A College’s Denomination: An Exercise in Contrasts (Part 2)

Several weeks ago, I teased a series I planned to write on the Baptist General Conference during the Vietnam years. On Wednesday, I introduced that series. Today’s post was intended as the first of the three parts, but after a few hours of work on that post, I realised that there were too many background problems to cover first. This post is my attempt to dispatch those issues.
If you haven’t yet done so, please read my introduction to this series before continuing.

In my introduction to this series, I noted that I hope to accomplish two things: first, I want to put the Standard in dialogue with some of the secondary sources I’ve been reading, and second, I want to build a (potential) contrast to Bethel’s wartime campus.

Cover of Bogaski's book

Bogaski’s 2014 monograph

But first, I think it’s worth considering how the BGC fit into the fabric of mid-century American Protestantism. Aside from the ever-important task of situating any given historical topic into its broader literature, doing so in this instance is a helpful way to make sense of the issues that animated Conference life. American protestant reaction to the war was roughly predictable based on which tradition – mainline, evangelical, or fundamentalist – a particular Christian organization belonged to.

While the BGC was certainly no mainline denomination theologically, it’s less clear whether their theology fits more within a fundamentalist or an evangelical paradigm. And as George Bogaski notes in the introduction to his 2014 American Protestants and the Debate over the Vietnam War“there is still a failure of historians to adequately identify what is an evangelical and what is a fundamentalist.” A detailed discussion of the distinctions between the two Christianities would be out of place, so I’ve decided to simply use definitions – or, more accurately, identifying characteristics – formulated by one of the foremost scholars of American evangelicalism, George Marsden, now an professor emeritus at Notre Dame.

In a 1975 book chapter, Marsden sees the fundamentalists of the sixties as:

a self-conscious new [movement for evangelism] out of the original [early 20th century] fundamentalist tradition … marked by a continued militant separatism. They were mostly dispensationalists and maintained a steadfast refusal to cooperate with apostates … Some of their leading evangelists often preached anticommunism and American patriotism.

Andrew Pratt, whose 1988 thesis on evangelical responses to the Vietnam War informs much of this section, adds that fundamentalists rejected intra-Christian organizations such as the National Council of Churches, seeing that group as tainted by liberal theology. In an approach that would do much to shape fundamentalist reactions to Vietnam, Pratt concludes that “separatist fundamentalists advocated almost total identification between evangelical faith and american patriotism” (83).

In contrast, Marsden describes mid-century evangelicalism as a group of

theologically conservative protestants with some ties to the fundamentalist heritage who … maintained separate organizations but did not insist on them … opposed liberalism in theology but dropped militancy from their identity … reevaluated their theological heritage, dropping dispensationalism though not premillennialism and allowing debate on inerrancy … tolerated some doctrinal differences as evidenced in their willingness to accept Pentecostals into their larger fellowship.

Where fundamentalists rejected intra-Christian organizations, evangelicals tentatively embraced them, not by joining established institutions such as the NCC, but by forming their own. (For example, the National Association of Evangelicals was founded in 1942) Evangelicals also rejected the fundamentalist’s antipathy towards a social application of the gospel.

George Marsden - Regent University

George Marsden – Regent University

Unlike fundamentalists, for whom Pratt sees faith and patriotism as almost totally inseparable, evangelicals were much more critical in evaluating the relationship between their faith and citizenship. For Pratt, “conservative evangelicals held the two together in what was at times an uneasy tension.”

The BGC certainly exhibited that tension throughout the 1960s. Judged on Marsden and Pratt’s identifying characteristics – which largely revolve around questions of theology, and as Bogaski puts it, “different conceptions of the world and the responsibilities of Christians in and to [it]” (77-78) – the BGC was an evangelical denomination that contained clear, albeit marginal expressions of fundamentalist heritage. That combination, on the balance, places the BGC firmly on the conservative end of the evangelical spectrum.

That much is clear from the Standard, whose pages show distinctive signs of an evangelical ethos. The Standard’s regular and positive references to Billy Graham – an evangelical figurehead – strongly suggest an evangelical identification over fundamentalism. Likewise, the editorial board regularly printed small articles that implicitly or explicitly rejected common fundamentalist positions. A small April 1965 feature demonstrates that latter type of refutation. Part of a recurring series titled, “Not Worth Quoting,” the excerpt suggests that the Standard’s editorial board, at least, was concerned that the gospel be applied to social problems:

…many fundamentalists will ask why we worry about social evils. Many have already told me that “the fire in our house of humanity is out of control and so, rather than dissipate our energies in pouring water on the fire we must bend all efforts toward rescuing what furniture we can.” Like the Thessalonians they would abandon all pursuits save evangelism and waiting for the Lord’s return.

James Reeb - Wikimedia Commons

James Reeb – Wikimedia Commons

That said, while the Standard evinces a dominant evangelical tone, at certain points a fundamentalist heritage shows through, particularly among the constituency (as opposed to the editorial board). Anti-Catholicism, although common among even evangelicals at the time, appears to a degree that suggests fundamentalist leanings. Likewise, although the Standard’s editorial voice (and most contributors) give a clear defense of the equality of all races, there is a certain reticence to move beyond affirmation to action. And when I come across statements like following, I wonder to what extent unease with the civil rights movements simmered in the Conference churches:

Rumors are always dangerous, usually because they are so unreliable. We have been hearing rumors for some time about the liberal tendency among some of the Bethel staff members. After reading the aforementioned article [a Bethel faculty statement of support for civil rights after a minister in the Selma March was beaten to death], it is difficult to disregard the rumors. — Willa Johnson (June 17, 1965 Standard)

If Johnson’s indictment of Bethel as “liberal” doesn’t today evoke the sort of ghastliness she intended, consider Bogaski’s contention that liberalism formed the third person of the “unholy trinity” fundamentalists (Bogaski uses the term “conservative evangelicals,” but this in his typology is more redolent of Marsden’s fundamentalists) savagely opposed: Communism, Catholicism, and Liberalism (83).

Even so, such expression seem to be on the fringe of BGC rhetoric and doesn’t seriously challenge the notion that the the BGC was solidly, conservatively, evangelical.

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Why have I devoted over a dozen paragraphs to proving this point? Because: knowing which group of American Protestants the BGC falls into makes it possible to compare the Conference to other denominations and institutions of its basic political-theological persuasion. And given the confused and inconsistent manner in which the labels “separatist fundamentalist,” “fundamentalist,” “conservative evangelical,” and “evangelical” have been used among even the few sources I’ve brought together here, clarity in the terms is essential.

That clarity is all the more essential because the BGC resolutely refuses to conform to the expected patterns of response displayed by each of the three groups the literature commonly discusses: mainliners, fundamentalists, and evangelicals. In fact, in trying to make the BGC ‘fit’ into the typologies of Bogaski and Pratt, I’ve even questioned my characterization of the Conference as evangelical. The BGC was, at turns, fundamentalist, evangelical, and even mainline in tone, argument, and action.

Indeed, although such classifications are usually made on the basis of historical identity, theology, and stance towards the broader culture (and those are exactly the identifiers I have used here), changing the area of evaluation might yield a very different conclusion. If evaluated on their response to the Vietnam War alone, I could envision a reasonably strong argument for the BGC being a fundamentalist or a mainline denomination – a rather surprising finding. Certainly, much more than the denominations Bogaski and Pratt focus on, the BGC displayed a diversity of responses to the war.

I’m hardly an expert on American religious history, but I think I am reasonably good at sensing differences between denominational and institution ethos. And the BGC ‘smells’ odd to me. In researching this series, I’ve been consistently surprised as I’ve found (in turns) these mid-century Baptists to be distasteful (in their anti-Catholicism, border-line irrational suspicion of liberalism, and sometimes reactionary beliefs) and deeply admirable.

That latter response happened most recently when I finished reading a somewhat eye-rolling invective against youth rebellion and turned to an article entitled “Politics is for You.” Given the polarized nature of contemporary American politics – and particularly politics in evangelical culture – I was very nearly floored to read the author’s advice for Christians in politics:

• Study issues and candidates in order to be sure of the facts. Come to conclusions in the light of Christian principles and values, Christian ends and Christian means.

• Join the political party which the Christian thinks is nearest right on most important issues, and then work within the party to strengthen its position where he believes it to be right, or change it where he believes it to be wrong.

The next article I read had the following to say:

All American citizens are entitled to believe politically as they choose. Each individual Christian should be an informed and active citizen. But Christians are not entitled to identify the Gospel of Jesus Christ with any partisan political program.

The democratic party is not dedicated to the establishment of the Kingdom of God, and the Republican party is not conducted according to the Sermon on the Mount. Americans for Democratic Action is not a Christian organization and the John Birch Society is not entitled to claim God’s approval or the church’s sanction on its activities.

Democrats, Republicans, left-wingers, right-wingers – these are passing political phenomena. As they come and go the churches are called to be God’s instruments in the midst of them, proclaiming the redemptive Gospel of Jesus Christ and His judgement on a sinful world. With such a mission, no church can afford to damage its witness by submitting to the exploitation of power hungry politicians, whatever brand they wear. (Is the Church a Donkey or An Elephant? – February 17, 1964)

Needless to say, I did not expect such refreshing, clear-headed, even-handed, and non-partisan advice to appear in the Standard – a mid-century baptist publication. The next article in my queue was one by J. Edgar Hoover entitled “Red Goals and Communist Ideals.” One of the most charming lines:

[Communist man] is truly an alarming monster, human in physical form, but in practice a cynically godless and immoral machine.

A study in opposites indeed.

The last year the BGC was the Swedish Baptist General Conference - Bethel University Digital Library

The last year the BGC was the Swedish Baptist General Conference – Bethel University Digital Library

And I think there are good reasons for that, and for the difficulty in fitting the BGC’s responses to Vietnam into the pictures that Pratt and Bogaski have painted. For one, most of the denominations and institutions those authors focus on were not, in the mid-sixties, immigrant denominations. In the case of our Conference baptists, the Swedish Baptist General Conference had only become the Baptist General Conference in 1947, and the Standard had only ceased publishing a Swedish-language supplement in the mid-fifties. Such a constituency suggests that the BGC may have been less wedded to American life and culture than the groups Pratt studied. (Indeed, Pratt’s dissertation is not just on evangelical response to Vietnam; he’s also concerned with how evangelicals accommodated themselves to American society and civic religion.)

Secondly, the BGC was a baptist denominationWhile Pratt’s account in particular ignores that distinction (Bogaski includes that aspect in his analysis), I think it’s an essential point in explaining the uniqueness of the Conference, not least because Conference baptists were very aware of their heritage. In that respect, baptist identity links with the nature of the Conference as an immigrant church. Swedish Baptists, after all, largely immigrated to America for the religious freedom the Swedish Lutheran state church denied them in the old country.

Awareness of their own heritage comes through most clearly when the Conference was faced with the decision of whether to accept federal funds to expand Bethel’s physical plant. Although several lines of argument were recurrent, it was a historical argument that most stood out to me. Reverend William Johnson, in a May 24, 1965 letter, gives a good example:

The first option – taking federal money – is contrary to Baptist belief and practice. The maximum separation between church and state has historically proven to be the best way to guarantee religious liberty.

I suspect that historic baptist concerns such as church-state separation and an independent polity would have also mitigated against the degree of support other evangelicals afforded the U.S. government.

Thirdly, I am convinced that the pietist heritage of the BGC allowed the Conference to respond to the war with more diversity than seen in other theologically evangelical denominations. I certainly know less about pietism than any of the other explanations I’ve offered, but as a student at Bethel, I’m at least supposed to be able to recognize the phenomenon. And I think it’s there, in the pages of the Standard. 

Philipp Jakob Spener, the seventeenth century "father of piestism" - Wikimedia Commons

Philipp Jakob Spener, the seventeenth century “father of pietism” – Wikimedia Commons

One of the impulses most associated with pietism is its irenic nature (irenic is an adjective meaning aiming for peace and reconciliation). And while that impulse was undoubtedly constrained by the social bounds of the times, I think irenicism goes a long way toward explaining how the BGC could be both fundamentalist and mainline in its response to the Vietnam War.

Finally, I suspect that studying the BGC in the mid-sixties is difficult because we live on the near side of the 1980s, the rise of the Moral Majority, the Christian Right, and the Culture Wars. In reading the Standard, I often found that my mental heuristics – shaped by the aforementioned events – were wrong, or at least very inaccurate. (Note my reaction to the political advice featured above. Why did the word baptist predispose me to expect a right-wing position? That kind of mental priming is an example of a heuristic – a mental shortcut that enables us to make snap judgments on the basis of past experience.)

It’s a problem I suspect is present in both Pratt and Bogaski’s books as well, who I feel both occasionally stray into stereotype, slotting the groups they study into uncomfortably contemporary categories of theological and political thought. It’s exactly the kind of thing I’ve had to check myself from doing. As easy as it would be to rely on the categories bequeathed to us by the Christian Right (evangelical = Republican, etc), doing so would paper over the real diversity and complexity that are displayed in the Baptist General Conference in the Vietnam era.

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Having said that, we’ll find out later why I still think “conservative evangelical” is the best label to describe the Conference. Join me next time as I begin (this time in truth!) exploring the BGC during Vietnam, starting with the years 1964-1967.

>>> Read Part 3 here.
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4 comments

  1. […] the Baptist General Conference, suggesting that its immigrant, Baptist, and Pietist roots make it hard to pin down in the context of post-WWII Protestantism: “…the BGC resolutely refuses to conform to […]

  2. […] the difficulty of categorizing the Baptist General Conference ca. the 1960s, see this recent “Bethel at War” post by Fletcher […]

  3. Rick mcnamara · · Reply

    A number of my favorite profs at bethel took a great deal of heat from various quarters, both on and off campus, for supporting Kennedy in 1960.

  4. […] introducing the series and laying out some goals, I begin with a reflection on the changes within evangelical culture since the mid 1960s, noting especially how the political ethos among evangelicals was broader and […]

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