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Can fundamentalist colleges trust their faculty? We see this week an unfortunate blow-up in the continuing saga of power struggles at Bryan College in Tennessee. Does this bitter squabble between president and faculty represent an inherent problem for conservative evangelical schools? The history of these colleges suggests something along those lines.

According to Chattanooga’s Times Free Press, Bryan President Stephen Livesay has doubled down on his fight for control. As we’ve documented in these pages, for the past few years the college has gone back and forth in its struggle, with faculty approving a no-confidence vote last spring, and members of the board resigning this past summer.

He said, he said, c. 1953

He said, he said, c. 1953

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m up to my elbows in my new book about the twentieth-century history of conservative evangelical colleges. Time and again, administrators and trustees have demonstrated a deep distrust of their faculty.

In the 1930s, for example, Bob Jones College purged a suspect group of teachers. One of the fired faculty, Joseph Free, penned a protest letter. He had previously worked at three different colleges, Free wrote,

two of them orthodox. (But not obnoxious.) My loyalty was never questioned. . . . It simply never occurred to me that I was not free to express my opinions and I did express them. How was I to know that loyalty meant dictatorship?

Perhaps more famously, this pattern was repeated at Bob Jones University in the 1950s. Ted Mercer was fired in the summer of 1953, accused of a host of crimes including planning a “revolt of many faculty members.” Mercer himself claimed to have been blindsided by his dismissal. Maybe he had become too popular with students and faculty. Perhaps Bob Jones Sr. was too zealous in his jealousy of other administrators. In any case, Mercer went on to a long career at Bryan College.

The abiding distrust of faculty at fundamentalist colleges has not been unique to Bryan and Bob Jones U. At Wheaton College as recently as 1961, faculty scientists were pressed into a needless and humiliating mea culpa. After a conference on evolution and creationism in 1960, anxious trustees forced Wheaton administrators to tighten the school’s official position on the origins of humanity. No longer would it suffice for faculty to agree that God created. Since 1961, they have had to affirm that Adam and Eve were real historical personages and the true parents of the species. Professor Russell Mixter had to affirm his orthodoxy over and over again in order to allay the fears of Wheaton’s guardians of orthodoxy.

Nor was Dr. Mixter’s ordeal out of the ordinary at Wheaton. As historian Michael S. Hamilton wrote in his brilliant 1994 study of Wheaton’s history, the board of trustees has always been distrustful of the faculty. In Hamilton’s words, trustees have believed “the faculty represented the single greatest danger to maintaining the college’s Christian character.”

As usual, Hamilton’s history proves prescient. According to the Times Free Press, new rules at Bryan College seem intended to crush any whisper of faculty independence. New rules restrict professors’ ability to call meetings, for example. As the TFP explains,

Under this new policy, a faculty member is required to go through a seven-step process that includes approval from the Academic Council, a written rationale stating the purpose of the meeting and a waiting period of at least a week.

This sort of contrived impotence may seem shocking to those unfamiliar with the unique traditions of fundamentalist higher education. Within that charmed circle, however, it seems like nothing more than a new take on an old tradition: When the going gets tough, the faculty get blamed.

Faculty Fudge Factors at Creationist Colleges

Ding! There it is again—the sound of another evangelical professor being ousted for harboring evolution-friendly ideas.  Some of us outsiders might think that evangelical colleges would slowly become more relaxed about evolution as time went on.  As this case shows, we’d be wrong.  The history of the past century has demonstrated that many evangelical colleges have grown MORE uptight, not less, about proving their creationist credentials.

In this case, the school is Bethel College in Indiana and the professor is Jim Stump. As Karl Giberson described recently, the flap at this Bethel [n.b., there are about one bajillion Bethel Colleges out there and it’s easy for outsiders to mix them up] echoes the trends of the past hundred years: Time and again, creationist colleges have sought to tighten both the image and reality of unshakeable creationist orthodoxy among their faculty.

Stump removal...

Stump removal…

As I’m uncovering as I work on my new book, this pattern has been the dominant theme at conservative evangelical colleges since the 1920s.

Beginning in the 1920s and repeated every generation, schools have tightened the requirements on their faculty. In every generation, some professors have sought to follow a middle path—exploring the science of evolution while remaining firmly committed to their religion. In every generation, nervous college administrators have sought to prove to the creationist community that their school will not tolerate any such thing.

In the 1920s, most schools agreed on ironclad faculty creeds. The hope was that these creeds would prevent faculty from becoming too friendly to evolutionary thinking. At flagship Wheaton College in Illinois, for instance, the trustees in 1926 adopted a creed that all faculty, staff, and administration had to sign annually. They included the following statement:

 

4. We believe that man was created in the image of God; that he sinned, and thereby incurred, not only physical death, but also that spiritual death which is separation from God; and that all human beings are born with a sinful nature, and in the case of those who reach moral responsibility become sinners in thought, word and deed.

At the time, this statement was thought to define the proper “fundamentalist” attitude toward creation. In 1960, however, a conference about evolution and creationism on Wheaton’s campus attracted ferocious criticism from the more stalwart creationists among the fundamentalist/evangelical community. Too many of the assembled theologians and scientists, critics thought, embraced the principle of evolution.

Among Wheaton’s faculty, zoologist Russell Mixter came in for the fiercest criticism. In spite of his protestations to the contrary, Mixter was accused of teaching and preaching evolution in his classes. In order to calm the storm, Wheaton’s administration altered its faculty creed. At the end of 1961, the school agreed to add the following item:

By Article IV of its ‘standards of faith,’ Wheaton College is committed to the Biblical teaching that man was created by a direct act of God and not from previously existing forms of life; and that all men are descended from the historical Adam and Eve, first parents of the entire human race.

The pattern continues today. At schools such as Bryan College and Northwest Nazarene University, creeds are tightened and faculty are ousted in order to preserve an impeccable reputation for creationism. Time and again, the sticking point has been the historicity of Adam & Eve. It is not enough, evangelical communities insist, for faculty vaguely to endorse the idea of a God-directed creation. Especially when it comes to the origins of humanity, some evangelicals require a belief in a real, literal origin in two real, literal people.

According to Karl Giberson, the folks at Bethel College in Indiana have taken this tradition one step further. Under pressure from the sponsoring denomination, the Missionary Church, Bethel now requires faculty to advocate its firm position on the historicity of Adam & Eve. In the past, at Bethel as at other evangelical colleges, faculty members could sign their annual statements of faith even if they thought that such statements did not require them to disavow mainstream evolutionary science. This policy hopes to push faculty members into a tighter relationship with the denomination’s official position on evolution.

Furthermore, from now on Bethel faculty are not allowed to take leadership positions in organizations that disagree on this point. As BioLogos leader Deborah Haarsma argued, Bethel’s new policy puts evangelical scholars like Jim Stump in a very difficult position. Stump has served as the content manager for BioLogos, an organization that embraces “evolutionary creationism.” The new Bethel policy, in effect, forced Stump to choose between the two organizations.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, I am a fan of the BioLogos approach. I’m no evangelical, but I think the way forward in our continuing evolution/creation battles is for both sides to agree to the science of evolution and the freedom of religious belief. As I argue in my upcoming book Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (due to hit shelves in February 2016), secular folks like me need to recognize the right of religious dissenters to disbelieve the claims of evolution, even as religious folks need to recognize the duty of public schools to teach evolution as the best available science.

But as I argue in my other upcoming book, schools like Bethel are also in a difficult position. In order to maintain intellectual credibility, they must embrace changing norms of academic excellence. But in order to maintain religious credibility, they must conspicuously root out any whiff of compromise. Not on every issue, but on issues such as evolution and same-sex marriage that seem to make up the foundations of their faiths.

As a result, over the course of the past ninety years, many evangelical colleges–including the relatively “liberal” ones–have made their policies more rigid when it comes to faculty beliefs about human origins.  The recent news from Mishawaka is only the latest attempt by an evangelical college to remove faculty fudge factors.

Fundamentalism and the Modern University

Are evangelical colleges modern? Or, with their insistence that knowledge has its roots in God’s Holy Word, are they somehow trapped in medieval ideas about knowledge and the purposes of higher education? The answer is more complicated than it might seem at first.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of ILYBYGTH (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are sick of hearing, I’m hard at work on my book about evangelical higher ed. In the twentieth century, Protestant fundamentalists opened or transformed a network of colleges dedicated to protecting fundamentalist faith. If students are led astray at mainstream secular colleges, the thinking went, fundamentalists needed their own schools to teach each new generation of Christians how to be educated and evangelical.

As part of my reading list, I’m deep in Roger Geiger’s new book, The History of American Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2015). I’m writing a full review for Teachers College Record and I’ll be sure to post links to that review when it comes out.

Are fundamentalists colleges modern? Or are they trapped in the 1600s?

Are fundamentalist colleges modern? Or are they trapped in the 1600s?

In the meantime, though, Professor Geiger’s survey of the first colleges raises some tricky questions for fundamentalist higher education. As with so many early American institutions, colleges such as Harvard and Yale represented the tail end of medieval traditions, just as they were changing into recognizably modern ways of thinking.

Conservative evangelicals like to point out that America’s leading colleges were often founded as religious schools. It’s true. Harvard and Yale were both intended, first and foremost, to defend orthodox Puritanism. Not only were they ferociously religious, but they envisioned their role in a radically non-modern way. Instead of serving as an institution that encouraged new thinking, Harvard and Yale in the 1600s and early 1700s both saw their role as passing along established truth. As Prof. Geiger puts it, in the early decades, “The corpus of knowledge transmitted at Harvard College was considered fixed, and inquiry after new knowledge was beyond imagining.”

Orthodoxy at these early schools was defended with a rigor that would make twentieth-century fundamentalists proud. Harvard’s first president, for example, was ousted for theological reasons. President Henry Dunster came to believe that infant baptism was not a scriptural practice. As a result, the General Court summarily got rid of him. In their words, no one could lead a college if they “manifested themselves unsound in the faith.”

Both Harvard and Yale made explicit their goals. In early years, Yale explained its primary religious mission:

Every student shall consider the main end of his study to wit to know God in Jesus Christ and answerably to lead a Godly sober life.

It was not much different at Harvard:

the main end of [a student’s] life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, Joh. 17.3

In all these aspects, life at Harvard and Yale between the 1630s and 1720s seems remarkably similar to life at fundamentalist colleges in the early twentieth century. For schools such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones College, Bible Institute of Los Angeles, or Gordon College, these Puritan echoes resounded loudly. At all these fundamentalist schools, leaders insisted that the first goal was to help students understand themselves as Christians. The first intellectual challenge was to study seemingly distinct bodies of knowledge to see the hidden connections put in place by God.

In this way, then, it seems as if fundamentalist colleges—even those more liberal schools that eventually abandoned the “fundamentalist” label—hearken back to a pre-modern vision of higher education.

We have to be careful, though, before we assume too much. In other important ways, twentieth century dissenting religious colleges participated fully in the central intellectual tradition of modern higher education.

According to Professor Geiger, colonial higher education went through a revolutionary change in the 1720s-1740s. During that period, endowed professorships at Harvard gave some faculty members the independence to pursue new forms of knowledge. These professors began to incorporate the ideas of new thinkers such as Isaac Newton and John Locke.

The radical change came not only from the newness of the ideas, but from the notion that the college or university should be the place to explore such new ideas. As Professor Geiger puts it,

The significance and prestige of Newtonian science altered college teaching by introducing the experimental lecture employing apparatus, creating a demand for specialized professors and establishing the expectation that the curriculum should incorporate new knowledge.

A fundamental characteristic of the modern university emerged in the decades before the American Revolution. College, more than any other institution, came to be seen as the province of cutting-edge thinking. As Professor Geiger points out, even before Ben Franklin made his famous experiments with lightning, John Winthrop at Harvard used his endowed Hollis Chair funding to purchase equipment that would allow him to demonstrate the properties of electricity.

Just as the fundamentalist colleges of the twentieth century clung to the pre-modern notion that universities ought to pass along established truths, those same fundamentalist schools fully participated in the modern notion that universities ought to explore new truths.

An evangelical scientist, for example, such as Russell Mixter at Wheaton College in the 1950s, believed that no amount of human investigating could overturn the truths of Scripture. But Mixter (and others like him) also saw himself as an intellectual specialist, a scientist exploring the outer boundaries of biology to discover new things about God’s creation.

Are fundamentalist and evangelical colleges modern? In this sense, they certainly are. The faculty at twentieth- and twenty-first century conservative colleges are divided into academic disciplines. Each of them is expected to carry out research in his or her field. The definition of those fields may be different from the ones at secular institutions, but the fundamentally modern notion of research remains central.

At the same time, though, by envisioning themselves as the guardians of students’ faiths, fundamentalist colleges hearken back to the pre-modern roots of the Ivy League. As Professor Geiger argues about 17th century Puritan higher education, “the deeper purpose of the college course and the overriding preoccupation of the institutions were to demonstrate the truth of Christianity.”

Today’s evangelical colleges would agree.

Bryan College: Creationism Déjà vu All Over Again

It’s all over but the shouting.  That’s the news from Bryan College.  Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we see that Bryan College has settled its legal dispute with two of its professors.  The creationist courtroom drama may have been avoided, but we are left with one question: If this is part of a predictable pattern at conservative evangelical colleges, can we learn a better way to handle each new episode?

Why can't we all just get along...?

Why can’t we all just get along…?

Two Bryan College professors, Stephen Barnett and Steven DeGeorge, have settled their lawsuit with the school, according to the local newspaper.  Readers may remember that the school abruptly changed its statement of faith to insist that Adam and Eve did not descend from another species.  Faculty members had to make a tough decision: Could they agree to the newly explicit language about humanity’s origins?  Barnett and DeGeorge argued that it was not fair—nor even legal—for the school to impose such a decision on faculty.  It appears they have decided to drop the lawsuit, though the terms of this settlement have not been made public.

Why did Bryan’s leadership feel a need to make such a change?  They were in a tight spot.  As I’ve argued before, leading young-earth creationists such as Ken Ham are able to wield outsized influence on evangelical colleges.  Even the whiff of suspicion that a school has abandoned the true faith is enough to drive away students and their precious tuition dollars.  At Bryan—and I’m claiming no inside knowledge here, just a historian’s best guess—the leadership felt obliged to shore up its orthodox creationist bona fides.

This tension is nothing new at evangelical colleges.  Perhaps the most startling example of the deja-vu nature of the Bryan situation is an eerily similar case from Wheaton College in 1961.  In that case, faculty such as Russell Mixter hosted a conference on origins.  Whatever actually occurred at that meeting, rumors flew that Wheaton had opened itself to the teaching of evolution.  As a result, anxious trustees rammed through a change to the obligatory faculty creed.  From then on, faculty had to attest to their belief in “an historical Adam and an historical Eve, the parents of the human race, who were created by God and not descended from lower forms of life.”

Back then, Mixter signed.  He was more interested in the broad outlines of what he called “progressive creationism” than the details of the Garden of Eden.  But the nervousness of the leadership at Wheaton was palpable.  In addition to the change in creed, the school took out big advertisements in evangelical magazines such as Christian Life that trumpeted Wheaton’s continuing creationism.

The stories are so similar that it is hard to believe they are separated by over fifty years.  And they lead us to obvious questions: Why do evangelical colleges have such anxiety about their reputations as creationist colleges?  Why do leaders feel such a compelling need to publicize their continuing orthodoxy?  And perhaps most important, if these controversies are so predictable, why is there no better way to handle them?

As historian Michael Hamilton has argued about Wheaton, “Anxiety about constituent response hangs over virtually every decision the college has made since 1925.”  The same could be said for Bryan and every other school that relies on conservative evangelical families for its student bodies.

Each of these schools’ identities, after all, relied on the notion that they have been “safe” alternatives to mainstream schools.  At the more conservative Bob Jones University, for example, founder Bob Jones promised a different sort of college experience.  In 1928, just a few years after the school was founded, Jones promised,

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.

And even though Wheaton College was a very different sort of evangelical school, this central notion was the same.  In the 1930s, Wheaton advertised itself as a “safe college for young people.”

This pledge means more than just institutional window-dressing.  For conservative evangelical schools, the issue of orthodoxy looms large.  This stretches beyond the issue of creationism.  As we see in cases such as the recent controversy at Gordon College, ideas about sexuality also prove intensely controversial.  If schools want to change their policies, or sometimes even to clarify existing policies, they risk sparking a no-holds-barred fight that might threaten the continuing existence of their college.

No wonder school leaders are nervous.

The most recent episode at Bryan seems to have limped its way off the public stage.  But not without resentment, bitterness, and feelings of betrayal all around.  So we are left with a few questions for the leaders of conservative colleges: If this is such a central organizing principle of conservative orthodox colleges, why do they seem never to learn?  Why does today’s controversy at Bryan copy the pattern of Wheaton’s in 1961 so exactly?  Is there no better way to handle this predictable tension?