A new liberal arts college named after an Anabaptist martyr plans to open next fall in Boston, expecting to start with about 30 students.
Sattler College intends to combine a rigorous education with guidance for discipleship at an estimated tuition cost of about $9,000 a year.
Founder Finny Kuruvilla of Boston, who holds an M.D. and a doctorate in chemistry and chemical biology from Harvard, said he was particularly impressed by the witness of Michael Sattler, who is considered the main writer of the 1527 Schleitheim Confession.
“He was a person who led with conviction, not just an academic in an ivory tower,” Kuruvilla said, noting that Sattler was an educated man. “I think he’s one of the most remarkable people among the early Anabaptists.”
Sattler College will offer bachelor’s degrees with five majors: human biology, computer science, biblical and religious studies, history and business. The core curriculum for all students includes biblical Greek, biblical Hebrew, theology, apologetics and a course on the Old and New Testaments.
Kuruvilla said tuition can be kept low because the cost of post-secondary education is less than most people think. At the outset, it is partnering with other institutions to provide residential facilities. It won’t have food service or athletics.
The primary source of startup funding comes from Eventide Mutual Funds, of which Kuruvilla is chief investment officer.
The college is planning to have a space in downtown Boston and hire three faculty members. Within five to seven years, Kuruvilla hopes to grow the school to around 300 students and 20 faculty members.
He has been recruiting students from conservative Anabaptist circles and at homeschool conventions.
Sattler College received approval in December from the state of Massachusetts to operate as a college. It is seeking regional accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
Kuruvilla said the vision for Sattler College was born when he was in graduate school at Harvard, teaching organic chemistry and living as a residential adviser in the undergraduate dormitories.
“I found myself increasingly disillusioned with what I saw in higher education, particularly the general trajectory that people had of faith,” he said. He believes the typical college experience tends to “shipwreck” any Christian faith students had when they entered.
“Students are worse off on average after four years in college,” he said. “It’s sad that there’s a degeneration over the average student’s four years in college.”
Though there are a multitude of Christian colleges, including Anabaptist ones, Kuruvilla believes Sattler College will uniquely fulfill a calling to take an active role in its students’ faith formation. All students will be required to participate in a spiritual mentorship program each year. At graduation, “you get a diploma and a statement of Christian discipleship,” Kuruvilla said. “We want to be equipping students to get stronger in their faith, not to regress.”
Discovering a movement
Originally from an evangelical background, Kuruvilla discovered the Anabaptist movement after searching for Christian groups that practiced New Testament teaching literally.
“There has been a very notable minority all throughout church history who said, ‘Let’s take what Jesus said seriously,’ ” he said. “The early Anabaptists are about as powerful a group as you can find in church history who took the New Testament at face value.”
For a few years, he attended an Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church congregation. In 2013 in Boston, he started an independent congregation, Followers of the Way, whose teachings “are close to the ante-Nicene church, as well as the persecuted, suffering church throughout the ages (the Waldensians, the Lollards and the early Anabaptists),” according to its website.
“Ante-Nicene” refers to the time before the writing of the Nicene Creed in the fourth century.
Although Sattler College’s principles — including nonresistance, believers baptism and nonconformity to the world — fall in line with Anabaptism, it does not limit itself to an Anabaptist identity.
“We’re followers of Jesus who believe the Bible is to be taken seriously . . . grounded in Jesus as opposed to a human tradition, renewing the church from within,” Kuruvilla said.
According to its website, the college has no denominational affiliation, but “the beliefs upon which it is established correspond most closely with the persecuted, suffering churches of history, such as the ante-Nicene church, the Waldensians, the Wycliffites and the Anabaptists.”
In the spirit of renewal
One of the college’s board members is church historian David Bercot, who lives outside Chambersburg, Pa., and is often invited to speak in conservative Anabaptist circles on the beliefs and practices of the early church.
His 2003 book, The Kingdom That Turned the World Upside Down, used the term “kingdom Christians” to describe members of renewal movements, including Anabaptists, who were about “getting back to the teachings of Jesus . . . to the historic faith that was believed in the first and second centuries,” he said.
It’s in this spirit that Sattler College stands.
Bercot is now a member of Chambersburg Christian Fellowship, which he described as “consciously Mennonite” and similar to Beachy Amish, although unaffiliated. Yet he acknowledged that many people who don’t have a traditional conservative Mennonite background struggle with some of the cultural practices in plain groups.
“Conservative Anabaptists have created a culture that they have lived out kingdom Christianity in,” Bercot said. “It’s both an asset and a weakness. . . . It serves as a wall that has helped to preserve things, but it’s also a wall that keeps people out. Not only do [newcomers] have to conform to the teachings of Jesus, but they have to conform to a culture that is foreign to them.”
It is these people that Kuruvilla is making an effort to reach at Followers of the Way.
“In many conservative Anabaptist groups, there’s this addition of many extrabiblical standards and rules . . . that have really choked a lot of the vitality and power that the early Anabaptists had,” Kuruvilla said.
Followers of the Way has reached out to the Harvard community, and has baptized people from there who are now passionate about reclaiming ancient Christianity. Some of these people will likely be involved with teaching at Sattler College, Kuruvilla said.
“I’m convinced there is an openness among Mennonites and Anabaptists to new paradigms that there hasn’t been in a while now,” he said, pointing to the growth of the annual Kingdom Fellowship Weekend conference in Pennsylvania. Begun 13 years ago by a small group of conservative Mennonite young people, it has become a gathering of 900 people from a variety of backgrounds interested in kingdom Christianity.
“There’s a lot more hunger and openness to reach out and go to many places traditional Anabaptists haven’t been willing to go,” he said.