At Biola, free goes all the way back: In fact, Biola has been giving things away since before there was a Biola. The school officially came into existence in 1908, but in the years before that, our founders were already committed to distributing biblical teaching at no charge.

Our first president was Lyman Stewart, the Christian businessman and philanthropist who helped found the Union Rescue Mission as early as 1891. Stewart was also the visionary behind the Los Angeles Bible House, a missionary publishing foundation that printed millions of copies of Bibles and tracts, with a special focus on distribution in Latin America. Stewart was already in the free business, and starting the Bible Institute of Los Angeles in 1908 was really his way of distributing more Bible knowledge, more effectively, from the most strategic location.

The Fundamentals

The most spectacular stunt of mass educational generosity in Biola’s history was the publication of The Fundamentals. Published serially from 1910 to 1915, The Fundamentals were a series of 12 paperback books, totaling 90 chapters in all. These chapters argued in defense of a wide range of traditional Christian beliefs, emphasizing the historical reliability of the Bible and the classic Protestant teaching about salvation. They were printed and mailed at no charge to any pastor, teacher or missionary who requested them by postcard. In the final volume, an editorial noted that they were being sent to a “mailing list of 100,000 addresses of Christian workers, all of whom have asked for The Fundamentals.”

By the end of the project, 3 million copies had been given away, one third of them overseas. The whole set was anonymously sponsored by “Two Christian Laymen,” who in fact turned out to be Lyman Stewart and his brother Milton. The final editor of the series was R.A. Torrey, Biola’s first academic dean. Historian George Marsden notes that Stewart and his editors had assembled “a rather formidable array of conservative American and British scholars, as well as a number of popular writers.” The Fundamentals were deeply encouraging to conservatives and had a large influence on the churches for decades.

No Tuition!

Bible Institute of Los Angeles advertisement

Current students and parents may be surprised to learn that there was originally no charge at all for tuition at the Bible Institute. The entire business model was designed to make free instruction possible, with students paying only for the costs of delivery. Day and night classes were offered at no charge, and a correspondence school was also available “at a trifling cost.”

A typical advertisement (from the December 1917 issue of The King’s Business) leads with the key word: “Free training of consecrated young men and young women, to make them efficient Bible workers, prepared for any field of Christian endeavor, is the sole object sought by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles.” The advertisement was an appeal to donors, asking them to give financially to support Biola’s mission of free Bible education. As it explained, “The greater the number of students, the more necessary the generous co-operation of Christian men and women in carrying on this unselfish work, for, be it known, the student pays only actual cost for board and gets all training in the school absolutely FREE.” After all, it concluded, “It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that a large faculty, the heavy running expenses and the interest- bearing indebtedness, must be met from voluntary sources.” The Bible teaching was intended to be free, but Biola was always realistic about the hefty cost of doing business downtown. Somebody had to pay for all that free learning. As a 1918 ad to prospective students stated, “Here’s the Key: Free to You.”

two men reading from papers in front of a microphone

On the Air

With a clear understanding of its mission, Biola was alert to the opportunities created by new media and emerging technology. In the 1920s that meant radio. The first AM radio station in America was licensed in 1921, and by 1922 Biola was already on the air in Los Angeles. Soon the school acquired the call letters KTBI, standing for The Bible Institute, and had 750 watts of free Bible teaching emanating from the most powerful broadcast tower west of the Mississippi. What went out on the air through those early shows was exactly the same content as was taught in the classrooms at the Institute. New technology had significantly lowered the cost of delivering the teaching to a much wider audience. Over the decades, Biola adopted different strategies toward radio, selling its station after the stock market crash of 1929 but redoubling its commitment to good programming. The chairman of Biola’s board, Charles Fuller, hosted “The Pilgrim’s Hour” and “The Old Fashioned Revival Hour,” and later president Louis Talbot made “The Biola Hour” a high-rated fixture on West Coast radio. Other famous teachers like Al Sanders and Lehman Strauss were also staples of Biola’s radio ministry.

Free Today

As Biola grew into its current institutional profile as a full liberal arts university with a range of majors and graduate programs, it became more difficult to carry out the founders’ vision of free Bible education. Lyman Stewart prayed that “from this place, streams of influence” would radiate outward, and he obviously intended that whenever possible, Bible teaching would be free, or as affordable as possible. And wherever possible, free teaching still happens: in professors from the seminary guest preaching in various churches (“pulpit supply”), in tours of musical groups, in volunteer ministries downtown, in a wide variety of mission trips, and — now — in online resources like Open Biola.

The high cost of doing business in higher education has been a major challenge to Biola’s abiding commitment to give away as much Bible instruction as possible. But free is in our DNA, and the school remains vigilant in its quest to utilize any new technology that enables us to spread the word while meeting our expenses — anything that sets us free to be free.

Fred Sanders is a systematic theologian, associate professor at Biola’s Torrey Honors College, formerly known as the Torrey Honors Institute, and one of Biola’s resident historians. Follow him on Twitter at @FredFredSanders.