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?

Bryan College and the Grey Lady

Bryan College is in the news again. A recent New York Times article describes the hullabaloo over creationism and college creeds. But here’s the problem: journalist Alan Blinder seems all too willing to cast today’s struggles as only warmed-over reiterations of the 1925 Scopes trial. That doesn’t do justice to the history nor does it help today’s readers understand the kaleidoscopic world of evangelical higher education.

ILYBYGTH readers will remember that Bryan has been back-and-forth on the issue of Adam and Eve. The school has always been friendly to young-earth creationism. But President Stephen Livesay pushed through a clarification of the school’s traditional creed. From here on out, faculty members must affirm their belief in a literal, historic Adam and Eve. Most recently, the college has been sued by two faculty members who have refused to sign the clarified statement of faith.

I’m glad to see that journalist Alan Blinder has paid some attention to the controversy in the pages of the New York Times. But I can’t help but complain about Blinder’s framing of today’s story. For instance, Blinder calls today’s fight a “similar debate” to the 1925 Scopes trial. He says, “The continuing debate at Bryan College and beyond is a reminder of how divisive the issues of the Scopes trial still are…”

I’m not complaining because Blinder does not name the two professors who are actually suing Bryan—Stephen Barnett and Steven DeGeorge. I’m not complaining because Blinder focuses instead on Brian Eisenback, who had become controversial due to his evolutionary creationism.

No, I’m complaining because this sort of coverage implies that the issue at hand is the teaching of evolution or the teaching of creationism. I’m complaining because so many writers—not just Blinder—feel a need to call every new example of evolution/creation controversy “Scopes II” or something similar.

It would be entirely plausible, I think, for a casual reader to walk away from Blinder’s article thinking that Bryan College is becoming a religious school that teaches creationism, when it used to be a more secular school that taught evolution. It would also be plausible for readers to think that the issue at Bryan College today is the same issue that motivated the Scopes trial so many years ago. Both of these are woefully misleading implications.

First of all, Bryan College is now and has always been a friendly environment for young-earth creationism. Until recently, Bryan hosted the Center for Origins Research and Education. This center was lead in turn by prominent YEC intellectuals such as Kurt Wise and Todd Wood. Today’s controversy at Bryan College is decidedly not between a “creationist” mindset and a “secular” one. Today’s controversy is between a pluralist sort of big-tent creationism and a stricter young-earth-only vision. The school may be tightening its definition of acceptable sorts of creationism, but that is a very different thing than imposing creationism on a pluralist school.

Also, the controversy in 1925 was about whether or not evolution could be banned from public schools. As I argued in my 1920s book and in my upcoming Other School Reformers, due to such controversies, many conservative Christians founded schools like Bryan College. But today’s debate is vastly different. The debate today is over what sort of creationism counts as creationism at a private evangelical college.

Just because it brings journalists from New York down to Dayton again, there is no need to imply that this is somehow a return engagement for Clarence Darrow, H.L. Mencken, William Jennings Bryan, and John Scopes. What we’re seeing today is worlds apart from what Dayton saw in 1925.