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.

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A February for Fundamentalism

Don’t dilly-dally. You’ve only got three weeks left to pick out your outfit. It’ll need to look sharp, because you’re invited to a talk on February 23rd, on the scenic campus of Binghamton University.

All joking aside, all Binghamton-area folks are heartily invited to come hear me share some of my current research as part of the university’s spring 2015 speaker series. In this talk, I’ll discuss the ways conservative evangelical colleges helped define what it meant to be a “fundamentalist” in the 1930s.

bju bannerI’ll tell stories from three very different places: The Denver Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and Bob Jones College. Each of them had a very different idea of what it meant to be fundamentalist, as well as a different idea of who had the right to decide.

At DBI, supreme leader Clifton Fowler ran into hot water in the early 1930s as his faculty and church split. Fowler was accused of holding non-fundamentalist ideas about sex, leadership, and Scripture. To heal the rift, Fowler appealed to fundamentalist leaders nationwide to conduct an investigation.Billy Graham Center 2

At Wheaton, meanwhile, President J. Oliver Buswell was tossed out for a range of offenses, including Buswell’s leadership of a Presbyterian faction as well as Buswell’s moderate ideas about creationism.

Down at Bob Jones College (not Bob Jones University until the 1940s), founder Bob Jones Sr. engaged in a very different sort of definition. When faculty members got too chummy with students, when they played jazz records and mocked Jones’s uptight attitude toward modern culture, Jones gave them the boot. At Bob Jones College, fundamentalism meant what the founder said it meant.

DBISignIn each case, we can see the ways institutions wrestled with the tricky question of definition. At a small school like DBI, the leader had to ask famous fundamentalists to give him a fundamentalist seal of approval. At Bob Jones College, on the other hand, leaders imposed a more top-down idiosyncratic definition. At Wheaton, fundamentalism did not have room for the sort of bare-knuckle denominational wrangling that Buswell considered the heart and soul of fundamentalism.

These stories have it all: sex, jazz, and Presbyterianism. So come on down to Binghamton University at four o’clock on February 23rd. We’re meeting in the conference room of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, on the first floor of the Library Tower.

The event is free and open to all; no registration is required.

From the Archives: Campus Rape in the 1930s

Do fundamentalist colleges encourage sexual assault?  It’s a terrible and difficult thing to talk about.  As we’ve seen in these pages, some alumni insist that fundamentalist schools force victims of sexual assault to blame themselves.  But we’ve also seen that sexual assault is not at all unique to religious schools.  As I continue the research for my new book about the history of evangelical colleges and universities, I’ve stumbled across a story that might shed light on these tricky questions.

Despot in Denver

Despot in Denver

The way we word the questions themselves is controversial: Are fundamentalist schools cults that pander to the lusts of authoritarian leaders?  Or do the strict sexual ethics of conservative evangelicalism help protect young women and men from predatory teachers and authority figures?

Critics of conservative evangelical colleges warn that that the pervasive “purity culture” of these schools leads directly to rape.  Bloggers such as Samantha Fields have accused fundamentalist colleges of blaming victims of sexual assault.  Journalists have blasted schools such as Patrick Henry College for fostering a rape-friendly environment.  Prominent evangelicals have suggested that the problem is not one of theology, but of an authoritarian institutional culture.  For example, Boz Tchividjian famously suggested that abuse can happen “in any culture, elevating leaders beyond accountability, leaving victims’ rights to their whim, and sidelining critics who challenge their rule.”

I’ve stumbled across a story from the 1930s that might illuminate the longer history here.  In 1936, a high-powered panel of fundamentalist leaders convened to investigate Denver Bible Institute (now part of Colorado Christian University).  At the time, DBI was led by charismatic founder Clifton L. Fowler.  Fowler wanted to join the Evangelical Teacher Training Association, and to do so ETTA demanded that rumors be cleared up.

Unfortunately for Fowler, an extremely disturbing picture emerged.  Fowler, the investigators concluded, ran DBI like a sex-crazed despot.  Students and faculty were pressured to declare lifelong commitments to the schools.  Married faculty members were pushed into pledging “continence.”  (I’m not sure what was meant by “continence” in this context.  Any suggestions?)  Students were encouraged to separate from parents and home churches.  Community members felt pressure to offer Fowler detailed confessions of their sexual sins.  And, yes, Fowler apparently routinely engaged in sexual activities with male students.

From one perspective, this historical episode might seem to confirm the dangers of authoritarian fundamentalist schools.  For as long as there have been fundamentalist schools, we might conclude, leaders have felt free to engage in predatory sexual practices.  Community members felt constrained by their own admitted sexual sinfulness from criticizing the dictatorial leadership.

On the other hand, as Michael Hamilton argued in his excellent 1994 dissertation, Fowler did not have a free hand to do as he pleased.  The accusations against Fowler forced DBI out of decent fundamentalist company.  Local fundamentalist churches cut off DBI.  The Evangelical Teacher Training Association would not let DBI join.  Fowler, in other words, was restrained in his behavior because of the network of fundamentalist schools and churches in which he worked.

As usual, history does not offer any pat solutions.  But this episode does demonstrate the long lifespan of these questions at fundamentalist schools.  It shows that school founders have always been accused of sexual predation.  But it also shows that fundamentalist leaders and communities worked hard to police their own ranks.

In this case, at least, both national leaders and local community members refused to look the other way.