Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Fundamentalist--Neo-Evangelical Detente?

Bob Jones University President Steven Pettit
In the wake of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1910s and 1920s conservative evangelicals in America divided into two groups. 

This has been a well-chronicled story (see works by George Marsden and Joel Carpenter, especially), but it is worth repeating for those of you who need to get up to speed.
Neo-evangelicals retained a good deal of fundamentalist theology, but rid themselves of the separatism and militant anti-modernism of their immediate ancestors who fought for control of the major Protestant denominations a generation earlier.  Neo-evangelicalism prided itself on "cooperation without compromise." They wanted to engage the world--intellectually and spiritually--from the perspective of their conservative Protestant faith.  Most historians suggest that the neo-evangelical movement was born when the National Association of Evangelicals was established in 1942. 

Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois quickly became the flagship undergraduate college of this movement.

Other conservative Protestants chose to remain in their separatist enclaves and continue the militant battle against liberal theology.  They not only separated from the world, but they also separated from anyone (especially neo-evangelicals) who they believed were "compromising" with the world.  While neo-evangelicals rid themselves of the label "fundamentalist" in the 1940s and 1950s, these Protestants kept the monicker and continued to build a movement around it.

Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina was the flagship undergraduate college of post-1925 American fundamentalism.

Interesting fact:  Billy Graham spent his first year of college at Bob Jones College (when it was located in Cleveland, Tennessee).  He left the college because he could not handle the rules.  He eventually made his way to Wheaton.

As Adam Laats notes at his blog I Love You But You're Going to Hell, Bob Jones and Wheaton College have not always been on the best of terms.  But a recent visit to Wheaton by the president of Bob Jones may be a sign that hatchets have been buried.

Here is a taste of Laat's post:

...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.
I encourage you to read Laat's entire post.  He has uncovered some very interesting history on the relationship between these two schools.  I don't think we can make too much of BJU president Steven Pettit's visit to Wheaton, but it is worth contextualizing.
Here is my question:  Does this meeting tell us more about Wheaton or Bob Jones?