The Usable Past of Christian Colleges

Today I’m starting a new series that builds on a talk I gave at Bethel last spring. It takes up the thesis that Pietism has a “usable past” capable of distinctively and beneficially shaping Christian higher education.

Pages and pages have been written on Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Anabaptist, and other Christian traditions and how their histories sustain scholarship and education. Pietism, if mentioned at all, is usually treated as a disposable origin or a source of anti-intellectual resistance to the project of higher learning. Why is this? Are there exceptions?

But first, what is a “usable past”?

Van Wyck Brooks
Van Wyck Brooks, as painted by John Butler Yeats (poet William's father)

While widely used among historians, the phrase actually goes back to a literary critic named Van Wyck Brooks (in a 1918 essay in The Dial). Lamenting what he saw as the domination of academe by scholars who had blithely accommodated a “commercial philosophy” and privileged “the practical life” to the detriment of “the ideal” and “the creative,” Brooks opined:

The present is a void, and the American writer floats in that void because the past that survives in the common mind of the present is a past without living value. But is this the only possible past? If we need another past so badly, is it inconceivable that we might discover one, that we might even invent one?

Though not a historian, Brooks characterized the discoverable (or recoverable) past as being no less inspiring than one invented by the novelist: “The past is an inexhaustible storehouse of apt attitudes and adaptable ideals; it opens of itself at the touch of desire; it yields up, now this treasure, now that, to anyone who comes to it armed with a capacity for personal choices.”

Among historians, then, “the usable past” suggests an approach to historical study that focuses on contemporary application (“What’s valuable for today about the past?”). So it’s often treated warily by those of us who ask, “What’s wrong with studying history for the sheer joy of studying history?” Does it have to be “useful”? Can it even be so, or is the past so alien to the present that it’s nigh impossible to draw “treasure” from it that can assist us today?

These are important questions (and framed far more eloquently by other historians than this sloppy gloss can convey), but it’s important to understand how powerful the “usable past” ideal has been to those who care deeply about Christian higher education and scholarship.

In a secular (or post-secular) age, they understandably look back to pre-secularization models, hoping that the past might “[open] of itself” and provide wisdom for those stuck in Brooks’ present “void.”

Mark Noll
Mark Noll - University of Notre Dame

It’s worth pointing out here that, in the last twenty-five years, no discipline has contributed more to the conversation about Christian higher education and scholarship than history. Any decent bibliography on those subjects would have to include at least two books by Mark Noll — plus, very likely, the one he just published, two more by George Marsden, and others by William Ringenberg, Joel Carpenter and Kenneth Shipps, Mark Schwehn, C. John Sommerville, Ron Wells, Andrea Sterk, and two more historians I’ll mention shortly: Richard Hughes and Douglas Jacobsen.

Now, such writers have had to take care not to go overboard either (a) glorifying a past in which established (and often anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic) Protestantism exercised enormous power and influence, or (b) overstating the triumph of secularization as this educational Christendom collapsed. For example, the late Mennonite historian and then-president of Messiah College Rodney Sawatsky agreed that “Learning from the past is a necessary part of our conversation [about Christian scholarship]” but also cautioned, “Even though controlled by churches and privileging Christian language, so-called Christian colleges and universities of the past were in many ways profoundly un-Christian”(Scholarship & Christian Faith, p. 8; he notes discrimination against African-Americans as one example of this). And he warned against taking the “declension” thesis too far: “In fact, the overwhelming reality today [2004] is that both Christian colleges and Christian scholarship are thriving” (5).

Sawatsky pointed to the striking set of Christian college “success stories” documented by Pepperdine historian Richard Hughes and co-editor William Adrian in Models for Christian Higher Education. Tellingly, Hughes introduced that collection by arguing that “to the extent that these institutions seek to structure their work around a Christian mission at all, they inevitably must draw upon their historic Christian identities or church connections” (p. 4). This is very much an appeal to the “usable past,” going so far as to imply that failing to utilize an institution’s history would jeopardize the success and integrity of its “Christian mission.”

Sattler Hall at Fresno Pacific
Sattler Hall (named after the famous Anabaptist martyr) - Fresno Pacific College (now University)

As one example of how this appeal to a “usable past” shows up quite explicitly in the Hughes/Adrian collection, see Paul Toews’ account of the drafting of the mid-1960s “Fresno Pacific College Idea,” a document that converted a fundamentalist Bible college into an Christian liberal arts college in the “Anabaptist-Mennonite” tradition. The “Idea” statement (which stressed descriptors like communal, experimental, and prophetic) had been drafted by neo-Anabaptist professors inspired by Harold Bender’s 1944 speech, “The Anabaptist Vision” (see my earlier post on this speech), which, in Toews’ words, “articulated a usable past that could also become a means for defining the present and shaping the future” (229).

Hughes went on to write a small book encouraging Christian scholars to draw on multiple historic Christian traditions as they seek to understand their vocation, a theme that’s central to the book edited by Messiah historian Douglas Jacobsen and his wife, Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, from whose introduction I quoted Sawatsky earlier. (Jacobsen contributed the chapter on Messiah College in the Hughes/Adrian collection.) Which, if anything, only accentuates the “usable past” ideal as described by Brooks, since it suggests that Christian scholars/educators can find value in histories far removed from their own tradition.

Indeed, that’s been my experience. Coming to work at a Christian college after a thoroughly secular education, it’s been enriching to encounter Reformed, Catholic, Lutheran, Anabaptist, and other models of higher education.

S. Richey Kamm
S. Richey Kamm - Wheaton College Archives

At the same time, it’s been dismaying and confusing to find that even ecumenists like Hughes and the Jacobsens seem to find no “usable past” in my own tradition: Pietism. For example, the few times that it is even hinted at in the Hughes/Adrian collection, Pietism is almost always treated as synonymous with fundamentalism, legalism, and anti-intellectualism (by Paul Toews, but also, indirectly, in Mark Granquist’s history of St. Olaf College, which presented a kind of Lutheran model at odds with the Pietist one seen in the early history of Augsburg College.) The one exception to the rule is Michael Hamilton and James Mathisen’s history of Wheaton College, which is quite admiring of political historian Richey Kamm, a key figure in Wheaton’s mid-20th century curriculum revision and a Free Methodist “with deep sympathies for pietism” (274).

We’ll take up that linkage of Pietism to anti-intellectualism (addressed at least three times already in our ongoing preview of The Pietist Impulse in Christianity) in the third post of this new series. But next time, we’ll first survey the wide array of institutions of higher learning founded by American denominations rooted in Pietism.

Read the next post in this series>>


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