Gladdys Esther Muir

by Zoe Vorndran

It is difficult to confine the life of Gladdys Muir simply to words on a page. However, if one quote can truly define Dr. Gladdys E. Muir’s lifelong motto as a teacher and peace activist, it is one in which she wrote: “I have found it better to overestimate a student’s ability than to underrate him, for he usually rises to what you expect of him.”[1] Perhaps it was this maxim that led Gladdys to touch the lives of thousands of students across the United States. Maybe it was also this quote that inspired Gladdys to rise to the occasion herself and pioneer an educational program. Whatever the case may be, Gladdys certainly paved the way in education, peacebuilding, and Brethren history.

Gladdys was born to Freeman I. and Mary Moherman Muir on March 5, 1895 in McPherson, Kansas. Her mother was a woman of deep religious insights and her father was an artist and musician who taught music at McPherson College. Due to her connections with the Brethren church and the college, Gladdys studied and graduated from McPherson College in 1915. Though her young years and college years could have been formative, there were a few events later in her life that informed her passion for organizing peace: her students, religion, and global affairs.

Gladdys began her teaching career at La Verne College as a Spanish and Latin professor in 1916. However, by 1919, she soon found herself as a professor of history and Spanish. Gladdys sought to teach and learn amongst her pupils as she led courses with open discussions. Her courses attracted students from across disciplines because, as Allen C. Deeter described, “it was based on the excitement of the ideas themselves and the vast horizons opened by them as together the class and Dr. Muir explored their implications.”[2] Her dedication towards her students extended beyond the classroom as she often invited them to have tea and to discuss topics more in depth at her home. The ties Gladdys forged with her students led her to dedicate her life to the purpose of teaching future leaders, educators, peacebuilders, and decision- and policymakers.[3] Over the course of her career, Gladdys worked at two Brethren colleges: La Verne and Manchester.

Growing up in the Church of the Brethren and working at Brethren colleges certainly impressed the Brethren ideals of peace and social action upon her. Her resolve to enact peaceful change in the world strengthened when she studied at the Institute of International Relations in 1934. There, she was introduced to philosophical and spiritual concepts that would lead her to rediscover her faith and its implications on the human condition. Though deeply ensconced in Brethren beliefs, Gladdys also studied other religions and philosophers, which provided spiritual insights.[4] It was the marriage of those discourses and the deeply engrained Brethren foundations that led Gladdys to “believe again in the reality of the realm of the spirit and the validity of the religious approach to the war-peace question.”[5]

The outbreak of the first world war also greatly influenced the trajectory of Gladdys work. In the 1929, Gladdys went abroad. During the summer, Gladdys learned about the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland and in the winter, she studied in Edinburgh, Scotland. During her experiences abroad, Gladdys learned different perspectives and developed a keen awareness of international relations. Upon returning to La Verne College, she began teaching courses on international relations and she organized the International Relations Club. Throughout the remainder of her academic career, Gladdys held seminars on peace, world affairs, and conflict. She also later became involved with other institutes that dealt with international relations sponsored by the Society of Friends; there she met and interacted with esteemed international figures.[6] Through all the international discourse and her interests in global politics, Gladdys began formulating a program that would reach the wider world and emphasize peaceful solution-making in such a turbulent world.

It was at Manchester College in 1948 when Gladdys’s plans came to fruition. Upon reading her paper, “The Place of the Brethren Colleges in Preparing Men and Women for Peace Leadership,” in which she outlined a peace studies curriculum, Vernon F. Schwalm, president of Manchester College, allowed Gladdys to launch her proposal within the history department. The curriculum she developed included courses in philosophy, ethics, and religion and she taught a range of topics including Greek tragedies, the Bhagavad Gita, Tolstoy, the teachings of Confucius, Gandhi, and the American classics like Thoreau. Gladdys had argued that such courses, which had been neglected with the rise of scientific interest, would prepare students to create peaceful solutions by being exposed to both the humanities and the social sciences.[7]

Gladdys remained at Manchester to spearhead and direct the Peace Studies program until 1959. During her 11 years, the program flourished. Gladdys influenced students of various majors as she always believed that people of any vocation or lifestyle could be peacemakers. Manchester’s Peace Studies Institute and Program in Conflict Resolutions was recognized as the first undergraduate peace studies program in the world and it became both an indirect and direct model for later peace programs.[8]

In addition to teaching and pioneering the first undergraduate Peace Studies program, Gladdys was a prolific writer and historian. She wrote books about the Church of the Brethren in the west; some of the most notable books included, La Verne College: Seventy-Five Years of Service and Settlement of the Brethren on the Pacific Slope: A Study in Colonization. Some excerpts from her books and other articles she wrote appeared in the Gospel Messenger. Gladdys was also the Pacific Southwest Conference’s archivist.

Even in retirement, Gladdys was highly influential. She continued to hold seminars about global peace and conflict, and she also stayed active in the Church of the Brethren. Most notably, Gladdys wrote semiannual newsletters to her former students, which totaled to over a thousand people who were scattered across the world. In her letters, she provided updates and talked about current events.[9] So great was her worldwide family, that she once wrote in a newsletter, “We piled the greetings from my LaVerne family at one end of the “mantel” (our bookcase) and the messages from the Manchester family at the other and ranged the pictures of the children in between.”[10] Gladdys’s impact was certainly not small.

When Gladdys died in 1967, she left a legacy. For a person who graduated from McPherson College, taught at La Verne College, pioneered the first peace program at Manchester College, wrote historical books about the Church of the Brethren, and because the curator of the archives for the Pacific Southwest Conference, it is safe to say that Gladdys was influenced by the core values of the Church of the Brethren. Yet by the same token, it was also Gladdys who redefined the ideals set by the denomination. Indeed, her argument that peace and pacifism was not merely part of the Brethren identity, but in fact the crux of Brethren tradition paved the way to generations of peacemakers and social reformers around the world.

[1] Harry A. Brandt, “Meet Gladdys Muir – Portrait of a Beloved Teacher,” Messenger, March 3, 1966, 10.

[2] Allen C. Deeter, “Gladdys Muir in North Manchester,” NMHS Newsletter, August 1991.

[3] Brandt, “Beloved Teacher,” 9-11.

[4] She studied materials from Lao-tze, Mo-ti, St. Augustine, Plato, Socrates, and others. However, she also returned to the principles in the New Testament where Jesus appealed to the masses and taught the common folks: see Boyers, “Peace Pioneer,” Messenger, July 1991, 20.

[5] Boyers, “Peace Pioneer,” 20.

[6] Brandt, “Beloved Teacher,” 10-11; Karla Boyers, “Gladdys Muir: Peace Pioneer,” Messenger, July 1991, 20.

[7] Deeter, “North Manchester.”

[8] “Gladdys E. Muir (1895-1967),” Messenger, June 1997, 11-12.

[9] Former students included in the mailing list were settled in places like Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Mississippi, Washington D.C., Illinois, Indiana, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan, Kansas, Iowa, Tennessee, Oregon, Nigeria, India, Malaya, Indonesia, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Spain, Germany, Turkey, and Canada: see Brandt, “Beloved Teacher.” Letters can be found in BHLA’s Gladdys E. Muir collection; also see “Gladdys E. Muir (1895-1967),” Messenger, June 1997, 11-12.

[10] Gladdys E. Muir, Letter to Students of Peace Studies, January 8, 1955.

[gt-link lang="en" label="English" widget_look="flags_name"]