Ira DeSpain, chaplain at Baker University
Baldwin City The manuscripts, with sloppy handwriting faded almost beyond readability, were delivered as sermons about 100 years ago.
But when the Rev. Ira DeSpain read through them recently, he was surprised at their relevance.
"What I found was great depth for today," he says.
DeSpain, chaplain at Baker University, is using those sermons from William Alfred Quayle as the basis for an occasional sermon series at the university's chapel services this year, Baker's 150th.
Quayle is a cornerstone for Baker University. He graduated from the university in 1884 and became its president in 1890. A Methodist minister, he later served as Methodist bishop from 1908 until his death in 1925.
"He developed the nickname of the 'meadowlark of Kansas,' which referenced the way in which he conducted outdoor worship services," DeSpain says. "His voice sounded melodious, but it also was about his word usage."
DeSpain delivered his first Quayle sermon on Thursday. He has six more planned throughout the school year.
He's condensing the sermons considerably - Thursday's originally was 29 pages typewritten, shortened to about three and a half. He's also changing a few of the words to make it more understandable for today's audience.
"I lost a lot of the oratory piece, the flowery language," he says.
But DeSpain makes it clear he's not impersonating Quayle.
"I don't imitate Bishop Quayle," he says. "I don't act like Bishop Quayle. That's not in my DNA. It would come across as a farce. I just want to revamp his message for the 21st century crowd."
Thursday's sermon dealt with the founding of Kansas. It originally was delivered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Baker's founding.
"It's about his deep, abiding love and respect for Kansas, and his belief that the state of Kansas was tied to the free state movement, which he believed as God-ordained," DeSpain says. "In terms of the spirit of freedom and independence, freethinking still exists in Kansas today."
Other topics Quayle's sermons cover include the in-dwelling presence of Christ, which DeSpain will deliver around Christmas, and the need to further students' faith, intended for around graduation.
Brenda Day, Baker's archivist, says Quayle was ahead of his time when it came to sermons.
"There was not a subject he was afraid to tackle," she says. "He was tackling race relations early in the 20th century. He tackled nature and a lack of respect for nature. He was 60, 70 or 100 years too early. He was a very courageous minister. He was not afraid to tackle dicey subjects."
And those subjects still have meaning today, Day says.
"They resonate with timeless beauty," she says. "They almost bring you to tears."
Quayle donated his manuscripts to Baker when he died, along with an extensive rare Bible collection that remains on display at the university.
"He was well-known and well-respected," DeSpain says. "He was a real pioneer."
He says the sermon series ties in well with the university's historic chapel, which dates back to the 1860s and was brought over in pieces from England.
"The important thing, and goes with the chapel itself, is we want Thursday to be a chapel worship service, not a history lesson," DeSpain says. "We want the chapel to be a chapel, not a museum. If students can feel a connection with God, or a connection with other believers, that's the important part."