Fundamentalist U: Leading from Behind

Ban fraternities. In the wake of the gruesome party death of Tim Piazza, that’s the call going out. Historian Jon Zimmerman makes the case for getting rid of frats in the pages of Philly.com. Whether you buy it or not, the argument against fraternities was made a long time ago at conservative evangelical colleges. But not for the reasons you might think.

fred flintstone grand poobah

What’s not to like?

As I describe in my new book, many fundamentalist colleges in the 1920s saw fraternities as a danger. Not, as Professor Zimmerman argues, because they encourage booze-fueled sexual aggression and elitism.

Rather, banning fraternities was part of the old-evangelical animus against secret societies in general. In the 1920s, President Charles Blanchard of Wheaton College inherited his father’s deep distrust of fraternities. And Masons, Mooses, Klansmen . . . any other secret group.

Indeed, for President Blanchard, banning fraternities was one of the primary goals of establishing new, trustworthy fundamentalist schools. As he geared up to swing Wheaton into the fundamentalist camp, Blanchard conducted a survey of 54 religious colleges in the Midwest. Blanchard wanted to know how many schools had veered away from the prime directives of good Christian higher education.

Here is the letter Blanchard sent to his fellow college presidents in April, 1919:

My dear Sir:-

I am requested to ascertain the teaching of the colleges of our country respecting the moral and religious matters.  I, therefore, beg information from you respecting the college of which you are President in regard to the following matters:

First. What is the position of the college over which you have the honor of presiding respecting the Christian faith of the students?

Second. What is the teaching of your scientific and sociological chairs respecting the doctrine of evolution.

Third. Are dancing, card playing, use of tobacco and intoxicants permitted to your teachers or students or both?

Fourth.  What position does your college take respecting secret associations in college or out of college?

Fifth.  Does your college hold that the Bible is the inspired word of God or that portions of it are or that none of it is?

I thank you heartily for you kind reply to these questions.  Going to such a large number of colleges, I think the replies will furnish us with a fair view of the present college situation regarding these important matters.

Very Truly yours,

Most of the items are fairly standard fundamentalist fare. The Bible needs to be reverenced. Student morals need to be policed. Evolution needs to be banned.

But the “secret-society” thing seems odd. Nevertheless, Blanchard considered this one of the most important ways to see if a school could be considered truly Christian.

Why?

The danger with fraternities, Blanchard believed, did not come from their encouragement of profligate lifestyles. Rather, for Blanchard, fraternities were just the collegiate wing of a vast network of anti-Christian secret societies. The initiation rites and mumbo-jumbo of secret societies, Blanchard believed, threatened to replace real religion with a soul-destroying counterfeit.

The fear of fraternity life at fundamentalist universities was not incidental, but rather a foundational element of the driving force to establish a new, purer Christian college.

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