In the spring of 1949, the bold musings of young seminary student Arthur Roberts caught the attention of the college’s board, resulting in a name change to honor the institution’s Quaker roots 

So, just how did George Fox University get its name? It’s a question that comes up every now and then, particularly among incoming students.

First off, it’s important to know who George Fox was. He was an English leader of a 17th-century Christian awakening from which came the Quaker movement (now known as the Society of Friends or the Friends Church). He challenged the institutionalized church of the time for its secondhand faith, sin-excusing doctrine, hireling ministry, and compromise with political powers.

Secondly, there’s an interesting story behind how this centuries-old fiery preacher was chosen as the namesake of a college in Oregon – a school founded by Quaker pioneers as Friends Pacific Academy in 1885 and later renamed Pacific College in 1891 – and it involves a seminary student who had graduated from the institution just five years prior.

the letter Roberts wrote on a typewriter. Image of an old yellowed letter.

The Dilemma

In the spring of 1949, the board of then-Pacific College had a dilemma on its hands as it convened to discuss the future of the college: the very name of the school itself. Because its name so closely resembled a neighboring institution, creating confusion, something had to be done.

Among the proposed new names up for consideration? Friendswood – a moniker backed by an editorial in the May 20, 1949, issue of The Crescent, the college’s student publication, which boldly declared, “Friendswood seems to meet the requirements for the new name, leaving little room for constructive criticism.”

Arthur Roberts, an alumnus from the class of 1944 and a seminary student at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, wasn’t having it.

Though no longer on campus and living more than 1,500 miles away, Roberts felt compelled to write a letter expressing his distaste for the name “Friendswood” while pointing out the merits of renaming the institution “George Fox College” in honor of its Quaker heritage.

Roberts didn’t pull any punches. “It worries me that the board of managers has recommended [the name “Friendswood”],” he wrote. “It is in the face of this decision of weighty Friends that I deign to raise my voice of protest. I have no ill-feeling toward anyone. I do not know who advanced the name. I do know I do not like it.”

Roberts as a young man writes a letter

Three Reasons

Roberts proceeded to outline three reasons the name “Friendswood” was a poor choice. For starters, it was currently in use at the time: Friendswood Quarterly Meeting and Friendswood Monthly Meeting in south Texas had used the name for years. And Roberts, in sarcastic jest, wrote that, if the name were selected, “I am sure that no lawsuit would ensue. Texas is large. It grows the biggest of everything. But Texas is not large enough to reach up to Oregon.”

Secondly, he pointed out that “Friendswood” has “very little inherent significance.” He likened the term to “keeping with some rustic summer cabin” and mentioned that his wife, Fern, also a Pacific College graduate, thought it sounded like “a summer girls camp.”

Finally, Roberts argued the name was “not in keeping with the institution of learning situated in the Northwest,” pointing out that “Westerners like to think of the Maine woods and the forests of Oregon … I am disappointed that such an intrusion to the Western thought is even proposed. If a name is to be chosen that has some scenic connotation, let it at least be in keeping with the locality.”

The Argument for ‘George Fox College’

Roberts, who later admitted he was “engrossed in comparing Quaker history with Nazarene history, Wesley and Calvin” at the time, proceeded to argue in favor of naming the college after Fox.

For, as Roberts articulated, “George Fox College would be a fitting tribute to one whose insight of the message of Christ transformed worlds.”

In an interview more than 60 years after the name change, he provided more context behind his argument.

“There was Calvin College and there was Wesleyan University, but, in terms of the Quaker heritage, there was only William Penn University in Iowa and Whittier College in California, which is named after a poet. I thought the founder of the church needed to be named, to give him distinction. And so I made a case for naming the college George Fox.”

Arthur and Fern pose for a photo in their later years

‘They Actually Paid Attention to Me’

Roberts admitted years later he never truly found out how his letter was received. What he does remember is the day he heard that “Pacific College” had officially changed its name to “George Fox College” – and the thank you notes he received for his bold argument that helped make it happen.

“I was very pleased when I heard of their decision,” said Roberts, who later joined the George Fox community to serve as a professor of theology and philosophy from 1953 to 1987, and in his twilight years as a professor at large. “I was grateful that the school would honor its heritage in this way. It affirmed that we were not just Wesleyan people.

“The Wesleyan revivals had made an impact, and many Friends churches were not very steeped in their own tradition, so I think this helped to remind us of our roots. I’m pleased that somehow the Lord used me to keep our historical base in the midst of change and adaptations.”

Years later, just before his death in 2016, Roberts was still perplexed about how everything played out.

“A college board listened to a graduate student studying the history of the church,” he reflected. “They actually paid attention to me. That’s probably the most interesting thing about the whole story.

“To this day, George Fox has retained its roots, and that’s something I’m very happy about.”

Read Roberts’ 1949 letter

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