This article appeared in the SC United Methodist Advocate this month.
Wofford’s Dr. Henry Nelson Snyder served as the college’s fourth president from 1902 to 1942, and at the same time, was one of the leading laymen of South Carolina Methodism. He was a very influential leader in state and national higher education circles as well as in national Methodist circles, and his was a leading voice in the movement toward Methodist reunification in 1939.
Dr. Snyder was a Tennessee native who came to Wofford and Spartanburg in 1890 to become a professor of English. He had earned his degrees at Vanderbilt, which was designed to be the central university of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Some of his teachers there had Wofford connections as well as deep ties to the Methodist Church. After a decade at Wofford, he did what many young American academics in the 1890s and early 1900s did: he went to a German university to study for his doctorate. He would have completed it if Wofford had not called him to the presidency while he was working on his degree
Dr. Snyder’s ties to regional and national higher education movements began in the 1890s, when he was one of two Wofford professors to attend the organizational meeting of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which is the regional accrediting agency for colleges and schools throughout the Southeast. He also built networks in South Carolina’s fledgling public schools in the 1910s and 1920s, and was on good terms with many superintendents and principals. This helped him recruit students to attend Wofford and the other Methodist colleges in the state. He also organized summer schools for teachers at Wofford for many years.
Snyder’s commitment was to make Wofford a first-rate Methodist-related institution, and to blend academic excellence with spiritual development. He later wrote that he never let himself forget the importance of the college’s church relationship. And apparently, the church leadership trusted their president, for they ultimately made him the chairman of the conference board of education, which was responsible for selecting the trustees of all of the colleges. That’s perhaps not the best practice today, but in that place and time, it worked. Snyder wrote that the Annual Conference gave him a free hand in the administration of the college, and this allowed him to build a fine college and faculty over his tenure. While he occasionally had to defend the faculty from critics who objected to a modernizing curriculum, no one ever seriously threatened his independence.
The Conference regularly elected Dr. Snyder as a General Conference delegate, and year after year, he served on various church boards. He was a member of the hymnal revision commission that produced the 1905 and the 1935 Methodist hymnal, and for some twenty years, he was one of the southern church’s members on the reunification commission. As a leader in church-related higher education, he was away from Wofford for the better part of a year in the 1920s as he worked with a church-wide educational fundraising campaign, a cause that benefited Methodist-related colleges throughout the South.
Throughout his life, Henry Nelson Snyder was more than simply a liberal arts college president. He was an ambassador for education at all levels, and he was a firm believer in the important role the Methodist Church played in education. He also played an active role in the creation of the Methodist Church, using his experiences and wisdom to help heal a century-long breach in the church.