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.

Booze and Bibles

Have a cocktail with your Leviticus?

That’s the new option for faculty and hangers-on at Chicago’s storied Moody Bible Institute.

Image Source: Renew Chicago

Image Source: Renew Chicago

It represents only the newest iteration of an age-old story for conservative evangelical institutions: How much to embrace and how much to eschew contemporary cultural norms.

According to a story in Religion News Service, the downtown Bible institute will now allow faculty and staff to drink.  This is new.

The question asked by Sarah Pulliam Bailey is whether this represents a trend among leading evangelical institutions.  As Bailey points out, evangelical organizations such as Focus on the Family and Wheaton College have made similar changes to their lifestyle policies.

Bailey might also have mentioned recent changes at the more conservative Liberty University.

Such questions of cultural relevance and theological fidelity are nothing new at Moody Bible Institute.  As I argued in my 1920s book, President James M. Gray wondered at that time whether the new fundamentalist movement was a boon or a threat to the MBI’s evangelical mission.

In the end, President Gray and the 1920s MBI generation took a skittery position on fundamentalism.  Insofar as fundamentalism supported a firm insistence on the inerrancy and primacy of Scripture, it was all to the good.  But if the new fundamentalist movement took attention away from the primary goals of Bible knowledge and evangelical effectiveness, it was a threat.

Nor is the weightiness of the MBI’s internal debates about this issue unique among conservative educational institutions.  Many evangelical schools have a long history of struggle with questions of change and cultural consonance.  At Wheaton College, for example, President Charles Blanchard fretted throughout the 1920s about the meanings of modernism.  At that time, “modernism” among evangelical Protestants referred, first and foremost, to a theological movement.  Modernists in the 1920s hoped to bring church doctrine more in line with changing cultural norms.  Fundamentalists and their conservative allies, on the other hand, insisted on keeping true to traditional theological norms.

Blanchard, as did other evangelical educational leaders in the 1920s and since, experienced a good deal of anguish as he worked to guide his school through this cultural Scylla and Charybdis.  On the one hand, Blanchard, like Gray, did not want to truckle to fads.  On the other hand, neither leader wanted to insist on tradition merely for the sake of fuddy-duddy-ness.

The recent decision to allow drinking among MBI faculty represents a similar wrangling with contemporary cultural issues.  How much does a trenchant cultural Amishness contribute to true Biblical understanding?  And how much does it distract from MBI’s central goals of Biblical missiology?