Over nearly a century of higher education with a higher calling, the evolution of Eastern Nazarene College is perhaps most discernible in its student life.
Napkins and napkin rings are no longer on the packing list from home. Rules encouraging ''manly deference and womanly reserve" have been tossed out in favor of another standard: ''personal conduct consistent with ethical Christian behavior." The student community covenant emphasizes what its vice president for academic affairs, Rick Stephens, calls ''wise choices" instead of hard-and-fast rules regarding movie-watching and theater attendance.
Daniel C. West, chairman of the school's board of trustees and a 1977 graduate, said that every four years, a general assembly of delegates meets to discuss the Church of the Nazarene's response to an evolving array of entertainment and lifestyle choices. A past assembly decided, for instance, that ''movies aren't the culprit," but that rules should encourage church members to make Christian choices.
Individual colleges in the Nazarene education system take their cue from the quadrennial meeting, but each drafts its own community covenants, West said. Eastern Nazarene, which draws most of its students from an area stretching between Maine and Virginia that is characterized more by urban sprawl than cornfields, carries a reputation of having a slightly more liberal bent than its sister schools.
So even though Eastern Nazarene's traditions and rules may seem musty to secular college students, the school has been evolving.
Instead of the 1930 requirement that women wear ''plain and serviceable school dresses," there is a ban on halter tops. A guarded warning in 1940 stated that ''abundant opportunities for recreation and intermingling for students of opposite sexes" should take place only within ''proper regulations"; now, there is a frank statement that ''sexual intimacy, while honorable in marriage, is inappropriate . . . and must be avoided."
A ban on theater and movie attendance that was gradually softened in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s has been replaced with a thriving theater department. (Lowell Hall, the man who helped put on the first play, a Christmas-themed production, in the school's history 47 years ago, is still on the faculty.) Students no longer need to request permission from the college's president to get married.
But some rules still seem like relics from another era.
Luke Cochran, entering his senior year this fall, recalls being reprimanded for ''reclining" with a female friend, while they were fully clothed, not touching, and in full view. Freshmen still have a curfew. Two people sitting quietly together cannot have a blanket over both their legs. Visitation hours between male and female dorms are strictly enforced, along with an open-door, lights-on policy.
And although the college handbook states that it does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, the Nazarene faith views homosexuality as a sin.
Cochran said that many of the rules can seem arbitrary, especially as they loosen over the years; to his math major's mind, something that is always under revision does not have a sure foundation.
Even so, he said, students all understand why the rules are in place.
''We may be a little disgruntled about some of them, but we all know where the rules come from and why they are what they are," he said via e-mail.
''A huge part of holiness is maintaining purity in yourself and in all your relationships."