Sex Abuse and the Fundamentalist C-Word

The most depressing thing about the story might be its tragic predictability. The Fort-Worth Star-Telegram reported this week about the sexual assault and abuse of hundreds of victims by leaders of independent fundamental Baptist Churches. As I detailed in Fundamentalist U, these charges are not a sad quirk or an individual sin, but rather an inherent danger of fundamentalist institution-building.

sex abuse at fund indept

The dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions…

The charges are staggering. FWST reporters interviewed hundreds of victims and told their stories in detail. Time and time again, with no denominational authority to turn to, independent fundamental churches and schools relied on the utter authority of a single leader. In case after case, the obvious dangers of investing one human with so much power resulted in atrocious abuse. As one of the interviewees put it,

Those of us that have gotten out definitely know it as a cult.

Part of the cult-like structure of independent fundamental Baptist churches has always been its control of education, including independent colleges led by authoritarian leaders. As FWST reporters noticed,

The churches operate independently. But many pastors are linked by the church-affiliated colleges they attended: Bob Jones University, Hyles-Anderson College, Pensacola Christian College and Golden State Baptist College, to name a few.

Those colleges, in turn, suffer from the same institutional problems that beset independent fundamental Baptist churches as a whole. In a word, without external checks on power and influence, colleges and churches risk descending into cults, with no guard against the rapacity of all-powerful leaders.

In Fundamentalist U, I argue that this structural problem is not an unfortunate exception, but rather the rule for interdenominational conservative-evangelical institutions. Certainly not all of them, but in many cases, institutions that embraced the fundamentalist side of the conservative-evangelical family tended to turn to authoritarian solutions to the inherent dilemma of authority in interdenominational evangelicalism. In the book, I use the twin cases of Bob Jones College and Denver Bible Institute in the 1930s to make my case.

Both schools turned to an authoritarian leader to settle the inherent dilemmas of early fundamentalism. What did it mean to be a “real” fundamentalist? No one could say for sure, so some colleges invested their leaders with ultimate power to define good and bad, real and fake.

At Bob Jones College, the dictatorial authority of the leader was not to be questioned. Due to the school’s success in attracting students and keeping faculty and alumni happy, the structure worked. It certainly had plenty of critics over the years—both internal and external—but BJU was able to retain its insularity and its authoritarian power structure.

At Clifton Fowler’s Denver Bible Institute, however, accusations of sexual abuse and theological malfeasance led to a hearing of sorts. The limits of that hearing help demonstrate the inherent structural problems of fundamentalist institution-building.

In short (check out chapter three of Fundamentalist U if you want the full story), Clifton Fowler was accused of a host of sins. He was charged with conducting sexual relationships with many of the young men under his charge. He was accused of prying into the sexual lives of many of his students and congregants and then using that intimate information to bully and blackmail his students. He was accused of innovating doctrines about sexual relationships, claiming that married men and women should not have sex with one another.

In 1936, Fowler attempted to clear his name. He appealed to national leaders of fundamentalist colleges, such as Oliver Buswell of Wheaton College. The response of that blue-ribbon fundamentalist commission tells us about the dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions.

Instead of charging Fowler with the allegations, committee members agreed to keep the accusations quiet, in order not to besmirch the name of fundamentalism. As Buswell put it, he hoped to keep the whole scandal

a strictly private matter among Christian brethren.

It is difficult not to read the testimony as a clear warning bell about the kind of abuse rampant among “cult-like” fundamentalist institutions. As one DBI insider told Buswell’s commission,

All who enter within the confines of the school as students or casual visitors come under a peculiar ‘hypnotic’ spell.

In spite of collecting damning testimony from multiple victims and witnesses, the commission concluded in the end that it could not really do anything to stop Fowler’s predatory behavior. As Buswell concluded in a private letter in 1936,

we cannot commend this man or this work to the confidence of the Christian public.  I do not suppose there is anything more we could do, since we have been given no power to take action, and Fowler practically has his trustees in his pocket, I believe.

In other words, fundamentalist leaders concluded, every fundamentalist could create his own authority. As President Buswell explained, if the trustees of his school remained loyal to Fowler, there were no external levers of control or influence others could exert.

The kind of abuse allegedly perpetrated by Dave Hyles and other independent fundamental Baptist leaders certainly seems to fall into this category. Is it a crime? Yes, indeed. Is it the result of personal sin? I believe so. But those categories of individual blame and transgression don’t adequately explain the ways that the very structures of fundamentalist institutions support and encourage these kinds of abuse and assault.

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Protests: Part of Life at Fundamentalist U

Shut em down! That’s what radical college students are saying these days. As Molly Wicker writes in the New York Times, even conservative students at conservative colleges are getting in on the action. We shouldn’t be surprised. As I describe in my new book, student protest has always been part of life at conservative evangelical schools.

Wicker is a junior at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. As she writes, her school and her fellow students are firmly conservative. The school is dedicated to a conservative, free-market sort of philosophy, one that bundles interdenominational evangelicalism with small-government enthusiasm.

pence trump clown car

Not conservative enough for GCC?

The school’s commencement speaker this year will be Vice President Mike Pence. We might think it a perfect fit. Pence, after all, is the White House’s living symbol of conservative evangelical values.

As Wicker relates, however, many of her fellow students are protesting Pence’s presence. Not because Pence is so conservative, but because Trump is not. As a representative of the Trump administration, Wicker writes, Pence represents Trump’s brand of “toxic, fear-inflating rhetoric.”

Like their fellows at Berkeley and other leftist havens, Grove City’s protesters are planning to demonstrate their displeasure at their school’s choice of commencement speaker. Wicker and the NYT editors suggest we should be surprised at this decision by conservative students at a conservative school.

We shouldn’t.

Student protest—sometimes polite, sometimes not—has always been a part of life at fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical colleges.

During the campus protests of the 1960s and 1970s, evangelical and fundamentalist schools witnessed their own wave of student activism. Many of those protests took on the tones of the continuing family feud between new-evangelicals and fundamentalists.

At Wheaton College, for example, students published a searing criticism of fundamentalist rules. The Wheaton administration tried to get them to cool it. The school, President V. Raymone Edman warned students, needed to protect the faith of all students, even fundamentalists.

Student protesters weren’t convinced. As one leader put it,

We must note that the ‘protective’ approach proscribes the natural freedom of man to seek truth where he will. . . . Christian education must exist in the free atmosphere of such a perspective or we will have no choice but to reject Christian education.

Student protests at conservative schools happened long before the Sixties, too. As long as there have been fundamentalist colleges, there have been fundamentalist student protests.

In the late 1930s, for example, Wheaton College President J. Oliver Buswell was on the ropes. Trustees wanted him out. Buswell was accused of many things, including a too-ferocious opposition to mainline denominations.

Students dived into the controversy with enthusiasm. One student of Buswell’s wrote an open letter to the Wheaton community. Buswell had to go, she wrote, because he was not doing a good job of training young fundamentalists. She had taken Buswell’s capstone ethics class. She didn’t want to complain; she prayed hard that God would “take away entirely my murmuring.” However, she felt compelled to voice her protest.

Buswell’s class, she protested, did not do what fundamentalist college classes were supposed to do. “It is most necessary,” she wrote,

for an educated young person, and especially a Christian, to know the struggle men have had through the ages to come to satisfactory conclusions about the First Cause, the final culmination, and the reason behind life. We cannot meet people of our day on an intelligent basis if we have no idea of their philosophy of life.

Unfortunately, though this student worked hard at every task Buswell assigned, she did not learn what she needed to know. Why did Buswell need to go? As this conservative student protested, Buswell had failed to perform the most important task of conservative evangelical higher education.

These protests were part of life at fundamentalist schools all over the country. Students felt obligated to speak up—as conservatives—to defend the true conservative ideals of their conservative schools.

At Bob Jones College in the 1930s, for example, this sort of more-conservative-than-thou student protest was institutionalized in the Pioneer Club. In this student club, members gathered every day to pray and organize school activities. They also pledged to root out “any atheistic or modernistic teacher” who might have somehow infiltrated the fundamentalist perimeter. And, most tellingly, they promised to shut down the school itself if they ever suspected a slide into liberalism and modernism.

Like the students at Grove City today, student protests at conservative evangelical colleges have often fought for a more consistent conservatism. Protests have sometimes succeeded when students have articulated their goals as the true goals of the schools themselves.

However, students like Molly Wicker and her conservative friends might take note: They might find themselves unpopular among their school’s administrators. The fervent evangelical student editor at Wheaton, after all, was kicked out for a full year. Any student—even members of the Pioneer Club—who questioned Bob Jones Sr.’s decisions was similarly shown the door.

Even when students insist that they are only protesting in favor of their school’s true values, administrators tend to expel first and ask questions later.

Time to Bury the Fundamentalist Hatchet?

Maybe there’s hope for us all. In the world of evangelical higher education, the relationship between fundamentalist Bob Jones University and evangelical Wheaton College has always been a rocky one. According to a story in the Wheaton Record [sorry, not available online], last week BJU president Steve Pettit visited Wheaton’s campus, the first time a Jones leader has done so in a long time. There were smiles all around. Does this mean that the times they are a-changin?

Smiles, everyone, smiles...

Smiles, everyone, smiles…

For those who don’t know their history, last week’s visit may have seemed like no big deal. The leader of one evangelical college visited another evangelical college. What’s the big whoop? As I’m discovering in the research for my new book about the history of conservative evangelical higher education, this détente may signal an important shift in the worlds of fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

Since the beginning in the 1920s, leaders of the two schools fought viciously. BJU founder Bob Jones Sr. accused sitting Wheaton president J. Oliver Buswell of jealousy. Jones wrote,

Dr. Buswell and his field staff working under him were putting out propaganda everywhere that Bob Jones’ credits had no value and that we were misrepresenting facts when we told students that our graduates were admitted to leading graduate schools. . . . [Buswell is a] conceited, frustrated, ambitious, disappointed man.

Ouch. For his part, Buswell retorted that he had never said such things, had never been anything but friendly and helpful to Jones’s new school. What he had done, Buswell admitted, was protest against the sin-friendly policies at Bob Jones College. For those who don’t know their Wheaton history, it may come as a shock to find out that in the early days, Wheaton accused Bob Jones of not being fundamentalist enough. Wheaton’s President Buswell had critiqued Bob Jones’s new school in a review of a book of Jones’s sermons. The sermons themselves were first-rate, Buswell wrote.

But Dr. Jones, let me ask you a question or two. Your own educational program is reeking with theatricals and grand opera, which lead young people, as I know, and as you ought to know, into a worldly life of sin.

Double ouch.

Things never got much better from that point on. Bob Jones Jr., son of the founder and second president of Bob Jones University, told a story of his father’s traveling days. One time, Jones Sr. was on a train with some Wheaton students. One of the students, “trying to be very smart,” asked Jones how Bob Jones College could allow dramatic productions and still call itself fundamentalist. As Bob Jones Jr. explained,

Wheaton used to turn up their self-righteous noses at our drama, but they played inter-collegiate football, which we had had to give up at Bob Jones University because we found the people were betting on our games, littering our campus with whiskey bottles when they came out to see us play; and we found that inter-collegiate athletics were a definite blight to our spiritual lives.

By the 1970s, the relationship turned from one of frigid civility to outright hostility. In 1974, Bob Jones III officially changed the status of Wheaton in BJU’s internal coding system from “Friendly” to “Unfriendly.” Jones’s secretary explained the shift in an internal memo:

The above school or organization has been coded “F”; however, Dr. Bob III, has changed the code now to “U” to make our coding system more consistent. It has been a problem for some people because an organization or school would be coded “F” but we would treat them like “U” people.

From that point on, BJU officials would not even maintain their polite façade of cooperation with Wheaton officials. In 1977, an administrator from Wheaton wrote to Bob Jones III to ask for guidance in establishing a student drama program. He asked if Jones would offer some tips from its long experience with such programs. Through a secretary, Jones informed the Wheaton official, “because of the Neo-Orthodox position of Wheaton College, we are unable to give you the assistance you request.”

Pettit visits wheaton 2

No self-righteous noses here…

Given that protracted and ugly history, President Pettit’s visit to Wheaton’s campus seems revolutionary indeed.

Have things turned a corner? Does President Pettit’s visit really signal a thaw in this long evangelical cold war? Several signs point to yes.

First of all, Pettit is no Jones. For the first time in the history of BJU, the school is not led by a direct descendant of the founder. Maybe that gives Pettit a little more wiggle room to ignore family feuds.

Also, BJU is changing. It now claims accreditation as well as athletic teams. It has apologized for its history of racism.

Wheaton is changing, too. As did BJU in the 1970s and 1980s, Wheaton has tussled with the federal government. Just as BJU did in the 1980s, Wheaton insists that its religious beliefs must give it some leeway when it comes to federal rules.

If Wheaton sees itself pushed a little more out of the mainstream, and Bob Jones University pushes itself a little more toward that mainstream, they might just meet somewhere in the middle. There will always be some jealousy between these two giants of evangelical higher education, but it seems possible that the worst of the fundamentalist feud may have passed.

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.