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.

The Coming Split at Conservative Colleges

Is your school for bigots?…Or for apostates? That’s the choice that conservative school leaders have faced throughout the twentieth century. And it is coming round again. As the US Supreme Court hears arguments about same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, conservative religious schools and colleges should gear up for another divisive debate over equality and theology. If SCOTUS rules in favor of same-sex marriage, will evangelical and fundamentalist schools face a return to the hot tempers of 1971?

More bad news for conservatives...

More bad news for conservatives…

The case itself is a combination of cases from four states. In short, SCOTUS is trying to decide two issues: whether or not the Constitution requires states to allow same-sex marriage; and whether or not same-sex marriages in one state must be recognized by all states.

Conservative Christians have made their feelings clear. Among the hundreds of friend-of-the-court letters are one from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and one from Governor Mike Huckabee’s advocacy group.

At the Christian Post this morning, we see nervous worries about the possible fall-out for conservative Christian schools. Justice Samuel Alito made an explicit reference to the precedent on every conservative’s mind: the Bob Jones University case. Back in 1970, the leaders of BJU refused to allow racial integration on their South Carolina campus. As a result, the Internal Revenue Service took away BJU’s tax-exempt status. By 1983, BJU had taken its case all the way to the Supreme Court. It lost.

Alito asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli if the precedent would apply:

JUSTICE ALITO:  Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating.  So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­ sex marriage?

GENERAL VERRILLI:  You know, I ­­ I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. ­ I don’t deny that.  I don’t deny that, Justice Alito.  It is ­­ it is going to be an issue.

Conservatives worry that this might mean the end of religious schools and colleges. Should religious schools refuse to provide housing for same-sex married couples, the federal government could revoke their tax-exempt status. For most schools, that would mean a sudden and impossibly steep tax bill. When schools are already teetering on the brink of financial insolvency, it could certainly mean the end.

But that’s not all. If history is any guide, Christian school leaders should also prepare for another kind of crisis. Back in the 1970s, fundamentalist schools endured a vicious and destructive split over Bob Jones University’s position on racial segregation.

As I’ve been finding in the archives this past year, even schools that agreed with BJU’s fundamentalist theology sometimes disagreed with BJU’s position against interracial marriage. At the Moody Bible Institute, for example, leaders decided to cancel an invitation to pro-BJU fundamentalist leader John R. Rice. The decision subjected MBI’s leaders to withering criticism from fundamentalists nationwide.

Reporters and observers have noted that SCOTUS’s decision in this case might raise questions for leaders of conservative religious schools. Those leaders should also consider another likely outcome. If SCOTUS’s decision puts pressure on school leaders to recognize same-sex marriages, it might lead to another in a long line of bitter fights among schools.

Will conservative evangelicals and Catholics submit to the law of the land? Or will they resist, citing a higher authority? Will conservative schools lose their conservative credibility if they give in to the new cultural ethos?

It’s not going to be an easy choice. If I were the president of a conservative Christian school or college, I’d get myself ready for a lose-lose decision. Do I want my school to be labeled a bunch of fanatical bigots? Or would I prefer to join the ranks of schools that don’t take their religions very seriously?

Racist Fundamentalists…It’s Complicated

Sometimes the archives can make things too complicated. White fundamentalists have always been accused of racism—a charge they’ve vehemently denied. But what do we do when an African American fundamentalist agrees with the racism of his white fellow fundamentalists?

First, a quick historical sketch: Since the 1920s, as I argued in my first book, fundamentalism got tangled up with ideas about Southern Pride. Conservative religion has often become part and parcel of a broader cultural conservatism, one that included support for racial segregation and white supremacy.

Racist? Or just fundamentalist?

Racist? Or just fundamentalist?

By the 1970s, leading white fundamentalists became some of the most public supporters of racial segregation. Most famously, Bob Jones University steadfastly clung to its whites-only policy long after many white Southerners and white fundamentalists had grudgingly moved on. Some historians, such as Randall Balmer, have insisted that white racism among fundamentalists was the real root of the so-called New Christian Right that emerged in the 1970s.

I disagree. There is no doubt that white fundamentalism—especially in the South—has long had close ties to white racism. There is more to the story, however, than quick condemnations of conservative religion as a front for white supremacy.

In my recent work at the archive of the Moody Bible Institute, I came across a document that reminds us how messy history is. In 1970, the leaders of Moody dis-invited prominent fundamentalist John R. Rice from Moody’s big annual Founder’s Week event. Why? Because Rice had come out in support of the segregationist policies of Bob Jones University.

As President William Culbertson informed members of the Moody community,

Moody Bible Institute has for 85 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. We are absolutely opposed to injustice and exploitation. We are dedicated to the proposition that we are debtors to all men.

Moody Bible Institute, Culbertson told anyone who would listen, still agreed wholeheartedly with John R. Rice’s fundamentalist theology. Moody refused to compromise with those who would modernize the Bible or water down fundamentalist religion. But Moody could not be seen as part of a racist, segregationist movement.

Naturally, John R. Rice and his supporters blasted this decision. More evidence, one Rice supporter charged, that Moody had

moved one more step away from the great revival that is blazing across this land into the camp of lukewarm churches that make God sick. I do not suppose that anything that I have said will make any difference to you or Moody Bible Institute’s position. Years will come and go and Moody will ‘go the way of all flesh,’ while the Moody Memorial Church continues to dry-up on the vine.

Among the fat stack of angry letters supporting John R. Rice, one stands out. It came from William H. Dinkins of Selma, Alabama. Dinkins was an African American fundamentalist and, in his words, someone who “stand[s] with Dr. Rice for fundamentalism and the old-time religion and all that goes with it.” Too often, Dinkins charged, “We Negroes [sic] . . . try to inject Civil Rights into every circumstance, without sensing the effect of what we are doing.” When it comes to religion and the Word of God, Dinkins continued, “Civil Rights is an extraneous issue, and ought not to be in question, and I feel that responsible people ought not to be effected by such pleas.”

The view from Selma, 1971

The view from Selma, 1971

Dinkins’s letter raises difficult questions about race and religion. First of all, we wonder if this letter was legitimate. Could someone have faked it in order to create an impression of biracial support for racial segregation? If not, we wonder how common such sentiments have been. As historian Jeffrey Moran has argued, white fundamentalists have long tended to ignore their African American co-religionists, at best. And, as John Dittmer and others have showed, in the early days of the Civil Rights movement many African American leaders in the Deep South supported segregation, at least temporarily and pragmatically.

In the early 1970s, was there really any support for racial segregation among African American conservatives? Did fundamentalism trump race?

MBI Kind of Town…

What did you do after high school? Did you go to a “college?” Or was it a “university,” “institute,” a “normal school,” or maybe a “professional school?” For generations of ambitious Protestant missionaries, the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago has been the best-known institution of evangelical higher ed. So much so that MBI has clung to the “BI” name much longer than many other evangelical colleges.

DOWNtown funk...

DOWNtown funk…

I just rolled into Chi-town on the last of my research trips this year. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m working on a book about the history of evangelical higher ed. This year, I’ve traveled to Bob Jones University, Wheaton College, Biola University, Gordon College, and Liberty University.

MBI is last, but certainly not least. I’ve logged my share of time in these archives over the years, especially while working on my PhD dissertation and first book. MBI is not the oldest Bible Institute, but it has remained far and away the most influential.

For those outside of the orbit of evangelical culture, the primary goal of Bible institutes has been to provide quick and affordable education for missionaries. In order to serve effectively on the mission field, many evangelicals have believed, missionaries need a thorough knowledge of the Bible. In order to bring people to true salvation, missionaries need a proper knowledge, too.

Beginning in the late 1800s, Bible institutes popped up in American cities nationwide. Many of them attracted students without a lot of academic preparation. These students, after all, were not heading into the traditional professions, but rather heading out to spread the Gospel in every land. They did not need to know Latin and trigonometry, but rather only the Bible and maybe some basic medicine and language skills.

Over the decades, many of these Bible institutes turned into colleges or universities of one kind or another. This was part of the triple revolution in higher education that Roger Geiger describes in his new book, The History of American Higher Education. By 1940, Professor Geiger argues, the wild diversity of early institutions of higher education had become standardized, a recognizable modern system of American higher education.

In this system, no one went to college without first completing a high-school education. They looked forward to an education that would prepare them for specific professions. Colleges themselves closed their preparatory departments or split them off into stand-along high schools. Universities had shaken out into a relatively stable hierarchy of prestige and social influence. At the top were wealthy old schools such as Harvard and the University of Michigan. At these universities, undergraduate education rollicked along in a cloud of sports, fraternities, and social climbing, while the schools themselves fought viciously to increase their research footprint.

As this modern system regularized itself in the years after World War I, several types of institutions phased out. These evolutionary also-rans included many institutes of technology, proprietary medical or legal schools, “female institutes,” normal schools, and—though Professor Geiger doesn’t mention them—most of the Bible institutes.

These old-fashioned types of higher education did not disappear. Rather, most of them changed to offer the new standard bachelor’s degrees. Many of them built new dormitories and fielded sports teams. And most of them took their place in the competitive hierarchy that arched from Harvard down to Podunk State College & Grill.

A very few exceptions stood out from this winnowing process, at least symbolically. Some of the old-fashioned institutions of higher education had been so successful in the 1800s that they felt no need to change their names, even as they usually adopted some of the features of modern higher education. Most notably, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology never changed its name to call itself a “college” or a “university.” MIT began as one of a scramble of “institutes of technology” in the years surrounding the Civil War. Unlike today’s MIT, the early institutes did not focus on recognizably pure modern research. Instead, they mostly provided students with a more practical mechanical education meant for workers in industrial workshops.

As more and more students wanted to spend their tuition dollars at a “college” or “university” that took its place in the ever-more-rigid hierarchy after World War I, most of these “institutes of technology” turned themselves into “colleges” or “universities.”

Following a somewhat similar pattern, since 1940 most of the crop of Bible institutes that sprang up around the turn of the twentieth century turned themselves into “colleges” or “universities.” Biola University, for example, began its life as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles—BIOLA, get it? Gordon College, too, had its roots as the Boston Missionary Training School. As early Gordon President Nathan Wood remembered, the first name change—to Gordon College of Theology and Missions—resulted from student pressure.   Three class presidents, Wood recalled, requested

a change of name to one which would express the collegiate and theological work of the school. . . . It meant much to them as future Alumni.

To put it in terms Wood never used, the Gordon students recognized early the congealing patterns of modern American higher education. A “training school” did not convey the same prestige and professional opportunities as did a “college.”

For some stand-out schools, however, these rules did not apply. Moody Bible Institute was so well known among evangelicals its name sufficed to keep students coming. There was no need for it to change its name to acknowledge the changing environment of American higher education. Like MIT, MBI had created such a unique niche in higher education that it kept its old fashioned name and much of its old-fashioned structure. Also like MIT, MBI took on many of the features of modern higher education. Unlike in its early days, MBI now offers college degrees, not just Bible training.

Doubtless, I’ll find some evidence here in the archives about efforts over the years to change MBI’s name. Unlike smaller schools, however, MBI had the size needed to stand out as an island in the new seas of modern higher education.

Conservatives: Keep Religion Out of Public Schools

Do American religious conservatives want more Jesus in public schools?  That’s usually the assumption, from Kountze, Texas to San Diego, California.

Recently in the pages of The American Conservative, Leah Libresco argued the conservative case against more religion in public schools.  When religion is used by the state, she points out, it puts religion in the service of the state, not vice versa.

One commenter pointed out the paucity of this sort of sentiment among religious conservatives in the past thirty years.  Fair enough.  But let’s not forget how common such notions were among religious conservatives, especially for those from the Baptist tradition, throughout American history.

For example, as historian Jon Zimmerman argued in his 2002 book Whose America, the battle over weekday religious education in public schools pitted conservative Christians against liberal Christians.  Both sides wanted more good religion in public schools, but they disagreed bitterly over the content of that religious education.  Conservatives and self-identified “fundamentalists” often made the case that no religion was better than false religion for public school students.

Similarly, we need to remember the response among conservative evangelicals to the Supreme Court’s anti-prayer ruling in Engel v. Vitale.  In that important 1962 decision, SCOTUS ruled that public schools could not lead students in even the blandest, most ecumenical prayer.  As I argued in a recent article in the Journal of Religious History, many conservative evangelical intellectuals were well pleased.

The National Association of Evangelicals approved of Engel.  So did Presbyterian fundamentalist Carl McIntire.  As William Culbertson of the Moody Bible Institute put it, “The public as a whole and Christians who sense the necessity for safeguarding freedom of worship in the future are always indebted to the Court for protection in this important area.”

For Culbertson as for the other conservative Protestants who agreed with him, it would be better for public-school students not to pray at all in school rather than for them to chant the pablum imposed by the New York Regents.  That Regents prayer, after all, offered only the thinnest gruel of religion; it crushed any orthodoxy in its well-meaning goal of ecumenicalism.  “Almighty God,” students prayed, “we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers, and our country.”

As Leah Libresco argues in her recent conservative indictment of public-school prayer, that sort of religiosity does not teach young people the religion of their families.  It only teaches them a confusing lesson about the vague existence of a higher power.  For religious conservatives, the words of a prayer matter.  Better by far to ban meaningless prayers from public schools than to embrace a state-directed vision of the Almighty.

 

Booze and Bibles

Have a cocktail with your Leviticus?

That’s the new option for faculty and hangers-on at Chicago’s storied Moody Bible Institute.

Image Source: Renew Chicago

Image Source: Renew Chicago

It represents only the newest iteration of an age-old story for conservative evangelical institutions: How much to embrace and how much to eschew contemporary cultural norms.

According to a story in Religion News Service, the downtown Bible institute will now allow faculty and staff to drink.  This is new.

The question asked by Sarah Pulliam Bailey is whether this represents a trend among leading evangelical institutions.  As Bailey points out, evangelical organizations such as Focus on the Family and Wheaton College have made similar changes to their lifestyle policies.

Bailey might also have mentioned recent changes at the more conservative Liberty University.

Such questions of cultural relevance and theological fidelity are nothing new at Moody Bible Institute.  As I argued in my 1920s book, President James M. Gray wondered at that time whether the new fundamentalist movement was a boon or a threat to the MBI’s evangelical mission.

In the end, President Gray and the 1920s MBI generation took a skittery position on fundamentalism.  Insofar as fundamentalism supported a firm insistence on the inerrancy and primacy of Scripture, it was all to the good.  But if the new fundamentalist movement took attention away from the primary goals of Bible knowledge and evangelical effectiveness, it was a threat.

Nor is the weightiness of the MBI’s internal debates about this issue unique among conservative educational institutions.  Many evangelical schools have a long history of struggle with questions of change and cultural consonance.  At Wheaton College, for example, President Charles Blanchard fretted throughout the 1920s about the meanings of modernism.  At that time, “modernism” among evangelical Protestants referred, first and foremost, to a theological movement.  Modernists in the 1920s hoped to bring church doctrine more in line with changing cultural norms.  Fundamentalists and their conservative allies, on the other hand, insisted on keeping true to traditional theological norms.

Blanchard, as did other evangelical educational leaders in the 1920s and since, experienced a good deal of anguish as he worked to guide his school through this cultural Scylla and Charybdis.  On the one hand, Blanchard, like Gray, did not want to truckle to fads.  On the other hand, neither leader wanted to insist on tradition merely for the sake of fuddy-duddy-ness.

The recent decision to allow drinking among MBI faculty represents a similar wrangling with contemporary cultural issues.  How much does a trenchant cultural Amishness contribute to true Biblical understanding?  And how much does it distract from MBI’s central goals of Biblical missiology?

 

‘Pentecostal Hairdos’ and Teaching the Bible

Kudos to Mark Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer tells New York Times readers about Mark Chancey’s study of Bible-reading in Texas public schools.  For ILYBYGTH readers, there’s not much news there.

As we noted here weeks ago, Professor Chancey found lots of Bible evangelism going on in public-school Bible classes in Texas.  At the time, we opined that we shouldn’t be too surprised at those findings.

But Oppenheimer explored a little deeper, and spoke with Gay Hart, a 77-year-old Bible teacher from Eastland, Texas.  Hart offered the best Bible-teacher stereotype-busting quotation I’ve seen:

‘“I go to First Baptist,” she said. “I wear a Pentecostal hairdo. I play the organ at the Episcopal church. When I could sing, I was the alto at Church of Christ. I have taught in a Catholic school. I am 77, and I am not a little old lady with a 15-year-old car that has 3,000 miles on it. I sky-dived last summer. I have a life, and I love this class.”’

I don’t know about you, but I had to look up “pentecostal hairdo” to see if that was a real thing.  As usual, turns out I’m the last to know.  Thanks to Erika, I now know how to do it myself!