Bradford Academy was not the first classical Christian school in this area. As a matter of fact, this area has an interesting tie to classical and Christian education.
You may have seen the name Melville show up locally. We have the Melville Trading Company downtown and you may have seen historic references to Melville Dairy Farms. Unbeknownst to many is the fact that the city Mebane is actually part of what is known as Melville Township.
(You would border the township if you draw a line running east from Quarry Hills Country Club, by the Haw River, straight to the Orange County line, then follow the county line north to Fuller Road just north of Mill Creek, then go west to Stagg Creek and follow it southeast until it joins the Quaker Creek Reservoir and continue along Black Creek back to the Haw River. )
The name “Melville” was taken from a CLASSICAL and CHRISTIAN school that had been established in 1851 by Alexander Wilson. The school was located near the current Alexander Wilson elementary school around Hawfields. Alexander Wilson, a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian educator and clergyman, came to America around 1818. He arrived in America on July 4th and soon began teaching at various private academies particularly the classics and theology. Philosophically, these schools followed the Presbyterian tradition of Andrew Melville, a Scottish Reformer. Because of Melville’s stature among Christian scholars, Wilson named his school Melville Academy.
Andrew Melville was a theologian of the highest caliber and some consider him as important to Scottish Presbyterianism as John Knox. He fought for religious freedom from the government of King James and restored a high regard for the Scriptures in education. He served as head of various colleges and angered those who claimed the infallibility of Aristotle, a popular position of the academic elite at the time. While he held a high regard for the classics and scholarship, he was at the same time a champion of the ultimate authority of Scripture. He famously rebuked the King to his face calling him, “God’s silly vassel.” Melville famously reminded him that in Scotland there were two kingdoms and James was not head of both. There was the civil realm headed by the man James the Sixth, and the heavenly kingdom, the church on earth, headed by Christ Himself.
While the church instructs the state in ethics and morality and the state protects the church, the relationship between the two is ultimately one of separation. This way of thinking shaped Presbyterian views of government in Europe and was carried to America by the persecuted Puritans in the Northeast and later by the Scotch-Irish settlers here in the Carolinas. These forefathers were fiercely independent when it came to personal and civil responsibility and at the same time unashamedly spiritually dependent when it came to the Scriptures and their Christian life. Their dependence was wholly upon Christ.
This man, Andrew Melville who is almost lost to us in Christian history, stood tall in the mind of the energetic educator Alexander Wilson. According to local historians, “When Alexander Wilson, a teacher in the Caldwell Institute in Hillsborough, decided to open a classical school of his own. Henderson Scott (1814–1870) convinced him to settle in Hawfields so the children in his community could be educated. Wilson moved into his home in 1851 and named his new school Melville…” According to the Alamance County Architectural Survey, “In 1850 Alexander Wilson purchased a tract of land at Burnt Shop in Alamance County and started a private classical school, the Melville Academy. Wilson named his house where the school was held ‘Melville’ and later the post office’s name was changed to Melville. Wilson’s academy became another of the renowned private schools in the state… The original Melville Academy building was demolished in 1902.”
Alexander Wilson was a very pious Christian man. While teaching at a previous school he began holding prayer meetings and demonstrated such a godly life that he was encouraged to become a pastor. He was ordained in 1830. During that time, it was said that most young Presbyterian clergy went out teaching at schools and preaching the gospel. While the term “Classical Christian school” is a bit anachronistic, it is certainly right to call his classical school a Christian school. Any other kind of education would have been unthinkable to a 19th century Presbyterian who had Andrew Melville as a hero. After establishing the school, Wilson also had a gristmill built near the school making the area a center for trade and business. The gristmill was destroyed in 1875 and eventually commerce moved a few miles to the north because a railway depot was established in what is now downtown Mebane.
All this historical trivia makes for some interesting conversations, but it also teaches us a few lessons. First, it is another reminder of the reality of our pervasively CHRISTIAN heritage. Sometimes we hear people criticizing “organized religion” for all its supposed evils when in fact we can trace virtually all of our civil blessings to the work of humble Christians in our past. Where serious Biblical Christianity was taught and embraced, we see a corresponding blessing in many areas of life including, and especially, education.
Second, we need to be careful about our judgment of the past. I have to admit that I had grinned at the name Melville because it had such a “folksy” sound to it. Little did I know it was the name of a courageous and brilliant Christian scholar who stood uncompromisingly against a tyrant king during the Reformation. Furthermore, the name came to this area by way of a Classical and Christian school. There is certainly nothing folksy about that grand heritage.
Lastly, let it also be a reminder of the harsh reality of compromise thrust upon us by the passing of time. What was a prosperous and effective school is now completely lost. The classical learning that had gained a noted reputation over a century ago has almost vanished in this area. God has blessed faithful men of the past, but after generations of neglect we have seen those blessings diminished. The name of Melville has been almost lost to us as well. The spiritual battles he won had blessed generations and yet the man is largely unknown in our churches. Sadly, the work of Alexander Wilson has also been virtually erased from our collective memory. I wonder what he would think of the school that now bears his name. Perhaps he would be thankful that so many children have the opportunity to get an education but at the same time I suspect he would be desperately perplexed at the methods and the complete eradication of Christianity from the curriculum. The times have changed. Perhaps he would be excited by the number of books students had access to in the library. However, can you imagine his reaction to Captain Underpants, Goosebumps, or any of the other trite novels served up as children’s literature?
In order to build upon the blessing of our forefathers we need to know and preserve those blessings. Alexander Wilson loved the Bible and prayer. It prompted him to teach and speak. Should we be content to do less? At Bradford Academy we are attempting to give to our students something that was not given to us. We are trying to regain that which was the norm in the education of the past. If Alexander Wilson could do it in the backwoods of 1850’s North Carolina countryside, can’t we do it again in Mebane? Can’t we regain a Classical education that is thoroughly Christ-centered and produce a generation of godly leaders? I think we can. I think we must. Peace and grace.
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