How did fundamentalist colleges select their students? Despite my hilarious title this morning, until World War II admissions were not usually based on standardized test scores or high-school grades and activities. During my research this week at the Moody Bible Institute, I found one example of admission standards from 1930 that tells us a lot.
Sometime between World War I & World War II, American colleges and universities developed standard admissions procedures. Until then, students could take an examination to prove they were prepared. Some colleges worked out deals with local high schools to admit all their graduates. Plus, colleges often admitted many students who were not adequately prepared, then sent them to the school’s preparatory department.
In the 1920s, as Roger Geiger argues in his new book, colleges such as Yale and Princeton devised standardized tests. Not to offer an equal playing field, but to test for those qualities polished by the kinds of prep schools fancy families preferred. In fact, one intended consequence of these tests was to give schools some justification for turning down new numbers of qualified Jewish applicants.
Fundamentalist colleges and Bible institutes had different standards. At many fundamentalist colleges, students from any religious background were welcome, as long as they observed the lifestyle rules and attended mandatory religious services.
At Moody Bible Institute, on the other hand, incoming students had to prove they were on board with the school’s fundamentalist theology. Until the 1940s, new students did not have to prove they had completed high school. But they had to offer solid proof that they were invested in the school’s soul-winning ambition.
Each applicant in the 1920s and 1930s had to offer three references. Those folks were asked to fill out a four-page reference form. Some of the questions were fairly ho-hum: How long have you known the applicant? Is the applicant strong intellectually? But others were unique to this kind of conservative evangelical institution: “Has he to your knowledge ever backslidden? If so, when, and what were the circumstances?” “Has he a genuine love for souls?” “Is he discreet in his conduct toward women?” “Has he any doctrinal, or other peculiarities that would unfit him for Christian work?”
One referee offered a telling answer to this last question on an application from 1930. Is the applicant theologically peculiar? “No, he is a fundamentalist.”
In 1930, to this referring pastor at least, being a “fundamentalist” meant eschewing any of the heterodox theological options available. Fundamentalists in this era worried not only about secularism and atheism, but also about close theological cousins that might lure away earnest believers. As I argued in my first book, in the 1920s fundamentalism struggled to define itself against such conservative near neighbors as Seventh-day Adventism, Christian Science, or Pentecostalism.
The theological reefs and snares included some terms that have been lost to time. In the 1920s, fundamentalists worried about “Bullingerism” and “Russellism” among their ranks. The danger was not only that such students would not embrace the school’s mission. The stark danger was that such attractive theological ideas could spread like wildfire among the student body.
Schools such as MBI worked hard to be sure each incoming student was free from such spiritual contagion, just as they tried to be sure incoming students were free from tuberculosis and smallpox.