Crisis at Moody Bible Institute: The Curse of the Fundamentalists

The revelations coming out of Chicago are sad. Even sadder—for those who know the history of evangelical higher education—is that they fit squarely and depressingly into a century-old pattern. The nature of Protestant fundamentalism as established in the 1920s left schools like Moody Bible Institute in a treacherous position.

1940s MBI banner and patch

From happier times, c. 1940.

Here’s what we know: As Christianity Today has reported, the flagship Moody Bible Institute in Chicago has shaken up its leadership. The president, chief operating officer, and provost are all out. MBI officially thanked the three for their leadership, but the institute also acknowledged “widespread concerns over the direction of the school,” according to CT.

Many of those concerns were publicized by another ousted employee, Julie Roys. Roys had hosted a radio program on WMBI and she recently raised alarms at the financial and theological misdeeds of top MBI leaders. On her blog, Roys had pointed out that the leaders had made unwise and possibly shady financial arrangements. She also noted alumni complaints that the school had indulged liberal ideas.

I don’t have any inside knowledge of the goings on at MBI. As I argue in my new book about the history of evangelical higher ed, though, the pattern is familiar, and part of the DNA of evangelical higher education. In a nutshell, the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s attracted most of the Bible-institute movement. Flagship MBI became a reluctant leader of fundamentalism, along with other higher-ed institutions such as Wheaton College in Illinois and Bob Jones College in Florida (it moved twice, only becoming Bob Jones University in its current South Carolina location in 1947).

The nebulous nature of interdenominational fundamentalism left these institutions in a bind. Not as an accident, but as an inherent part of this conservative protest movement, there existed no higher (human) power that could set the boundaries of real orthodoxy for these schools.

1940s postcard library

Getting those dispensations right…c. 1940s.

As a result, different schools figured out different ways to decide what was kosher and what wasn’t. Bob Jones College established a rigid authoritarian structure. True religion, at Bob Jones College, was what the Bob Joneses said it was.

Wheaton College adopted a more spread-out network of authority. They established a board of fundamentalist celebrities and donors to help guide the school. But they also hired a series of powerful, charismatic presidents to embody the school’s mission. In addition, Wheaton courted alumni to help fund and direct the school. Often, tensions among the various leaders resulted in mixed messages and confusing, conflicting arguments about what constituted proper evangelical religion. Larycia Hawkins’s experience is nothing new.  Just ask Russell Mixter or President Buswell, two stories I describe in detail in the book.

Cover art final

Read all about it…

MBI did something similar, and the results are evident in the recent controversies. Reliance on celebrity fundamentalists and in-group leadership structures has always plagued evangelical colleges. In today’s case, Left Behind author Jerry Jenkins is accused of receiving sweetheart financial deals and tweaking the school’s moral code. MBI’s leaders are accused of giving one another perks without opening their deliberations to the whole school community.

The accusations range beyond financial hanky-panky. MBI’s leaders are accused of winking at theological sloppiness, too, another pattern established in the twentieth century. In today’s MBI case, alumni have charged the top leaders with

trading the sure foundation of God’s Word and the mission of training men and women to know and teach the Gospel for the fragile foundation of the cultural tides of the day. . . . students around campus and on my floor were not acting in ways that showed their desire to love and know the Lord fully. . . . Moody has become not a unique place to study and know God’s Word, but instead a place infiltrated by liberal political stances and clichéd cultural buzzwords without a solid theological foundation.

Such accusations have a timeless ring in the world of evangelical higher education. Similar complaints have been lodged against school leaders in every decade of the twentieth century and the twenty-first. And though they always seem new, they are the predictable result of the uncertain goals of evangelical higher education.

Like all evangelical institutions, MBI is in an impossible situation. It exists as a school dedicated to a certain vision of eternal truth, yet it can only survive if it also changes periodically. For example, few members of today’s MBI community would encourage racial segregation on campus, but in the 1930s it was part of an MBI education. All schools need to change, but this can be difficult for evangelical schools that promise to be purveyors of God’s eternal Truth.

Too often, leaders at evangelical schools fudge this dilemma by making back-room decisions about changes, hoping the evangelical public does not complain too loudly. Every once in a while, however, influential board members, faculty, students, or alumni shout out a protest, like the one we hear today from Chicago.

It’s important to note, of course, that similar problems exist in non-evangelical institutions as well. Wherever charismatic leaders are allowed to make decisions without consulting concerned constituencies, abuse is predictable. Most often, in secular higher education, this has happened with high-profile athletic programs such as the ones at Penn State and Florida State.

The situation at MBI is sadly similar. Instead of a structure by which changes can be discussed and agreed upon, a closed-door group of influential leaders has felt forced to go ahead on its own. None of us should be surprised that structures like that lead to financial malfeasance or unpopular policies.

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The Ol’ College Tri-al

Want to scare a fundamentalist? Tell them you’re sending their child to a state university. As I’m arguing in my new book about evangelical higher education, anxiety about college has always been a primary concern of Protestant fundamentalists and other conservative evangelicals. Today’s fundamentalists are no different, as I discovered in my recent visit to the Ark Encounter. In this last (I promise) post about the Ark Encounter, I have one final puzzle about the ways the Kentucky creationists depict the dangers of mainstream higher education.

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Watch out! It’s a trap!

First, the history: When evangelist Bob Jones explained his reason for starting his own college in 1926, he liked to tell the story of one woeful Christian family who had scrimped and saved to send their daughter to a fancy university. As Jones told the tale,

At the end of nine months she came home with her faith shattered. She laughed at God and the old time religion. She broke the hearts of her father and mother. They wept over her. They prayed over her. It availed nothing. At last they chided her. She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

Who wouldn’t be scared by that sort of story? Or consider the following example, reprinted throughout the early 1920s by a number of fundamentalist pundits. It was supposedly a letter to the folks at home from a recent college graduate. As he put it,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water. . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.

For fundamentalists in the 1920s, the dangers of college weren’t only about debt burdens and sexual assault. College itself threatened to rob children of their faith, leave them “poisoned.”

Like now, fundamentalists back then didn’t just rely on hearsay. They devoured social-science reports of the deleterious religious effects of college. Most famous was James Leuba’s study of student religiosity, published in 1916. Leuba found that most college freshmen (85%) called themselves Christians, but only 55% of recent college graduates did so. The upshot, fundamentalists told themselves, was that the college experience must do something to undermine evangelical faith.

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Those darn college professors…

What was true in 1916 seems just as true a century later. Conservative evangelicals—at least the ones who built Kentucky’s Ark Encounter—are convinced that mainstream higher education is a spiritual minefield.

There’s good reason to think they’re right, at least in part. Sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund studied elite academics and found that there did indeed seem to be some elements of anti-evangelical bias among them. Evangelical professors told Ecklund they tended to keep their faith “closeted.” Others reported hearing offhand comments in the faculty lounge deriding “stupid Christianity.”

While elite academics weren’t as uniformly anti-religious as some evangelicals might assume, they did tend to be less religious than the rest of the population. And a small minority told Ecklund that they actively sought to cure students of their religious proclivities. One physicist told her that he viewed religion as a “virus” that he hoped to cure. A social scientist said she started her classes with the following disclaimer:

You don’t have to distance yourself from religion and think about it from an outside perspective, but you do if you want to succeed in this class.  And so if you don’t want to do that, then you need to leave.

If I were an evangelical parent (I’m not), I would hesitate to send my child into an environment where they would be confronted with that sort of hostile, ignorant attitude. And certainly, Ken Ham and the Answers In Genesis crowd are intensely anxious about the goings-on in mainstream higher education. Ham explained his reasoning in a critique of ILYBYGTH a while back, and my trip to the Ark Encounter confirmed it.

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Can college students protect their faith?

Most of the exhibits were fairly predictable, if odd. They depicted the problems with mainstream evolutionary theory and old-earth creationism. They showed the way day-to-day life on the ark could have happened. Not what I’d expect to see in a mainstream science museum, but pretty close to what I expected to find at the Ark Encounter.

On the top floor, though, I was surprised by what I found. Ark Encounter includes a long corridor dedicated to a huge, walk-through comic-book tract. The comic book’s images have been blown up to fill the walls of the corridor, and visitors walk through the story. The plot is familiar—a student wonders about her faith. After some trials, she embraces it.

One of the trials is her smarky college professor. The central characters walk into a lecture hall, where they are told,

The Bible is full of contradictions—written by people with no knowledge of science. The earth isn’t 6,000 years old, and there’s no way the millions of species of animals could fit on Noah’s Ark…

One of the characters is a young-earth creationist and he patiently defends his faith to two friends, but their college experience puts that faith to a severe test.

The exhibit itself was a surprise, but the content wasn’t. The fears and anxieties of fundamentalists in 2018 aren’t too different from those of fundamentalists in 1918. But here’s the thing that’s been bugging me: Why does the Ark Encounter devote so much wall space to this college story, when Ken Ham thinks that the college years are already too late for successful soul-saving?

As Ham wrote in his 2009 book Already Gone, the kids that are leaving fundamentalist faith are making those decisions in their middle-school and high-school years. As Ham puts it,

Many parents will fork out big bucks to send these students to Christian colleges, hoping to protect them in their faith. But the fact is, they’re already gone.

If Ham wants his flock to understand that the college years are too late, why include this huge exhibit on the dangers of college at the Ark Encounter?

The Prodigal College Returns

The trend seems clear: Michigan, Florida State, Texas State, Ohio State, and other big schools have banned fraternities. School administrators are scrambling to control dangerous drinking, deadly hazing, and horrifying sexual assault. I can’t help but ask: Have the fundamentalists been proven right?

blanchard hall

Do all paths lead back to Blanchard Hall?

A hundred years ago, after all, as I explore in my new book, fundamentalists founded their new network of evangelical colleges, institutes, and universities for two main reasons. First, they wanted an intellectual refuge. Mainstream colleges, fundamentalists universally agreed, had drunk the Kool-aid of evolutionism and materialism. At least as dangerous, however, were the behavioral norms that had come to prevail at mainstream schools.

In the 1920s, fundamentalist school leaders such as Charles Blanchard at Wheaton College in Illinois and Bob Jones at Bob Jones College in Florida promised their schools would protect students from both loose ideas and loose behavior.

At Wheaton, for example, fraternities were banned, along with smoking, drinking, cinema, dancing, and card-playing. The school posted spies outside the downtown movie theater to make sure Wheaton students weren’t sneaking in. At Bob Jones, students were prohibited from “loitering,” talking freely with members of the opposite sex, and absolutely anything that hinted of “jazz.”

For a century now, evangelical schools have been mocked as small-minded anti-intellectual “church colleges,” hopelessly out of touch with modern higher ed. They have also been attacked—often by their own students—as ridiculously controlling.

Back when he was a Wheaton student in 1966, for example, historian Mark Noll led the drive to reexamine the “Pledge.” It was simply not possible, students felt, for them to receive a decent college education if they weren’t allowed to make their own decisions. They were embarrassed to tell their friends at other schools that they weren’t allowed to go to the movies.

But who is embarrassed now? As leaders of secular colleges struggle to find ways to impose restrictions on student behavior, are they reverting to fundamentalist arguments of the 1920s? As Frank Bruni argued recently in the New York Times,

On a range of fronts, fraternities — and sororities — contradict our stated values and undercut our supposed goals for higher education, putting our inconsistencies and hypocrisies under a magnifying glass.

To ban them, though, or even to take real moves to enforce rules against certain types of student behavior, wouldn’t be as simple as it seems. As the first generation of fundamentalist college leaders lamented, a central principle of mainstream higher education has been the notion that students themselves must be in charge of their decisions.

To make any real change in the deadly culture at many frats, mainstream college leaders would need to make big changes in the way they see their role. Like fundamentalist colleges and their evangelical heirs, mainstream schools would need to insist on their roles as moral guardians.

Ready for Pre-Order!

I know, I know, a lot of eager readers were planning to dress up as their favorite evangelical university president and camp out at their local bookstore when the new book was released.

harry potter camp out

I’m pretty sure she’s dressed as Wheaton’s Hudson Armerding…

I’m happy to say that’s not necessary. You can put in pre-orders now for Fundamentalist U. Oxford is saying the books will ship February 1, 2018.

Could This Happen at an Evangelical College?

As John Leo reports at Minding the Campus, Professor Anthony Esolen is under pressure. He’s accused of being “racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, and religiously chauvinistic.” He says he’s just being truly Catholic and accuses his Catholic college of straying. As I finish up my book on the history of evangelical and fundamentalist higher education, the story brings a question to mind: Would this—could this—DOES this happen at evangelical colleges?

For those who are outside the orbit of Catholic higher education, let’s start with an inadequate primer: The Catholic Church and its schools include several different orders. Many Catholic colleges, including famous ones such as Georgetown, Boston College, and Marquette, are run by the Jesuits. Other big names, such as Catholic University and Notre Dame, are run directly by the Church. Esolen’s Providence College is Dominican. All of them are Catholic, but they have different bureaucracies and different ways of doing things.

Anthony-Esolen

Plus Catholique que L’Administration?

Why does it matter? Each order has its own history and its own theological, cultural, and educational traditions. Some tend to be more conservative; some more liberal. As a very loose and general rule, American Jesuits and Franciscans tend to be more liberal when it comes to some things. Dominicans, in my very limited experience, tend to be more conservative. But it varies enormously.

At his Dominican school, Anthony Esolen thinks that the Dominicans are not being nearly conservative enough. As he has complained,

The dirty not-so-secret is that the same people who for many years have loathed our Development of Western Civilization program — the focus of curricular hostility — also despise the Catholic Church and wish to render the Catholic identity of the college merely nominal.

In a lot of ways, it sounds like the perennial tensions at evangelical colleges. Since the early 1960s, market pressure among evangelical and fundamentalist colleges has been so great that any rumor of faculty heterodoxy at evangelical schools has been ferociously squelched by school administrators. In other words, in their life-or-death struggle to attract as many students as possible, administrators at evangelical colleges have worked hard to shut down any whiff of liberalism among their faculty. They have been terrified of alienating conservative parents and losing their tuition dollars.

And school-watchers know it. Conservative and fundamentalist critics—including trustees and celebrities—have scrutinized the goings-on at evangelical schools with a gimlet eye. In many cases, they have threatened to publicize the liberalism of evangelical schools, hoping to cow administrators into cracking down. Time and time again, evangelical administrators have taken drastic action to head off any accusation that they are no longer trustworthy.

It sounds as if Professor Esolen is working from a similar playbook. As he said on Facebook recently, “It is no longer clear to me that Providence College would qualify as ‘worth attending’.”

In the world of fundamentalist and evangelical higher education, these sorts of enrollment threats carry a great deal of weight. Young-earth creationist Ken Ham, for example, has been able to push schools to shore up their creationist credentials by wondering, in effect, if some evangelical schools are still worth attending.

But here’s where I’m puzzled. Have evangelical schools had to wrestle with professors who are too conservative? Too creationist? Too fundamentalist?

I can think of a few cases, but nothing seems perfectly analogous.

For example, take the story of Gordon Clark at Wheaton. Back in the 1930s, Clark had a sterling resume, with an Ivy League PhD. Wheaton College was happy to have him, for a while. Clark’s ferocious Calvinism, however, sat roughly with Wheaton’s interdenominational, big-tent-evangelical tradition. Clark pooh-poohed the emotional revivalism so popular among Wheaton’s students. In 1943, for instance, he dismissed a campus revival as mere “mass psychology,” not true salvation. And he disdained a popular evangelical method of Bible reading, the dispensational approach. So Clark didn’t last at Wheaton.

It’s sort of similar to Esolen’s case, but not exactly. Professor Clark never accused Wheaton of abandoning its evangelical tradition. Rather, Clark wanted evangelical students to be more rigorously conservative, more systematically Calvinist. But Clark never thought Wheaton had abandoned its Calvinist roots, because it hadn’t. Professor Clark understood that Wheaton shared the perennial problem of interdenominational evangelical schools everywhere: They wanted an impossibly generic orthodoxy.

On the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities, we mostly hear about professors who get in hot water for being too liberal, not too conservative. Most recently, for example, the case of Larycia Hawkins comes to mind. She was booted (yes, she was booted, no matter that she officially agreed to depart on her own) for wearing a hijab, bragging about it, and proclaiming that Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worshipped the same God.

For all you SAGLRROILYBYGTH out there who know the world of evangelical higher education better than I do….am I missing something? Are there other conservative professors who get in trouble for being more fundamentalist than their evangelical schools? Could Professor Esolen’s dilemma be repeated on an evangelical campus? HAS it been?

From the Archives: A Swizzle Mystery

Hello from sunny Biola University! In my continuing quest to dig into the history of conservative evangelical colleges, I’ll be working in the archives here all week. And I found a stumper in the archives this afternoon.

My oeil has been tromped...

My oeil has been tromped…

As I strolled across campus this morning, I was thinking that everything looked pretty similar to things at my own beloved State University of New York. The students looked the same, the vibe was the same…there was nothing particularly different about the goings-on at this Christian campus compared to my own secular campus. Except, of course, for the fact that the sun was shining and flowers were blooming and the air didn’t hurt when it hit your skin.

But then, I noticed something I wouldn’t be likely to see on my home campus. As far as I know, we don’t have any humongous Jesus paintings on our buildings.

But let’s get to our archive challenge. Among the wonderful holdings here, the Biola library includes issues of the Biola student newspaper going back to 1938. And in the May 1938 edition, I saw this ad. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what it means. I looked up “swizzle,” of course, but besides a “rum swizzle” and a “swizzle stick” I couldn’t find a clue.

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Any suggestions?  For full information, I can tell you that the Coffee-An was a lunch counter next to campus.  They advertised regularly in Biola publications.