A sound, interpretive history of Westminster College, dating back to 1875, is long overdue. It is easily the most misunderstood educational institution in Utah, partly becase of its Presbyterian beginnings in a Mormon-dominated state, and partly due to its transformation in 1983 from a church-related institution to an independent college.
Not only have most Utahns failed to get the message that Westminster is no longer church-related, but many persist in inserting an extra `i,' and calling it "WestminIster" instead of the historicallly correct Westminster, which derives from "The Westminster Confession of Faith," a statement of theology dating back to the 17th century and Westminster, a borough of London.If Utahns do relate to the name Westminster, it is usually to Westminster Abbey in London, but they are still likely to mispronounce it.
It must be said, of course, that the college has had many different names, including The Salt Lake Collegiate Institute, Sheldon Jackson College, Westminster College, and finally, in 1983, Westminster College of Salt Lake City.
Even many Westminster students today will describe the institution, an intimate citadel of learning nestled among expansive trees on 1300 East not far from Sugarhouse, as "Utah's best-kept secret."
Students who select Westminster today are usually interested in high-quality instruction with a personalized flair. They want classes of reasonable size and professors who know their names.
According to a recent Dan Jones survey of past and current students, 95 percent of them believe the quality of their Westminster education either met or exceeded their expectations.
Some of them come because they have read that U.S. News and World Report has ranked Westminster, with a current enrollment of 2,200 students and a faculty of 100 full-time and 150 adjunct professors, as among the very best colleges in the western United States.
Yet large numbers of Utahns drive by Westminster College every day without the slightest notion of its high standing.
If they give it a chance, Douglas Brackenridge's attractive new history of Westminster will correct the misimpressions. Brackenridge, a professor of religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, is an experienced scholar, with numerous books and articles in Presbyterian history to his credit.
Well-versed in church-related education, Brackenridge is a fine choice to author such a book. Although not initially familiar with Utah or Mormonism, he has done meticulous research to enable him to properly relate Westminster's history to its Mormon context.
Brackenridge carefully integrates the changes of administration into the problems of running a liberal arts institution. He gives admirable, detailed treatment to Westminster's No. 1 long-term problem, that of its serious fiscal instability.
He also affords invaluable insight into the role of Presbyterian pioneers in the development of Utah.
The result is a well-written, nicely paced, engaging institutional history that all Utahns should read.
In addition, Thomas Cronin's colorful cover design, which depicts early students at a canyon outing superimposed on Westminster's historic Converse Hall, is magnificent.
Although Brackenridge perceptively analyzes the abundant historical conflicts over the years between Mormons and Presbyterians, he fails to note that some misperceptions of Mormonism still persist on campus.
One more quibble: Don't you just hate it when a historian doesn't quite make it to the present day?
This is a minor disappointment in an otherwise impressive book. In the epilogue, Brackenridge acknowledges the selection of current President Peggy Stock, Utah's first woman college president, but he makes no attempt to describe or analyze her three years of vigorous leadership.