Olive Winchester would probably never regard herself as a pioneer. The fact that her personal journey resulted in opening doors for others to walk through would, to her, have been a happy coincidence. To Olive, her life’s calling wasn’t a destination but an excursion to be lived out one day at a time, closely following the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Born on November 22, 1879 in Monson, Maine, Olive May Winchester was the daughter of Charles and Sarah (Blackstone) Winchester. Although brought up in a modest home, Olive was the niece of Oliver Winchester and as such, an heiress to a portion of his Winchester repeating rifle fortune. This and other inheritances would open doors later in life to pursue her calling.
A few years after her father’s untimely death, Winchester became a Christian as a young teenager and an early member of the Association of Pentecostal Churches of America (which later merged with the Church of the Nazarene). This decision was a pivotal moment in Olive’s journey, as it laid the foundation for her insatiable hunger for scripture and knowledge of this new faith.
I’m sending out my students into the stream of life and society. Years from now, away down that river, they will bring ashore my precepts and my teaching. My prayer is that my influence will carry the influence of Christian ideals learned here at NNC into many a distant port there to bless this and coming generations of humanity.”
Using her inheritances, Olive financed her own education first at Radcliffe Ladies College (then a division of Harvard University) in Cambridge, Mass. graduating cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in Hebrew and Arabic; then at the University of Glasgow, in Glasgow, Scotland where she earned a bachelor of divinity; next, at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. where she graduated magna cum laude with a master of sacred theology; and finally at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, where she earned a doctor of theology from the Divinity School.
During her lifetime she broke several gender barriers: for being the first woman to be admitted to the University of Glasgow in Scotland and graduate with a bachelor of divinity; becoming the first woman to be ordained in the United Kingdom for Christian Ministry; and finally, being the first woman to graduate with a Th.D. from Drew University.
A tenacious woman, Olive’s experience both in the church and in academia gave her a powerful longing to see religious education perpetuate holiness work. Highly educated, full of integrity, and extraordinarily zealous, these qualities made her a coveted instructor and led to teaching positions at several colleges. During her tenure at the Pacific School of Religion, she became fast friends with H. Orton Wiley, who, at the time was pastor of the Berkeley Church of the Nazarene. He later went on to become president of Northwest Nazarene College and was so moved by Winchester’s breadth of knowledge and passion for transformative faith in education that he asked Olive to join him at NNC teaching biblical literature and theology (later adding sociology and religious education).
The first professor at NNC with an earned doctorate, Olive was a “confident woman, ambitious, and one who did not suffer easily by those who sternly or off-handedly tried to bully her or other professors” (Seeking First the Kingdom). A “rock of stability and devotion,” Olive took her position as instructor (and later, dean and vice president of NNC) very seriously, assigning students 25-page research papers and book reports on collateral reading, believing the information would be useful for a lifetime. She was demanding yet fair in her expectations. Former student Ross Price once noted, “The student always felt he earned whatever grade he made for the course.”
“Winchester was not the only woman to teach religion at Nazarene colleges, but [she] far surpassed the others in academic background and achievement,” said Stan Ingersol (Our Nazarene Foremothers). In a history of Northwest’s first quarter-century, it was said of Olive that “she contributed very much to the development of the right attitude toward scholastic standards …and had much to do with the internal organization of the institution.” Also noted, “At the center of her legacy stood the undeniable fact that she was a pivotal figure in the transition of Northwest Nazarene College from a sagebrush academy to a sound academic institution.”
Olive firmly believed in the marriage of sound holiness theology with superior higher education. She once said of education, “We feel that a good, wholesome religious life administers to educational standards.” To her, there was no difference between the two—they simply went hand-in-hand, and she worked diligently to indoctrinate those standards.
Winchester’s mark on NNC was profound and her contributions throughout history global. During her lifetime she taught and/or held administrative positions at three Nazarene colleges and Parkhead Holiness Bible School; she was instrumental in the merger of the Pentecostal Church of Scotland and the Church of the Nazarene, and she spent much of her time and money furthering missions projects both locally and abroad.
Olive’s own words, spoken when her portrait was dedicated at NNC, provide perhaps the best indication of what motivated her accomplishments: “I’m sending out my students into the stream of life and society. Years from now, away down that river, they will bring ashore my precepts and my teaching. My prayer is that my influence will carry the influence of Christian ideals learned here at NNC into many a distant port there to bless this and coming generations of humanity.” ■