Wheaton College’s Search for a Usable Past

d67ac-wheatonI really appreciate Aaron Griffith’s attempt to show that Wheaton College’s decision to fire Larycia Hawkins ignores the school’s 19th-century social justice roots.

Griffiths writes:

Wheaton’s brand of evangelicalism cannot be understood without considering its history. Wheaton was founded in 1860 by its first president, Jonathan Blanchard who was active in causes like abolition of slavery and the defense of Indian rights. Blanchard stressed the Christian call to social justice, the need to bring the blessings of the kingdom of God to earth.

The college framed itself along these lines as well. As historian Donald Dayton has shown, Wheaton’s motto, “For Christ and His Kingdom,” is best understood as a social statement flowing out of this evangelical reform impulse: “what ‘John the Baptist and the Savior meant when they preached the ‘kingdom of God’ was ‘a perfect state of society.’ ” Though Blanchard said we should never shut out “the influences and motives of eternity,” he meant to cultivate God’s kingdom here and now.

Wheaton moved in a different direction in the early 20th century. The school tracked with the broader fundamentalist movement that emerged at this time as a reaction to various modernist threats, like liberal theology.

President Charles Blanchard (Jonathan’s son) was instrumental in engineering this shift. Charles was very active in fundamentalist consolidation efforts, even drafting the doctrinal statement of the 1919 World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. He also helped bring a new ethical ethos to Wheaton, stressing individual purity instead of social justice.

In the early 20th century, dancing, card playing, and theater attendance replaced slavery and mistreatment of Indians as Wheaton’s moral bugaboos. Focus on the fundamentals unfortunately meant that social concerns were often swept aside, and, as religion scholar John Schmalzbauer has shown, fundamentalists tied to Wheaton propounded their own brands of Christian bigotry (in this case anti-Semitism).

With this history in mind, Hawkins’s activism on behalf of Muslims begins to look a lot less like an aberration and more in keeping with the original vision of the college. The antebellum evangelical tradition Hawkins drew upon was one primarily concerned with upholding human dignity and advocating for those on the margins. Muslims facing discrimination and threats of violence in present-day American life surely fit that description.

Griffiths may be right when he argues that Hawkins’s decision to stand with persecuted Muslims in America is fitting with 19th-century Wheaton. (Although I am not sure that Jonathan Blanchard’s activism would have extended to non-Christian religions).  But his historical argument lacks punch because it implies that the present-day manifestation of Wheaton College actually takes those 19th-century roots seriously.

I don’t know Wheaton College well, but I would guess that fundamentalism and, subsequently mid-century neo-evangelicalism, offer a more usable past for the administration, trustees, and (most) alumni than the older Jonathan Blanchard social justice years. In this sense, the decision to terminate Hawkins is fitting with the only history of Wheaton  College that the administration is willing to acknowledge.

There is a lesson in change over time in there somewhere.