A College’s Denomination: The BGC and the Vietnam War, 1968-1969 (Part 4)

This is part four of a five part series. If you haven’t yet done so, you may find it helpful to read parts onetwo, and three of this series for context.

Today, we’ll look at the years 1968-69 in the Baptist General Conference. Those two years saw sustained, often violent protest in America’s campuses and cities – and indeed, across the world. Nineteen sixty-eight in particular, would be a watershed year in U.S. history, one which would see support for American involvement in Vietnam finally tip into disapproval. The year began with the Tet Offensive, a coordinated attack that took South Vietnamese and American forces completely by surprise. Although the offensive would be repelled, the public was shocked by television images of embattled U.S. troops retreating through the streets of Saigon. Then in March, U.S. troops massacred around four hundred Vietnamese civilians in a small hamlet called My Lai. When the killings became public in November 1969, they provoked widespread outrage. In March, president Johnson announced he would not seek reelection, saying that he wanted his successor could pursue a new path towards ending the war. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, and in June, Robert Kennedy was slain in Los Angeles. Finally, August saw the Democratic National Convention in Chicago rent in two ways: first, by the splitting of the Democratic party into embittered pro- and anti-war factions inside the convention hall, and second, by scenes of police violence outside the premises. And that leaves aside the series of national protests against the war that followed in rapid succession in 1969.

So how did the BGC react to these bloody and destabilizing years? In my last post, I left off at the end of 1967 after tracing how the small hints of debate over war policy the Standard had printed through 1965 finally broke into a heated debate on the morality and acceptability of the Vietnam War. In contrast, the most engaging intra-denominational debate of 1968-69 was the future of the Sunday evening church service – a ritual the Standard’s editor Donald Anderson was loathe to see disappear. That charged topic produced two Anderson editorials and ten substantial letters from readers. (The closest thing to real debate over the war was a February 24, 1969 editorial in which Anderson offered an extended – and unfocused – reflection on Senator Mark Hatfield’s proposal to end the draft. Anderson eventually defended conscientious objection, but suggested that those who refused to share in the responsibilities of citizenship should not reap the benefits of American society. There were no responses.)

That pattern was typical of these two years; while the world burned, Conference Baptists retreated from debating the war. In its place, the Standard evinced a renewed and significantly intensified emphasis on evangelism at home and on missions abroad. And as they did in 1965-67, Conference chaplains played a key role in mediating the war to domestic readers. If anything, the coverage and plaudits heaped upon chaplains increased in ’68-69. Yet its decision to ignore the war also forced a change in how the Conference constructed the role of the chaplain. Whereas in previous years chaplains had been characterized more as missionaries than as part of the American military apparatus, the domestication of the chaplain intensified in 1968-69 as the language and imagery of the domestic church invaded the military chaplaincy.

Standard, March 11, 1968 - Bethel University Digital Library

Standard, March 11, 1968 – Bethel University Digital Library

In early 1968, chaplains were still seen as warriors, not on a physical plane, but in the spiritual realm. In the special chaplain-themed March 11, 1968 Standard, newly-elected general secretary of the Conference Lloyd Dahlquist introduced the issue with an editorial on the role of the chaplain. Dahlquist characterized the chaplaincy as a “highly specialized ministry for Jesus Christ.” Writing “the chaplain must be militant without being a militarist, for he is a fighter, fighting the good fight of faith. His equipment for battle is the Sword of the Spirit, not death-dealing but life-giving,” Dahlquist continued the reasoning of earlier Conference figures who had seen chaplains as spiritual shock troops in the front lines against communism.

Sunday School Choir at Fort Ord, April 19, 1969 – Bethel University Digital Library

But that kind of rhetoric began to change toward the end of the year. In what can only be characterized as an ‘invasion of the domestic,’ by the end of 1968, the chaplaincy had been recast in a very different light. Instead of images of chaplains posing with tanks and artillery pieces, articles from the end of 1968 were illustrated with scenes redolent of the American neighborhood church. While coverage of chaplains’ work in Vietnam continued apace, more emphasis was given to the work of the stateside chaplains who were stationed at Air Force bases and military and chaplaincy schools. It’s not fair to suggest that the armed forced were no longer seen as essentially military in nature; more accurately, the way the Conference understood the military was increasingly filtered through the issues that animated domestic Conference life – primarily a renewed emphasis on evangelism and church building (we’ll discuss this in detail later).

Sunday School scenes at Fort Ord, April 19, 1969 – Bethel University Digital Library

A September 23, 1968 feature on Conference chaplain Robert Anderson demonstrates how military subjects began to look more like domestic Sunday School features. Anderson was stationed at Fort Ord, a military base located in central California. Anderson’s responsibilities included organizing the adult Christian Education and child Sunday School programs on the Fort. The piece was liberally illustrated with pictures that, aside from the occasional uniformed teacher, could be drawn from the history of any mid-century, suburban protestant church.

Edward Said: literary theorist and public intellectual - Wikimedia Commons

Edward Said: literary theorist and public intellectual – Wikimedia Commons

And there are other examples too: a January 27, 1969 article treated cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs much like civilian college students at Bethel College; a June 2, 1969 piece profiled a chaplain stationed at an Appalachian training camp for cooks, clerks, mechanics, and radio operators; and a December 1, 1969 article covered a group of Conference chaplains stationed at the United States Army Chaplain School — all articles that focus on the domestic and the commonplace in contrast to the exotic and oriental (this would be a good place to put the BGC’s depictions and language of Vietnam as Other in dialogue with ideas from Edward Said’s classic book, Orientalism — perhaps a post for another time). The central problems that the articles focus on — evangelism, program-building, and the ever-difficult to describe concern with the ‘advance of the denomination’s mission’ — are exactly the kinds of issues the Standard increasingly focused on in the civilian sphere of life.

This domestication of the military was something seen in other conservative evangelical denominations (although its emergence in the BGC pre-dated other denominations for several years). As Bogaski writes:

As the war came to an end, conservative evangelicals washed their hands of it rather than ponder the lessons learned like the mainline denominations. A survey of publications and proceedings during this period reveals very limited discussions on the closing of the war. Conservative evangelicals distracted themselves with the domestic. Surveying the problems faced by the church and the nation, congregants offered prayers of anguish about the breakdown of decency and the advance of pornography with nary a statement about Vietnam. (American Protestants and the Debate Over Vietnam, 148 — emphasis mine)

March 11, 1968 cover of the Standard - Bethel University Digital Library

March 11, 1968 cover of the Standard – Bethel University Digital Library

While his last sentence previews something I’ll pick up on towards the end of this post, I want to focus for now on another of Bogaski’s ideas. Writing of conservative evangelicals who viewed winning in Vietnam as a geopolitical necessity, Bogaski concludes that “faced with a war gone awry… these churchmen quieted their speech … They replaced the positive descriptions of soldiers with negative ones which focused entirely on their spirituality.” That quietism is something we’ve already seen in the BGC — at least when it came to debating the merits of the war. At this point, I’m more interested in Bogaski’s conclusion that some denominations’ descriptions of American soldiers shifted in response to the floundering war effort. And while the BGC was never quite as effusive in praise of the military as, for example, the Southern Baptist Bogaski studied, I think the evidence suggests that the BGC too, shifted its assessment of the U.S. military.

While it’s true that the BGC never saw the military as an unalloyed force for good (there had always been an acknowledgement that the armed forces were a challenging environment to faith), it seems clear that at least by early 1968, the Conference had completed a shift in the language it used to describe military life, if not in toto, in emphasis. The military was now a dangerous place for the Christian faithful, full of temptations and populated by drug users and the promiscuous. In the March 11 Standard, chaplain Lawrence Haworth was “being generous” when he wrote that he “doubt[s] seriously that 20 per cent of our young men take a solid stand for their beliefs during their military service.” Two months later, a fellow chaplain advised young men to:

“make sure you know yourselves and your standards before you come into the service. Life is no “sweat” if you have already determined your moral values. But if you go into the service with a vacuum you will be sucked down the tubes!” (Chaplain John H. Reed, May 20, 1968 Standard).

Baptism in a river near Khe Sanh, Vietnam - July 15, 1968 Standard - Bethel University Digital Library

Baptism in a river near Khe Sanh, Vietnam – July 15, 1968 Standard – Bethel University Digital Library

I don’t think it’s coincidental that as the Conference moved toward a more negative assessment of the moral aspects of military life, Standard editors urged the adoption of new forms of liturgy for servicemen. Termed a “Commissioning Service,” the first appearance of this new liturgy was in July 1966, when Gunnar Hoglund wrote up the suggestions of a Conference chaplain. While Hoglund revealed the reasoning behind the service was that American G.I.s were just as much missionaries as civilians, some of the language of the liturgy prefaces the linguistic shift that was completed by 1968. One of the questions the officiant was to pose to young men entering the service was “as a sacred trust will you do your best to maintain a warm and strong spiritual life?” The response? “I will” (Standard July 4, 1966). That same ceremony was reiterated in December of 1967.

By 1968, among the suggestions a Conference author had for pastors of departing servicemen were to: “Be specific regarding the facts of life and the temptations they will face in the military’s anonymous society,” and to “Present them with reading and devotional material that will strengthen their spiritual lives” (Standard, March 11, 1968). Pastors in the Conference thus sought to inoculate their men against the temptations that would await them in the services.

With the war going poorly, a military full of “the lost,” and domestic unrest and violence near the breaking point — at least in the BGC’s estimation — it makes perfect sense that the Conference would react to the domestic and the military with the exact same prescription: missions, evangelism, and the expansion and development of the denominational apparatus — especially churches and Christian education programs.

Evangelist, June 2, 1969 Standard - Bethel University Digital Library

Evangelist, June 2, 1969 Standard – Bethel University Digital Library

Albert Bergfalk, the secretary for Foreign Missions, established the dominant rhetoric in the Conference in January 1968 when he declared:

There is current[ly] [sic] today an underlying feeling that it is not quite proper to have missionaries in foreign countries. … Let’s square up with the compass! We’ve got a glorious right to send missionaries to other countries. And we expect these missionaries to “interfere” with the way things are being done — to change things. (Standard, January 29, 1968)

That tone — equal parts ebullient and trenchant — appears with renewed vigor in 1968-69. Certainly, the conference had been focused on missions and evangelism in the prior years, but the level of intensity with which the Conference pursued its mandate to save the lost is somewhat startling. A fairly representative table of contents from the November 4, 1968 Standard shows seven feature articles. With titles like “Why MISSION:ETHIOPIA?,” “Qualities Related to Effective Missionary Service,” “Don’t Overlook Missionary Education in Your Christian Education Program,” and “Ways to Make Youth Week Great,” five of them are explicitly concerned with evangelism.

Evangelistic tract, September 22, 1969 Standard - Bethel University Digital Library

Evangelistic tract, September 22, 1969 Standard – Bethel University Digital Library

I don’t have much to say on the Conference’s domestic evangelistic efforts beyond noting that they were all-pervasive and clearly attempted to engage the larger picture of social unrest — albeit with limits. Using a tactic I’ve written about before, the Standard sought to make use of the national unrest for evangelistic purposes. The September 22, 1969 Standard contained an eighteen page clip-out evangelistic tract that made extensive use of social unrest to motivate a faith commitment. Titled “Insecurity, frustration, fear, violence — dear God… do something!,” the tract was liberally illustrated with images from Vietnam, protests, riots, and newspaper headlines trumpeting the various disasters of the age.  The opening statement (“I find my world/ is bits and pieces/ with no thread/ of meaning/ To tie it together./ What can I do?”) anticipates the answer: “you can be sure that you are a Christian!”

The answer to the endless suffering in Southeast Asia was exactly the same: “you can be sure that you are a Christian!” And the couriers for that message were the same as they had been in 1964-1967: chaplains.

Services in Vietnam, April 22, 1968 Standard - Bethel University Digital Library

Services in Vietnam, April 22, 1968 Standard – Bethel University Digital Library

The chaplaincy continued to function as missionaries to both Vietnamese and servicemen in 1968-69, as they had in earlier years. Because I have argued above that the military was domesticated during this period, it may seem contradictory to also see a continued and highly visible role for military chaplains. I don’t think that sort of reasoning is helpful here, for two reasons. First, as I’ve already mentioned, the kinds of chaplain activities the Standard covered shifted from the battlefield in Vietnam to the Sunday School classroom on military bases in Colorado and the Ozarks. And second, as the Conference increasingly viewed the military as a fruitful missions field full of ‘the lost’ and concomitantly renewed its domestic evangelism, I see the continuing coverage of the missionary activities of military chaplains as less related to the Vietnam War than to the Conference’s concern for domestic issues.

Nineteen sixty-eight began with the Tet Offensive, and although the surprise attack would severely blunt American support for the war, Conference chaplains saw it as an opportunity. Chaplain Lawrence Haworth (with what comes very close to distasteful enthusiasm) wrote of the attacks:

The Viet Cong Tet offensive made things more difficult, but brought many opportunities as well. Memorial services for men killed and counseling with the wounded have been good opportunities to present the gospel, without, of course, trying to cram something down the throat of a captive audience. I have also had a hand in distributing clothing, toys, and candy sent from the U.S. for the Vietnamese at the local orphanage and the leprosarium. (Standard, August 26, 1968)

A chaplains talks with sailors aboard the USS Henry County, October 21, 1968 – Bethel University Digital Library

At the close of the year, chaplain Roger Bradley wrote to the Standard to inform its readership he was “filled with gratitude to God for the harvest of 17 converts to Christ this past quarter, 16 baptisms, 13 of which were Vietnamese Christians” (November 18, 1968). Those numbers might have satisfied Bradley, but other chaplains were not as pleased with the results of their evangelism. Berge Hoogasian was one who felt that his work was not amounting to anything of significance in light of the enormity of the task. Writing in the style of the jeremiad, Hoogasian acknowledged that although chapel attendance was up

… it was a drop in the bucket compared with the number of people we have on our base. Nearly 70 souls had acknowledged Christ as Savior; another 60 had rededicated their lives — or so they had claimed. But where was the solid spiritual vitality that must emerge from real Christians? Who was out banging on footlockers and bunks? Who was inviting others to Christ?” (Standard, October 7, 1968)

That feeling was shared by at least one other chaplain. Lawrence Haworth, evidently a prolific writer, reflected on the difficulties of military life for his faith. His letter is an excellent articulation of Bogaski’s claim that conservative evangelicals in this period “replaced the positive descriptions of soldiers with negative ones which focused entirely on their spirituality:”

One of the most interesting and difficult aspects of the chaplaincy is the matter of living with the secular world to whom one is trying to minister. This is the only ministry I can think of where one must eat, sleep, play and live with the world and yet not be “of the world.” It becomes very taxing spiritually at times. At Vinh Long I have a very fine Christian group to work with which is refreshing. Here there is only minimal interest in spiritual things. Before coming here, I had expected that everywhere in Vietnam men would be flocking to hear the gospel. But that is not usually the case. (Standard, March 11, 1968, emphasis mine)

Services in Vietnam, March 11, 1968 - Bethel University Digital Library

Services in Vietnam, March 11, 1968 – Bethel University Digital Library

It was because of the “only minimal interest in spiritual things” that servicemen evinced (or at least, because the BGC perceived only minimal interest) that the military became a renewed grounds for evangelism. Chaplain Robert Barker argued that “because over 90 per cent of out men have little or no religious background” that “chaplains should be recognized as missionaries” by their churches (Standard, August 26, 1968). That particular mission field was crucial to the expansion of the faith and the denomination because, as chaplain Roger Bradley argued at the end of 1969, the military represented “precisely the age group” which had most abandoned the local church, leaving a lack of “adequate male leadership.” Bradley continued:

When one considers what this age-bracket represents both to our churches and our country, [the military] becomes one of the truly challenging mission fields of the world today! … [The chaplain] is firmly involved in mission, pure and simple — and on its highest plane. His work is truly worthy of the prayers of children, young people and adults alike. For it is the work of God! (Standard, December 29, 1969)

A chaplain counsels servicemen - October 21, 1968 Standard - Bethel University Digital Library

A chaplain counsels servicemen – October 21, 1968 Standard – Bethel University Digital Library

I wonder, given the rather exultant tone of Bradley’s (et al) article, whether the missionary role of chaplains was broadly recognized among the laity of the Conference. Its here that the weaknesses of using a source like the Standard are most manifest — the magazine was, after all, controlled by a small group of the Conference leadership. While I’ve found no evidence of reader letters contesting the role of the chaplain as laid out by the Standard, that hardly proves the role was accepted. And I do find it somewhat puzzling why so many self-justificatory pieces by chaplains were printed in the Standard.

I’ll give the last word in this section to chaplain Calvin Fernlund. The chaplain’s letter of June 2, 1969 describes in detail his method of evangelism among the servicemen he ministered to:

We begin with a summary of general Christian beliefs … I am continually amazed at how little churchgoing Protestants know about the Bible and so we have to lay some sort of basic groundwork. We then become quite specific and focus attention on the person of Jesus Christ, using the great film The Power of the Resurrection. … This is followed up with a presentation of Campus Crusade’s “Four Spiritual Laws,” concluding with a decision appeal. Only the Lord knows how many men make genuine decisions for Christ, but we know that at least these men attending the retreat now know how to become his followers.

- thejesussociety.com

– thejesussociety.com

For those  familiar with contemporary evangelical culture, particularly its conservative expressions, Fernlund’s method should seem familiar, if slightly dated. The use of a multimedia presentation, of film, and of Campus Crusade materials suggests a familial relation between the BGC of 1969 and the conservative American evangelicalism of the past several decades. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. And in spite of my earlier care to distinguish where the BGC of the ’60s was strikingly different from modern evangelicalism, as this series has moved forward in time, those differences have noticeably lessened.

But before I describe that change in the next post, I want to explore briefly how the BGC reacted to and was influenced by the rise the “hippie” subculture, and to a lesser extent, the protest culture. (The latter is especially interesting; I carefully chose the words “protest culture” over “antiwar protest culture” because that’s how the BGC came to speak of the antiwar movement. In keeping with 1968-69’s minimization of pro- and anti-war debate, the Conference shifted from speaking of anti-war protest to simply “protest.”)

Reaching back into the 1964-67 period and continuing into early 1969, the BGC roundly condemned the hippie culture. Director of Youth Work and Bethel alumnus Gunnar Hoglund had particularly harsh words for hippies”

…the bearded, unkempt hippies, boisterously protesting everything from Vietnam to sex standards, so disorderly and violent that at times the police must use night sticks and tear gas to disperse them. They are the ones who say, “to [hell] with authority of all kinds,” who demand equal voice with the school board in running a school and whose unbathed bodies provoke contempt by all reasonable people.” (Standard, January 15, 1968)

Almost exactly a year later, Hoglund would reprise his favorite topic, writing:

…hippies and yippies are, in our judgment, nothing more than a sick part of a sick society. They are first class phonies. Declaring themselves to be critics of social hypocrisy, they are themselves the worst hypocrites around. Pretending to be mature adults, they dread nothing more than the disciplines of responsible adulthood. They say they are non-conformist, but hippies are radically conformist in dress, conduct, thought and odor — and any assembly of them on the street resembles nothing so much as a flock of dumb sheep.” (Standard, January 13, 1969)

Hippies - vietnamartwork.com

Hippies – vietnamartwork.com

Besides his charming olfactory objection to the hippies, the tone of Hoglund’s critiques mirrors that offered by Sword of the Lord contributor and fundamentalist Tom Anderson, who began an invective against nonconformists so: “Dear spoiled, deluded, arrogant, brainwashed brats and know-it-alls: I am sick of you” (Pratt, 221). And while I haven’t taken the time to closely examine broader evangelical reaction to hippies, I suspect that both Hoglund and Anderson’s were fairly typical (if colourful) objections.

Protest movements were likewise denounced within the Conference. In a July 1, 1968 article, G. Aiken Taylor made a connection between communism and protesters, both of which he claimed were concerned with converting the whole person. While “liberal church[men]” were “fully committed to confrontation, to the demonstration, to the picket line, to the pressure tactic,” Taylor suggested that conservative clergy were collaborating with the enemy when they partook in such things as the fair labor practice movement. Taylor concluded “the Christian approach to social problems is through conversion, not through coercion!”

Yet Conference attitudes towards hippies and protesters began to change in the second third of 1969. In a joint letter, Richard Johnson and John Anderson of Illinois refused to denounce the protest movement as lawless and indeed, saw a role for the Christian in protest movements:

Furthermore, we think it terribly presumptuous to imply that those who rebel in our society are rebelling against “Christian principles.” Since when is poverty a Christian principle? Or compassionless affluence? Or ghettoism? Or racial discrimination? Or the loss of human lives in a prolonged war? Or the impersonalism of the modern university? Are these Christian principles? Despite the fact of some obvious excesses, no one is entitled to condemn the generation involved in rebelling against these social evils. (Standard, February 24, 1969)

And at the beginning of the year, Bethel president Carl Lundquist wrote that Founder’s Week that year would feature speakers on the theme of “Christian Witness in Revolutionary Times.” By the April 7, 1969 issue, their speeches were transcribed and published. In language redolent of the still-inchoate Jesus People movement, one of the speakers told of his efforts to establish an inner-city church:

We decided that what God wanted us to do was to open a gospel night club or an every night church. I don’t know what it is, except to call it His Place. … We have free coffee, free Kool-Aid … We are open every night of the week. We are open during the daytime for counseling … Every night there are from three to thirty who give their lives to Christ. During the past ten months there have been 2,600 young people and adults that have been saved in His Place on the Strip.

July 28, 1969 Standard - Bethel University Digital Library

July 28, 1969 Standard – Bethel University Digital Library

By July, the Standard had co-opted and subverted the iconography of the hippie aesthetic to promote an evangelistic message, much as the Conference had done with other issues before. The “groovy” cover of the July 28, 1969 Standard shows young people with guitars, sitting on the grass and singing, all over a headline proclaiming, “Their Cause is Christ.”

While I suspect that Conference leaders like Gunnar Hoglund still would have disapproved of the hippie movement, the use of recognizably hippie-themed iconography in the Standard suggests that Conference leaders were willing to appropriate the movement as an evangelistic tool. At the end of the year, protest language too, was used to lightly introduce an article on effective Christian Education teaching methods: “Do You Have a “Student Revolt” Against Ineffective Teaching?” (Standard, December 2, 1968).

In the next (and last) post of this series, I’ll wrap up how the BGC responded to Vietnam. And I’ll also double-back to pick up on the trend I hinted at in the post — the emergence of a new-found concern for social issues such as marriage and divorce, abortion, science and faith, and biblical inerrancy; in short, the calling cards of the coming Moral Majority. 
>>> Read Part 5 here
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4 comments

  1. “While it’s true that the BGC never saw the military as an unalloyed force for good…. The military was now a dangerous place for the Christian faithful, full of temptations and populated by drug users and the promiscuous.” This dovetails with a theme that kept popping up last week in my own research, Fletcher. I’ll write about it later this week.

  2. George Bogaski · · Reply

    Very interesting read. Always glad to have the perspective of another denomination in the discussion.

  3. Thanks for reading, and for the comment, George. As I hope the posts indicate, I found your book very helpful to my research. It’s a valuable contribution to the literature.

  4. […] Conference over the war. But by 1968-69 (covered in part four), that debate has been eclipsed by a renewed focus on the domestic. That ‘Sunday School’ ethos pervaded even the chaplaincy, which saw increasing focus […]

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