Gone but Not Forgotten

Do I have a problem? For sure. Am I embarrassed about it? Not at all. But I do want to make my case for the importance of old grudges and festering scars in understanding the world of evangelical higher education.

griffith moral combat

Good company…

Here’s the context: I’m grateful to Professor John Compton and the LA Review of Books for a recent review of Fundamentalist U. I’m doubly honored to have my book partnered with R. Marie Griffith’s recent blockbuster Moral Combat.

Even better, Compton has nice things to say about my book. As he puts it, Fundamentalist U

offers an invaluable introduction to the esoteric world of Christian higher education. Few existing studies offer this level of insight into the inner workings of schools like BJU and Liberty.

Compton captures the central dilemmas I emphasized, such as the tension between keeping students safe and keeping up with changing academic trends. He notes the important divisions that emerge between new “evangelical” colleges and stalwart “fundamentalist” ones.

I can’t help but comment, though, on one of Compton’s points. He is doubtless absolutely correct when he states,

some readers may be turned off by Laats’s fascination with long-forgotten rivalries involving long-dead university administrators[.]

I am certainly fascinated by such things. And I don’t doubt that sensible people have better things to do with their time than ponder the administrative squabbles in Cleveland, Tennessee or Wheaton, Illinois in 1937. This is why I don’t get invited out very often. Most people are, in fact, turned off by my fascination with these questions.

For those of us who hope to understand American evangelicalism, though, there’s no way we can consider such rivalries “long-forgotten.” As in any family feud, time may have obscured the details, but it has not tempered the animosity. If anything, bitter feelings caused in 1937 may have earned angry compound emotional interest over the decades, giving original squabbles a power and fury they didn’t originally possess.

To give just one example from the book, I can certainly see how many readers might not immediately care about the firing of President J. Oliver Buswell from Wheaton College in the 1930s. President Buswell wanted Wheaton to pursue a more theologically pure separatist approach. He wanted Wheaton to encourage its faculty and students to withdraw from mainline Protestant denominations and focus instead on creating a consistently conservative evangelical institution.

Wheaton’s trustees disagreed. They insisted that Wheaton maintain its efforts to attract conservative students who remained within mainline denominations as well as those that joined breakaway fundamentalist churches.

As Professor Compton notes, all the players in this 1930s drama are long-dead. But their squabble is anything but long-forgotten. Throughout its history, Wheaton struggled to figure out how to handle the tension between conservative purity and (relatively) big-tent inclusiveness. Time after time, whenever faculty members challenged the vagaries of Wheaton’s assumptions about orthodoxy, they were given the boot.

If you think these patterns are no longer in effect, just ask Professor Hawkins. Perhaps no one in that recent Wheaton battle invoked the specter of President Buswell’s 1930s ouster, but the college as a whole still deals with the echoes of every long-ago conflict.

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  1. Eager to read your book, Adam Laats, which sounds very interesting and significant. Also really enjoyed John Compton’s review. And you made my day/month/year here with “blockbuster” and the “Good company …” headline–kind and generous of you. Thanks for these words, and do look forward to absorbing your work.

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