From the Archives: Fundamentalist Luxury

Why do families choose fundamentalist colleges? As regular ILYBYGTH readers know, I’ve been wondering about this question as part of the research for my new book. Today’s work in the archive of Bob Jones University offered one surprising answer from the early days.

I’ll be working in the archive here all week. The archivist has been extraordinarily helpful and productive, digging through piles of files to track down whatever I’ve mentioned.

I'll be here all week...

I’ll be here all week…

One of the questions I’m curious about is the appeal of these schools. In its early days, Bob Jones College (it only became Bob Jones University in the late 1940s) worked hard to attract new students. In the early files, I found an example of a personal letter written by a college official to a potential student in 1928.

It’s not clear who wrote it, but it may have been any of a handful of early 1920s administrators. In any case, the letter starts out as you’d expect. As I argued in my 1920s book, back then schools such as BJC promised a safe haven from the developing higher-education world of evolution, smoking, and flappers.

So the letter’s first questions are about what we’d expect:

Would you like to attend a school where you would be taken care of physically, where you have fine Christian boys and girls for associates—where you would have fine, scholarly, Christian teachers who would give you personal and constant attention, and where expenses are reasonable? If so, fill in the enclosed application blank.

But as always, it’s more complicated than that. Check out the promises at the end of the letter:

I will give you and [your friend] a room together. This is one of the nicest dormitories you ever saw. There is a connecting bath between every two bed rooms, hot and cold running water in every room and steam heat for winter time. It is the last word in physical convenience and comfort.

Not what I expected! But of course, it makes sense that a college recruiter would pull out all the stops in an effort to get students for a brand new college…any brand new college. To me, this is more evidence that the world of fundamentalist higher education shared a good deal more with mainstream schools than we tend to think.

Rah rah

Rah rah

Just as colleges these days go broke building climbing walls and luxury dorm suites, so colleges in the 1920s fell all over themselves to attract paying students. Even fundamentalist colleges—or, at least, this one fundamentalist college—promised a collegiate life of luxury.

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