I Owe, I Owe

It was a squeaker, but it worked. I promised my editor I’d deliver the manuscript for Fundamentalist U by Monday, and I just mailed it in today. Coupla days to spare. Whew!

If I were cooler, I would copy Brendan Pietsch’s world’s-coolest acknowledgements page. But I’m not. I’ve accumulated a bunch of debts—financial, intellectual, and otherwise—and I feel a need to express my gratitude the ol-fashioned way.

pietsch acknowledgements

How the cool kids do it these days…

First, the Spencer Foundation footed the bill. Their program for small research grants allowed me to spend the academic year 2014-2015 working full time on this book. I was able to travel to six of the schools I’ve been studying. Without this grant, I would never have been able to put this book together. Thank you Lyle!

There are plenty of other people that also made the book possible. Most important, the archivists at the schools I visited often bent over backward to help me find materials. At Biola, for example, Stacie Schmidt and Sue Whitehead allowed me to work right in their office. They also helped me get permission to use some of the cartoons from Biola’s periodicals that will appear in the book.

At Wheaton, Keith Call helped me find a ton of stuff. He also spent time sharing with me his one-of-a-kind experience with and knowledge of the world of evangelical higher ed. Since my visit, too, he has kept me in the loop about some of the goings-on at Wheaton and elsewhere.

Robert Shuster at the Billy Graham Center kept the room open late for me and helped me dig through the vast resources of their oral history collections. I depended on those oral histories to find out what life was like at fundamentalist colleges for students.

Down South at Bob Jones University, Patrick Robbins over-extended himself to help me locate materials. He has been doing so for years and I’m extremely grateful.

In Chicago, Corie Zylstra and Nikki Tochalauski allowed me to linger late in the Moody Bible Institute archives. They also shared their experiences as students and workers at the most famous Bible Institute in the world.

Even at schools I couldn’t visit in person, friendly archivists were willing to spend time and energy talking to me about my research. At the late Tennessee Temple University, for example, Keith Woodruff took time and risked carpal tunnel syndrome emailing back and forth with me.

One of my local schools, Summit University (the former Baptist Bible of PA) let me use their terrific collections of fundamentalist and evangelical periodicals.

It didn’t work, but I appreciate the efforts of two of my academic heroes, Jon Zimmerman and Ron Numbers, to try to help me get an additional fellowship to fund my work on this book.

And when it came to the book itself, my fellow nerds helped me out enormously. Most especially, Tim Gloege and Dan Williams read several parts of the book and helped me with their enormous expertise. I also conned a group of A-list experts to help me improve the book. The book covers a lot of territory, so I shamelessly braced friends, acquaintances, and even people I only knew by reputation.

First, I reached out to higher-ed historians such as Roger Geiger, Christopher Loss, and Ethan Schrum. The book also wrestles with questions of the nature of conservative evangelical Protestantism, so I asked Molly Worthen, John Fea, Bill Trollinger, and Brendan Pietsch for expert help. There’s a lot about creationism in there, too, and Ron Numbers and Michael Lienesch agreed to read sections and point out my blunders. Then, of course, there are the group of experts specifically in the history of evangelical higher education and I asked them all for their time: Jared Burkholder, Michael Hamilton, and Chris Gehrz. To top it all off, I also pestered other smart people I knew to give me their opinions, including L. Herbert Siewert, Tim Lacy, and David Bernstein.

Thanks to all…but that’s not all. I’m also grateful to all the SAGLRROILYBYGTH for taking part in our conversations about evangelicalism, college, fundamentalism, conservatism, and etc. etc. etc. over the past few years.

What happens next?

It will still be a while before the book hits shelves. The folks at Oxford will give my manuscript some copy-editing. Then they’ll put together a set of proofs, set as the actual pages will look. Once we get to that stage, I’ll pore over the proofs to write my index.

It all takes time and patience. When will the book finally be published? Hard to say exactly, but it’s usually about twelve to eighteen months. I’ll keep you posted.

Nailing Jello to the Wall…Again

Whatever you do, don’t invite an historian to lunch. They’ll ruin your meal with their endless disputes about stuff no one else cares about. In this case, it’s the definition of American fundamentalism that has us in a tizzy. Why is it so problematic?

These days, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m just about finished with my book manuscript about conservative evangelical higher education. In the book, I’m arguing that colleges, universities, seminaries, and Bible institutes did more than most institutions to define evangelicalism. And I’m offering a new definition that will probably get me disinvited to more lunches.

It’s not as straightforward a question as you might think.

Back in the 1930s, the first academic history of Protestant fundamentalists—Stewart G. Cole’s History of Fundamentalism—defined fundamentalism as a “cult;” a blight on American society led by “disturbed men” who suffered from a “psychotic condition.” Ouch.

Soon, leading religious historian H. Richard Niebuhr (the famous theologian’s brother) gave academics a definition that was less vicious, but offered the same basic outlines. Fundamentalism, Niebuhr wrote, was a hillbilly affair, surely destined to wither in the sunshine of modernity.


What is fundamentalism? “Radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.”

In 1954, another academic history of fundamentalism suggested a similar explanation. Norman Furniss’ book The Fundamentalist Controversy assumed that fundamentalism meant a lack of knowledge about modern life, a head-in-the-sand stupidity.

These early definitions of fundamentalism were so far removed from reality that it was only a matter of time before a new generation of historians threw them out. Just as a 1960s class of historians from non-elite backgrounds offered new and better histories of minority ethnic groups and working classes, so too did historians from evangelical backgrounds redefine their own tradition.

Most influential, Ernest Sandeen argued that fundamentalism was best understood as the modern rebirth of an old evangelical theological tradition, premillennialism.

George Marsden counter-argued. Yes, premillennialism was vital to fundamentalism, but it was not enough. In his 1980 book Fundamentalism and American Culture, Marsden lay out the definition of fundamentalism that most nerds still use today. What is fundamentalism? Marsden noted that we need to include revivalism, premillennial theology, common-sense philosophy, and a vague but vital political and cultural conservatism.

Gloege Guaranteed Pure

Or maybe a “grammar. . . a corporate evangelical framework.”

In the past few years, ambitious historians have re-opened the case. Matthew Sutton, for example, fresh off his blockbuster academic hit Aimee Semple McPherson, took on the challenge of defining American fundamentalism. Yes, fundamentalism is a blend of influences, Sutton argued in American Apocalypse, but it’s not just a jumble. If we want to understand fundamentalism, Sutton insisted, we need to understand that the defining feature of the radical evangelical experience has been its fixation with the end times.

Sutton isn’t alone in wondering what it has meant to be fundamentalist. Kathryn Lofton has pointed out (sorry, subscription required) that fundamentalists and their arch theological enemies were both “commonly modern.” Brendan Pietsch has demonstrated that one of the signature methods of fundamentalist Bible-reading—the dispensational lens—is a profoundly modern approach.

Most compelling, from my point of view, has been Timothy E.W. Gloege’s definition. Like me, Gloege focused on evangelical higher education, in his case, the earlier history of the Moody Bible Institute. From that lens, it seems clear that it will always be self-defeating to offer any simple theological definition to fundamentalism. Why? In short, fundamentalism worked as a set of goals, not a system of doctrine. Fundamentalism was a kind of least-common-denominator coalition, not a list of beliefs or a systematized theological vision.

Fundamentalists, Gloege argues, were united by their dream of creating a new, modern sort of orthodoxy, laid out on the model of the modern corporate business organization. But that approach left fundamentalists dangling when it came to traditional orthodoxy. They did not and would not mimic traditional denominational orthodoxies by agreeing on a systematic theology, because they were never willing to compete with denominations. At the same time, however, most fundamentalists valued and venerated the idea of a traditional Christian orthodoxy.

pietsch disp moder

Nothing old…

At the Moody Bible Institute, at least.

I’m still tweaking my argument, so you’ll have to wait until Fundamentalist U comes out to see the deets. (It will be soon, I promise.) It seems clear to me, though, that if we really want to understand the history of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism we will have to ditch our impulse to copy the theological creeds offered time and again by fundamentalists themselves.

If we don’t, we keep bumping up against unsolvable dilemmas:

  • What do we do with people like J. Gresham Machen, the breakaway Princeton Calvinist who said he was and wasn’t a fundamentalist?
  • What sense can we make of a fundamentalism that never agreed with itself on what fundamentalism required? For example, Bob Jones College forced its students to participate in dramatic plays, while Wheaton College banned such things. How can we step in and say one was right?
  • What IS the theology of fundamentalism? Calvinism? Yes. Arminian revivalism? Yes. Dispensational premillennialism? Yes. Amillennialism or postmillennialism? Yes.

It’s tempting to wade into these disputes with a hindsight definition. We might want to say Professor Machen was not a fundamentalist, but rather a Calvinist, or a creedal conservative, or a denominational conservative. All those are also true, but they sidestep the central difficulty that Machen was considered a fundamentalist during the peak of the 1920s controversies, including by himself.

We might want to say that fundamentalism was one core belief, fringed by an accumulation of disputed ideas. If we do that, we can say that both Bob Jones College and Wheaton were fundamentalist, but they disagreed on some non-essential details. That’s a smart approach, but it avoids the main problem—both sides insisted that their positions on student drama were CENTRAL to their fundamentalist identity.

We might try to say that one theology represented real fundamentalism, while others only thought they were fundamentalist.  Those others weren’t real fundamentalist theologies; they were confused. But this mistakes the central fact that both dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists worked together and considered themselves fundamentalists. Except when they didn’t. It ignores the fact that Calvinists, revivalists, and lots of others all taught at fundamentalist schools. Maybe not happily, but loosely united in their self-image as fundamentalists. Usually.

In short, there’s no way to untie this knot, definitionally. Instead, we need to cut it; we need to take a different approach to understanding fundamentalism. At least, that’s what I’m arguing in the book. And it’s not easy. It takes me about 128,000 words to make my case.

See? This is why I don’t get to leave the house much. Not many people find this kind of thing as interesting as full-time historians.

Word Up

Wowzers. I just came across a doozy.

Like a lot of nerdy types, I like to find weird words. This morning, I hit one that was absolutely new to me.

I’m re-reading Brendan Pietsch’s terrific 2015 book Dispensational Modernism. In it, Pietsch makes a powerful argument that the ways early fundamentalist thinkers crafted their theology was not old at all, but profoundly new.

I’ve read it before, but now that I’m revising and polishing my Fundamentalist U manuscript, I want to walk through his book one more time to see if I need to chuck, polish, and/or revise my argument.

And there it was! Smack-dab in the middle of Pietsch’s description of the roots of the Niagara Bible Conferences on page 46:


“Gyrovague”…! How bout it, SAGLRROILYBYGTH? Without looking it up, can anyone offer a definition?…a guess?

I couldn’t.