Maybe there’s hope for us all. In the world of evangelical higher education, the relationship between fundamentalist Bob Jones University and evangelical Wheaton College has always been a rocky one. According to a story in the Wheaton Record [sorry, not available online], last week BJU president Steve Pettit visited Wheaton’s campus, the first time a Jones leader has done so in a long time. There were smiles all around. Does this mean that the times they are a-changin?
For those who don’t know their history, last week’s visit may have seemed like no big deal. The leader of one evangelical college visited another evangelical college. What’s the big whoop? As I’m discovering in the research for my new book about the history of conservative evangelical higher education, this détente may signal an important shift in the worlds of fundamentalism and evangelicalism.
Since the beginning in the 1920s, leaders of the two schools fought viciously. BJU founder Bob Jones Sr. accused sitting Wheaton president J. Oliver Buswell of jealousy. Jones wrote,
Dr. Buswell and his field staff working under him were putting out propaganda everywhere that Bob Jones’ credits had no value and that we were misrepresenting facts when we told students that our graduates were admitted to leading graduate schools. . . . [Buswell is a] conceited, frustrated, ambitious, disappointed man.
Ouch. For his part, Buswell retorted that he had never said such things, had never been anything but friendly and helpful to Jones’s new school. What he had done, Buswell admitted, was protest against the sin-friendly policies at Bob Jones College. For those who don’t know their Wheaton history, it may come as a shock to find out that in the early days, Wheaton accused Bob Jones of not being fundamentalist enough. Wheaton’s President Buswell had critiqued Bob Jones’s new school in a review of a book of Jones’s sermons. The sermons themselves were first-rate, Buswell wrote.
But Dr. Jones, let me ask you a question or two. Your own educational program is reeking with theatricals and grand opera, which lead young people, as I know, and as you ought to know, into a worldly life of sin.
Things never got much better from that point on. Bob Jones Jr., son of the founder and second president of Bob Jones University, told a story of his father’s traveling days. One time, Jones Sr. was on a train with some Wheaton students. One of the students, “trying to be very smart,” asked Jones how Bob Jones College could allow dramatic productions and still call itself fundamentalist. As Bob Jones Jr. explained,
Wheaton used to turn up their self-righteous noses at our drama, but they played inter-collegiate football, which we had had to give up at Bob Jones University because we found the people were betting on our games, littering our campus with whiskey bottles when they came out to see us play; and we found that inter-collegiate athletics were a definite blight to our spiritual lives.
By the 1970s, the relationship turned from one of frigid civility to outright hostility. In 1974, Bob Jones III officially changed the status of Wheaton in BJU’s internal coding system from “Friendly” to “Unfriendly.” Jones’s secretary explained the shift in an internal memo:
The above school or organization has been coded “F”; however, Dr. Bob III, has changed the code now to “U” to make our coding system more consistent. It has been a problem for some people because an organization or school would be coded “F” but we would treat them like “U” people.
From that point on, BJU officials would not even maintain their polite façade of cooperation with Wheaton officials. In 1977, an administrator from Wheaton wrote to Bob Jones III to ask for guidance in establishing a student drama program. He asked if Jones would offer some tips from its long experience with such programs. Through a secretary, Jones informed the Wheaton official, “because of the Neo-Orthodox position of Wheaton College, we are unable to give you the assistance you request.”
Given that protracted and ugly history, President Pettit’s visit to Wheaton’s campus seems revolutionary indeed.
Have things turned a corner? Does President Pettit’s visit really signal a thaw in this long evangelical cold war? Several signs point to yes.
First of all, Pettit is no Jones. For the first time in the history of BJU, the school is not led by a direct descendant of the founder. Maybe that gives Pettit a little more wiggle room to ignore family feuds.
Also, BJU is changing. It now claims accreditation as well as athletic teams. It has apologized for its history of racism.
Wheaton is changing, too. As did BJU in the 1970s and 1980s, Wheaton has tussled with the federal government. Just as BJU did in the 1980s, Wheaton insists that its religious beliefs must give it some leeway when it comes to federal rules.
If Wheaton sees itself pushed a little more out of the mainstream, and Bob Jones University pushes itself a little more toward that mainstream, they might just meet somewhere in the middle. There will always be some jealousy between these two giants of evangelical higher education, but it seems possible that the worst of the fundamentalist feud may have passed.