While American University’s affiliation with the United Methodist Church dates back to its founding in 1893, Methodist students feel a lack of support on campus and have found their own community rooted in shared progressive values.
The University was founded by Methodist Bishop John Fletcher Hurst, for whom Hurst Hall is named. Other buildings on campus memorialize prominent Methodist figures, including Asbury, Hughes, Leonard, Letts, McDowell, Anderson and Mary Graydon.
AU’s Methodist roots
Reverend Bryant Oskvig, the University chaplain, nicknamed “Rev. O” by students, discussed the Methodist founding of AU in an interview with The Eagle. He explained that in the late 1800s, Bishop Hurst went to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and expressed his desire for a Methodist institution in D.C.
The conference worked with Congress to secure a plot of land for AU. Once the school was established in 1893, progressive Methodist beliefs were applied to select the incoming class, which included women and people of color, though Hurst himself did enslave at least one person before joining the Methodist Church.
“Part of that [progressiveness] was the Methodist strain that founded AU,” Oskvig said. “There was this very progressive sort of interest in establishing something here that also could impact the way that the United States was engaged in these deep, systemic, national and international conversations.”
Oskvig said this inclusivity is inherent to the denomination. “Methodism has always been very open and broad in its sort of engagement with other traditions,” he said.
These inclusive admissions practices set AU apart from other universities back in the early 20th century, and progressive Methodist ideals are still seen today at the University, partly through student groups.
“I think a lot of people assume there'd be more of a connection than there is”
Elizabeth Hopper, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, serves as the communications director of AU Student Association of United Methodists (AUSAUM).
“It's a clunky name, but we wanted to have the acronym of ‘awesome,’” Hopper said.
Hopper and her friends brought the club back to campus during the fall 2022 semester after it had been dormant for a couple years.
“The website said [the Methodist group] met at Kay at 5 p.m. on Sundays,” she said. “I showed up the second or third week of school when I thought it would have started, and there was no one there.”
Hopper and others began to meet with Oskvig and learned that the Baltimore Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church had moved AU’s appointed employee, who would have been leading the United Methodist student group. The Church never refilled the position, leaving the club to fizzle out while the coronavirus pandemic presented other programmatic challenges, Oskvig said.
The group now aims to be a progressive club of Christians on campus, which Hopper said the University lacked prior to this year.
“Some of the other groups are not accepting of LGBTQ+ people, and a lot of our members are kind of frustrated by that because we're at AU, a really liberal school,” she said.
Hopper said she wishes AU’s Methodist affiliation could be more prominent across campus, for the sake of running AUSAUM more easily. She expressed frustration with the Center for Student Involvement, saying it was difficult to get re-approved as an official club.
Without official recognition from CSI, AUSAUM could not receive funding from the University or reserve rooms to meet in. During the 2022-23 academic year, the club held most of its meetings in the National United Methodist Church across the street from AU’s campus and received funding from the Church as well.
“I think a lot of people assume there'd be more of a connection than there is just because it is a United Methodist-affiliated school, but it really doesn't have any other difference,” Hopper said. “We're still going through the same loopholes that any other group would.”
AUSAUM was given official club status by CSI in May 2023 after two semesters of functioning without University support.
For many in the AU community, Oskvig describes the Methodist affiliation as more of “a footnote.” He frequently gives lectures about the university’s Methodist founding to faculty members, many of whom tell him they didn’t know about the university’s connection to the church, even after several years of working at AU.
“But there are some students who actually do come here because of its Methodist identity and they're well aware of that,” Oskvig said.
Hopper talked about her friend and fellow club member, HeeLin Lee, who was raised in the Methodist church, wrote her college essay about AU’s methodist affiliation, and now shares an inside joke with Hopper that someone at the University should have warned her about the lack of Methodist presence on campus before she committed.
For these students, AUSAUM’s renewed club status is worthy of celebration.
Religious affiliation at political universities
While some feel the University’s religious affiliation goes unnoticed, Nicholas Buck, a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, gave insight into the importance of religious affiliation in higher education.
Buck said that even for students who don’t subscribe to a particular religion, a university’s religious affiliation could provide the arena for them to “learn about a number of diverse ways of living and ways of thinking about the world.”
He specifically expressed the importance of religious affiliation at political universities like AU.
“Some of the most regressive and progressive political movements in this and other countries are often noticeably motivated by, among other forces, religious ones,” Buck said. “I think that that's something we need to wrestle with, learn about and learn from.”
While AU’s connection with the United Methodist Church may not have as strong a presence as some would expect or hope for, it still inspires some on campus to fulfill the connection between religion and politics that Buck explained.
Oskvig explained that because Methodism only sees itself as one religion among several other valid faiths, his job as the University chaplain extends to assisting all faith communities on campus.
“[I make] sure that all of our different religious communities are functioning and playing nice with each other,” Oskvig said.
Methodist students like Hopper in AUSAUM prioritize interfaithism as well.
“A lot of our group isn't Methodist, like we even have Catholics in there and stuff,” she said. “All of our members love having their friends from the other religious groups on campus.”
Hopper said AUSAUM looks forward to having more interfaith events on campus now that the club has recognition from CSI.
Buck explained that this plurality of collaborative religious groups represented on campus is vitally important for those in the AU student body who are looking to enter politics upon graduation.
“We're always already swimming in a world that is, among other things, always already religious in some way,” Buck said. “Religion informs the kind of legacies of justice and injustice that have shaped our world, and it might offer visions of possible alternative futures; more just ones.”
This article was edited by Kate Corliss, Jordan Young and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis.