Do I Need to See the Light?

Joel Carpenter is. Mark Noll is. George Marsden is. Ron Numbers is was. John Turner is. John Fea is. I’m not. Does it matter?

Many of the best academic historians of evangelicalism and fundamentalism grew up as part of an evangelical church. Indeed, among academic historians in general, since the 1960s it has been seen as a big plus to have a personal background with the group(s) we study.

It’s not universal. As far as I know, Matthew Sutton didn’t. Molly Worthen didn’t. Tanya Luhrmann didn’t. And if they did, it is not a big part of their public persona. In other words, they write as scholars of evangelical religion, not necessarily as evangelical scholars of evangelical religion.

This is more than just “PC” cliquishness. Historians are sobered and humbled by their own history. Though African American historian WEB DuBois clearly debunked the dominant but false histories of Reconstruction way back in the 1930s, white historians didn’t catch up until the 1960s.

With fundamentalism in particular, non-evangelical historians did a terrible job. Until the 1970s, mainstream historians told us that fundamentalism died after the Scopes Trial of 1925. It had done nothing of the sort, of course. A new generation of evangelical historians such as Ernest Sandeen and George Marsden knew it hadn’t, since they had grown up with it.

Having a background in the world of conservative evangelicalism gives historians an ear for the language and a feel for the connections between groups. When I was stumbling through my graduate work at Wisconsin, for example, my mentor Ron Numbers was able to point me toward super-rare creationist documents from the 1930s. How did he know about them? They were written by his grandfather!

That sort of connection is something we outsiders can never acquire.

As outsiders, though, we non-evangelical historians enjoy some benefits. For us, there are no pre-existing good guys or bad guys. We aren’t embarrassed by the rhetorical excesses of 1920s fundamentalists. They don’t have anything to do with us! We don’t feel a need to demonstrate how different such hellfire preachers are from our own intellectual roots. To us, it’s all archival material.

In short, evangelical historians will always have insights I lack. But they will also have hang-ups and assumptions I’m free from.

Recent discussions on this blog have pointed out the continuing importance of these questions. When I noted the recent visit of Bob Jones University President Steven Pettit to the scenic campus of Wheaton College, I was mostly interested in the turbulent historical relationship between the two schools. At least one commentator, however, accused me of trading in “guesswork and gossip.” I didn’t mean to suggest that BJU was somehow “moving toward neo-evangelicalism.” Many readers within the world of fundamentalism and evangelicalism have very strong feelings about such things. I don’t.

As I plow forward with my new book about conservative evangelical colleges and universities, I need to keep these issues in mind. I need to remind myself that I might be missing out on subtleties of tone or implication that are obvious to those raised within this tradition. I need to watch for connections that are not made explicit to outsiders, but are nevertheless glaringly obvious to those in the know.

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  1. Sally

     /  November 2, 2015

    ” I didn’t mean to suggest that BJU was somehow “moving toward neo-evangelicalism.” Many readers within the world of fundamentalism and evangelicalism have very strong feelings about such things. I don’t.”

    Thank you for the link to my website, but I think maybe you misunderstand my “feelings about such things.” By no stretch of the imagination could I be considered “within the world of fundamentalism [and/or] evangelicalism.”

    I am a former fundagelical (I wandered all over the place). I deconverted in about 1999 and am an atheist.

    My “strong feelings” are about one specific situation: Camille K. Lewis who pretends to be doing scholarly research about fundamentalism but is really on a quest to destroy the school that made demands on her she didn’t like.

    And even that wouldn’t bother me very much (after all, I’m not trying to “save” BJU or anything), except that she systematically seeks to destroy anyone who disagrees with her on even small points. She impugns their character, digs into their personal life and exposes any dirt she can find, makes up lies about them, bullies them on the internet, goes after their families and their employment, and threatens them mercilessly. She also attempts in any way she can to shut them up.

    I chose to stand up to her because out of all the people I knew that she had bullied, I was the least vulnerable.

    My website exists for only one purpose: to serve as a place where information about Camille (and a couple of other people) is stored so that anyone who is tempted to get close to her can go and read all about the dangers of doing that. If people come there and decide I’m a lunatic and ignore me, that’s fine. If people read my warnings and heed them, that’s all good too. I’m quite sure that what I’ve done has served to prevent a lot of anguish and distress, and that’s what I cared about accomplishing in the first place.

    • That seems like a very non-credible personal agenda, especially given the fact that you gave an interview to Lewis some time in the past (correct?) about your experience with abuse at Bob Jones and later were distressed by the consequences and blowback of that.

      • Sally

         /  November 2, 2015


        LOL Hardly. You make it sound like she was “researching.”

        I ran into Camille because I posted a story about my experience at BJU (not “abuse” – just general asshattery on the part of the school that happened fifty years ago) on a Facebook page.

        Camille glommed onto it. There was no “interview.”

        She then published the story I told – an INTERNET RUMOR, which she never vetted – as fact in a paper she wrote for the Wartburg Watch (some online thing).

        Link if you want to read all about it.

        I wanted her to either remove the story or properly vet it. She refused to even acknowledge my existence at that point. She went on to demonize not only me, but my entire family. She publicly speculated that I’d been involved in a “pedophile ring” when I was 15 years old and a student at Bob Jones Academy (the high school associated with BJU). She insisted that I was being served cease and desist papers from the “FBI” and that I’d been visited by an agent. None of that stuff is true.

        When I first met Camile, I, like you, thought she was exactly what she claims to be – a PhD “scholar” doing “research” into the history of southern fundamentalism. I thought it was really interesting.

        Then I found out what she does. Her research isn’t research at all, not in the sense that any reputable historian would consider valid. She collects rumors and draws conclusions based on what she wants to be true, not on where the evidence leads. She ignores or denigrates an evidence that might point in a different direction.

        And she lies about people. Really, really lies about them.

        You can dismiss me if you wish, as I’ve already explained to you. I do not care. She is unlikely to victimize somebody like you. She goes after BJU alumni and former students and bullies the hell out of them.

        While I do not share their religion, and they all know that, I do share their history to some extent and I also understand how vulnerable and upset they are when victimized and how powerless they have felt to fight back. So I decided to do just that – fight back.

        No “interview.” That’s the funniest thing I’ve read in a while. She’s not a scholar. She doesn’t do “interviews.” This is prime example of the sort of BS she spews.

  2. Adam, the task of discovering what conservative religious cultures are really like is not a difficult one at all. If “outsiders” simply went to the churches and others institutions, talked to people, read and listened to their media they’d have as much access as any “insider.”

    I think your perspective here runs the risk of suggesting that only insiders can really provide an accurate view of their communities, institutions, and traditions. They certainly have a contribution, but it is also a biased and prejudiced one as well. Noll and Marsden especially have been committed to a version of the evangelical movement politics in the culture that carries with it an historiographical agenda that has a lot of problem with it. In my view evangelical historians remain highly hagiographical — at least those who are most lauded and accepted within their respective folds. In Judaeo-Christian tradition since ancient times it is really the insider-outsider, the prophet who is always rejected at home who most often turns out to be the historically vindicated historian. “Chosen people” are always contesting each other over their own history, and what their own traditions suggest is their need for outside perspectives that know and see their own idols.

    • So the story you wrote about your experience was not true?

      I’m curious why you think one person writing lies about BJU could destroy it if they are verifiable lies, and also why you care at all since you reject the views and values of the school.

      • Sally

         /  November 2, 2015

        Did you bother to follow my link? I think not. Go read what I wrote.

        It doesn’t matter if my account was true or false. What matters – what is important here – is that Camille K. Lewis grabbed the story as I wrote it, didn’t vet it at all (beyond what she could verify re: police reports, etc., on the internet) and published it as though it was “researched scholarship.” I suspect this same scenario is true for some, if not most, of her “scholarship.”

        I do not think that one person can destroy BJU. I don’t care about BJU. I don’t care if it’s destroyed or not destroyed.

        I care when somebody whose livelihood is in sales (and thus dependent on people thinking well of her) has lies told publicly by Camille K. Lewis that this person is/was mentally ill (and hence, not trustworthy), and this goes on for years with everyone afraid of Camille to the point that they burst into tears at the very thought of confronting her in any way.

        I care when Camille uses intimidation and threats about a woman’s immediate family to silence her, and that woman calls me crying hysterically because she has no idea what to do to stop Camille.

        It’s that sort of thing (“abuse,” if you will – and Camille K. Lewis is the abuser) that drives me.

        One of the things that happened to me when I deconverted from Christianity was the realization that I’d been lied to all my life, that almost nothing I believed was actually true. Truth became a very important thing to me. I like it, even if the truth paints the Jones family with nice colors, or forces me to say something nice about fundamentalism.

    • I agree, Dan. I don’t think that you have to have been a fundamentalist to critique fundamentalism. Just like I really don’t think you have to be a woman to critique feminism and the like.

      But I’m just Ciceronian enough to believe that the public interaction improves the critique. So have at it!


      • No you don’t need to have experienced something to understand it, but you do have to understand it, and it takes more work to do that from the outside, especially if you have no analogous experiences. The temptation will be to focus on what you do appear to have in common because the unfamiliar can only be understood via some known quantity. (I think it’s this tendency that leads some well-meaning outsiders like Adam to assume far more rationality and rational intent to both the religious and secular domains.)

        The native’s problem is even harder — learning to understand outsiders and to see themselves from the perspective of the outsider. This requires significant and transformative alienation to occur, which natives tend to resist as an existential threat. The native suffering the experience of alienation and working through it may be able to achieve a uniquely privileged position of insight. Interestingly, fundamentalist cultures tend to see this type of person as a traitor, which ought to be an especially problematic conclusion for Christians.

      • “The temptation will be to focus on what you do appear to have in common because the unfamiliar can only be understood via some known quantity.”

        True. What I would say is that the “code” that fundamentalists use might just forever remain a mystery to an outsider. For instance, in normal research, a historian goes to the source — goes to Bob Jones University itself in this case — to get primary documents. I know that that won’t work with BJU. That archive is highly edited. Those who have researched Liberty have said similar things. Those “academic” institutions remove the most controversial documents so that no one can judge them in a way that they can’t control.

        Outsider historians might not realize the behind-the-scenes machinations that go into shaping the outsiders’ research. I have been banned from Bob Jones University’s campus, so the archives are out. So I visit archives all over the country and in some non-traditional places.

        “This requires significant and transformative alienation to occur, which natives tend to resist as an existential threat. ”

        Sounds like a job for rhetoric! 🙂

        “Interestingly, fundamentalist cultures tend to see this type of person as a traitor, which ought to be an especially problematic conclusion for Christians.”

        Yes. Definitely. I am your resident reprobate after all.


  3. James

     /  November 2, 2015

    I just wanted to drop by to vouch for what Sally has written. I also attended BJU. I was there the same time Camille was, but I didn’t get to know her until well after. Be careful using Camille as a resource. A real scholar looks at history and see where the data leads them in terms of conclusions. Sally’s blog about Camille is a bit of a person vendetta against some very heinous things she has done…. all rooted in the agenda of destroying BJU. Quite frankly, that agenda would work much better if she were to get out of the way. Everywhere she sticks her head there ends up being “bodies” buried everywhere.

    • Yes, Sally’s writing is all obviously about a personal vendetta, and these repetitive comments are tiresome. As far as I can see Dr. Lewis is the only BJU-related commenter who is dealing with relevant historical materials. The constant vague defamatory allusions to Lewis “destroying” BJU, doing “heinous things,” “bodies,” etc. are pure ad hominem.

      • Sally

         /  November 2, 2015

        That’s odd. You seem to know a lot of about me. You say that I was “interviewed” by Camille because I was an “abuse victim” at BJU (none of that is true) and didn’t like the resultant “blowback.” (there wasn’t any “blowback” because there wasn’t any “abuse” or “interview.”)

        Only I never mentioned one word about any of that until you did. And I don’t know you from Adam.

        So how did you get that idea? Did you just suddenly make it all up? You really thought it was true, didn’t you? Camille told you that herself, didn’t she?

        There is not one “ad hominem” thing that I have asserted about Camille. She claims to be a serious scholar and researcher. I assert that it’s impossible to determine what is true and what is simply made up or completely unvetted, so I am forced to discard her stuff or at the very least, take her conclusions and “evidence” with a large grain of salt. That’s not ad hominem. That is completely and totally relevant.

        And I’ve documented all of it. You’re welcome to read it, but quit pretending that it’s not there and saying that my claims are vague. They are not vague. They are very, very specific and very well documented. Did you ever even read the link I provided?

        Why are you so defensive of her? What’s in this for you, Dan? Do you even know her? We do.

  4. Tita Wyatt

     /  November 2, 2015

    Have you checked Dr. Lewis’ “relevant historical materials”? Some of them are relevant, and some are historical. But what she does with her information is insane, and certainly does not rise to the level of real scholarship. Nowhere close.

    Now, whether Dr. Camille Lewis is a good person or a mean person or whatever is a totally different issue, and it has no relevance to whether or not she is a competent scholar. She could be the nastiest person in the world and still be a skillful historian. But she isn’t. She’s not a real historian at all. But don’t take my word for it–read her “scholarly articles” for yourself and be the judge.

    And I have no personal beef with Camille motivating me to make these claims. She’s never done anything to me personally except block me from asking her questions on a FB page about BJU (she never said why). But I know more than a few people who have run afoul of her and then become the subject of vicious personal attacks, so you might want to keep that in mind as you read Sally’s blog.

    Incidentally, I am an evangelical Christian who grew up in the fundamentalist world. If you want to start a dialog, you have my email.


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