Methodist Bishop Holland N. McTyeire is best remembered for his indispensable role in the founding of Vanderbilt University. As a key player in wresting a charter for a central university from the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, McTyeire acquired the money to make the charter a reality and shaped the early university in its location, buildings and grounds, the first faculty, and educational policies. When McTyeire died on February 15, 1889, his beloved university was well established.
Born in Barnwell County, South Carolina, in 1824 to John and Elizabeth McTyeire, he was educated at Methodist schools and earned a B.A. from Randolph-Macon College in Virginia in 1844. Thence followed ministerial appointments in Virginia and Alabama and marriage to Amelia Townsend of Mobile in 1847. It quickly became apparent that McTyeire’s gifts were not those of an emotional, charismatic itinerant preacher, but instead those of a careful and logical writer and editor, administrator, and church leader. In 1858 McTyeire came to Nashville to assume the editorship of the Christian Advocate. After serving rural folk and refugees in Alabama during the Civil War, McTyeire emerged as a major force in the reorganization of Southern Methodism after the war. He was elected bishop and in 1867 returned to Nashville, where he assisted in the organization of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church.
As a bishop of a church literally torn apart by sectional strife and war and living in a devastated section of the nation, McTyeire identified better ministerial training as a critical need. McTyeire’s vision was of a theological seminary, a separate institution from the biblical departments already in existence in Methodist colleges in the South. McTyeire’s plans were controversial–some felt theological training was too intellectual, elitist, and removed from the people, while others opted for a central university stressing the liberal arts (much more in the vein of a Yale or Harvard). McTyeire joined with the proponents of a central university in 1872 when the church’s conferences met in Memphis. The charter authorizing a Central University of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, laid out a plan for a broad-based institute of higher learning with theological, literary, scientific, and professional schools.
The charter would have been stillborn without the efforts of McTyeire. While in New York City for a surgical procedure, McTyeire used a kinship connection with Cornelius Vanderbilt’s second wife to solicit an initial gift of five hundred thousand dollars that gave birth to Vanderbilt University. The Vanderbilt gift brought McTyeire great power and prestige; Vanderbilt insisted that McTyeire become the president of the university’s Board of Trust, receive a salary and a free home, and hold veto power over board decisions. From the planning, the opening on October 3, 1873, and through its first fifteen years, Vanderbilt University felt McTyeire’s decisive hand and guidance in every important policy decision. During the years of McTyeire’s reign, controversies and problems–contentious battles with the faculty, periods of declining and sluggish enrollment, poorly prepared students whose inadequacies undercut rigorous standards, and lack of financial support from the denomination–threatened to swamp the fledgling institution. McTyeire rode out the controversies, expanded the physical plant, solicited still more money from the Vanderbilt family to bring the endowment up to nine hundred thousand dollars, and established new Ph.D. programs. At the time of his death in 1889, Vanderbilt University was poised on the brink of its “golden age.” No subsequent leader, whether president of the board or chancellor, would wield the power of a McTyeire.
Paul K. Conkin, Gone With the Ivy: A Biography of Vanderbilt University (1985); John J. Tigert, Bishop Holland McTyeire, Ecclesiastical and Educational Architect (1955)