Evangelical Colleges Aren’t Teaching Christianity

What do students learn at evangelical colleges? For a hundred years now, the promise has been that these schools will teach reliably conservative, reliably orthodox religion. We see more evidence this morning that they tend to focus on something else instead.

It took me a while to catch on. As I conducted the research for my new book about evangelical higher education, I swam through reams of creeds, statements, and charters for new and renewed fundamentalist colleges. All of them promised orthodoxy—relentless and unyielding.

Gloege Guaranteed Pure

Pure first.

It was only by reading and talking with Tim Gloege that I was able to grasp the big problem. And once he explained it to me enough times for me to understand, it clarified a whole lot.

Here’s the problem: The fundamentalist movement of the 1920s wasn’t really about orthodoxy. It couldn’t be. It was based, instead, on the creation of a new defense against a new threat. By the 1920s, fundamentalist intellectuals and activists hoped to form a coalition to oppose theological modernism in Protestant churches. They didn’t really have a single theology to be for, but rather a theological trend to be against. Instead of imposing a clear theological orthodoxy on its schools and churches, then, fundamentalism between 1920 and 1950 (ish) had to embrace a far vaguer vision of purity.

What did purity mean? It was never precisely spelled out, but it included a mish-mash of conservative theological principles, traditional social rules, and habits American evangelicals had picked up over the years. Most important, it was ruled by a vague and shifting consensus among evangelical leaders. As culture changed, so did notions of proper purity. In the 1920s, for example, cinema was banned as impure. The rule was maddeningly slippery: Purity was defined by what a consensus of the evangelical public seemed to think it was.

It’s confusing, so let me offer an example that helped me see the distinction. In 1929, Calvinist theologian and sometimes-fundamentalist J. Gresham Machen finally left Princeton Seminary. He opened his own school nearby, Westminster. Machen was dedicated to the notion of running a truly orthodox Calvinist seminary. The rules he set up for his students followed the demands of Calvinist orthodoxy.

From Wheaton College in 1936, President J. Oliver Buswell reached out to Machen with a concern. Was it true, Buswell asked, that Westminster students were allowed to drink alcohol? For Buswell, the notion that students would be allowed to do so was nearly inconceivable. It flouted every assumption he had as the leader of a fundamentalist college. For the theologically sophisticated Machen, however, there was no real problem. There was no theological reason to ban alcohol. Such rules were only cultural baggage from evangelicals’ prudish past, not creedal requirements from Calvinism’s rich orthodox legacy.

In other words, rules against alcohol were a result of the lowest-common-denominator evangelical quest for purity, not a requirement of Christian orthodoxy.

The tension between orthodoxy and purity at evangelical colleges continues. This morning we read a report from George Fox University in Oregon. Professor Abigail Favale writes in First Things that her GFU students don’t know about Christian orthodoxy and don’t really care. As she explains, it’s not that her students haven’t been thoroughly steeped in evangelical schools dedicated to “orthodoxy.” In her words,

Almost all students in the program are born-and-bred Christians of the nondenominational variety. A number of them have been both thoroughly churched and educated through Christian schools or homeschooling curricula.

favale

Purity first. And second.

But few of her students accept one key tenet of orthodox Christian thinking—the resurrection of the physical body. “Resistance to the idea of a physical resurrection struck them as perfectly logical,” she writes.

“It doesn’t feel right to say there’s a human body in heaven, when the body is tied so closely to sin,” said one student. In all, fewer than ten of my forty students affirmed the orthodox teaching that we will ultimately have a body in our glorified, heavenly form. None of them realizes that these beliefs are unorthodox; this is not willful doctrinal error. This is an absence of knowledge about the foundational tenets of historical, creedal Christianity.

If these evangelical students weren’t learning evangelical theology, what were they learning? It seems these days, just like in the twentieth century, the impossible goal of an interdenominational orthodoxy has been replaced with a vague but stern emphasis on purity. At least, that’s what Prof. Favale reports. “Without a guiding connection to orthodoxy,” she thinks,

young Evangelicals are developing heterodox sensibilities that are at odds with a Christian understanding of personhood. The body is associated with sin, the soul with holiness. Moreover, this sense of the body, especially under the alias flesh, tends to be hypersexualized. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the Evangelical emphasis on purity, a word that has become synonymous with bodily virginity.

The goals of most fundamentalist colleges in the twentieth century included a lot of things. Students were supposed to become better Christians and better people. The details, however, were almost always left vague. Time and time again, theological orthodoxy had to take a back seat to a loosely defined devotion to purity.

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What They Missed about Liberty Online

Want to understand evangelical higher education these days? Then you need to read the recent exposé of Liberty University’s online program in the New York Times. But when you do, remember that they left out a central piece of the picture.

moody literature mission

Early distance-learning programs at MBI claimed to reach the world with cutting-edge technology, c. 1947. These “mountaineers” got free Gospels if they read them in school. And, yes, that is their school building.

The Liberty Online story is a big one. As the Times article describes, Liberty now claims $2.5 billion (yes, that’s B-illion with a B) in net assets, largely from its online department. Because Liberty is a non-profit, it is not subject to the same oversight as for-profit schools such as Corinthian and the University of Phoenix.

Some online students, the article describes, felt pressured to sign up and ripped off with the results. As one unhappy former Liberty student told the Times,

What’s killing me is that I went into this program to try to change my situation . . . and I’m worse off than I was at the beginning.

It’s an ugly story. There is no doubt that Liberty’s online program has been a cash cow. As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, there’s also no doubt that Liberty’s Jerry Falwell Jr. has plowed his online profits back into the brick-and-mortar campus. Sports, star faculty, and campus facilities all get plenty of funding. Recently, the Liberty football squad used that money to fulfill one of the school’s long-standing dreams by defeating top-ranked Baylor.

But the Times story leaves out a crucial part of the historical context. The way they put it, Liberty’s online program came about as part of an experiment, an “educational novelty.” As the article explains,

One educational novelty that Falwell dabbled in, starting in the mid-’70s, was an early form of distance learning. Liberty would mail lecture videotapes and course packets to paying customers around the country — at first just certificate courses in Bible studies, and by the mid-’80s, accredited courses in other subjects as well.

The inspiration, according to the NYT, was the work of John Sperling and the University of Phoenix. I don’t doubt that President Falwell Jr. admired Sperling’s business model. I don’t dismiss the importance of the notion that Falwell has treated his school, as he told NYT, “like a business.”

However, if we really want to understand Liberty’s online success, we have to also understand its context as part of the history of evangelical higher education. It is difficult for some secular people (like me) to notice or acknowledge, but evangelical schools and missionary institutions have always led the way with finding new ways to use new technology to deliver distance education.

letterhead from BGC 3

Check out the 1950s-era “high-tech” logo! More evidence of the evangelical obsession with technology and distance learning, from Fuller Seminary, c. 1956.

Perhaps the best example might be the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. No matter the decade, no matter the technology, the Moody educational empire has found ways to expand its reach using new technological means. The drive is obvious: For MBI and other evangelical institutions, the primary goal is to deliver the Gospel to as many human eyes and ears as possible, as fast as possible. If new technology will help accomplish that mission, all the better.

To note just a few of the best-known programs, MBI was a pioneer in early radio, with its WMBI established in 1926 to bring the Word to the world. By 1940, WMBI’s Radio School of the Bible had over 10,000 registrants. In 1942, WMBI claimed to broadcast its programs through 187 radio stations across the USA, Canada, China, and Latin America.

In the 1940s, MBI set up its Moody Institute of Science, distributing missionary science films to a wide audience.

At the same time, MBI carried out less-well-known distance-learning programs as well. As I discovered in the MBI archives, from the 1920s through the 1960s the Moody Literature Mission delivered millions of books and tracts to readers throughout the country and throughout the world.

The point of these distance-learning programs was always the same. MBI, like all evangelical colleges and universities, had a mission of missions. It was dedicated to training young people to carry the Gospel around the world. And, unlike some people’s image of stuffy Luddite conservatives, evangelical institutions were always pioneers in every type of technology: print, radio, film, and internet.

So when the Jerry Falwells experimented with distance education, they weren’t innovating at all, really. Rather, they were merely continuing the long tradition of evangelical higher education—using all available means to deliver the Gospel around the world.

How Did Christian Colleges Become Racist?

People keep asking: Why are white evangelicals so racist? This week we see it in The Atlantic and at Forbes. At leading evangelical colleges—in the North anyway—there’s a big, obvious answer that this week’s pundits don’t mention.

Here’s what they’re saying:

  • Michael Gerson wondered what happened. At his alma mater Wheaton College in Illinois, a strident anti-racism among white evangelical leaders slipped away.
  • Chris Ladd places the blame on slavery and the lingering dominance of Southern Baptists. As Ladd writes,

Southern pastors adapted their theology to thrive under a terrorist state. Principled critics were exiled or murdered, leaving voices of dissent few and scattered. Southern Christianity evolved in strange directions under ever-increasing isolation.

The question should bother all of us, white or not, evangelical or not. Why do so many white evangelicals seem comfortable or even enthusiastic about Trump’s Charlottesville-friendly MAGA message?

1940s postcard library

Not a lot of diversity, c. 1940s

Since neither Gerson nor Ladd bring it up, I will. At some of the leading institutions among white evangelicals, there is an obvious culprit. It’s not the political power of the slave state. It’s not craven lust for political influence. As I’m arguing in my new book about evangelical higher education, Christian colleges have always been desperate to keep up with trends in mainstream higher education. And those trends pushed white evangelicals to mimic the white supremacy of mainstream higher education.

Of course, evangelical colleges were happy to stick out in some ways. In the classroom, for example. Evangelical institutions of higher education have always prided themselves on teaching dissident ideas about science, morality, and knowledge. In social trends, too, evangelical colleges didn’t mind having stricter rules for their students about drinking, sex, and dress codes.

When it came to academic luster, however, fundamentalist academics in the first half of the twentieth century were desperate for the respect of outsiders.

At Gerson’s alma mater, for example, President J. Oliver Buswell quietly discouraged African American attendance in the 1930s. Why? There’s no archival smoking gun, but Buswell explicitly discouraged one African American applicant, suggesting that her admission would lead to “social problems.”

When we remember the rest of Buswell’s tenure, his reasons for discouraging non-white applicants become more clear. Against the wishes of other Wheaton leaders at the period, Buswell fought hard for academic respectability. He tried to decrease teaching loads, increase faculty salaries, and improve faculty credentials. As Wheaton’s best historian put it, Buswell

passionately believed that one of the best ways to earn intellectual respect for fundamentalist Christianity would be to make certain that Wheaton achieved the highest standing possible in the eyes of secular educators.

In the 1930s, that respect came from a host of factors, including faculty publications and student success. It also came, though, from limiting the number of African American students and the perceived “social problems” interracialism would impose.

Buswell and Wheaton weren’t the only northerners to impose segregation on their anti-racist institutions. Cross-town at Moody Bible Institute, leaders similarly pushed segregation in order to keep their institution respectable in the eyes of white mainstream academics.

Like other white evangelical institutions, in the late 1800s Moody Bible Institute was committed to cross-racial evangelical outreach. On paper, in any case. And MBI always remained so on paper, but by the 1950s the dean of students broke up an interracial couple. The dean was not willing to say that there was anything theologically wrong with interracial dating, but he separated the couple anyways, worried that public interracialism would “give rise to criticism” of MBI and its evangelical mission.

Why do so many of today’s white evangelicals seem comfortable with Trump and his white-nationalist claptrap? Why didn’t they hold on to the anti-racism that had animated white evangelicals in the past? Both Ladd and Gerson make arguments worth reading.

On the campuses of northern evangelical colleges, though, there was another powerful impulse. For evangelical college leaders, being a real college meant earning the respect of white non-evangelical school leaders. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, uncomfortable as it may be to acknowledge, mainstream white college leaders expected racial segregation. White evangelical college leaders weren’t more racist than non-evangelicals. They were just more desperate to seem like “real” colleges.

HT: DL, EC

Fundamentalists Forget their Furious Family Feud

Maybe there’s hope for every family feud. The death of Billy Graham last week inspired an outpouring of love and respect from people whose fundamentalist forefathers loathed Graham’s revivals. Creationist impresario Ken Ham, for example, never one to water down his fundamentalist faith, had nothing but praise for Graham’s ministry. The archives tell a much different story.

Some of today’s no-compromise conservatives seem to have forgotten the legacy of their fundamentalist forefathers. Ken Ham, for example, praised Graham’s evangelistic outreach. As a child he listened to a Graham rally in Australia. As Ham recalled,

I remember people going forward in this church after listening to him and committing their lives to Christ.

Of course, it’s never kosher to speak evil of the dead. Ken Ham, however, lauded the whole body of Graham’s evangelistic outreach, from the 1950s through today. Ham included no whisper of accusation about Graham’s work.

Does he not know the backstory? Or have fundamentalists given up their ferocious feelings about Graham’s revivals in the 1950s?

Cover art final

Yes, there is a place to read the full story…

To be sure, Graham’s passing has attracted some criticism from intellectuals. Historian Matthew Avery Sutton blasted Graham’s reactionary politics. D.G. Hart recalls the fact that many conservative Protestants were “not exactly wild about Graham’s ministry.”

The epochal anger and denunciations sparked by Graham’s outreach, however, seem to have been forgotten by some latter-day fundamentalists themselves.

I look into this history in my new book about evangelical higher education. In a nutshell, Graham’s revivals split the conservative evangelical community. The sticking point was follow-up. At Graham’s hugely popular services, audience members who felt Jesus’s call were put in touch with a sponsoring church. Those churches included more liberal Protestant churches as well as more conservative ones.

Fundamentalists worried that Graham’s preaching was leading souls directly into the pit of hell, by sending them to false churches to learn poisoned theology. These fears weren’t limited to a few right-wing wackos; they were a prominent part of conservative evangelical thinking in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

In 1963, for example, Samuel Sutherland of Biola University denounced Billy Graham. To a correspondent who accused Sutherland of cooperating with Billy Graham, Sutherland wrote,

I do appreciate the truth found in the Word of God which Billy Graham proclaims.  We appreciate also the souls that are saved and who find their way to Bible-believing churches and thus are nurtured in our most holy faith.  We deplore quite definitely, and have said so publicly, that there are so many doctrinally questionable individuals who are identified in prominent ways with the campaign and we are disappointed beyond words in the knowledge that so many of those who profess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ at the crusades will doubtless find their way into churches where the Word of God is not proclaimed and where they will not have a chance to know what the Gospel is all about or what it means, actually, to be born-again.  I am with you.

In 1971, one outraged fundamentalist wrote to Moody Bible Institute President William Culbertson to express his disgust at the Graham crusades. As he put it, the Graham crusades only sent people into false churches, such as “Luthern” [sic], “Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, etc.”

anti culbertson anti graham letter 1

Fundamentalists didn’t like Billy Graham…

For a fundamentalist, that was a serious accusation.

Such accusations flew fast and furious around the world of fundamentalist higher education. The magazine of Biola University ran one typical reader letter in 1958. Reader Dorothy Rose condemned Graham as a false Christian and a servant of world communism. Rose warned (falsely) that Graham had been expelled from two “outstanding, sound Bible colleges.” As Rose wrote direly,

It is easy to be popular with the high-ups and with the press if we are willing to compromise.  But what is the cost spiritually?

No one denounced Graham more fiercely than Graham’s former mentor Bob Jones Sr. In 1958, for example, Jones wrote to a fundamentalist ally,

No real, true, loyal, Bible friend of Bob Jones University can be for the Billy Graham sponsorship . . . . [Billy Graham is] doing more spiritual harm than any living man.

Fundamentalists have come a long way. When it comes to the legacy of Billy Graham at least, no-compromise conservatives seem to have forgiven, or more likely, forgotten the divisive nature of Graham’s ministry.

Poison Pens at Evangelical Colleges

What’s going on at Taylor University in Indiana? According to a recent anonymous newsletter, the evangelical campus is seething with

gossip, slander, backbiting, profanity, vulgarity, crude language, sexual immorality (including adultery, homosexual behavior, premarital sex and involvement with pornography in any form), drunkenness, immodesty of dress and occult practice.

Zoiks!

Taylor’s administration struggles to respond to this conservative carping. For those in the know about the history of evangelical higher education, this sort of anonymous poison-pen assault has always been part of life at Christian colleges.

As I found in the research for my new book, critics from both the evangelical left and the fundamentalist right have often resorted to anonymous open letters in their attempts to influence policy at their schools. The archival files bulge with letters and newsletters of this type.

At Biola University, for example, a self-identified group of disgruntled fundamentalists buttonholed President Samuel Sutherland with a list of concerns in 1969. As they wrote anxiously,

we are deeply concerned about danger signs showing themselves among some of our conference speakers and members of the student body! Indications now present seem to point to a trend that the school is moving from its Biblical foundation.  May God prevent such a tragedy!

The students were concerned with the slackening of the student dress code, particularly for women. The rules stated that skirts and dresses must not be shorter than one and a half inches above the knee. As the conservative students complained, though,

the failure of a number of Biola girls to adhere to the dress rule is altogether too evident.  Excessive bodily exposure of Biola girls has even been seen in the seminary section of the library and has proven a hindrance to study. . . . We urge the administration to be rigorous in enforcing the rules and regulations of Biola Schools.  IN particular, the dress length rule should be observed because of its obvious Biblical basis.

Rock and roll, too, had snuck onto campus. As the protesters warned,

Unfortunately, many students here are experiencing a diet of music consisting primarily of the popular beat of the day.  Our group does not advocate avoidance of popular tunes!  However we do oppose the trend toward an exclusive diet of rock and roll even to the extent that our religious music is to be constructed around the beat.

All in all, the fundamentalist protesters in 1969 worried about the very continuation of Biola as a safe evangelical school. As they concluded,

Many great schools of the past today are under the sway of heresy.  We do not believe that loss happened within a few months.  We believe the erosion was gradual.  May God help all of the administration and faculty at Biola Schools to become more alert in detecting danger signs and in taking action to prevent the deterioration that has begun here.

These sorts of anonymous pleas for reform and renewal haven’t only come from nose-out-of-joint fundamentalists. Liberal students, too, have penned their share of open letters. The archives are full of em, but my personal favorite comes from Moody Bible Institute.

anti john rice demonstration warning letter

From the MBI Archives: BEWARE!

In 1971, MBI invited John R. Rice to speak at its annual Founder’s Day event. Before he could make the trip to Chicago, Rice came out in favor of the racial segregation at Bob Jones University. What was MBI to do? The leadership didn’t want to endorse Rice’s brand of Southern-fried racism. But they also didn’t want to anger his considerable fundamentalist following. As they dithered, they received an anonymous letter warning them to cancel Rice’s appearance.

The letter claimed to be written by non-students. To this reporter, however, the tone sounds awfully similar to the phrasing used by evangelical students everywhere and the letter-writers seem to know a lot more about Rice and MBI than any outsider would. For example, they had read Rice’s publication, Sword of the Lord. They knew about Rice’s recent support for racial segregation at Bob Jones U.

What should MBI do? The letter writers made threats:

We Do Not Want HIM [Rice] IN CHICAGO. If you bring him here to speak, we will have one of the biggest demonstrations Chicago has ever seen.

It would get ugly. As the letter concluded,

BEWARE . . . . the hour is later than you think. . . . Obey our orders or REEEEEEAAAAAP what you sow.

In the end, MBI canceled Rice’s speech. Perhaps the administration shared the letter-writers’ concern that their “ ‘image’ will . . . be destroyed.”

What will happen at Taylor? The conservative newsletter complains that the current campus is going to the dogs, according to Inside Higher Education. In classes, the newsletter exclaims, students learn

permissive views of human sexuality, hostility toward creationist perspectives, rejection of the rule of law (especially on the immigration issue) and uncritical endorsement of liberal-progressive ideas[.]

Such poison-pen missives have had a big impact in the past. Perhaps Taylor’s administration will take the path of least resistance and make some move to mollify the “conservative underground.”

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another doozy of a week. Here are some ILYBYGTH-themed news stories you might have missed:

Pro-lifers love the new science, by Emma Green at The Atlantic.

What happened to Crusade University? David Swartz tells the tale of the evangelical flop at Anxious Bench.Bart reading bible

Ohio teacher suspended for telling an African American student he would be “lynched,” at NYT.

How can universities promote intellectual diversity? Some presidents are hanging out with campus conservatives, at IHE.

UK report: Evolution acceptance lower among less-talented students. HT: VW.

What does Queen Betsy think went wrong? Politico describes her latest address.

The danger of homeschooling: LA finds “emaciated children chained to furniture,” at NYT.

Cultural bridge or soft censorship? UMass Boston protests against Confucius Institute, at Boston Globe.

Continuing crisis at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute:

A new Bible bill for Iowa public schools, at Des Moines Register. HT: MC

Who can still love Trump?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

A holiday week didn’t slow down the news. Cussing from the Oval Office, aspirations from Oprah’s couch…it was a weird week. Here are some of the top ILYBYGTH-related stories:

President Oprah?

Why do so many white evangelicals love Trump? Darren Guerra says it’s only “Jacksonian Evangelicals,” at First Things.Bart reading bible

Want to stop school segregation? Stop attacking charter schools, says Emily Langhorne at USNWR.

Liberalism is over, by Patrick Deneen at The Spectator.

San Diego State: Lecturer took anti-white attitudes too far, at CHE.

Museum of the Bible: A “safe space for Christian nationalists,” by Katherine Stewart at NYT.

Leadership shake-up at Moody Bible Institute, at CT.

More Trump/evangelical crack-up. How did evangelicals respond to Trump’s “S***hole” comments?

Big-time college sports—the new Jim Crow. So says Victoria Jackson at LA Times.

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.

Schools on a Mission

Why go to college? For most Americans, “college” is about a bunch of things all bundled together. People want to prepare for white-collar jobs. They want to watch football and engage in hijinks. They want to have an “experience” that they hear will shape the rest of their lives. In my new book about evangelical higher education, I’m arguing that fundamentalist and evangelical schools generally offered students all those things and more. In addition to training students to be lawyers, doctors, engineers, and teachers, “Fundamentalist U” prepared students for a unique sort of career that secular universities didn’t. And that focus changed things at evangelical schools in major ways.

1930s application ref form

MBI reference form, c. 1930s. Note question number 8.

For many evangelical Christians in the twentieth century, the main point of going to college was to prepare for a career (or at least an experience) as a missionary. As one Biola student reported in 1940, she wasn’t sure what to do with her life. She had grown up as a missionary kid in China, but she hadn’t planned to go into missionary work herself. However, one day she felt a “call” to become a missionary after all.

How did she go about it? She knew she needed some training, so after diligent prayer and consultation with “the fundamental Church groups” in her area, she decided to enroll at Biola. For her, the entire point of a college education was to become a better missionary. College, in her way of thinking, was the place to learn how to “more perfectly tell [the millions of lost and dying souls in the world] of the matchless wonders of His grace.”

The focus on missionary work didn’t just change the way students decided to go to college and which college to apply to. Schools, too, put formal mechanisms in place to encourage missionary careers. On admissions forms, for example, schools asked about more than just grades and activities. As did the Moody Bible Institute, most schools wanted to know if an applicant “has . . . a genuine love for souls.” Wheaton, too, added extra admissions points if a student had a “demonstrated ability as an outstanding soulwinner.”

The focus on missionary preparation shaped schools in other ways, too. ALL colleges and universities tended to expand their bureaucracies after World War II. They formalized and systematized their admissions departments and alumni outreach bureaus.  In addition to these sorts of new departments, evangelical colleges also formalized their missionary training, by adding departments to help students pick the right missionary career path.

missions flier

Attention Liberty Students–your school will help you get to your mission field. C. early 1980s

One of the central themes of my book is that evangelical higher education experienced its own sort of evangelical existence—IN the world of American higher ed, but not OF it. In some ways, that is, evangelical institutions were shaped by the same sorts of forces that transformed the world of American higher education as a whole. In other ways—as in the focus on training missionaries—evangelical schools shaped those forces to fit their unique vision of proper higher education.

Felony Football Assault at Fundamentalist U

The world of evangelical higher education is reeling at the revelations from Wheaton College in Illinois. Five football players have been charged with felony assault in a brutal hazing incident. The incident reminds us of the long tensions between aggressive, win-at-any-cost college athletics and the behavioral rules of evangelical colleges.

1940s MBI banner and patch
Rah rah.

 

It’s easy enough to forget nowadays, when big evangelical schools like Liberty are making their mark in the competitive world of college athletics. Since the beginning, however, as I detail in my new book, thoughtful evangelicals wondered if the pressures that inevitably accompanied sports success threatened the mission of their religious institutions.

The story from Wheaton is gruesome. A freshman football player was attacked in his dorm room by senior teammates. His wrists were duct-taped together and he was thrown into the back of a car. His teammates piled in on top of him, threatening him with sexual assault. As Chris Gehrz has pointed out, the language they used—crudely blaring that Muslims commonly engaged in bestiality and sexual aggression—points out the deep structural flaws that can cocoon students at evangelical schools. Even worse, Wheaton seemed to be willing to sweep this assault under the rug, letting the players keep playing after they performed some community service and wrote apologetic essays.

The victim ended up abandoned half-naked in a field with torn muscles in both shoulders. He immediately left the school.

Sadly, there’s nothing unique about this sort of brutal collegiate assault, done under the banner of team-building “hazing.”

Schools like Wheaton, however, have built their reputation as different sorts of schools, schools that hold their students to a higher standard of conduct. As long as there have been evangelical colleges and universities of this sort, however, there have been deep tensions about athletic programs. For many schools, hosting winning sports programs are an intrinsic part of being a “real” college.

Back in 1944, for example, one Wheaton student wrote home in excitement that the new sports program (it only started in 1939 at Wheaton) gave her school a tradition to embrace. As she prepared to head to the weekly football game, she told her mother that the game against rival North Central College was a big deal on campus. “You see,” she explained to her mother,

Wheaton is to N.C. what Army is to Navy, or Harvard is to Yale.

Even in the sequestered world of the Moody Bible Institute, students glowered at their relative lack of athletic success. In 1945, one student complained that MBI teams should earn more wins. In spite of their large student body and their good athletic facilities, this student wrote in the student paper, the MBI “A” team still lost at basketball to the Wheaton “Bs.”

There had always been anxiety about the behavioral implications of athletics. In its first years, for example, Bob Jones College (it became Bob Jones University only in 1946) fielded teams under the name the “Swamp Angels.” The school’s leaders soon canceled the athletic program, however. As Bob Jones Jr. later remembered,

We found the people were betting on our games, littering our campus with whiskey bottles.

Even in that first generation of evangelical higher education back in the 1920s, critics charged that school leaders cared more about sports success than soul-saving. The short-lived and ill-fated fundamentalist experiment at Des Moines University demonstrated this conundrum better than any other school. When Toronto’s fundamentalist firebrand T. T. Shields stormed into town and took over the school, he fired all the faculty and forced them to reapply. Every potential faculty member went through an intrusive personal interview regime to get their jobs back. The entire faculties of the science and math departments quit in disgust. But not the football coach. Observers quickly noted that the coach was welcomed back in spite of his open cynicism about evangelical religion. When asked if he had been converted, for example–“born again”—the coach reputedly sneered, “Yeah, lots of times.”bju banner

Even elite Wheaton can’t claim innocence about questions of athletic influence. As soon as it started its athletics programs in the 1930s, critics on and off campus charged that football coach Fred Walker was not an appropriate evangelical role model. Walker was accused of a non-Christian tough-guy approach to coaching, cussing at players and using foul language to belittle them. In spite of all the charges, Wheaton kept Walker on.

Even back then, the college wanted to be seen as a real college. It wanted students to think of Wheaton as more than just a dumpy second-rate church school. Part of the package, since the very beginning, was a game-winning athletics program.

The behavior of students and administrators in this recent assault are nothing new. They only remind us of the ever-present tension at evangelical colleges like Wheaton. Like every school, Wheaton gives its athletes too much leeway. The results are often criminal and catastrophic.