Why Go to Fundamentalist U? To Get a Better Job!

Why should students go to a fundamentalist university? For about a century, the argument has always been the same. A new marketing campaign by fundamentalist behemoth Bob Jones University shows that the times, they are a’changin.

Pettit on BJU

What is school for? Careers!

To be fair, Bob Jones University has always insisted that its graduates would have the absolute best academic education. Back in its earliest days, founder Bob Jones Sr. insisted that the school would keep children both theologically safe and academically privileged. As he put it in 1928,

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.

Jones’s very next line, though, showed that he understood what parents really wanted in a college. Not only should it keep kids Christian, but it should also prepare them for professions. In his words,

Your son and daughter can get in the Bob Jones College everything that they can get in any school of Liberal Arts.

In 1949, Bob Jones Sr. re-emphasized the point that his school—now a University—would always insist on the very best academics. As he put it,

We have always insisted that an educational institution with the right kind of spiritual standards will maintain the highest possible academic standards.

It’s fair to say, however, that for marketing purposes, the biggest selling point of BJU in the past was its staunch commitment to fundamentalist Protestantism. Other schools may waver, the Bob Joneses have always promised, but BJU would never budge.

If you wanted your child to have a college experience firmly dedicated to fundamentalism and only fundamentalism, the message was, BJU is for you.

In the 1950s, for example, as “fundamentalist” schools were separating from “neo-evangelical” colleges, BJU sold itself as the unapologetic fundamentalist choice. So unapologetically, in fact, that leading evangelical magazines such as Moody Monthly refused to run its advertisements for fear of alienating good evangelical readers.bju canceled MM ad full again good one RIGHT SIDE UP

Today, in contrast, BJU’s President Steven Pettit offers fundamentalist families a very different primary reason for attending his school. Why should they attend BJU? For its unbeatable record of preparing students for high-flying professional careers. BJU students, President Pettit promises, do better at passing med-school exams, accounting exams, nursing exams, and engineering exams.

As Pettit puts it,

If you’re looking for a college worth the investment of your time and money, a college that will prepare you well for future employment, and help you to grow spiritually in the process, Bob Jones University is the place for you. . . . I think you’ll find BJU provides the value you’re looking for.

Why go to Fundamentalist U? To get a better job!

More proof that schools such as Bob Jones University are not quite as different as other colleges and universities as we might think.

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Do I Need to See the Light?

Joel Carpenter is. Mark Noll is. George Marsden is. Ron Numbers is was. John Turner is. John Fea is. I’m not. Does it matter?

Many of the best academic historians of evangelicalism and fundamentalism grew up as part of an evangelical church. Indeed, among academic historians in general, since the 1960s it has been seen as a big plus to have a personal background with the group(s) we study.

It’s not universal. As far as I know, Matthew Sutton didn’t. Molly Worthen didn’t. Tanya Luhrmann didn’t. And if they did, it is not a big part of their public persona. In other words, they write as scholars of evangelical religion, not necessarily as evangelical scholars of evangelical religion.

This is more than just “PC” cliquishness. Historians are sobered and humbled by their own history. Though African American historian WEB DuBois clearly debunked the dominant but false histories of Reconstruction way back in the 1930s, white historians didn’t catch up until the 1960s.

With fundamentalism in particular, non-evangelical historians did a terrible job. Until the 1970s, mainstream historians told us that fundamentalism died after the Scopes Trial of 1925. It had done nothing of the sort, of course. A new generation of evangelical historians such as Ernest Sandeen and George Marsden knew it hadn’t, since they had grown up with it.

Having a background in the world of conservative evangelicalism gives historians an ear for the language and a feel for the connections between groups. When I was stumbling through my graduate work at Wisconsin, for example, my mentor Ron Numbers was able to point me toward super-rare creationist documents from the 1930s. How did he know about them? They were written by his grandfather!

That sort of connection is something we outsiders can never acquire.

As outsiders, though, we non-evangelical historians enjoy some benefits. For us, there are no pre-existing good guys or bad guys. We aren’t embarrassed by the rhetorical excesses of 1920s fundamentalists. They don’t have anything to do with us! We don’t feel a need to demonstrate how different such hellfire preachers are from our own intellectual roots. To us, it’s all archival material.

In short, evangelical historians will always have insights I lack. But they will also have hang-ups and assumptions I’m free from.

Recent discussions on this blog have pointed out the continuing importance of these questions. When I noted the recent visit of Bob Jones University President Steven Pettit to the scenic campus of Wheaton College, I was mostly interested in the turbulent historical relationship between the two schools. At least one commentator, however, accused me of trading in “guesswork and gossip.” I didn’t mean to suggest that BJU was somehow “moving toward neo-evangelicalism.” Many readers within the world of fundamentalism and evangelicalism have very strong feelings about such things. I don’t.

As I plow forward with my new book about conservative evangelical colleges and universities, I need to keep these issues in mind. I need to remind myself that I might be missing out on subtleties of tone or implication that are obvious to those raised within this tradition. I need to watch for connections that are not made explicit to outsiders, but are nevertheless glaringly obvious to those in the know.

Time to Bury the Fundamentalist Hatchet?

Maybe there’s hope for us all. In the world of evangelical higher education, the relationship between fundamentalist Bob Jones University and evangelical Wheaton College has always been a rocky one. According to a story in the Wheaton Record [sorry, not available online], last week BJU president Steve Pettit visited Wheaton’s campus, the first time a Jones leader has done so in a long time. There were smiles all around. Does this mean that the times they are a-changin?

Smiles, everyone, smiles...

Smiles, everyone, smiles…

For those who don’t know their history, last week’s visit may have seemed like no big deal. The leader of one evangelical college visited another evangelical college. What’s the big whoop? As I’m discovering in the research for my new book about the history of conservative evangelical higher education, this détente may signal an important shift in the worlds of fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

Since the beginning in the 1920s, leaders of the two schools fought viciously. BJU founder Bob Jones Sr. accused sitting Wheaton president J. Oliver Buswell of jealousy. Jones wrote,

Dr. Buswell and his field staff working under him were putting out propaganda everywhere that Bob Jones’ credits had no value and that we were misrepresenting facts when we told students that our graduates were admitted to leading graduate schools. . . . [Buswell is a] conceited, frustrated, ambitious, disappointed man.

Ouch. For his part, Buswell retorted that he had never said such things, had never been anything but friendly and helpful to Jones’s new school. What he had done, Buswell admitted, was protest against the sin-friendly policies at Bob Jones College. For those who don’t know their Wheaton history, it may come as a shock to find out that in the early days, Wheaton accused Bob Jones of not being fundamentalist enough. Wheaton’s President Buswell had critiqued Bob Jones’s new school in a review of a book of Jones’s sermons. The sermons themselves were first-rate, Buswell wrote.

But Dr. Jones, let me ask you a question or two. Your own educational program is reeking with theatricals and grand opera, which lead young people, as I know, and as you ought to know, into a worldly life of sin.

Double ouch.

Things never got much better from that point on. Bob Jones Jr., son of the founder and second president of Bob Jones University, told a story of his father’s traveling days. One time, Jones Sr. was on a train with some Wheaton students. One of the students, “trying to be very smart,” asked Jones how Bob Jones College could allow dramatic productions and still call itself fundamentalist. As Bob Jones Jr. explained,

Wheaton used to turn up their self-righteous noses at our drama, but they played inter-collegiate football, which we had had to give up at Bob Jones University because we found the people were betting on our games, littering our campus with whiskey bottles when they came out to see us play; and we found that inter-collegiate athletics were a definite blight to our spiritual lives.

By the 1970s, the relationship turned from one of frigid civility to outright hostility. In 1974, Bob Jones III officially changed the status of Wheaton in BJU’s internal coding system from “Friendly” to “Unfriendly.” Jones’s secretary explained the shift in an internal memo:

The above school or organization has been coded “F”; however, Dr. Bob III, has changed the code now to “U” to make our coding system more consistent. It has been a problem for some people because an organization or school would be coded “F” but we would treat them like “U” people.

From that point on, BJU officials would not even maintain their polite façade of cooperation with Wheaton officials. In 1977, an administrator from Wheaton wrote to Bob Jones III to ask for guidance in establishing a student drama program. He asked if Jones would offer some tips from its long experience with such programs. Through a secretary, Jones informed the Wheaton official, “because of the Neo-Orthodox position of Wheaton College, we are unable to give you the assistance you request.”

Pettit visits wheaton 2

No self-righteous noses here…

Given that protracted and ugly history, President Pettit’s visit to Wheaton’s campus seems revolutionary indeed.

Have things turned a corner? Does President Pettit’s visit really signal a thaw in this long evangelical cold war? Several signs point to yes.

First of all, Pettit is no Jones. For the first time in the history of BJU, the school is not led by a direct descendant of the founder. Maybe that gives Pettit a little more wiggle room to ignore family feuds.

Also, BJU is changing. It now claims accreditation as well as athletic teams. It has apologized for its history of racism.

Wheaton is changing, too. As did BJU in the 1970s and 1980s, Wheaton has tussled with the federal government. Just as BJU did in the 1980s, Wheaton insists that its religious beliefs must give it some leeway when it comes to federal rules.

If Wheaton sees itself pushed a little more out of the mainstream, and Bob Jones University pushes itself a little more toward that mainstream, they might just meet somewhere in the middle. There will always be some jealousy between these two giants of evangelical higher education, but it seems possible that the worst of the fundamentalist feud may have passed.