From the Archives III: Playing the Rice Card

Editor’s Note: I am happy to say that my book about the history of evangelical higher education has entered its final production stages. We are on track to release Fundamentalist U by January 1, 2018. The sad fact, though, is that so much great archival material got cut from the final draft. In this series, I’ll be sharing some of these too-good-too-lose gems from my work in the archives.

Were white evangelicals racist? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes, but.

In Fundamentalist U, I’m working hard to tease out the ways evangelical and fundamentalist colleges, institutes, universities, and seminaries wrestled with questions of race and racism in the twentieth century. It wasn’t easy, but I had to cut one of the most intriguing sections of my chapter.

Here’s what happened: In 1970, fundamentalist publisher John R. Rice came out in favor of Bob Jones University’s racial-segregation policy. The leaders of Moody Bible Institute had just invited Rice to give one of the most prominent speeches in their annual Founder’s Week celebration.

What was MBI to do? Like most white evangelicals in the era, they had moved away from the unabashed racism that they had shown since the 1930s. But they hated to alienate Dr. Rice and the potent strain of unreconstructedly racist fundamentalism that he represented.anti john rice demonstration warning letter

As MBI’s leaders hemmed and hawed, they received a clumsy letter opposed to Rice’s appearance at MBI. The authors go to awkward lengths to insist they are not students at MBI—and honestly I have no evidence that they were—but the language and content of the letter seem to suggest that it was written by MBI students.

What does this tell us about white racism at evangelical institutions? Here are some of my thoughts and I’ll welcome yours:

1.) White evangelicals in 1970 often opposed their historic racism.

2.) They often did so as part and parcel of their evangelical belief.

3.) Institutions—even ones that wanted to move away from their segregated pasts—hesitated to alienate powerful fundamentalist factions.

4.) Students at evangelical schools closely watched the goings-on at secular colleges and often mimicked the activism of their secular peers.

5.) Student activists often misunderstood the attitudes of their school administrators.

In this case, at least, MBI President William Culbertson was as ardently anti-racist as any student, but he didn’t want to hurt his school by insulting John R. Rice too publicly. When the cards were down, however, Culbertson went ahead and cut off Rice, consequences be damned.

As Culbertson wrote to John R. Rice, they both agreed on theology, but they had split on questions of race and racism. If Rice were to come speak at MBI, Culbertson concluded, it would give

the impression that the Institute agrees with your views in this regard. This cannot be.

From the Archives II: The Scams and the Sacred

Editor’s Note: I am happy to say that my book about the history of evangelical higher education has entered its final production stages. We are on track to release Fundamentalist U by January 1, 2018. The sad fact, though, is that so much great archival material got cut from the final draft. In this series, I’ll be sharing some of these too-good-too-lose gems from my work in the archives.

Fundamentalists never knew whom to trust. It made sense. After all, since the 1920s, fundamentalists had been telling one another that mainstream institutions had gone to the dogs. Colleges like the University of Chicago, magazines such as Time, denominations such as the Methodists…all had once been trustworthy—in the eyes of fundamentalists—and all had succumbed to a deadly mania for secularism and liberalism. Any school, any church, any preacher could have its or his head turned by the siren song of liberal theology. Any school could slide into soul-damning modernism at any time. This deep skepticism of everyone outside of the charmed circle of trusted fundamentalist institutions, ironically, made it easier for scam artists like George Martin to fleece the faithful.

IMG_1872

Martin pleads for fundamentalist funds, based on his MBI background

How did he do it? It wasn’t a quirk, or an isolated case. Rather—at least, this is the argument I’m making in Fundamentalist U—con men like Martin were able to take advantage of a central, defining element of American fundamentalism.

Here’s the story: Martin ran an orphanage and college in Hornell, New York. In the 1950s, he solicited funds and donations for this fundamentalist project. Fundamentalists were no dummies; before they sent him money, they wanted to know he was trustworthy; they wanted to know that he had good theology and sound finances. They wanted to know their money was really going to spread the Gospel and to teach new generations of fundamentalists.

But how could they know for sure? Because fundamentalism was a staunchly interdenominational protest movement, it had no governing boards, no presbyteries, no denominational supervision. The only way for fundamentalists to know if an institution was trustworthy—financially or theologically—was by reputation and rumor.

So vouching played a key role in defining fundamentalism in practice. Fundamentalists nationwide looked to reliable authorities to vouch for various institutions. And Martin knew it. He boasted of his connection to the most venerable evangelical institution of all, the Moody Bible Institute. And he advertised in impeccably trustworthy fundamentalist magazines such as Sunday School Times.IMG_1875

Nevertheless, rumors continued to circulate that Martin’s operation was nothing but a scam. Local fundamentalists denounced him, and secular journalists from Maclean’s magazine published a damning expose. Donations, the Maclean’s article described, didn’t fund gospel work but rather luxury cars and houses for Martin and his family.

That brings us, though, to the fundamentalist pickle. Since the 1920s, fundamentalists had warned one another that mainstream magazines such as Maclean’s were not to be trusted. After all, such magazines called ALL fundamentalists con men and scam artists. Even the most respected institutions such as Moody Bible Institute were not much respected outside of fundamentalist circles.

Some fundamentalist leaders tried to police their own ranks. Keenly aware of their responsibility to their fundamentalist readers, the editors of Sunday School Times interrogated Martin about his finances. In 1954, they demanded more information—detailed information—about Martin’s income and expenses. They demanded full disclosure.

Martin refused.

What could SST do about it? Not nothing, but not as much as editor Harry F. Jaeger hoped. In the world of American fundamentalism, Jaeger could not simply kick Martin out. There was no process for disbarment, excommunication, or banishment.

But SST and other fundamentalist institutions weren’t powerless. Jaeger sent a powerful message to the fundamentalist community by pulling Martin’s ads from SST. The magazine would no longer offer Martin its implicit endorsement. And Jaeger could and did use his influence to sway other fundamentalist leaders.

For example, he wrote to Moody Bible Institute president William Culbertson to warn him of Martin’s scams. Martin, after all, based his reputation largely on Martin’s record as an MBI alum. MBI should worry, Jaeger wrote, that its reputation was being abused. As Jaeger put it,

Under the circumstances, it seems to me that his work should not be presented to the Christian public for support.

What did MBI do? As usual in the world of American fundamentalism, they were extremely hesitant to condemn a fellow fundamentalist, especially if the evidence came mainly from secular critics. But they didn’t ignore the criticisms, either. To start, they stopped running Martin’s ads in Moody Monthly, in spite of Martin’s protests.

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Your money, please…

When fundamentalists wrote to MBI for assurance, though, MBI only gave them the run around. In 1963, for instance, one administrator wrote to an inquirer, saying he had “no firsthand knowledge of the organization.”  He noted that the popular magazine Maclean’s had just written a damning expose of Martin’s school.  MBI itself, however, was not sure “whether the article is fair or factual.”

The fundamentalist public, after all, had grown accustomed to unfair treatment at the hands of mainstream journalists. Was Martin merely being misrepresented by hostile secular and liberal critics, as he claimed? Or did he really take the money of well-meaning fundamentalist backers and buy himself fancy cars and houses, as his critics insisted?

There was no easy way for the fundamentalist community to know for sure. They relied almost exclusively on reputation. If Martin claimed to be part of the Moody Bible Institute alumni community, then he must be trustworthy…right?

Only years later, when local evangelical sources had corroborated the charges made by the Maclean’s reporter did MBI administrators begin sounding a more clearly negative note.  Even then, in 1968, MBI administrators did not actively denounce Martin and his fraudulent school.  Rather, they only responded to inquiries with batches of clippings about Martin’s depredations.

It made fundamentalists nervous. It was very difficult to tell who was really representing the fundamentalist movement and who wasn’t. Both legit schools and fakes would be denounced in the mainstream press as bogus. And established institutions such as Moody Bible Institute were extremely reluctant to expose anyone’s shady dealings.

Fundamentalism was built on a shaky structure—supported mainly by reputation and rumor. And this set-up made for predictable abuses. Scam artists like George Martin weren’t the exception, but rather a predictable result of the lack of any higher (human) authority in the world of twentieth-century fundamentalism.

From the Archives I: Extremism in the Defense of Bible Prophecy Is No Vice

Editor’s Note: I am happy to say that my book about the history of evangelical higher education has entered its final production stages. We are on track to release Fundamentalist U by January 1, 2018. The sad fact, though, is that so much great archival material got cut from the final draft. In this series, I’ll be sharing some of these too-good-too-lose gems from my work in the archives.

You may have heard it before. There is a myth circulating in nerd circles about the history of fundamentalism in the twentieth century. It’s not true and historians have punctured it convincingly. If we needed any more proof, the archives are full of evidence.

As the old story goes, fundamentalists were humiliated at the Scopes trial in 1925. They retreated in anger and disgust from participation in mainstream life, building up a network of inward-looking institutions such as colleges, church networks, and parachurch organizations. Then—depending on which version you hear—either Billy Graham in 1957 or Jerry Falwell in 1976 broke out of this self-imposed fundamentalist ghetto to leap back onto America’s center stage.

It’s hooey, as historians such as Matthew Sutton and Daniel K. Williams have shown. As Professor Sutton put it in American Apocalypse, the “rise-fall-rebirth” story just doesn’t match the historical record. Fundamentalists never retreated from political involvement or mainstream cultural engagement. In Sutton’s words, fundamentalists’

agenda was always about more than correct theology; it was also about reclaiming and then occupying American culture.

I’m making this argument in my book as well. Even at schools such as the Moody Bible Institute that were supposedly the most otherworldly, the most focused on Bible prophecy and the farthest removed from the nitty-gritty politics of the so-called “New Christian Right,” fundamentalists never withdrew from politics, never retreated from mainstream involvement. As this photo makes clear, in the 1960s MBI ardently engaged in partisan politics, pushing hard for a conservative Goldwater presidency.1964 WMBI and Goldwater

It wasn’t only in the 1960s, either. MBI’s leaders always fought in the political arena. Back in the 1920s, for example, President James M. Gray worried that MBI’s radio station had come under undue political pressure. What did Gray do? “The time for fighting has begun,” he warned. He used every weapon in reach to oppose the new radio regulations, including the Capitol-Hill influence of Missouri Senator James M. Reed.

Gray’s political activism was not the exception, it was the rule. No matter where you look in the archives, you see fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals fully engaged in mainstream politics. There was no retreat. There was no withdrawal. And, of course, that means Jerry Falwell’s 1970s leap into politics was not as ground-shaking as Falwell liked to say it was.

College Has Gone to the Dogs

Who hates college? Nobody, really. But if you squinted your eyes a little when you read the recent Pew poll results, you might be fooled into thinking conservatives had suddenly turned against higher education.PP_17.06.30_institutions_lede_party

Here’s what we know: Since 2010, Pew has surveyed American adults about their feelings toward major institutions. In just the last few years, more and more respondents who identify as Republican or Republican-ish say that higher education is having a negative overall effect on American society. In 2010, only a third of Republicans thought so. Today, it is up to 58%.

What’s going on? As always, Pew wisely doesn’t jump to hasty conclusions. My guess is that many of us chatterers will rush to say that conservatives in general are anti-intellectual, or that conservatives think college is a waste of time. Or, given the sudden shift in numbers, maybe that conservatives are dismayed by the snowflake protests that seem to be sweeping American campuses.

Maybe, but I think there’s more to it.

First of all, obviously, we can’t equate “conservative” with “Republican.” True enough, these days most conservatives’ votes have been captured by the GOP. Not all, though. And certainly not all Republicans are conservatives.pp second graph

I think there’s also something more important going on. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’ve been up to my eyeballs for the past few years in research about American higher education. The group of conservative dissenting college founders I’m studying was often accused of being anti-intellectual and anti-college. They were neither.

As I’m arguing in my upcoming book, Protestant fundamentalists cared a lot about ideas and about college. They loved college. But if you only listened to their rhetoric, it would be easy to assume too quickly that they were somehow opposed to higher education.

Consider, for example, one apocryphal story that made the rounds among 1920s fundamentalist pundits. It was supposed to be a letter home from an evangelical college grad. As he supposedly told his mother,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water. . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.  I hope you will warn the young men of the impending danger just ahead of them.

For fundamentalists in the 1920s, college was a terrible spiritual danger. But that didn’t mean they were against college. Rather, they were fervently against college done wrong. They were against the trends that they correctly perceived to be driving mainstream trends in higher ed.

What did they do? They didn’t stop sending their kids to college. Rather, they founded their own institutions, reliably fundamentalist colleges such as Bob Jones College (now Bob Jones University) and Bryan University (now Bryan College). They also flocked to existing reliably fundamentalist institutions such as Wheaton College and the Moody Bible Institute.

My hunch is that today’s Pew respondents are similar. When they tell pollsters they don’t trust college or “the media,” it doesn’t mean they don’t like higher education or newspapers. Rather, it means they don’t trust the smarmy elites that they think run such institutions.

Here’s what I wish I could do: Have the Pewsters add some follow-up questions. When people say they don’t trust colleges, ask them if they want their kids to go to college anyway. And then ask them what would restore their trust in higher education.

Here’s what I think people would say: Even if they don’t trust college, they want their children to attend. But they would prefer to find a school that reflected their own values, instead of the radical leftism that many people think dominates colleges today.

Shame on You!

Okay, kids, time to fess up. Some of you students at conservative schools have been trying to cheat on your exams…haven’t you. Here’s how we know: Our editorial page here at ILYBYGTH lets us see the terms people type into their Google machines. Lately, as final-exam time swings near, we’ve noticed a definite uptick in the number of hopeful plagiarists.

search terms

What are you looking for?

It is often fun and enlightening to read the search terms. Mostly, they are from people interested in the same issues that trouble SAGLRROILYBYGTH: higher education, creationism, evangelicalism, conservatism, etc.

Here are some of the recent examples:

  • does hillsdale college teach evolution

  • is the moody institute anti catholic?

  • gay pride rainbow painted on wheaton bench

I hope those searchers found what they were looking for. Sometimes, the search terms themselves make for a kind of interwebs poetry. Once, for example, your humble editor was touched by this plaintive search:

  • Can a creationist and evolutionist be in love?

Obviously, too, some of our searchers will probably move on disappointed. Lots of people, for example, are just looking for information and don’t give a whoot for all our ILYBYGTH culture-war dickering.

For example, the person who searched for “Kentucky attractions” probably didn’t find what she was looking for.

But none of that is what we’re talking about today. In the past week or so, your humble editor has noticed a definite trend. Check out the search terms below and tell me I’m not seeing would-be plagiarism:

  • Discuss the value of traditional education;

  • What are the main problems of evolutionary theory? How do alternate ideas such as theistic evolution, progressive creation, day-age creationism, and gap theory fall short of a biblical understanding;

  • In a mid-length essay (5-7 pp.) describe the historical development of traditional education;

  • Essay creationism superior.

To me, these look obviously like test questions. And not just any tests. The kinds of schools that want students to write these sorts of essays can only be conservative religious schools. Right? Only students at conservative religious schools would be likely to be asked to write out the problems with evolution. Or the values of “traditional education.”

It wouldn’t be the first time that students at conservative schools worked hard to cheat their way through their morally elevating curricula. During the research for my current book about evangelical higher education, for example, I came across one sad-sack letter in the Moody Bible Institute archives.

In 1931, an alumnus wrote to the MBI administration with a fulsome confession. When he was a first-year student, he had cheated on every “examination, mid-term and final, through-out the year.” He had never been caught. He had never even been accused. But this student was so “conscience stricken” he pleaded with the administrators to take away all his credits.

They obliged.

Perhaps someday the cheaters and plagiarists who are hoping to evade their work by dipping into the ILYBYGTH archives will meet a similar fate. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

I Owe, I Owe

It was a squeaker, but it worked. I promised my editor I’d deliver the manuscript for Fundamentalist U by Monday, and I just mailed it in today. Coupla days to spare. Whew!

If I were cooler, I would copy Brendan Pietsch’s world’s-coolest acknowledgements page. But I’m not. I’ve accumulated a bunch of debts—financial, intellectual, and otherwise—and I feel a need to express my gratitude the ol-fashioned way.

pietsch acknowledgements

How the cool kids do it these days…

First, the Spencer Foundation footed the bill. Their program for small research grants allowed me to spend the academic year 2014-2015 working full time on this book. I was able to travel to six of the schools I’ve been studying. Without this grant, I would never have been able to put this book together. Thank you Lyle!

There are plenty of other people that also made the book possible. Most important, the archivists at the schools I visited often bent over backward to help me find materials. At Biola, for example, Stacie Schmidt and Sue Whitehead allowed me to work right in their office. They also helped me get permission to use some of the cartoons from Biola’s periodicals that will appear in the book.

At Wheaton, Keith Call helped me find a ton of stuff. He also spent time sharing with me his one-of-a-kind experience with and knowledge of the world of evangelical higher ed. Since my visit, too, he has kept me in the loop about some of the goings-on at Wheaton and elsewhere.

Robert Shuster at the Billy Graham Center kept the room open late for me and helped me dig through the vast resources of their oral history collections. I depended on those oral histories to find out what life was like at fundamentalist colleges for students.

Down South at Bob Jones University, Patrick Robbins over-extended himself to help me locate materials. He has been doing so for years and I’m extremely grateful.

In Chicago, Corie Zylstra and Nikki Tochalauski allowed me to linger late in the Moody Bible Institute archives. They also shared their experiences as students and workers at the most famous Bible Institute in the world.

Even at schools I couldn’t visit in person, friendly archivists were willing to spend time and energy talking to me about my research. At the late Tennessee Temple University, for example, Keith Woodruff took time and risked carpal tunnel syndrome emailing back and forth with me.

One of my local schools, Summit University (the former Baptist Bible of PA) let me use their terrific collections of fundamentalist and evangelical periodicals.

It didn’t work, but I appreciate the efforts of two of my academic heroes, Jon Zimmerman and Ron Numbers, to try to help me get an additional fellowship to fund my work on this book.

And when it came to the book itself, my fellow nerds helped me out enormously. Most especially, Tim Gloege and Dan Williams read several parts of the book and helped me with their enormous expertise. I also conned a group of A-list experts to help me improve the book. The book covers a lot of territory, so I shamelessly braced friends, acquaintances, and even people I only knew by reputation.

First, I reached out to higher-ed historians such as Roger Geiger, Christopher Loss, and Ethan Schrum. The book also wrestles with questions of the nature of conservative evangelical Protestantism, so I asked Molly Worthen, John Fea, Bill Trollinger, and Brendan Pietsch for expert help. There’s a lot about creationism in there, too, and Ron Numbers and Michael Lienesch agreed to read sections and point out my blunders. Then, of course, there are the group of experts specifically in the history of evangelical higher education and I asked them all for their time: Jared Burkholder, Michael Hamilton, and Chris Gehrz. To top it all off, I also pestered other smart people I knew to give me their opinions, including L. Herbert Siewert, Tim Lacy, and David Bernstein.

Thanks to all…but that’s not all. I’m also grateful to all the SAGLRROILYBYGTH for taking part in our conversations about evangelicalism, college, fundamentalism, conservatism, and etc. etc. etc. over the past few years.

What happens next?

It will still be a while before the book hits shelves. The folks at Oxford will give my manuscript some copy-editing. Then they’ll put together a set of proofs, set as the actual pages will look. Once we get to that stage, I’ll pore over the proofs to write my index.

It all takes time and patience. When will the book finally be published? Hard to say exactly, but it’s usually about twelve to eighteen months. I’ll keep you posted.

Fundamentalist U: The Original “Safe Space”

It’s not a new idea. In spite of what journalists and pundits might suggest, today’s push on college campuses for “safe spaces” has a century-long tradition. The schools I’m studying these days—conservative evangelical colleges, universities, and Bible institutes—have always promised to provide “safe spaces” for young people.

We’ve talked before about the ways the recent spate of college protests might best be understood as an “impulse to orthodoxy.” Sometimes the ferocity of student protests seems woefully out of proportion to the alleged offenses at elite schools such as Yale and Claremont McKenna College.

At Yale, for example, two faculty members were berated and hounded for their suggestions that some Halloween costumes might be acceptably offensive. And at Claremont McKenna, a top administrator was driven out for her worry that non-white students might have a legitimate reason to feel unwelcome on her campus.

BJU BALMER

You’ll be safe here…

The moral outrage of students, however, makes perfect sense as a defense of a moral orthodoxy. As with any orthodoxy, deviation is not just disagreement. Orthodox thinking raises seemingly mild disagreement into existential threats. Those who veer in the smallest degree from orthodoxy must not only be ostracized. Their heterodox notions must be denounced in the most ferocious terms in order to emphasize one’s own continued loyalty.

Seen in terms of orthodoxy, talk of “safe spaces” makes perfect sense. In the orthodox mindset, challenging ideas raise the specter of unacceptable deviation. Young people must be protected from threatening ideas until they are well-enough schooled in orthodoxy to protect themselves.

Today’s protesters might not like the company, but the network of Protestant fundamentalist schools that emerged in the 1910s and 1920s made such “safe spaces” its raison d’etre.

In the 1920s, for example, President James M. Gray of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago told parents to send their fundamentalist children to his “safe space” for two years of Bible training before they went on to a traditional four-year college. Why? In his words,

It renders [a student] immune to the evolution and modernistic germs, while it enables him to examine them in the light of the Christian revelation as he could not have done before.

A few years later, school founder and evangelist extraordinaire Bob Jones promised parents a new sort of college, one that would offer a totalized “safe space.” In the June, 1928 edition of Bob Jones Magazine, Jones promised,

If you fathers and mothers who read this magazine have children to educate, and you wish them to attend a school which will protect their spiritual life, send them to the Bob Jones College. The fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teacher will steal the faith of their precious children.

This tradition of fundamentalist “safe spaces” continues today. As young-earth creationist impresario Ken Ham argued last year in response to my questions,

We are burdened to help parents choose a college wisely that does not put stumbling blocks in their children’s way that could lead them to doubt and ultimately disbelieve the Scriptures.

If some ideas are indeed sacred, then young people do indeed need “safe spaces” in order to preserve their impulse to orthodoxy. For fundamentalists, it was easy to declare their schools “safe spaces,” since they wanted explicitly to protect young people from certain heterodox ideas.

It is much harder, of course, for non-fundamentalists to make the same point. Students who want “safe spaces” without acknowledging their impulse to orthodoxy don’t have the same explicit rationale. They want the results of fundamentalist higher education without being able to acknowledge their desire for it.

Required Reading: Gloege on MBI

It’s not just a metaphor, not just a handy way of speaking. According to Timothy Gloege, fundamentalism acts like a business because it was founded like a business. In his terrific new book Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism, Gloege digs into the history of America’s premier Bible Institute to uncover the reasons for these tight connections. Along the way, he tells us a lot about the history of evangelicalism and of evangelical higher education.Gloege Guaranteed Pure

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m up to my ears in writing my new book about fundamentalist/evangelical higher education. And Guaranteed Pure is the best book on the subject I’ve read in a long time.

For those in the know about evangelicalism and evangelical education, the centrality of MBI doesn’t need explaining. Started in the 1880s by Bible evangelists and their corporate backers, MBI became a juggernaut of publishing, broadcasting, and education. By the mid-twentieth century, MBI loomed large among evangelicals as a brick-and-mortar institution, a solid headquarters for a fundamentalist movement that often ran on shoestrings and prayers. As Gloege puts it near the end of his story (pg. 227), “It is difficult to think of an interwar fundamentalist that did not have or attempt to establish some connection to MBI.”

For those who are unfamiliar with these histories, Gloege’s book would be a great place to start. He offers vivid and fully realized portraits of central personalities such as Reuben Torrey. He fleshes out the complicated relationship between different types of conservative evangelicals around the turn of the twentieth century, from California Pentecostals to Minneapolis Fundamentalists and everything in between.

No matter how well you know these connections, you’re sure to find something enlightening in Guaranteed Pure. For example, Gloege offers the best history I’ve read of the emergence of The Fundamentals, a twelve-volume series of books that is often seen as the first articulation of emerging fundamentalism.

As Gloege recounts, the big-business ethos that emerged in the end of the 1800s did more than just set the tone for the founding of Moody Bible Institute. Rather, leaders such as Henry Crowell of Quaker Oats applied the same emerging modern attitudes toward marketing and profits to MBI as he did to oatmeal. That didn’t mean Crowell was cynical or insincere. Rather, it merely helps us make sense of the sometimes-strange career of early fundamentalism.

For example, every attempt to define early fundamentalism clearly quickly runs up against seemingly insuperable problems. Historian Matthew Sutton, for instance, in his recent book American Apocalypse offered a compelling definition. The thing that set radical evangelicals apart from other religious traditions, Sutton argued, was their overweening concern with the coming apocalypse. In Sutton’s words, it was “fundamentalists’ anticipation of the soon-coming apocalypse [that] made them who they were” (pg. 3).

True enough, but we quickly run into problems. There were leading intellectuals such as J. Gresham Machen who explicitly didn’t fit that label, yet who were considered—even by themselves—to be the brains of the fundamentalist impulse. And there were leading fundamentalist schools such as Bryan University (later Bryan College) that considered and rejected a statement about the coming premillennial apocalypse in their all-important creed.

Professor Sutton knows these things, but by asserting a theological definition on a wide-ranging movement he was forced to trim some edges here and there.

Gloege offers a way out of this pickle. Instead of giving us a rigid definition of fundamentalism, Gloege instead defines it in action. As he puts it (pg. 3),

Fundamentalism is often described in terms of manifestos and theological propositions. Yet at MBI at least, the life force of the movement was its corporate evangelical framework, which operated at a more foundational level. It functioned as a set of unexamined first principles—as common sense. Once developed, these principles became for conservative evangelicalism what the rules of grammar are to a conversation: something used rather than analyzed.

How could Machen be a fundamentalist intellectual if he hemmed and hawed about the fundamentalist movement? How could Bryan University be a fundamentalist school if it eschewed fundamentalist end-of-the-world theology?

Easy. They could be fundamentalists if everyone knew they were. They could be fundamentalists if it seemed like common sense to include them.

Gloege’s priceless contribution in terms of pinning this sort of definitional jello to the wall is not the only major contribution of his book. For those of us interested in evangelical higher ed, Gloege’s business context makes some things clear in new ways.

For example, evangelical colleges are famously anxious about the public image of their students. Depending on the decade, students were not allowed to smoke, drink, dance, or attend plays or movies. Even when they were not at school. Why? Because students were not seen as consumers of evangelical education, they were seen as its product. They were its advertisements, its guarantors of purity.

As Gloege describes, in the 1910s MBI published a painstakingly detailed student guide. Every aspect of student life was regulated, theoretically at least. Why was this so important? In Gloege’s words (pg. 159),

the students and faculty were themselves a form of promotion for the institute. MBI served as a sort of test kitchen demonstrating the effectiveness and purity of its message. No longer conceptualized primarily as workers learning on the job, students were treated as products of the Bible Institute.

Of course, such big-business thinking permeated all sorts of institutions at the time, not just MBI or evangelical colleges. As historian Roger Geiger argues in his new history of American higher education, not only MBI but all institutions of higher education were undergoing a transformative triple revolution during this same period.

Indeed, Gloege could easily have expanded his argument beyond the walls of the MBI. As I’m arguing in my new book, too, there’s no better way to make sense of fundamentalism and evangelicalism in the twentieth century than by uncovering the history of its most important institutions.

Can a College Be Christian?

After Ben Carson’s stupid and hateful comment that the USA should not have a Muslim president, Baylor theologian Roger Olson noted that we really could not have a Christian president, either. In my current work about evangelical colleges, I’m struggling to define what it meant to be Christian at school, too. It raises an ancient question: Can an other-worldly religion (successfully) run worldly institutions?

Olson noted that the only sincere evangelical to sit in the Oval Office in recent decades has been Jimmy Carter. And Carter, Olson argued, was a terrible president. Not by accident, either, but because he was an honest-to-goodness Christian. As Olson put it,

I am not cynical, but neither am I naïve. America is no longer a true democracy; it is run by corporations and the super-rich elite. Occasionally they don’t get their way, but, for the most part, they do. One reason they do not seem to is that they do not agree among themselves about everything. So, sometimes, a president, a senator, a congressman, has to choose between them in decision-making. But, in the end, the policy remains that “What’s good for business is good for America” even when what’s good for business is bad for the working poor (to say nothing of the destitute).

No, given how modern nation states work, I do not think a real Christian, a true disciple of Jesus Christ who seeks to put first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, can be president of the United States or any modern nation state.

The deeper question of belief and institutional necessity is one I’m wrestling with these days. As I write my new book about the history of evangelical higher education, I find myself struggling to offer a satisfactory definition of what it has meant to be a fundamentalist. It’s a question that has bedeviled historians (and fundamentalists) for a good long while, so I feel I’m in good company.

For good reasons, historians have insisted that we need a fairly narrow definition of fundamentalism. In his great book Revive Us Again, Joel Carpenter argued, “more generic usage obscures more than it illumines” (page 4). Carpenter was leery of commentators who slapped a “fundamentalist” label on any and all conservatives or conservative Protestants. As he argued,

Labelling movements, sects, and traditions such as the Pentecostals, Mennonites, Seventh-day Adventists, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Churches of Christ, black Baptists, Mormons, Southern Baptists, and holiness Wesleyans as fundamentalists belittles their great diversity and violates their unique identities (4).

If we need a straightforward definition for those reasons, Matthew Sutton’s recent definition of fundamentalism as “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism” will do the trick. Certainly, fundamentalist theology was defined by its vision of end-times as well as by the centrality of those apocalyptic visions to the movement.

But such definitions don’t seem to match the ways fundamentalism has been defined in its leading institutions. At the colleges I’m studying—schools such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones University, Bryan College, Biola University, The King’s College, and similar schools—there’s more to the school than just theology.

When these schools called themselves “fundamentalist” (and they DID, even relatively liberal schools such as Wheaton), they meant more than theology. They meant more than just “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.” They meant more than just “not-Mennonite-or-Pentecostal.”

Defining fundamentalism as it was used in fundamentalist institutions is a trickier issue than simply defining fundamentalist theology. By and large, when schools talked about themselves as “fundamentalist,” they meant that the professors and administration all signed on to fundamentalist theology. But they also meant that the students would have a vaguely conservative atmosphere in which to study. No smoking, no dancing, no etc. They also meant that students would be controlled and guided in their life choices. And they also meant that students would be more likely to socialize with similarly fundamentalist friends and future spouses.

I’m not sure how to define that kind of fundamentalism. I like the way historian Timothy Gloege has done it in his new book about the Moody Bible Institute. Gloege focuses on what he calls the “corporate evangelical framework” that guided MBI since its founding in the 19th century.

What did fundamentalism mean in Chicago?

What did fundamentalism mean in Chicago?

As Gloege argues, at a school like MBI, fundamentalism was more than a set of “manifestos and theological propositions.” Rather, it worked as a set of “unexamined first principles—as common sense.” Fundamentalism, Gloege writes, is better understood as a certain “grammar” than as a list of religious beliefs.

That kind of definition seems closer to the ways it was used in the schools I’m studying.

Roger E. Olson argues that it will be impossible for any sincere evangelical Christian to be president. There are simply too many worldly factors that violate the otherworldly morality of Christianity. Similarly, evangelical colleges have not defined themselves merely along theological lines. They couldn’t. Instead, they have defined what it has meant to be a “fundamentalist” based on a range of factors. Of course, they care about student religious belief. But they also care about student fashions, patriotism, diets, and social lives. And such things were usually considered a central part of making a school authentically “fundamentalist.”

Can a college be Christian? In the sense that Roger E. Olson is asking, I guess not. Just as every president has to violate evangelical morality, so every institution of higher education has to consider a range of non-religious factors in order to survive.

From the Archives: A Satanic Cult Leader for the GOP

US News & World Report calls him the “evangelical darling.” By some counts, he is the second-most-popular candidate in the GOP scrum. But for anyone familiar with the history of evangelical Protestants in the USA, it can be shocking that a Seventh-day Adventist such as Ben Carson can be so popular among conservative voters. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that conservative evangelicals considered Seventh-day Adventism to be trick of Satan, a cult to lure unwary believers.

Kings Business anti SDA 1For those unfamiliar with the denomination, SDA had its origins in the “Great Disappointment.” In the mid-1800s, William Miller predicted the imminent return of Christ. Some true believers sold everything to prepare for the end of the world. When October 22, 1844 came and went, some folks reasonably concluded that Miller had been wrong.

But not everybody. One splinter group, guided by Prophet Ellen G. White, explained that Christ had come and gone, but it had been a spiritual event, invisible to the mundane eye. White experienced visions of God and angels, creation and the end of time.

Her followers coalesced into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Unlike other Christian groups, SDA members had reason to believe that creation had been a literal six-day event. They had reason to believe that it had taken place within the past 10,000 years. After all, White had been shown it all.

This is the church from which Dr. Carson comes. Unlike some presidential contenders in the past, he has made no noise about separating himself from the teachings of his church. Quite the contrary. He has publicly and repeatedly embraced them.

So far, so good.

What remains shocking for those who know their SDA history is that Dr. Carson has been publicly and repeatedly embraced by evangelical Protestants. It was not so very long ago, after all, that evangelical intellectuals blasted SDA beliefs in the harshest terms.Kings Business anti SDA 2

Writing in the 1919 publication of the founding conference of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, George Guille described SDA this way:

It is Satan’s stroke against the throne and the heart of God.

Hrm.

And a few years later, in 1921, in the pages of The King’s Business, the magazine of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (today’s Biola University) one writer described SDA in similar no-holds-barred language. Jessie Sage Robertson warned Biola’s cult expert Keith L. Brooks that SDA was a dangerous cult. As she put it,

Strange, isn’t it, that a whole body of religionists should decry Spiritism as of the devil, and yet accept a whole system of Biblical interpretation received by one [Ellen G. White] in a state of non-self control?

Too many evangelical pastors, Robertson believed, were not aware of these “false religious systems” with “their soul-destroying dangers.”

If I were an SDA neurosurgeon, I might feel a little trepidation at accepting the friendship of such recent enemies. I might not feel excited to be welcomed by people who had so recently accused my religion of such terrible crimes.

Now, I’m not as dumb as I look. I am aware that these warnings are all from a long time ago. I am aware that our last round of elections brought a leader of the Latter-day Saints Church (the Mormons) to staunchly fundamentalist Liberty University to speak.

But I am also aware that schools such as the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago STILL sell charts warning true believers of the dangers of “cults” such as Mormonism and Seventh-day Adventism.

The point, however, is not that evangelicals should or should not embrace Dr. Carson. Rather, the point for all of us is that evangelical belief is always changing.

For progressive secular folks (like me), we need always to remember that evangelicalism is not somehow a product of a past America. Evangelical Protestants are not trapped in time, either from the Victorian 1870s or the Leave-It-to-Beaver 1950s.

And conservative evangelicals need always to remember that their religion is changing, no matter what they might hear. It can be tricky in evangelical circles to talk about religious change, since so much of evangelicalism is based on remaining true to God’s Unchanging Word. Smart evangelicals, however, will be the first to tell you that human interpretation of God’s Word is always changing, and always riddled with errors.

Will evangelical voters vote for a member of a Satanic Cult? Time will tell, but it seems most evangelicals have put that past behind them.