The Ugly Truth: Sex Abuse at Evangelical Colleges

I wish it were a shock or a surprise. Instead, the terrible stories coming out of the Larry Nassar case are all too familiar: young people threatened and abused, an abuser tolerated for the sake of victory, the whole story hushed up. Why did so many responsible adults look the other way? One phrase from gymnast and whistleblower Rachel Denhollander struck me: “not simple institutional protectionism.” Denhollander sees it as a theological problem, but in the research for my new book about evangelical colleges, I found a more complicated truth.

rachel denhollander

Denholland testifies…

Of course, the demon of sexual abuse and institutional cover-up is not a problem for evangelical churches and colleges alone. The Catholic Church, big football schools like Penn State, and in the Nassar case, Michigan State all have an atrocious record of institutional protectionism.

However, I argue in my book that evangelical colleges faced a peculiar double-pronged problem. First, in the early years of the fundamentalist movement, leaders were keen to protect the reputation of their controversial movement. Second, without an outside arbiter—a denominational convention or presbytery or Vatican—fundamentalist institutions tended to turn into self-contained fiefdoms. The thoughts and plans of charismatic leaders tended to become authoritative, if not authoritarian.

A couple of examples will illustrate the trend. In the 1930s, Denver Bible Institute was wracked with a gruesome sex-abuse scandal. The accused leader and perpetrator, Clifton Fowler, turned to a blue-ribbon panel of Bible-institute worthies to clear his name. The panelists tried hard, in the words of the chair, to keep their investigation a “strictly private matter among Christian brethren.” They wanted to find out the truth about Fowler, but they didn’t want to publicize it. They were worried about the reputation of fundamentalism as a whole and Bible institutes in particular. It wasn’t a cover-up, exactly, but it was a form of discouraging complaint and public outcry.

This sort of “institutional protectionism” isn’t exactly theological, but it has been a tradition written deep into the bones of conservative evangelical and fundamentalist institutions since the 1920s. The movement has always had a sense of beleaguered outsider status, of being ripped off and usurped, kicked out of its rightful role as leaders of denominations and higher education. Certainly, this sense of hyper-defensive circle-the-wagons clubbishness is related to the theology of fundamentalism, but it is not itself a theological notion.

Maybe one more example will help illustrate the tradition. At Bob Jones College during its Tennessee years (1933-1947), founder and president Bob Jones Sr. established the patterns that guided the school for decades. Unfortunately, those patterns also fostered and abetted sexual abuse. During the 1930s, Jones established his rule against “dirty gripers.” Anyone who complained—faculty and students alike—about conditions at the school, Jones insisted, was not welcome. As Jones put it in a chapel talk:

we are not going to pay anybody to ‘cuss’ us. We can get ‘cussin’’ free from the outside. . . . We have never been a divided college. . . . Gripers are not welcome here. If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us.

It is not difficult to see how this rule discouraged student victims from coming forward. With no other authority to turn to, evangelical colleges like Bob Jones College sometimes deteriorated into authoritarian echo chambers. For years, students and faculty at institutions like this had no chance to condemn their abusers.1940circa-cl000198-bjcsign-4students

This sort of authoritarian structure isn’t strictly a theological thing, but it is also a central part of the fundamentalist tradition. As in the Denver case, Bob Jones College leaders had to create some sort of self-supporting authority. They couldn’t turn to denominational boards or conventions. Instead, they vested authority in other ways, including in overweening charismatic leaders like the Bob Joneses.

Again, these sorts of institutional protection are not at all unique to evangelical colleges. But there are historical patterns that are specific to the fundamentalist movement. Those patterns can make abuse worse. At times, they are linked to theology, as Denholland pointed out. Far more common, though, they are a result of the unique history of evangelical institutions as a self-consciously defensive group that had no higher bureaucracy to help figure out disputes.

Leave a comment


  1. Adam, I understand reputation (certainly not specific to fundamentalist colleges), outsider status, and charismatic leaders, but not the lack of higher bureaucracy. Also, why do you think abuse can be worse in the fundamentalist movement? What makes abuse worse in that environment than other environments?

    • To be clear, I’m not saying that fundamentalist institutions are the worst sorts of institutions when it comes to covering up and creating dangerous environments that lead to sexual abuse. Rather, fundamentalist schools have their own distinctive elements that make sex abuse worse. Other institutions have other sorts of distinctive elements: The Catholic Church had its huge insular bureaucracy, traditions of obedience and naive trust, and unhealthy sexual rules for priests. Penn State had its hero-worship and football fanaticism. Similarly, fundamentalist institutions have distinctive elements that exacerbate the woeful human tendencies toward abuse and cover-up.
      How does the lack of higher bureaucracy contribute to the problem? Without a higher (human) authority to which they could appeal, leaders of fundamentalist colleges had to figure out some way to vest authority at their institutions. Who would decide if jazz music was okay? Who would decide if Calvinism was to be valued, in spite of its tendency to devalue religious revivals? Who would guide the institution in its dedication to religious orthodoxy when–as an interdenominational institution–there was no official orthodoxy to which people could turn? In the cases of fundamentalist colleges, different schools solved the problem differently. At a few of them, strong, charismatic leaders simply asserted themselves as the arbiter of fundamentalist truth. Bob Jones University is the biggest example, but certainly not the only one. At schools like that, loyalty to the school and to the leader became prized above all else. In an environment like that, where complaining is seen as a majorly disloyal move, where criticizing the administration is akin to heresy, where sexual roles are rigid yet shrouded in mystery…victims of sexual abuse have little recourse; they have nowhere to turn and are often made to feel responsible for the abuse itself.

      • Oh ok so it’s the distinctive elements of different environments that make abuse worse in those particular environments. That makes sense. Thanks.

      • I understand what you mean by higher bureaucracy like a presbytery versus an IFB church where the local church is the highest authority. In some ways I see that as an outside arbiter, but it’s still within the overall organization where abuse can be covered up. Abuse can be reported within a hierarchy, but that is not a substitute for filing a police report. Not campus police in the case of a college, the local police. I was uncertain what you meant about a lack of higher bureaucracy contributing to the problem since abuse can still be covered up there too. I can go back to seeing loyalty to school and leader as an element of a fundamentalist church or college and see your point. I think that can be an element at secular schools too. I just don’t truly see a higher bureaucracy as an outside arbiter, or the best route to take even if it does exist to deal with sexual assault.

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