Briercrest Schools began first with the Briercrest Bible Institute (now known as Briercrest College) in the small village of Briercrest during the economically depressed 1930s. The idea for a school was conceived by a diverse group of people including Annie Hillson, Isabel Whittaker, and the latter’s husband, Sinclair Whittaker, a local entrepreneur and former Conservative member of the provincial Legislature. Together they organized Bible studies and conferences in the area, and initiated a small independent congregation. Through their connections to an emerging fundamentalist network in western Canada, they met Henry Hildebrand, a young Mennonite immigrant and recent graduate from the Winnipeg Bible Institute; they invited him to pastor the newly formed Briercrest Gospel Assembly and to help them start a Bible school.
With Sinclair Whittaker as chair of the Board and responsible for facilities, Hildebrand organized in 1935 a course of studies patterned after the curriculum of the Winnipeg Bible Institute, intentionally steering the school in a transdenominational and evangelical direction. Without a denominational constituency from which to draw students, the school made effective use of radio broadcasts and annual conferences to develop a loyal following. The school’s central purpose was to train men and women for effective Christian service in both lay and professional roles. Hildebrand’s moderate Calvinism, mixed with a strong biblicism, dispensational premillennialism, Keswick Holiness teaching, and a passion for evangelism and foreign missions converged to make the school an institutional embodiment of fundamentalist beliefs. For decades the school functioned as a kind of regional headquarters for a network of independent churches and missionary organizations in western Canada. Hildebrand remained as principal of the school until 1977, and then as chancellor until 1996; the longevity of his tenure at the school contributed considerably to its growth and stability.
A steady increase in students set the stage in 1946 for the purchase of the Caron airport (later renamed Caronport), located fifteen miles west of Moose Jaw. This ready-made, self-contained campus offered ample room for the expansion of residential facilities and for the development of a more multifaceted operation. By 1948, enrollment in the Bible school neared 250. The addition of a high school in 1946 was followed by a general store, a post office, an elementary school, and a farm operation. The routing of the Trans-Canada Highway across the front of its property during the 1950s, and the addition of a motel, service station and restaurant enhanced the visibility of the school. The centrepiece of the extensively developed campus is the 3,500 seat Hildebrand Chapel, the largest auditorium in the province.
Reflecting post-war trends towards more education and higher vocational standards, the school encouraged faculty to enhance their academic credentials. By 1974 the Briercrest Bible Institute was given authority to grant degrees, and in 1976 the school was accredited by the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges. A graduate division, now known as Briercrest Seminary, was initiated in 1983 and was granted full membership in the Association of Theological Schools in 1998. Briercrest College is currently the largest Bible college in Canada; its 19,000 alumni are active throughout Canada and in over 80 countries. Cumulative enrollment in the various Briercrest schools numbers 1,400 annually.
Bruce L. Guenther