If you walk into Grace Presbyterian Church on a weekday morning, you will find a handful of students in their late teens (some who live in apartments above the sanctuary) furiously taking notes at long tables in the fellowship hall. They face a smart board, and there will likely be a pastor standing in front of it, lecturing. What is going on? Gillespie Academy is in session.
The academy is a one year, post-secondary programme of study “designed to prepare students for university, future employment, or the building of a Christian home”. Typically, students attend in the year after high school in order to build and buttress a solid intellectual and spiritual framework that many Christian young people lack when heading to university or a secular workplace.
In some senses, it is a lay log college – a small group of Christian faculty and students doing something academically counter cultural because of what they believe. Under the oversight of the church’s elders, it is part of the congregation’s mission to equip the next generation to be faithful. We asked Gillespie’s director, Brian Murray, to answer a few questions about the academy for us:
Q. Why is the academy named after George Gillespie?
A. I get asked this quite often as George Gillespie isn’t a typical go to person in history to name something after. To make a long story short, George Gillespie was the youngest commissioner sent to the Westminster Assembly and one of the most influential in shaping the Westminster Standards as we now have them. It is both fascinating and exciting to read of how the Lord used the mind and energy of a young man to champion His truth. George Gillespie summarizes our Academy’s goal of channeling young hearts and minds in the truth of God’s Word for the furtherance of the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Q. How did you decide what to include in the curriculum? With only one year of study, you must have had to choose each course topic and content carefully.
A. Finalizing the curriculum was a challenge in that there is so much that one could cover but only two, thirteen week semester in which to cover it. Basically our current curriculum starts with the principle that God’s Word speaks to absolutely every area of life and that central to the message of the Bible is the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, the first segment of the curriculum deals with biblical studies. The students take an Old and New Testament survey as well as a full year of Systematic Theology to help solidify this essential foundation. The second segment of the curriculum deals with what many might call ‘worldview studies’. Here the students do a rigorous study of the history of western thought paying particular attention to critiquing this history with the light of God’s Word. This course together with a course in practical ethics gets the students to begin to properly assess where we are as a society as well as to begin to wrestle with where we ought to be. The final segment of the curriculum deals broadly with the issue of effective communication. It is all well and good to have a solid biblical foundation and a firm grasp on where we are as a society but it does little good for society in general if we cannot effectively communicate these things. Thus, the students spend time studying logic, written and oral communication, as well as a class dealing with evangelism and apologetics. As you can clearly see, we are really trying to focus on foundations which ultimately affect every area of life and study. Whether a student goes on to study English or History or Science the truth remains that proper understanding of these subjects depends on an understanding of the God who is behind all of these things. It is our prayer that the student will be able to take what they have learned and see clearly how the Scriptures and particularly Jesus Christ is central to a proper understanding of any subject matter. This is why we have chosen Colossians 1:17 as the verse that appears on our crest which reads, “In Him all things hold together”.
Q. Why would a student want to spend an extra year of life (in between high school and university or college) studying at an academy that meets in a church and has credits that public schools do not recognize?
A. To put it rather bluntly, modern education has no understanding of the God who stands behind
every subject matter that is studied. For this reason modern education deals with the particulars of a subject matter all the while having no ability to understand what (or who) holds all these particulars together. The term “university” was originally chosen to convey the fact that all the particulars of the universe where held together by the One who created those particulars (‘uni’ means ‘one’ and ‘versity’ means ‘many’). Gillespie Academy isn’t that final solution to the problem of modern education but it does lay an important framework for students as they go on to further education that allows them to not only see the problems in modern secular thinking but also to be able to think through how we can recapture a proper biblical worldview in every area of study. As to the lack of accreditation, the very fact that Gillespie Academy exists to critique modern secular thinking and education precludes us from seeking recognition from the very system that we are trying to critique.
Q. Tell us about some of your students. Where are they from, why are they at Gillespie, and where do they go when they finish?
A. We are currently in the middle of our third year and it is remarkable to think about the students whom the Lord has brought to us. We have enjoyed Canadian students from Ontario and Nova Scotia as well as American students from Georgia and Maryland. They all come with slightly different backgrounds and gifts but it is a delight to see how they have all come with the unifying desire to see the Lord Jesus glorified through those backgrounds and gifts. It has been a blessing to see strong bonds of friendship being formed at Gillespie between these students and a real effort to stay connected with each other even after their school year is over. So far we have had some students go from Gillespie into the work world and most go on to a variety of post-secondary schools (some public and some Christian), one of which (Covenant College, GA) has recognized four of the courses taken at Gillespie and has granted transfer credits.
Q. How is the local congregation involved in the life of Gillespie Academy? What sort of relationship does it have with the student body?
A. I think that it is fair to say that, humanly speaking, Gillespie Academy would not be in existence if it were not for the support of the local congregation of Grace ARP. From the very beginning the congregation has gotten behind the vision of Gillespie. Some have generously supported the work financially while others have volunteered to oversee the student apartment or organize the graduation dinner or open their homes to students in a billeting situation. It is encouraging to hear prayers being offered up regularly for the professors and students and to see friendships being formed between students and members of the congregation. While students are not required to attend services at Grace (there are other good churches in the area and many live close enough that they are encouraged to go home and continue to be a part of their own local congregation), they are more than welcome to be a part of us for as long as they are with us.
Q. All of the faculty are ordained Presbyterian ministers, except for Josephine Wright, who is a member at a Presbyterian church. Yet you have students from different denominational backgrounds enrolled: how does that work?
A. Actually, we have three ordained Presbyterian ministers and one retired minister from the Orthodox Christian Reformed Church as well as Mrs. Josephine Wright who is a member of a Presbyterian Church. Our faculty is comprised of those who would be described as Confessionally Reformed. That is to say, each one subscribes to either the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity. This is the perspective in which each of the Professors approaches the topic of their respective classes. Having said this, we have had students from six different denominations and are looking forward to adding at least two more to that total next year. The common convictions of the faculty serve to provide a consistent and cohesive approach to the curriculum as a whole but at the same time, students are always encouraged to subject everything they are taught to the final authority of the Bible. Far from being a recipe for discord, this approach has served to stimulate an atmosphere of humility before God’s Word and a mutual respect for one another.
Q. What is your favourite thing about overseeing Gillespie?
A. This is a tough question to summarize as being the Director of Gillespie Academy has been life changing in many respects. I think my favourite thing is the privilege of watching young people being stretched to see how Jesus Christ relates to every area of their life. To see them wrestle with some of the most fundamental questions that man has asked and to see them being able to give answer from the Word of God. Most the students who have come to Gillespie have said at about week two that they are never going to be able to get to the end of the semester let alone the end of the year, but each one of those students has finished the year with confidence. Many of the parents have communicated to me that they have seen a real maturing take place over the course of the year. It is certainly my privilege to be a part of that. This type of atmosphere is contagious and in it I receive as much or more benefit from the students as they could ever receive from me.
Q. How can parents and students find out more?