Lamanites and the Ugly History of Racism at Evangelical Colleges

It must be jarring. Imagine opening the new Sunday-school manual of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and finding cruel racist histories and warnings against racial mixing. It’s not that plenty of white Christians aren’t sincere about fighting racism. But episodes like this show how paper-thin those efforts are, given the nasty history of white racism. It’s not only LDS, by any means. The history I researched in Fundamentalist U shows the same Get-Out-level nastiness in white evangelical institutions.

Here’s what we know: The LDS hierarchy recently apologized for a glaring “error.” (I know, we’re not supposed to use “LDS” anymore, or “Mormon,” but calling it the whole long name every time seems crazy.) The new Sunday-school manual included old language about race, ideas the LDS church no longer teaches. Most shocking, the new 2020 manual says the following:

“The dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing,” the book explains, citing a statement made some 60 years ago by then-apostle and future church President Joseph Fielding Smith.

Erm.

Today, a spokesman announced, LDS churches “unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.” Good for them. Nevertheless, this episode serves as a reminder of the explicit, official racism that was church policy until very recently. It helps show how inadequate it is to simply promise not to be racist anymore; it helps demonstrate why we haven’t moved beyond our racist history, even if many people would like to believe we have.tisby color of compromise

It certainly isn’t only a problem among LDS churches. I just finally ordered my copy of Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise. I’m looking forward to reading it. As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, many evangelical colleges have an ugly history of racism. These days, even the schools with the most aggressively racist histories have disavowed racism, officially at least. But like the LDS “error,” its legacy is clearly visible. Like the painfully tense garden-party scene in Get Out, the history of institutional racism has been awkwardly papered over, leaving a painfully inadequate no-longer-racism where all the racism used to be.

Just a reminder: Yes, Bob Jones University—like the LDS—issued in 1960 a searing “Biblical” defense of racial segregation. But even up north, evangelical institutions such as Wheaton College and Moody Bible Institute suffered from explicit intentional racism.

bju race statement

Mea culpa, sorta…

At Wheaton, for example, in the 1950s there was only one integrated student club. Ironically, that was the Dixie Club for southern students. As one white Wheaton student later remembered from that era, one African American student seemed to prefer the company of her white southern friends, “even though obviously we represented repression for her in some ways.”

swartz moral minorityAs historian David Swartz described in his terrific book Moral Minority, Wheaton tried hard to become less racist. It led to some strange tensions. One white anti-racist faculty member in the 1960s edited an anti-racist newsletter, Freedom Now. If Wheaton students wanted a copy, they could get one at the campus bookstore, but only by asking for it by name. Copies were kept under the counter.

Wheaton wasn’t the only prominent evangelical school to wrestle awkwardly with its own institutional racism. At MBI, in 1952 an interracial couple was asked to split up. As Dean Maxwell Coder reported internally, he asked them

not to associate on or off the campus in anyway [sic] that would attract attention to themselves as a couple and give rise to criticism . . . because of the racial problem involved.

By 1970, MBI had taken bolder steps to fight its own racist history. In that year, segregationist fundamentalist John R. Rice had been invited to give a prominent talk at MBI. Rice had continued his pro-segregation rhetoric. MBI disinvited him. (For the intensely awkward details, see here. The MBI leaders had a hard time settling on language that would satisfy all parties.)

I recognize and admire the efforts of lots of white evangelical activists who have tackled this racist history, now and in the past. Yet it just doesn’t feel like quite enough. In the end, I agree with one LDS scholar:

The manuals “should have been shredded when this egregious error was found prior to international distribution,” said Jerri Harwell, associate professor in Salt Lake Community College’s English, linguistics and writing studies department. “The money that would have been lost on this is nothing compared to one day’s interest on $100 billion in [the church’s] reserves.”

From the Archives: “The Ku Klux Klan: Is It of God?”

Will they or won’t they? Ever since editor Mark Galli broke the internet by denouncing Trump in Christianity Today, pundits have been struggling to decide if white evangelicals will turn anti-Trump in 2020. Historians like me can’t help but notice the pattern: When it comes to political controversy, interdenominational evangelicalism has always been hopelessly divided. From the archives today, a look at a similar division back in the 1920s.Gospel-According-to-the-Klan-Cover-320x483

First, in case you’ve been living under a holiday rock, a little context: White evangelicals voted for Trump in droves in 2016, and they remain as a group one of his most solid voting blocs. So when “flagship” evangelical magazine Christianity Today called for Trump’s removal, it caught people’s attention. Outgoing editor Mark Galli looked his fellow evangelicals in the eye—so to speak—and offered this blandishment:

Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?

Would evangelicals listen? Some evangelical Trumpists immediately fired back, doubling down in their support for Trump. As Wayne Grudem wrote,

On issue after issue, President Trump is changing the direction of the country for the better. When I weigh these results against his sometimes imprecise and coarse speech, there is no comparison. . . . I’ll vote again for Trump.

I know people won’t like the comparison, but this 2019 debate sounds a lot like a 1920s debate among white evangelicals. Back then, white evangelicals engaged in a similarly vituperative political debate. Back then, white evangelicals wondered if they should support the resurgent Ku Klux Klan. I’m not saying Trump is a 21st-century Hiram Evans. Or even a 21st-century Warren Harding. But I AM saying that evangelicals have always been divided on similar sorts of political issues.

To get the gist of the 1920s debate, we have to understand the nature of the 1920s Klan. Most people these days, if they think about the Klan at all, think mostly of the Civil-Rights-Era Klan, when it was a violent fringe group dedicated to upholding Southern racism and white supremacy.

To be sure, the 1920s Klan was plenty racist, but it was a very different organization in a lot of ways from the later 1960s Klan. First of all, it was much, much bigger, with millions of members all over the nation. It was also depressingly mainstream, with members openly joining and touting their membership. And though the Klan has always been devoted to racism and white supremacy, the 1920s Klan was also ferociously centered on fighting CATHOLIC influence.

Back then, as historians such as Kelly Baker have described, the Klan was all about white supremacy, for sure, but specifically more about white Protestant supremacy.

And, as historian Felix Harcourt argued brilliantly in his book Ku Klux Kulture, the 1920s Klan was controversial in ways that sound creepily familiar today. Back then, civil-rights groups felt a need to prove to America that the Klan was a “poison flame,” attracting “bigots,” “busy-bodies,” and “lame-duck preachers.”

Among evangelical leaders—both intellectual and populist ones—the question of the Klan was difficult. Indeed, in ways that later generations of white evangelicals would find eternally embarrassing, white evangelicals back then conducted a high-profile debate that sounds depressingly similar to today’s.

Back then, some evangelical pundits were unwaveringly pro-Klan. Down in Texas, Baptist fundamentalist pundit J. Frank Norris ardently supported the Klan. In 1924, for example, the Texas Baptist Convention planned to debate a resolution denouncing the Klan. As Norris put it in his trademark style,

suffice to say that every Roman Catholic priest and Knights of Columbus would be glad to sign the [anti-Klan] resolution, and the Pope at Rome will have [anti-Klan Baptists] cannonized [sic] as a Saint for all the ‘faithful’ to worship.

Up in Chicago, a similar Klan debate unfurled in the pages of the Moody Bible Institute Monthly. One contributor from Texas argued in 1923 that evangelicals must not fall for the siren song of Ku-Kluxism. As he wrote, the Klan failed the Biblical sniff test in a number of ways. First, the Bible clearly denounces any sort of anti-Semitism. Second, the Klan’s viciousness was not Christian. When it came to Catholics, this preacher wrote,

The Bible says, ‘Do good to them and pray for them.’ The Klan says, ‘Drive them out.’

In the end, this preacher opined, the Klan should not be supported for merely political ends. Yes, they do fight against alcohol, he admitted. And divorce. And gambling. And other sorts of public sin. But those shared goals did not make the Klan Christian. As he concluded,

The great principle of Christianity is love.  The outstanding principle of Ku Kluxism is hatred.

In response, a preacher from Lancaster, Pennsylvania defended the Klan as a good Christian organization. In the tumultuous ‘twenties, he wrote, subversive communism, drug-peddling immigrants, and corrupt politicians called for drastic action. As he concluded,

Investigate the Klan. So far I have found that the churches never had a more active ally, the state a more determined champion; our homes a more resolute defender, and lawlessness and vice a more powerful foe than the Ku Klux Klan.

The debate in MBIM went on throughout the early years of the 1920s. As celebrity pastor Bob Shuler wrote from California, the Klan had its problems, but overall it deserved evangelical support. Shuler offered a careful six-point list: The Klan defended Protestantism, public schools, “women’s virtue,” law enforcement, and American idealism. Plus, all the enemies of the Klan were dangerous types—bootleggers, pimps, and Catholics. As Shuler concluded,

I have for over twelve months conducted a most comprehensive investigation of the ideals, principles, teachings and activities of the Klan and have come to the slow and deliberate conclusion that there is not now organized in America a more hopeful secret society.

What was the upshot? MBIM editor-in-chief James M. Gray was no Mark Galli. He came out against the Klan in 1924, but in a very wishy-washy way. However, by the middle of the decade it was no longer quite so difficult for white evangelicals to know what to think. A series of scandals plagued the Klan organization and it became clear that they were not spotless warriors for Christian virtue.

None of that has any direct bearing on today’s Trumpist debate, of course. There are a million factors still at play for 2020. In the 1920s, it took blockbuster events such as Indiana’s DC Stephenson’s shocking conviction for a particularly brutal rape to push the debate about the Klan’s virtue off the evangelical front page. Will there be a similar deciding event in the evangelical debate about Trumpism? Has there already been one?

From the Archives: Why Chik-fil-A’s LGBTQ Decision Feels a Lot Like Evangelical Anti-Racism

It’s different. I get that. But this week’s furor over Chik-fil-A’s decision to defund anti-LGBTQ Christian groups feels a lot like the debates about race and racism among white evangelicals back in the late 20th century. This morning, I’d like to share one episode from 1970-71 that feels eerily familiar to this week’s Chik-fil-A story.chik fil a protest

Here’s what we know: The chicken chain is doing great, apparently. Chik-fil-A is now the world’s third biggest fast-food chain, after Starbucks and Micky D’s. But its anti-LGBTQ reputation has limited the chain’s growth. As a result, Chik-fil-A announced this week that it will no longer donate to the Salvation Army or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. They will direct their philanthropy instead to groups with no anti-LGBTQ reputation.

Conservatives have reacted with predictable outrage. As crunchy conservative Rod Dreher put it,

I love Chick-fil-A, but it’s going to be a while before I go there again. This is nothing but gutless surrender.

Former Governor Mike Huckabee agreed, tweeting,

Today, @ChickfilA betrayed loyal customers for $$. I regret believing they would stay true to convictions of founder Truett Cathey. [sic] Sad.

huckabee chik fil a tweetConservative pundits are not wrong when they complain that moral orthodoxy about LGBTQ rights has changed rapidly. They can claim to agree with President Obama, c. 2008, when he still opposed same-sex marriage. They can insist, like Rod Dreher, that their recently moderate opinions have turned them suddenly into “pariahs.”

That’s all true enough, but from a historical perspective the current LGBTQ debates sound hauntingly familiar. Conservatives won’t relish the comparison, but today’s rapidly shifting mainstream attitudes toward LGBTQ rights feel very similar to shifting racial attitudes after World War II. As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, evangelical universities scrambled to keep up with those changes.

This morning I’d like to share more of a story that I didn’t have room to include in the book. One episode in particular seems relevant to today’s battle over the moral status of LGBTQ rights among conservative Christians.

The institution was the Moody Bible Institute, the year was 1970, and the moral question was racial segregation. MBI had invited fundamentalist celebrity John R. Rice to be a featured speaker at its annual Founder’s Day celebration. Rice had attracted notoriety recently for supporting the racial segregation at Bob Jones University.

Members of the MBI community protested. As one anonymous letter put it,

Dr. John R. Rice is an acknowledged racist.  Earlier this year, he invited Lester Maddox, also a racist, to speak at the Sword of the Lord anniversary.  Also, he published in his magazine why Bob Jones University refuses to admit Negroes.  By other statements in the article, he showed clearly his racist position.  We Do Not Want HIM IN CHICAGO.  If you bring him here to speak, we will have one of the biggest demonstrations Chicago has ever seen.  We will have all the publicity we need, radio, television, press, plus public demonstration of course every day of the conference, especially when he is going to speak and on the Alumni Day No matter what reason you have for bringing him here, there will be a demonstration by radical groups Let him stay down South with his racist companions.  You can get all the police and protection, we are still coming.  We are not coming to cause trouble.  We are trying to ‘help’ you wipe out racism.  We ‘love’ John R Rice too much to allow him to dehumanize himself here.  IF you IMMEDIATELY drop his name from the list of speakers, and PUBLICLY declare this IMMEDIATELY, then there will be no demonstration.  BUT again if you don’t, we are coming, black and white included.

What did MBI do? After consideration, the administration of William Culbertson agreed. They canceled Rice’s invitation. The manuscript of Culberton’s public statement shows how fraught the decision was. He went over and over the wording, cutting out sections that he thought would be too provocative. The things he cut are telling. Why, for example, might he have cut the phrase “of any kind?” Here’s the next-to-final draft, with edits included:

The Moody Bible Institute has for eighty-five years welcomed young people of all races and nationalities to its tuition-free training in the Bible.  Through times of changing social mores the policy has always been to emphasize the salvation from God by which all men who believe are made one in Christ.  We have sought, and do seek, to apply the spiritual principles set forth in the Word of God to the practical problems of our culture.  We believe that there is nothing in the Bible that forbids interracial relationships of any kind.

                In the present period of surging change we are grateful that among our racially mixed student body there seems to be little or no dissent, though some former students recently involved in civil rights activities have felt that we might have taken a more leading role than we have.  We are absolutely opposed to injustice and exploitation of any kind.  We are dedicated to the proposition that we are debtors to all men.

Just as with Chik-fil-A’s recent decision, MBI’s decision to disinvite a fundamentalist segregationist did not end the matter. The archival files are full of passionate letters in support of Rice and in support of MBI’s decision to disinvite him.

As one alum protested,

In cancelling Dr. Rice from this Conference you have robbed the Founder’s Week guests from great blessings, insulted a great man of God, and lost an opportunity to re-affirm the posture of Moody Bible Institute…[sic ellipsis in original] which by the way is in some question already, and more so now. … Last March, while attending a Pastor’s Conference in Hammond, I had dinner in the sweetshop at Moody.  To my surprise the students for the most part were mop-headed and unkept and were hardly what one would think of as Ambassadors of Christ. . . . I know that your action has alienated me, my wife and my church.

Other members of the expansive MBI community celebrated. As one faculty member wrote,

I have never been prouder to be a member of the Moody Bible Institute faculty.

The files in Culbertson’s archives are full of similar pro- and anti- letters about the decision to ban John R. Rice. The controversy proved so heated that MBI ended up canceling its entire Founder’s Day celebration for 1971. There just was no way they could continue without an embarrassingly public dispute about their moral commitment to racial integration.

anti john rice demonstration warning letter

Evangelical anti-racism, c. 1970. Does this smell like today’s Chik-fil-A?

It’s impossible not to hear echoes of the 1970 debate at MBI in today’s debate at Chik-fil-A.

We need to be careful, of course. The history of racism and segregation cannot be simply equated to today’s LGBTQ debates. The process by which evangelical institutions make these decisions, however, seems remarkably similar.

When mainstream moral values change, conservative evangelical institutions have difficult decisions to make. Do they go along with the changes? Do they re-examine their own moral assumptions in the light of changing social mores? Or do they stick to their guns, deciding that traditional ideas about issues such as racism and sexuality are in fact part of their compromise-proof religious commitment?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another big news week here at the offices of ILYBYGTH International! Here are a few of the biggest headlines:

Has public education remained the same for a century? Not really, at WaPo.

The subjects that students studied, the way the day was organized, the size of classes, the kinds of supports young people received — these essential aspects of education were all different.

Devos and trumpQueen Betsy held in contempt of court in student-loan case. At NPR.

the department “erroneously” sent messages to more than 16,000 borrowers to pay up. Some did so voluntarily. Others had their wages garnished or tax refunds seized by the government. Ten different third-party contractors were involved in collecting the loans, and the judge’s opinion notes that the Education Department didn’t do much to make sure they followed the orders, beyond sending a few emails.

It’s rare for a judge to find a Cabinet secretary in contempt of court.

Could Latinx evangelicals decide the 2020 election? At RNS.

“We’re pro-life. We want criminal justice reform. We want educational equity. We want a healthy economy,” [President of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition Gabriel Salguero] told Religion News Service this week, noting that members of the faith group also feel strongly about immigration and foreign policy. “Because we’re not one-issue voters, people think if they come to us with talking points they’re gonna get us — no.”

What is life like at an evangelical college? One alum shares her memories at RA.

“Kind of liberal, isn’t it?” sneered a girl at my church youth group, who would be attending the ultra-conservative Master’s College.

“I don’t think so?” I said, recalling that Westmont didn’t allow drinking, smoking, or overnight guests of the opposite sex. But I secretly wanted her to be right. I hoped that Westmont would help me deal with the panic I continually felt reading the Bible, that it would help me figure out how to be a Democrat, a feminist, and a Baptist.

Top historian reviews new book about evangelicals, at CT.

As for white evangelicals’ enthusiastic embrace of the Republican Party and their overwhelming support for Donald Trump, Kidd views these trends as unfortunate but—like the Scopes Trial of the 1920s—not necessarily representative of evangelicalism as a whole. . . .[but] If evangelical theology transcends racial and political lines in ways that most other religious movements in America can’t match, shouldn’t we see clearer evidence of our racial attitudes and political stances aligning with our theology?

Has America gone too far on school safety? At the Atlantic.

We have students who feel like they’re being treated like potential criminals instead of students. . . . We’ve kind of gone overboard. Not all threats are created equal.

The big Ed news: Senator Warren reveals her K-12 plan. Some highlights:

  • Quadruple federal Title I funding for schools in high-poverty neighborhoods. . . .
  • Fund the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act at the level the federal government originally promised . . .
  • End federal investment in charter school expansion, ban for-profit charter schools and ensure existing charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability requirements as traditional public school districts. . . .
  • Reinstate Obama-era protections for transgender students under federal law that were revoked by Trump and take other steps to protect LGBTQ students and faculty.
  • Invest federal dollars to raise teacher pay and strengthen the bargaining power of teacher unions.
  • Eliminate use of standardized test scores for high-stakes decisions. . . .
  • Cancel student breakfast and lunch debt and provide free and nutritious school meals.
  • Ban the storing and selling of student data.
  • Expand social-emotional learning.
  • Offer $100 billion in grants to transform 25,000 public schools into community schools, which provide family support and health and social services to students.

Sen. Warren follows it up with a visit to a Chicago teachers’ picket line. At CST.

“Be strong in the Chicago teachers strike … I know you are out there fighting for the future of our children. … Stay on the picket lines as long as you need to.”

Conservative critic Chester Finn on Warren’s ed plan, at EN.

it would reverse most of the major education reforms of recent decades, drive a stake through the heart of what’s left of bipartisan federal and state policy, and re-enshrine adult interests, especially those of the teachers unions, in place of children’s, while wasting immense sums of taxpayer dollars. (The total price tag is estimated at $800 billion.)

Can progressive Christians be kinder? At RNS.

I’m not advocating for us [progressive Christians] to ignore evil and to stop seeking justice wherever we go. But our posture must be one that seeks the well-being of all people, one that aims to lovingly persuade our brothers and sisters without embracing anger, bitterness and pride.

What does the economy need? Better storytellers, at WaPo.

“It’s important we don’t just talk about numbers, coefficients and rules, but stories that people can understand,” Lowe said. “Stories about how policies are contributing to economic welfare and the things that really matter to people.”

Teaching impeachment can put history teachers in a tight spot, at NYT.

“I think social studies teachers are hesitant to teach controversial topics, past and present, due to hyperpolarization or pushback from parents,” [31-year-old teacher Chris Dier] said. “Almost all of my students will be voting in the next election; they deserve teachers who do not shy away from current events because of our partisan climate.”

Joe Biden might not be able to bring Catholic voters to the Democrats anymore. At RNS.

burge catholicCan new leadership save struggling evangelical colleges? At CT.

Jobe [at Moody Bible Institute] sees his first job as having to “define reality.” That includes helping team members understand the institution’s identity and next steps needed to thrive. To rebuild confidence across the campus, he also attempts to engage with the basic needs of students and staff.

Will other evangelical colleges learn from the tragic lessons of Liberty U? At JGMC.

Reforming Liberty doesn’t mean compromising its mission. Nobody is demanding that Liberty become a Christian liberal arts school in the mold of Wheaton College or Hillsdale, or a carbon copy of a secular state school. In fact, Liberty is uniquely positioned as a popular university that could be a bona fide alternative to the overwhelmingly progressive status quo in academia.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Have you ever wondered how conservative Christians think about porn? I haven’t really, but I read about it this week with a lot of interest. That story and more made our weekly review of ILYBYGTH-themed news ‘n’ views:

Porn and the evangelical community: Samuel Perry talks about his new book Addicted to Lust, at NY.

What I found is that, whatever we think pornography is doing, those effects tend to be amplified when we’re talking about conservative Protestants. It seems to be uniquely harmful to conservative Protestants’ mental health, their sense of self, their own identities—certainly their intimate relationships—in ways that don’t tend to be as harmful for people who don’t have that kind of moral problem with it. . . .

But for women, if they are lusting over things visually—if they are looking at things like pornography and masturbating to them or getting turned on—they really feel like an extreme pervert. They experience what I would call a double shame. They are violating their own sexuality in a way that God doesn’t want. So they’re sinning, but they’re also sinning like a man. And so they feel trapped.

In my neighborhood, a group of kids just attacked an elderly man, at BJS.

The end of an era: Moody Bible Institute shuts down its student newspaper, at RNS.

Ew: looks like Trump’s “fixer” fixed some photos for Jerry Falwell Jr., Reuters reports.

Strikes at Chicago charters win big concessions, at Chalkbeat.

chicago charter protestTraining kids as first responders: Should we have ‘active-shooter’ drills in schools? This mom says no.

Losing our ability to feel shame, at FPR.

It doesn’t take a great act of the imagination to apply the rebuke to those of us today who enjoy watching the train-wreck conversations that often accompany the comments sections of various online media outlets—for, as Dante well knew, there is an immense and indecent pleasure in watching other people, especially people whom we instinctively feel ourselves better than, hate one another.

More from Senator Warren on college-debt forgiveness—will a racial angle win more votes? At IHE.

And (a little) more about Senator Harris’s edu-funding plan at The Atlantic.

“It is completely upside down that we currently have a system where the funding of a school district is based on the tax base of that community,” the Democratic hopeful vying to run against President Donald Trump in 2020 said. The line met with approving head nods and a chorus of agreement. “It’s just basic math,” she continued, on a roll. “The community that has the lowest tax base is going to receive the fewest resources, and by the way probably [has] the highest need.”

Moody Student RIP

It’s difficult to believe that it’s really only a budget thing. After all, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, student newspapers at evangelical colleges have always been a thorn in the sides of conservative administrators. Whatever the real reason, I’m sorry to hear that Moody Bible Institute in Chicago will cease publication of its student paper. In my research for Fundamentalist U I spent many hours reading through back issues. As with other student papers, the old Moody Student gave me a sense of the ways evangelical colleges really operate.

The news from Chicago is somber. One faculty member pleaded to keep the paper going. Administrators, meanwhile, insist the decision to close down the Moody Standard was about budgets, not bibles. As one administrator put it,

The decision to no longer fund The Moody Standard was not an isolated one, but prayerfully considered as a part of our ongoing strategic desire to steward resources in a way that achieves strategic balance in our education department and better serves students.

Whatever the reason for its demise, I’m sorry for future historians of MBI. After all, the old copies of the Moody Student helped me wrap my mind around the ways evangelicalism played out at MBI across the twentieth century.

For example, consider the back-and-forth on the editorial page of the Moody Student in January, 1942. One student complained that he had asked for coffee in the dining room and been snarkily informed by another student, “Real Christians don’t drink coffee.”

It wasn’t a huge issue roiling the world of American evangelicalism. It didn’t involve big labels like “fundamentalists” vs. “new-evangelicals.” There were no celebrities involved. And that’s precisely why the story was so helpful to this historian—it helped me see the everyday gripes and disagreements that defined the world of college evangelicalism.

I found similar examples all over my notes. For example, what did MBI students think of courtship and dating? One series from 1945 was a big help to me, as student reporters interviewed their peers about “What I Look for in a Christian Young Woman” and “What I Look for in a Christian Young Man.” My favorite line: the perfect Christian man, one woman explained, will help even with home décor. He won’t think “it’s sissy to regard neatness and color-harmony.”

Jumping to the 1960s, the Moody Student provided an insight into the upside-down student politics of a conservative institution.

1964 WMBI and Goldwater

Capturing the evangelical vote, c. 1964.

As one student editor wrote in 1969, the job of MBI students should be to prove that a “silent majority” of students weren’t like “SDS.” Those fake radicals, the MBI editor explained,

try to give the impression that they are planting the seeds of freedom.  In truth, they are plowing furrows of division among Americans.

The student paper also helped me understand the divisions that developed over white racism at MBI. In 1970, for example, the Moody Student reported on anti-racism protests among MBI alums. As the anti-racist alums wrote,

The hypocrisy, frustration and profound spiritual damage suffered by us, both consciously and unconsciously, lead us to tear up our degrees and a diploma.

Last but not least, the Moody Student provided a public forum for the MBI community to debate changing ideas about student rules. As one editor opined in 1970,

Rules are necessary to develop discipline in the individual student, but equally important, the student must have freedom to make decisions on his own.  There must be a balance.  A person will not mature nor be able to face today’s world if he is not free to make choices. . . . I personally don’t think Moody has provided its students with that freedom to decide.

8 20 student paper pictures

What did the “Moody World” look like in 1971?

Reading the student paper, too, gave me a chance to see the non-written clues about changing norms and values at MBI. Student styles in the summer of 1971 were worlds removed from those of the buttoned-down 1940s.

In the end, I wholeheartedly agree with the MBI faculty member who argued that the student paper plays a vital role on campus. But even if I didn’t, I would feel sorry for those future historians who won’t have this resource to help understand the world of college evangelicalism in the twenty-first century.

1940s postcard library

…what did it look like c. 1941?

Have Students EVER Been Able to Change Evangelical Colleges?

The news might be glum for conservative folks in the world of evangelical higher education. A new survey finds that many students at evangelical schools expect their campuses to be more welcoming of LGBTQ people. Does the history of evangelical higher ed offer any hope that student activism might actually change things?

Here’s what we know: According to data from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Study (IDEALS),

a whopping 85% of incoming students to evangelical colleges and universities find it at least moderately important that their campuses are welcoming toward LGBT people, with 44% finding it very important.

Now, there are a lot of ifs, ands, or buts here. The evangelical college students included in this survey can’t simply taken to be representative of all evangelical students at every school. Of the 122 institutions included, only a small minority could be considered “evangelical,” even by the broadest of definitions. And though the evangelical participants do seem to include a breadth of types of schools, like the more-liberal Wheaton in Illinois and the more-conservative God’s Bible School and College in Cincinnati, we can’t think they represent the vast diversity of evangelical higher ed.

rip poll lgbtq

Welcoming campuses…?

Plus, unless I’m missing it, these results aren’t broken down by school. So, for example, we can’t tell if huge majorities of pro-LGBTQ students at Wheaton balance out larger percentages of anti-LBGTQ students at God’s Bible School and College. All we get are a lump of “evangelical student” opinion.

Noting all the limitations, though, it seems remarkable that so many students at evangelical colleges seem to want their schools to be more welcoming to LGBTQ students and it raises a question: Have students ever been able to make big changes at their evangelical schools? As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, in the twentieth century student activism had mixed results.

For example, in the 1930s, students at Moody Bible Institute begged their administrators to offer a degree program. On July 27, 1931, a group of students sent the following signed letter to then-President James M. Gray:

We desire the degree, not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end, that we might stand anywhere and everywhere, and preach or teach God’s living Word, full of the Holy Spirit, and at the same time make men know we can ‘give a reason for the hope that is within us’: not only from a scriptural standpoint, but also as to their own high standards of education and be used of God to win the well-educated as well as the less-educated man to Christ.

Did it work? Not really. MBI didn’t introduce its first degree program until October, 1965, and even MBI required degree students to get two years of coursework at a different liberal-arts school.

1940s postcard library

Studying hard for no degree…c. 1940s.

In the turbulent 1960s, evangelical campuses saw their share of student activism. The most successful tended to be anti-racism protests. At Wheaton, for example, in late 1968 a group calling itself the “Black and Puerto Rican Students of Wheaton College” issued a demand for more non-white professors and students, more African-studies classes (called “Black Studies” at the time), and, in general, “a Christian education relevant to our cultural heritage.”

It worked, sort of. By 1971 Wheaton’s administration had put resources into hiring more non-white faculty and offering new courses such as “Black Americans in  American Society,” “Urban Sociology,” and “People of Africa.”

Student pressure didn’t always come from the Left. Conservative students, too, have been able to push their schools in more conservative directions. At Biola, for example, students successfully petitioned in 1969 for a stricter enforcement of women’s dress codes and for a more conservative lean in invited speakers. As the conservative protesters wrote to President Samuel Sutherland,

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! [Emphasis in original.]

For today’s students, the lesson is not crystal clear. In some cases, even the most polite, Bible-passage-stuffed petitions do not bear fruit. In others, though, student pressure has had a decisive impact. In general, as with Wheaton’s move toward more racial diversity or Biola’s tightening of dress codes, student protests worked when they pushed administrators in a direction they wanted to go in already.

The Year in ILYBYGTH

I wasn’t going to do it. I was going to try awkwardly to maintain my dignity and refrain from any sort of year-end top-ten list. But then a couple of enforcers from the WordPress goon squad showed up and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

So here it is: The eleven most popular posts of 2018:

  1. What is Life Like at Evangelical Colleges? Reflections from alumni of “Fundamentalist U.” What was it like to attend different schools in different decades? How did evangelical higher ed shape these students’ lives?
  2. Billy Graham and Bob Jones From the archives, a look at the tempestuous and angry relationship between teacher and former student.

    Billy Graham

    RIP Billy Graham, here preaching to the multitudes in London, 1954.

  3. Crisis at Moody Bible Institute From way back in January 2018, a look at the ways the history of fundamentalist higher ed in the early 1900s set the pattern for the recent leadership shake-up at Chicago’s storied Bible school.
  4. The Dilemma of the Fundamentalist Intellectual An ugly story of resume inflation is par for the course in the world of fundamentalist academic life. Why?
  5. The Myth of Evangelical Political History Just Won’t Die: It doesn’t seem to matter that historians have punctured this story completely. Journalists still love it, probably because a lot of evangelicals love it.
  6. Christians Don’t Know Christianity: Are Christians supposed to actually believe Christian doctrine? Or only hold it as a personal preference? religion as personal belief
  7. Where Were You Radicalized? A simple question on Tweeter gets people thinking, but there’s one place no one seemed to be talking about.
  8. Evangelical Colleges Aren’t Teaching Christianity A professor complains that her students don’t know Christian orthodoxy. I lay out the historical case that this is nothing new in evangelical higher education.
  9. Bad News for Creationists Science just makes young-earth creationism harder and harder to believe. What will YECs do? I have a guess…

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    Because…Darwin?

  10. How Did Christian Colleges Become Racist? I made the case for an under-suspected culprit behind the racism of white evangelicals: mainstream higher education.
  11. Is Creationism Hate Speech? Can–SHOULD–mainstream universities ban radical young-earth creationism because it is hateful to non-heterosexuals?

Who Pays Tuition to Have Students Killed?

I’m sorry to hear about the death of American missionary John Allen Chau. I don’t want to argue over it—whether he died a hero, a “terrorist,” or a “self-important, arrogant, deluded, foolish . . . pest.” Instead, I want to point out that Chau’s life and death demonstrate the one way that “Fundamentalist U” is now and has always been radically different from mainstream higher ed.

north seintinel island

“Fields white unto harvest…?”

If you haven’t heard the story yet, here it is in a nutshell: Chau was a missionary working with an organization called All Nations. He had made several efforts to contact an isolated group of islanders in the Indian Ocean. The hundred people who live on North Sentinel Island are protected by the Indian government. They have had very limited contact with outsiders.

Chau hired some locals to take him near the island. Islanders paddled out to meet their boat and fired a volley of arrows at Chau, one lodging in his Bible. Chau took a solo kayak and paddled to the island. Later, locals saw islanders burying a body that looked like Chau’s.

missions cartoon guy

The mission: From Liberty University student newsletter, c. 1982

Clearly, the missionary impulse is alive and well. Chau wrote in his diary that he didn’t want to die, but he accepted the risks in his effort to spread the Gospel to the world.

But that missionary impulse hasn’t survived on its own. It has been nurtured and supported by organizations such as All Nations. It has also been taught and encouraged by evangelical colleges and universities. And this missionary focus, I argued in Fundamentalist U, is the thing that most sharply defines evangelical higher education from mainstream schools.

Mission centered

From Biola’s student paper, 1939.

In Chau’s case, it was Oral Roberts University. ORU celebrated the fact that its teaching had led directly to the death of a former student. As ORU put it,

Oral Roberts University alumni have gone to the uttermost bounds of the earth for the last 50 years bringing hope and healing to millions. We are not surprised that John would try to reach out to these isolated people in order to share God’s love. We are deeply saddened to hear of his death.

In most ways, evangelical colleges and universities look and feel a lot like mainstream schools. They promise to prepare students for careers. They promise to help shape students’ values. They promise to keep students safe.

When it comes to missionary work, however, evangelical colleges throw the higher-ed playbook out the window.

missionary cartoon ad

From the Moody Student, 1969.

For generations, evangelical colleges have maintained their focus on guiding students toward missionary careers. Especially among schools with roots in the Bible-institute tradition, the pressure on students to think about self-sacrificing missionary work was often intense.

One student who attended Moody Bible Institute in the 1920s was a case in point. His father was an atheist. His mother was Catholic. Neither of them wanted him to attend MBI. But he went anyway. And the central lesson he learned there was that he had to give his life to Jesus as a missionary. As he later remembered,

It dawned on me that I had a responsibility toward the Lord’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).  You see, you can’t be in the Moody Bible Institute very long before you’ll have to face that.

The dedication to sending young missionaries out into the world remained central to evangelical higher education throughout the twentieth century. To offer just one small example of the scope of these schools’ missionary efforts, consider a poll from Biola University in 1962. In that year, according to the student paper, 47% of its graduating class was heading out to full-time missionary work.

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Classroom notes, MBI, c. 1940s

This focus on missionary work—today and in the past—has been the thing that has made evangelical higher education most radically different from the mainstream. In addition to all the ways it has mimicked mainstream schools—with sports, careers, social life, and academics—“Fundamentalist U” also trained students to give it all up, to sacrifice themselves in missionary labor.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

I don’t know how people had time to write stuff when the Brewers were in the playoffs, but they did. It has been a whirlwind week. Here are some of the top ILYBYGTH-themed stories from the interwebs:

What 81%? A new look at white evangelicals and Trump, at CT.

Some background on the new president of the Moody Bible Institute at RNS.

1940s postcard library

Getting those dispensations right…c. 1940s.

Trump, Pocahontas, and the Cherokee Nation: Senator Warren releases her DNA results, denied by both Cherokee Nation and Trump, at Politico.

Schools and the midterm elections: In Ohio, a failed charter network becomes a political football.

“He was clinically upset.” Rich parents reject Zuckerberg’s edu-plan, at NYMag.

Atheists keep sneaking in God through the back door. A review of Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism at NR.

What Christianity and secular humanism share is more important than their differences: No other religious tradition—Jewish, Greek, Indian, Chinese—envisions history as linear rather than cyclical or conceives of humanity as a unitary collective subject. The very idea of utopia—a place where everyone is happy—could not have occurred to people who took for granted that individuals have irreconcilable desires and ideals, and that conflict is therefore impossible to eliminate. Western universalism, Gray scoffs, is very provincial indeed.

It can happen here: A century after the Spanish flu, what are the chances of another worldwide pandemic? At Vox.

keep the faith vote for science

Hoosiers can love Jesus AND Bill Nye…

Finally! Indiana voters urged to “Keep the Faith and Vote for Science,” at IS.

How are America’s public schools really doing? It’s a trickier question than it seems, says Jack Schneider at WaPo.

America’s schools don’t merely reflect our nation’s material prosperity. They also reflect our moral poverty. . . . Reform rhetoric about the failures of America’s schools is both overheated and off the mark. Our schools haven’t failed. Most are as good as the schools anyplace else in the world. And in schools where that isn’t the case, the problem isn’t unions or bureaucracies or an absence of choice. The problem is us. The problem is the limit of our embrace.

Why is an academic life harder for women and minorities? Columbia offers its findings at CHE.

Conservative campus group restricts audience for Ben Shapiro at USC, at IHE.

New survey: America’s evangelicals tend to like heresy, at CT.

religion as personal belief

How school reform works, until it doesn’t. Maine tries a new approach, then retreats, at Chalkbeat.

Proponents of proficiency-based learning argue that none of this reflects flaws in the concept. Maine struggled, they say, because they didn’t introduce the new systems thoughtfully enough, moving too quickly and requiring change rather than encouraging it.

Atheist and creationism-basher Lawrence Krauss announces his retirement after harassment allegations, at FA.