The last fundamentalist empire died yesterday in Lynchburg, Virginia

Falwell and Falwell

Male authoritarian figures presiding over regional empires were an important part of 20th-century Protestant fundamentalism. I began to think historically about these empires during divinity school when I first read William Trollinger’s book God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism.

For a long time I thought I would write a similar book about Carl McIntire, a South Jersey fundamentalist who was able to expand his empire across the nation through radio. (See Paul Matzko’s book The Radio Right). In 2001, while I was doing a post-doctoral fellowship at Valparaiso University, I drove to Trollinger’s house in Bluffton, Ohio to talk with him about fundamentalist empires and learn more about how he used questionnaires in his research. (Do you remember this, Bill?). I also used questionnaires (and oral history interviews) as I started work on a potential McIntire biography, but Philip Vickers Fithian kept calling me back to the eighteenth-century. I have a few boxes of research on my McIntire project sitting under a table in my home office. Some day I may open the boxes and get back to work.

Who were these fundamentalist emperors? The Bob Jones (and Bob Jones Jr.) empire was based at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina and it was sustained through a host of fundamentalist Christian schools. John R. Rice started out in Wheaton, Illinois and eventually moved to Murfressboro, Tennessee. His empire revolved around evangelism and The Sword of Lord, the most widely-read fundamentalist periodical of the age. McIntire’s empire was complex. It included radio, colleges and seminaries, hotel conference centers, and a popular newspaper called The Christian Beacon. Earlier fundamentalist emperors included Riley,  J. Frank Norris, and Mark Matthews.

Most of these fundamentalists taught the doctrine of biblical separation. Drawing upon 2 Corinthians 6:17 (“come our from them and be ye separate, says the Lord”), they preached personal holiness and the rejection of “worldly” activities such as movie-going, dancing, card-playing, alcohol use, and smoking cigarettes. They guarded their understanding of biblical orthodoxy like 17th-century Massachusetts Puritans. They were especially concerned with defending the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Jesus, and a dispensational view of the “last days.” Historian George Marsden has described them as “militant” in their defense of these doctrines.

When mainline Protestant denominations strayed from fundamentalist orthodoxy, these leaders led their followers out of the denominations. Some of them created their own sectarian denominations–many of them personality driven. Others started independent congregations. In both cases, these emperors presided over their empires with little accountability. They were their own religious authorities or, as they might have put it, their authority came directly from God.

Separation was one of the ways these leaders kept their empires under control.  Sometimes they even separated from other fundamentalist or evangelical Christians who did not separate from liberal theologians. This was often referred to as “second-degree separation.” (Many of these fundamentalist emperors broke with Billy Graham when they learned the evangelist was working with Protestant mainline churches and pastors during his mass crusades).

Jerry Falwell Sr., the founder of Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, came of age in this era of independent empire builders. He started his ministry as a young pastor connected to John R. Rice’s empire. Falwell once described Rice as a father figure and mentor. Rice provided Falwell with networking opportunities and the young pastor used these connections to build his fiefdom in Lynchburg, Virginia. When Falwell was trying to get Liberty Baptist College (later Liberty University) on the map, he asked Rice for the names and addresses of those on his massive Sword of the Lord mailing list.

By the mid-1980s, Falwell ruled over one of the nation’s most recognizable fundamentalist empires. He continued to serve as the pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church. Liberty University was growing. And he was leading the Moral Majority in a fight to restore America to it supposedly Christian roots. Falwell Sr. was the king of Lynchburg, Virginia and America’s most well-known culture warrior. And, unlike many other fundamentalist emperors, he became a fixture on the national scene. When older fundamentalist leaders like the Bob Jones Jr. and McIntire criticized Falwell for working with non-fundamentalists–Catholics, Mormons, and others–who shared his moral concerns, Falwell ignored them.

The older fundamentalists eventually died off. Rice’s empire had no clear successor. A member of the Jones family no longer serves as president of Bob Jones University. At the end of his life Carl McIntire was preaching to a few people in his living room in Collingswood, New Jersey.  Even Falwell, the author of a 1981 book titled The Fundamentalist Phenomenon, abandoned the label “fundamentalism.”

But Jerry Falwell had two sons. After his death in 2007, Jonathan Falwell took over his father’s post at Thomas Road Baptist Church and Jerry Falwell Jr. became the president of Liberty University.

Jerry Falwell Jr. did not posses his father’s gift for communication. That gift seems to have gone to Jonathan. But Jonathan was not a culture warrior. Nor did Jerry Jr. seem drawn to his father’s moral crusades. He was a lawyer and a businessman. He would use these skills to lift Liberty out of financial debt and turn it into the largest and wealthiest Christian university in the world.

In the end, a successful fundamentalist empire requires a leader who can do four things:

  1. Defend doctrinal orthodoxy.
  2. Cultivate a culture of personal holiness bordering on legalism.
  3. Rule with a strong authoritarian personality.
  4. Go on the attack against outside threats from theological and political liberals, communists, socialists, and other forces of secularization.

In the case of Jerry Falwell Jr., it seems as if the limits of his skill set clashed with profound changes in American culture that made the world a very different place from the one in which his father ruled. Let’s take these one-by-one:

By all accounts, Falwell was not interested in theology, the defense of evangelical doctrine, or even the meaning of Christian higher education. Unlike his father, he did not have to stand behind a pulpit every Sunday morning and deliver a sermon. He did not have to shepherd a flock. He left the spiritual life of Liberty University to others. Falwell Jr. ran Liberty University like a business. He seemed unconcerned with integrating faith and leadership and never engaged with what has become over the last couple of decades a robust and vibrant conversation about the purpose of church-related higher education. He never considered bringing Liberty into the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), a clear sign that separatism and the independent spirit of fundamentalism are hard to shake once they have been embedded in an institution.

Almost every person I know who left Liberty University after a semester or two has complained about the strict rules. The rules are also a remnant of Liberty’s fundamentalist past. We can criticize the legalism of American fundamentalism, but this call to personal holiness generally served as a moral check on fundamentalist emperors. As conservative evangelical leaders became more “culturally engaged,” and began to loosen their moral grip on their students and congregations, they were faced with new temptations. In the last several years, it became clear that Liberty’s rules did not apply to Jerry Falwell Jr. But as we learned this week, his libertine spirit could not escape the ghosts of fundamentalism, particularly the movement’s longstanding commitment to personal holiness and codes of behavior.

If Falwell Jr. inherited anything from his father, it was the old fundamentalist propensity for authoritarian leadership. From most reports he tolerated no dissent. But we live in different times. 20th-century fundamentalist authoritarianism is no longer acceptable in an age of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, corrupt CEOs, and shared governance in higher education.

Finally, Falwell Jr. tried to be a good culture warrior. His efforts at living up to his father’s legacy on this front partly explains his support for Trump. But Jerry Jr. couldn’t pull it off like his father did. Again, he just didn’t have the skill set. Moreover, he could no longer get away with saying the kinds of things about race, social justice movements, sexual ethics, and the LGBTQ community thae Falwell Sr. always ranted about while seated on his Lynchburg throne.

Perhaps Jerry Falwell Jr. was the last fundamentalist emperor.

A Southern Baptist Seminary Professor Reflects on the SBC Sexual Abuse Scandal

SOutheastern

Last week we did a post on the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News reporting on a major sexual abuse scandal in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Over at First Things, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary administrator Keith Whitfield challenges his fellow Southern Baptists to take a hard look at what that convention has become.  Here is a taste:

The past twelve months have been a heart-rending season, with a handful of dismissals surrounding sexual misconduct and one for the mishandling of cases of sexual misconduct. Now another shoe has dropped: The Houston Chronicle published three articles—“Abuse of Faith,” “Offend, Then Repeat,” and “Preying on Teens”—on more than 700 abuse cases that occurred in Southern Baptist churches over the past 20 years. The banner graphic is a chilling mosaic of mug shots of Southern Baptists who were convicted or pleaded guilty to sexual abuse, faces that represent only a portion of the 220 known perpetrators since 1998.

It is devastating to realize that many of these accounts have been known for years. These survivors and many others have attempted to tell their stories, but their voices have been silenced. At times, their pleas have been ignored. In other instances, the accusations have been handled “in house” to protect the reputations of churches and leaders. Some survivors were even encouraged to “forgive and forget” those who victimized them. These responses are unacceptable, reflect complicity in the abuse of the vulnerable, and provide a place for predators.

As Southern Baptists, we have to come to face reality: These reports show a systemic problem spanning decades of neglect in handling abuse cases in our local churches and through our cooperative structures. While some of these same issues may be present in churches outside the SBC, this is the moment the Lord has appointed for us to deal with them in our cooperative family of churches. The SBC faces a moral crisis as big (if not bigger) than the theological crisis we faced over the “battle for the Bible” in the 1970s–1980s. The theological crisis called us to protect the faith; this challenge calls us to live it. 

I believe there are five key systemic reasons for our negligence that allowed for the disturbing scope of the abuses outlined in the Chronicle‘s report. 

Read the entire piece here.  It is a heartfelt reflection from an SBC insider that is worth your time.

I just have one issue with the piece, and I think it sheds more light on the current state of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Whitfield writes: “The SBC faces a moral crisis as big (if not bigger) than the theological crisis we faced over the ‘battle for the Bible’ in the 1970s-1980s.”  I am bothered by Whitfield’s decision to equate (or nearly equate) the sexual abuse of women in the convention with the fight over the inerrancy of the Bible.  The former is a moral crisis.  The later was a fundamentalist attempt to use one evangelical interpretation of the Bible as a means to win political control of a Protestant denomination.  There is no comparison.

Is There An Evangelical Mainstream?

Cedarville University

My post on the changes taking place at Cedarville University got a lot of attention yesterday.

Here is how I concluded the post:

I had actually thought that Cedarville was moving closer to the evangelical mainstream, but it now looks like the school is returning to its fundamentalist Baptist roots.

I wrote this because Cedarville has recently tightened its doctrinal statement, required faculty to endorse a complementarian position as it relates to the role of men and women in society, and stopped male students from taking courses with female Bible professors. When I was in college in the 1980s, Cedarville was a member of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC), a fundamentalist Baptist denomination that was the product of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920 and 1930s.  How do I know this?  I wrote my M.A. thesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on separatist fundamentalists in America.  I had a chapter on Ralph Ketcham, one of the founders of the GARBC.  More recently the GARBC kicked Cedarville out of the denomination because of the university’s growing ties with the Southern Baptist Church.  Sarah Pulliam Bailey has done a nice job of explaining this history here.

When I arrived in central Pennsylvania I met a lot of conservative evangelicals who were sending their kids to Cedarville. Many of these families attended my local evangelical church.  I thus got the impression that the university had moved closer to the evangelical mainstream.  (Of course I was assuming that my Evangelical Free Church was part of that mainstream).  In other words Cedarville seemed to be leaving its fundamentalist Baptist background behind and becoming more like Wheaton College or Gordon College or Westmont College.  (Bailey’s piece also mentions Taylor University in Indiana).

But  in the last few years a new administration has taken the helm at Cedarville.  Influenced by the conservative movement in the Southern Baptist Convention, this administration votes Republican, upholds a strict view of Biblical inerrancy, does not permit women to teach the Bible, and suppresses all student dissent.  Faculty have either been ousted or left voluntarily.  The entire philosophy department was eliminated.  Conservative Southern Baptists have assumed most of the leadership roles on the campus.

When I asked if these moves placed Cedarville outside of the “evangelical mainstream,” my friend Kurt Peterson, who has taught history at two different evangelical colleges and is a former George Marsden student at Notre Dame,  wondered if it was actually Cedarville’s president and board that now represented the so-called “evangelical mainstream.” Peterson concluded: “Perhaps Cedarville’s future enrollment will serve as one piece of evidence in this discussion.”

This is a great observation.  Perhaps Wheaton, Westmont, Gordon, Messiah, Bethel, Eastern, Seattle Pacific, and Taylor no longer represent the evangelical mainstream.  Perhaps the evangelical mainstream today is best represented by Cedarville or Liberty University or Bob Jones or Moody Bible Institute.  Or can we even think about the evangelical mainstream in terms of Christian colleges when most evangelicals don’t attend school affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities?

After I wrote this post and some good discussion got underway on my Facebook page, I was talking to a colleague who wondered if it is still possible to talk about an “evangelical mainstream” in the first place.  Is “evangelicalism” even a useful umbrella term today?  Is the movement so fragmented that evangelical unity is impossible.  He mentioned that in the 1950s there was an evangelical consensus (or neo-evangelical consensus) built around Billy Graham and Christianity Today and the National Association of Evangelicalism, but we no longer live in an American culture characterized by consensus.  The godless communists are gone, or at least they no longer pose a threat to the American way of life.

So what do you think?

Does Cedarville University and the decisions they have made on the theological, political and gender fronts make them part of the evangelical mainstream?  Have they come to define this mainstream?

Is there an American evangelical mainstream today?

To prime the pump a bit, let me throw out a possible definition of the evangelical mainstream. Please do not hold me to this, I am just brainstorming for the purpose of discussion.

The members of today’s evangelical mainstream:

  • Believe in the saving power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and can testify to a born-again experience.
  • Believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible and maybe even the inerrancy of the Bible (although they are not hard core about the inerrancy issue like they were in during the “Battle for the Bible” years of the 1970s and 1980s)
  • Are split generationally over gay marriage.  Baby boomers and older Gen Xers oppose gay marriage.  Younger evangelicals are more in favor of it.
  • Are divided over whether or not women can serve as pastors or teach men.
  • Are anti-abortion
  • Attend a megachurch where the preaching is contemporary and praise songs are sung with a worship band.
  • Are concerned about big government unless, of course, government actions support their agenda
  • Are tolerant of those who believe in the saving power of the gospel but have different political, social and theological views from what I have described above. But their tolerance only goes so far.
  • Are increasingly more interested in issues related to social justice and the environment, but believe these issues are subordinate to the proclamation of the good news of the Gospel as the primary means of changing the world.
I am sure I could add other things to this list.

What do you think?

David Dockery Named 15th President of Trinity International University

As some of you know, I have a graduate degree from this institution.  At first glance it may seem odd that a conservative Southern Baptist from Alabama would take the reigns of a northern evangelical institution with Scandinavian roots, but Dockery is actually a perfect fit.  Northern evangelicals and conservative Southern Baptists have bonded, over the last thirty years or so, around the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and, to a lesser extent, Calvinism.  I am not sure if Dockery is a Calvinist, but if he was not an inerrantist he would not have been appointed to the Trinity presidency.

When I was in seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I remember few Southern Baptist students or professors.  When Southern Baptist church historian Tom Nettles arrived during my second year at TEDS, I thought he was a strange creature from another planet.  He talked with a heavy southern accent and had us read people like Robert Lewis Dabney.  As a Jersey kid who was transplanted to Chicagoland for seminary, I don’t think I had ever met a Southern Baptist before I took Nettles’s course on Jonathan Edwards.  (When I spoke at a Southern Baptist Church in Houston last summer it was the first time I had ever set foot in such a church).

But after I graduated from TEDS in 1992, I recall that several professors left Deerfield for Southern Baptist Seminary (Nettles, Bruce Ware, and Mark Seifrid come to mind).  In addition, some of the earliest graduates of the TEDS Ph.D program started to populate the faculties of Southern Baptist seminaries and colleges (Steve Wellum, Andreas Kostenberger, and Robert Caldwell come to mind).  Meanwhile, Southern Baptists started to embrace the legacy of neo-evangelical theologians like Carl F.H. Henry, especially in the area of biblical authority.  (I took Henry’s course on American evangelicalism at TEDS).

This Southern Baptist–Northern Evangelical alliance has now been solidified with the appointment of Dockery.  I think he is the first non-Evangelical Free Church president of Trinity.

Here is a taste of the press release:

Following 18 years of transformational leadership at Union University, Trinity International University’s Board of Regents unanimously selected David S. Dockery to become its 15th president.
“We are overwhelmingly grateful to God for the invitation from the Trinity Board to serve the students, staff, faculty, and various institutional constituencies in the days ahead,” Dockery said. “We are humbled by the confidence that the Board has communicated to us in this call to guide Trinity forward in the days and years to come.”
Robert Kleinschmidt, chairman of the TIU Board of Regents, said he was excited for Dockery and his wife Lanese to join the TIU family.
“Dr. Dockery brings a great wealth of experience and knowledge about higher education from his years at Union University,” Kleinschmidt said. “I know he will be a great leader for Trinity and look forward to the tasks ahead.”
Located in Deerfield, Ill., Trinity International University consists of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, one of the most highly respected evangelical institutions in the country; Trinity College, a liberal-arts based institution; Trinity Graduate School, with programs in such fields as biomedical ethics, leadership, and education; and Trinity Law School, located in Santa Ana, Calif. Total enrollment for the university is about 2,800.
“What a joy it will be to seek to reflect the influence and leadership of 20th century evangelical giants like Kenneth Kantzer and Carl Henry, who invested so much at Trinity,” Dockery said.
“Their emphasis on serious and rigorous academics shaped and informed by the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the full truthfulness of Holy Scripture, international missions, cultural renewal and engagement, transdenominational and transcontinental evangelical cooperation and service to the global church will, we trust, continue to characterize all aspects of Trinity’s life and work.”
During Dockery’s 18-year tenure as Union University president, the institution saw 16 straight years of increasing enrollment and more than doubled in size, growing from a fall enrollment of 1,972 to 4,288 in 2013. Donors increased from 1,600 to 6,000 annually. The budget expanded from $18 million to more than $90 million per year, and the university’s net assets grew from less than $40 million to $120 million.

History at the Evangelical Theological Society

I have never been to the annual meeting of The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS).  This year it is being held in Baltimore from November 19-21.  The theme is biblical authority.  Traditionally the ETS meets a few days before the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion(AAR).  I just learned this today.

Since I may need to go to Baltimore for the AAR (Baker Academic wants to shoot some promotional video for Why Study History?), I thought I would check out the ETS program to see if any papers caught my eye.  A few did.  And here they are:

John Wilsey, “American Pietas: Considering the Theological Problem of American Exceptionalism”

Gary Steward, “The Development of American Evangelicalism and the American Revolution: Insights from Reformed Political Thought”

Peter Enns, “Abandoning Inerrancy is Necessary for Evangelical Integrity”

Kevin Vanhoozer, “Augustinian Inerrancy: A Well-Versed Account”

John Woodbridge “The Biblical Inerrancy Historiography: A House of Cards Ready to Tumble”

Todd Mangum, “The Co-Development of Inerrancy and Dispensational Premillennialism in Early Fundamentalism”

Miles Mullin II, “When Inerrancy Failed: Twentieth-Century Evangelicals and Race in America”

Nathan Finn, “John R. Rice, Bob Jones Jr, and the ‘Mechanical Dictation’ Controversy: Finalizing the Fracturing of Independent Fundamentalism”

Gregory A. Wills, “Southern Baptists, Southern Seminary, and the Battle over Inerrancy”

Richard Pierard, “Problems Besetting the Evangelical Left: Why the ‘Moral Minority’ Could Not Become a Majority: Observations of a Participant Observer.”

Chris Gehrz, “The Global Reflex: An International Historian Appraises David Swartz’s Moral Minority.”

Douglas Sweeney, “Jonathan Edwards on the Character of Scritpture (and Its Readers).

A couple of observations after reading this program:

1.  I did not realize that the whole debate over biblical inerrancy that raged within evangelicalism in the 1970s and 1980s has not disappeared, although it looks like a lot of evangelical church historians have chosen to examine this debate as a historical phenomenon rather than as a theological issue.

2.  I was really struck by just how white and male the ETS is.