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Rev. John Brown White
Source: "Historical stories: about Greenville and Bond County, IL"
By Allan H. Keith, ©2002
Used with permission

One of the most important figures in the early history of Greenville and Bond County was the Rev. John Brown White.

A pioneer in the field of women's education, White was the founding president of Almira College, established in 1855.

For most of its history, the college was a school exclusively for women.

In 1892 it was sold to the Central Illinois Conference of the Free Methodist Church and became Greenville College, a coeducational institution.

A biography of the Rev. John Brown White was published in 1984, written by Dr. Donald Jordahl, now an emeritus professor of history at Greenville College.

The book is titled: "Man Proposes, But God Disposes: A Biography of John Brown White, Lawyer, Minister, Educator and Founding President of Almira College."

White was born in 1810 in Bow, N. H. His family was involved in farming, but he decided to enter other fields of endeavor.

He graduated from Brown University in Rhode Island in 1832 and was awarded a master's degree in 1835.

In his book, Jordahl notes that "White's first vocational choice was law and he pursued his choice vigorously until the voices of conscience and duty, imposed on him by his dearest friends, changed the direction of his life."

Several persons were influential in turning him from the law toward education and the Christian ministry.

Among them were his wife, Mary Merriam White, herself a teacher. Some others included Stephen Morse, a boyhood friend and college roommate, who later helped White establish Almira College. (It was named for Morse's wife, Almira Blanchard Morse, who gave $6,000 to start the college.)

Another major influence was Samuel Wait, the founding president of Wake Forest College (now university) in North Carolina. White taught for several years at Wake Forest and then served as president of the college.

From 1853 to 1855 White was president of the Brownsville Female College in Tennessee.

White's wife, Mary, died in 1855, shortly before Almira College was established in Greenville.

The first classes were conducted in White's home, now called the Almira College House on the Greenville College campus. The building houses the Richard W. Bock sculpture collection.

Later, White married Elizabeth Wright, a school teacher from Springfield, who helped raise his children. She also was an important influence in the development of the college.

Old Main (now Hogue Hall at Greenville College) was built between 1856 and 1864. The completed portion of the structure was used for classes starting in 1858.

Jordahl has written that Almira College represented "one of the earliest extensions westward of an eastern idea favorable toward female education, an early step in the women's suffrage and liberation movement."

Almira, and other similar colleges of the time, "proposed to prepare leaders for society by enlightening the intelligence of young ladies who were to become mothers. The assumption was that leaders were nurtured by mothers in the homes.

"Hence, the college provided young daughters from middle and upper-class homes opportunities for cultural development, intellectual breadth and Christian nurture," wrote Jordahl.

For several years, White served as pastor of the Greenville Baptist Church.

During the Civil War, White's service as college president was interrupted for a time when he served as a chaplain to the 117th Regiment of the Illinois Infantry Volunteers. White was a strong opponent of slavery.

In 1865, after the Civil War, White opened a school for women in Alton, but returned in 1867 to the presidency of Almira College. He served in that capacity until he retired in 1878, but afterward remained active in college and community affairs.

White died Feb. 12, 1887 in Greenville. His wife, Elizabeth, died in 1910. Both are buried not too far from the entrance to Montrose Cemetery.

Although it was founded as a school for women, Almira in 1889 opened its doors to male day (non-boarding) students and discussion began concerning a fully coeducational program.

When the college was sold to the Central Illinois Conference of the Free Methodist Church in 1892 it was made fully coeducational and renamed Greenville College.

Almira College alumni held a reunion in the fall of 1931. The reunion was sponsored by Nellie Bliss White of Hillsboro, an 1871 graduate of Almira and a daughter-in-law of John Brown White.

The Greenville Advocate said the Almira College alumni paid tribute to the memory of John Brown White "who had been their teacher, a counsellor and friend, whose works did not die with him, but have multiplied and borne fruit through the passing years."

Leslie R. Marston, president of Greenville College, presided over the unveiling of a plaque on the east wall inside the front entrance to the college's main building, which was named Hogue Hall in 1932.

The plaque reads: "In Memory of John Brown White, Teacher, Counsellor and Friend, First President, Almira College, Founded in 1855. Placed by His Grateful Pupils 1931"

In June of 1942, Nellie Bliss White (then 94 years old) headed yet another Almira College reunion. Chairperson was Mary Alice Tenney, a long-time faculty member at Greenville College. Presiding was Mrs. Guy (Alice Baumberger) Hoiles of Greenville.

H. J. Long, president of Greenville College, greeted those at the reunion. The Advocate reported that Long "declared the founding of Almira and Greenville ran parallel for both were founded on prayer."

Old Main (Hogue Hall) is now on the National Registry of Historic Places.

(Allan H. Keith, formerly of Greenville,is a free-lance writer and lives in Mattoon.)


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