intensifying war and anti-American policies in Japan necessitated their departure by the end of 1940. Forced to operate without human or financial resources from North America, the Japanese administrators of Kwansei Gakuin rented out some campus buildings, reconfigured course offerings, and, in 1943, reluctantly closed the theological department, which had been an essential part of the school from its beginning. However, as soon as the War ended, President Kanzaki of Kwansei Gakuin contacted the former missionaries and the Methodist Church and invited them to participate again in the mission of the school. Soon, Methodist missionaries returned to assist in supporting the newly configured postwar education system, create a coeducational policy for the university, and contribute to the reestablishment of the School of Theology.

Kwansei Gakuin new library early 1940s.jpg
The newly built library building and clock tower on Kwansei Gakuin, Nishinomiya Uegahara Campus, Japan, 1920s. PHOTO: GENERAL COM ARCHIVES AND HISTORY, JAPAN #6, P. 72

As Japan’s postwar economy began to grow dramatically and Kwansei Gakuin’s enrollment increased, the financial support sent from the United States declined. UMC missionaries continued to teach at the school, but the responsibility for funding them fell increasingly to Kwansei Gakuin. Today, UMC missionaries are supported by the school while they maintain ties to the Global Ministries community.

In the latter part of the 20th century, Kwansei Gakuin encountered new crises, such as disruptive student movements in the late 1960s and early 70s, and the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake of 1995, which brought significant destruction to the region and killed more than 6,000 people, including 15 students of Kwansei Gakuin University. The vigorous postwar economic growth slowed suddenly in the 1990s, and financial conditions became a concern. For each crisis, the school community was able to respond and emerge with a renewed sense of mission.

Nurturing “world citizens” in the 21st century

Entering the 21st century with a 111-year history, Kwansei Gakuin has depended on its heritage to guide its path to the future. The school provides whole-person education, “based on the principles of Christianity,” for more than 27,000 students from kindergarten through graduate school. There are approximately 40 chapel services held throughout the school each week, and all curricula include Christian studies. The founder, Dr. Lambuth, was called a “world citizen” because of his ministry to people around the globe. That legacy at Kwansei Gakuin reflects this love for people everywhere as an extension of John Wesley’s “world parish.”

The clock tower today, decorated for Christmas as Kwansei Gakuin students, families and teachers gather outside for a candlelight service. PHOTO: COURTESY KWANSEI GAKUIN

In addition to the School of Theology, which continues to nurture leaders for churches and Christian organizations around Japan and beyond, the university has 10 other faculties on three campuses. Kwansei Gakuin is recognized for its international programs for all grade levels, but the university has the most extensive relationships with schools abroad. Some of the oldest collaborations, with universities such as Satya Wacana Christian University in Indonesia and Southern Methodist University in Texas, are based on long-held mission connections. The UMC’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry provides valuable opportunities for cooperation with other Methodist institutions. Kwansei Gakuin established the first Habitat for Humanity campus chapter in Japan. Today more than 300 student-members participate in building relationships and dwellings with people around Asia.

Since 1912, Kwansei Gakuin’s school motto has been “Mastery for Service.” Today, as the world continues to shrink, that ideal is more important than ever. Solidly grounded in its Christian heritage and principles, Kwansei Gakuin works with other organizations, including Methodist groups, to serve neighbors wherever they are, as effectively as possible. The more than 200,000 alumni around the world are each reflecting their version of “Mastery for Service” and continuing Dr. Lambuth’s work as world citizens.

*Ruth M. Grubel is a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries serving as chancellor of Kwansei Gakuin in Nishinomiya, Japan.

Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Fall 2018 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.

Ways to give to this ministry
Ruth Grubel’s ministry at Kwansei Gakuin can be supported through Advance giving for missionary support: Ruth Grubel #12189Z.