Messiah Festival

The Messiah Festival has been an annual tradition of Bethany College and the Lindsborg community since the inception of the Bethany Oratorio Society in 1881. On March 28, 1882, the Oratorio Society gave its first performance of George Friedrich Handel’s Messiah, and the piece has been performed every Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday since. On March 29, 1929, the Oratorio Society introduced Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew to the Messiah Festival and this piece also became a part of the tradition, now performed every Good Friday. Lindsborg’s Messiah Festival boasts the longest running annual performance of the Messiah in the entire United States. [1] In the spring of 1917, the Oratorio Society was gearing up for its 36th annual Messiah Festival.

The first known picture of the Oratorio Society during the Messiah Festival. This picture was taken in 1908, six years before the beginning of WWI, and nine years before America became involved.
The first known picture of the Oratorio Society during the Messiah Festival. This picture was taken in 1908, six years before the beginning of WWI, and nine years before America became involved. [2]
1914 [3], 1915 [4], and 1916 [5] (left to right) front page spreads of “The Bethany Messenger” during Holy Week.
Throughout the start of the war, while America was still a relatively neutral country, the Messiah Festival went on normally. Updates from the oratorio society headed editions of  Bethany’s newspaper, The Bethany Messenger, during Holymessiah-1915-pg-1 Week. The April 4, 1914 edition of The Bethany Messenger dedicated its front page to a spread featuring the oncomingmessiah-1916-pg-1 Holy Week festivities – “Everybody Ready to Celebrate Messiah Week,” the headline reads. [3] While the rest of the world was on the brink of war, America remained steady, and Lindsborg remained focused on the tradition of the Messiah Festival. War was declared abroad on July 28, 1914, just a few short months after the 1914 Messiah Festival took place. Although the war raged on abroad, 1915 and 1916 editions of The Bethany Messenger saw no change to the prevalence it placed on the Messiah Festival.

In the spring of 1917, the Bethany Oratorio Society was gearing up for the 36th annual Messiah Festival.

In the spring of 1917, America was gearing up to fight World War I.

America declared war on the Central Powers on April 6, 1917 – Good Friday. Two days later, the Bethany Oratorio Society gave its 36th performance of Handel’s Messiah. The year 1917 was the first year that the Messiah Festival schedule was altered due to the war. That June, the Oratorio Society members packed their bags and made way toward Camp Funston, a training camp for World War I soldiers located on Camp Riley southwest of Manhattan, Kansas. This was not a usual performance for Oratorio members -the show closed with the chorus’ rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and an article in The Bethany Messenger regarding the events of this particular concert reads:

Because these men were going from that camp into such a conflict, this Chorus had come to hearten them for their fight in defense of outraged humanity. When the Chorus closed with ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ it is certain that thousands of American soldiers had a clearer sense of what they were going to fight, and a more certain trust in the righteousness of their cause… They sat up straight and from their eyes shone the spirit of the new Crusade. They were going out into the world to make straight the highway for our God. [6]

A photograph of the 1917 Bethany Oratorio Society. [7]
A segment from an article on the need for a new auditorium featured in “The Bethany Messenger.” [8]
The 1917 Messiah Festival also saw the greatest outpouring of audience participation the college had ever seen. Several articles were featured in The Bethany Messenger following Holy Week that called for a new auditorium to be built on the Bethany Campus. Whether the influx of audience members was related to the start of the United State’s involvement in World War I is not evident. It is interesting to note, however, that during a time of ardent nationalism and anti-German sentiment, the Messiah, a known German work, saw its largest audience in Lindsborg, KS that year.


Although a larger auditorium was called for, construction did not start, and 1918 saw a drastic change to the relevance and importance of the Oratorio Society.

There was no front page spread for Holy Week festivities in 1918. Featured instead was an article on the girl’s Glee Club, a protest against a new policy on female headwear, a student council article berating the wailing of the infantile freshman class, and an article regarding “Uncle Sam’s Call.”

The front page spread of the 1918 Holy Week edition of "The Messenger."
The front page spread of the 1918 Holy Week edition of “The Bethany Messenger.” [10]
The 1918 spread for Holy Week festivities.
The 1918 spread for Holy Week festivities. [11]
The Messiah Festival events of 1918 were confined to the third page of this newspaper and were not brought up in any significant way in later editions of the newspaper.

Despite the lull in interest that the Messiah Festival had to overcome in 1918, the tradition never died out. The Bethany Oratorio Society still comes together every year to tell the story of Jesus Christ’s birth, life and death through the works of Handel and Bach. The last season, in the spring of 2016, marked the 135th anniversary of the Messiah Festival, and now preparations are being made for the 136th performance coming in the spring of 2017.

The Bethany Oratorio Society's most recent telling of Handel's "Messiah" on the 135th anniversary in the spring of 2016.
The Bethany Oratorio Society’s most recent telling of Handel’s “Messiah” on the 135th anniversary in the spring of 2016.

[1] “The Tradition: The First Festival,” Bethany College, accessed December 6, 2016,

[2] “Lindsborg Explorations,” Kansas Sampler Foundation, accessed December 6, 2016,

[3] The Bethany Messenger, April 4, 1914.

[4] The Bethany Messenger, March 30, 1915.

[5] The Bethany Messenger, April 8, 1916.

[6] The Bethany Messenger, July 12, 1917.

[7] The Bethany Messenger, March 31, 1917.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Bethany Messenger, April 14, 1917.

[10] The Bethany Messenger, March 30, 1918.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Bethany College,” Facebook, accessed December 6, 2016,