The Unusable Past: Pietism and Christian Colleges (part 1)

In the second (full) post in this briefly interrupted series, I went through the rather lengthy list of American denominations founded by Pietists, and the colleges and universities those churches went on to establish. Having said nothing in two weeks to develop that history (except to provide a few quick facts about those schools in the present day), it’s high time we get back to the central theme of the series: that one common strategy used by leaders (and historians) of Christian colleges and universities seeking to define a distinctive identity and mission has been to draw upon a “usable past” of a Christian tradition.

So we might expect to find those who write the histories of Pietist-founded Christian colleges, or those who lead them and write their mission documents, looking back to Pietism. Except…

Well, consider a highly unscientific experiment. I spent about five minutes conducting advanced Google searches for the terms “pietism,” “pietist,” or “pietistic,” each time confining the search to the domain name of one of the twenty-four colleges and universities I’ve identified as having Pietist roots.

The median number of hits: 13.

Goodson Chapel
Goodson Chapel - Shenandoah University

For ten of the schools, the result was four or fewer: Salem and Shenandoah (0); Bridgewater, Otterbein, Tabor, and Univ. of La Verne (1); Elmhurst and Lebanon Valley (2); and Albright and McPherson (4).

The five highest numbers came from Elizabethtown (566); Bethel (277); Messiah (259); Ashland (83); and North Park (61).

What generated the hits? Elizabethtown and Messiah’s numbers are inflated by the fact that each hosts a research institute/center devoted (partially) to Pietism studies; Bethel’s by our having hosted a research conference on Pietism in 2009 and by the kind of research and publication that its coordinators (myself included) engage in. Like Bethel, Ashland and North Park are home to seminaries that offer courses on Pietism (or on church history, but with more attention to Pietism than what’s found at most such classes at most seminaries). A few of the schools had “History” pages that alluded to Pietism in their founding churches’ origins.

But only a handful of these schools (Bethel and North Park most directly) mention Pietism within the mission and values statements, self-studies, employment forms, leadership bios, and other documents that might indicate that the Pietist tradition is seen as vital to sustaining and shaping the school’s identity and purpose. The same would largely be true if one reads the histories of these twenty-four colleges and universities: in the vast majority of these cases, Pietism provides no more than an origin, and sometimes even that is disputed or lamented.

So why is it that the historians and leaders of these colleges and universities mostly ignore the role of Pietism in their origins and development, or have decided that that particular aspect of their pasts is unusable for the ongoing project of Christian higher education?

Let me float a few reasons—two today, and then I’ll continue in a follow-up post next week:

1. Secularization

Some of the schools I’ve mentioned are now, at most, nominally Christian. Now, this is a tricky subject: different Christians define “Christian” or “church-related” college differently. I don’t expect that all “Christian colleges” follow the lead of CCCU schools and employ “faith screens” in hiring faculty and/or admitting undergraduate students. (Indeed, as I noted in my “quick facts” place-holder post, very few Pietist colleges belong to the CCCU, or even to the Lilly Fellows Program.) The Catholic and Lutheran models, to name just two, offer compelling examples of how Christian higher education can be enriched by the participation of non-Christian students and faculty.

But if a school makes only the vaguest allusion to Christianity in its mission, values, and objectives documents, or it has only the most tenuous connection to any church or denomination, or if it lacks even a “critical mass” of Christians on its faculty, then it should not be surprising that there is little attention paid to the particularities of Christian origins long since shed. Historian Donald Kraybill observes the phenomenon among the Brethren schools in his Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites, describing a pattern common in the history of American Protestant higher education:

As church-related colleges and universities developed more sophisticated and varied programs, students, faculty, and administration from non-Anabaptist backgrounds began to attend and staff them. This created opportunities for spreading Anabaptist perspectives, but it also encouraged the secularization of some of these institutions. (p. 104)

The Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies
The Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies - Elizabethtown College

But this should not be taken too far. Elizabethtown College, for example: though its online mission documents only briefly allude to a relationship with the COB and don’t seem to express an obviously Christian identity, it has a center for Anabaptist and Pietist studies and offers a minor in those fields, and historical documents explain that the school’s values, even if they’re not communicated to a wider audience as being explicitly Christian, are rooted in a particular manifestation of that faith. Here’s former E-Town religion professor David Eller, in a 2003 pamphlet:

Key values of Elizabethtown College, such as an emphasis on integrity, service, and peacemaking, stem directly from its Brethren heritage. These and other ideals reflect the church’s Anabaptist and Pietist heritage. (p. 7)

Eller goes on to introduce several Brethren distinctives (e.g., the church as a voluntary community; nonconformity; simplicity; personal integrity; peacemaking; service; ecumenicity) and hints at how they have shaped (or even continue to shape) education at Elizabethtown. And as we’ll develop below, other Brethren scholars working in that tradition’s network of colleges and seminaries make even more of the influence of Pietism (in conjunction with Anabaptism).

2. Disentangling Pietism from other traditions

As we’ve discussed earlier on this blog, there’s no such thing as “The Pietist Church.” The classical Pietist ambition is to cultivate “little churches [ecclesiolae] within churches [ecclesia],” not to set up free-standing ecclesiastical structures. So the Pietist is usually participating in a conversation, not delivering a monologue. After years and years of interaction with Baptist, Anabaptist, Wesleyan, Lutheran, Reformed, and other traditions (plus mainline, evangelical, and fundamentalist Protestantism), how does one decide what in a church, or a church-founded school, is from Pietism and what’s not?

Perhaps the most common move has been to name Pietism as one origin, then to decline to disentangle it from other sources. That’s Eller’s approach to the heritage of Elizabethtown (perhaps leaning towards the Anabaptist side).

An even better case is that of Messiah College and its sponsoring denomination, the Brethren in Christ Church. Those who write BIC/Messiah history (e.g., Carlton Wittlinger, Douglas Jacobsen) describe a church founded in the 18th century with Anabaptist and Pietist roots, experiencing Wesleyan-Holiness revival in the 19th en route to founding Messiah (and the now-closed Upland College) in the 20th century, when the BIC and Messiah also interacted with the wider neo-evangelical movement. All of those sources are reflected on Messiah’s website:

The College is committed to an embracing evangelical spirit rooted in the Anabaptist, Pietist and Wesleyan traditions of the Christian Church.

Or here’s how Messiah professor Douglas Jacobsen summarizes the school’s historic identity, explaining why it both fits and doesn’t fit the “Wesleyan/Holiness Tradition” with which it is lumped in Richard Hughes & William Adrian, eds., Models for Christian Higher Education:

Douglas (Jake) Jacobsen
Douglas (Jake) Jacobsen - Messiah College

…the history of [Messiah’s] founding denomination indicates that the religious identity of the school has always been somewhat eclectic and open to new theological input. Wesleyan emphases at Messiah College have existed in a symbiotic, hybrid relationships with other religious ideas and ideals. The most frequently repeated description of the heritage of the college identifies three religious roots: Anabaptism, Pietism, and Wesleyanism. In more recent years, the evangelical movement has also had a deep impact on both the college and its founding denomination. (p. 328)

But past acknowledging this root or influence, Jacobsen and others interested in describing Messiah’s distinctiveness don’t seek to distinguish what’s Pietist (by comparison or contrast to the other sources).

For a counter-example, I was struck by a 2004 article by Donald Miller, former general secretary of the Church of the Brethren and a professor at Manchester College and Bethany Theological Seminary. (Incidentally, running the aforementioned Google search for Bethany, which stands apart from the COB colleges, yielded 78 hits, similar to that for its cousin, Ashland.) Writing for Brethren Life & Thought, Miller acknowledged the dual Pietist-Anabaptist identity of the Brethren (previously discussed here) and sought to identify how each had contributed to nine emphases he saw as distinctive of Brethren higher education. For four, he explicitly identified Pietism as a key source: a commitment to pietistic virtues like love, joy, hospitality, etc. as being central to educational philosophy and educational community; an openness to new evidence and interpretations rooted in the Radical historiography of Pietists like Gottfried Arnold; an emphasis on preparing students for service to others that hearkens back to Francke’s charitable institutions in Halle; and a dedication to ecumenism and global service with roots in Zinzendorf’s Herrnhut.

By contrast, it is striking to see how Pietism is treated in the recent historiography of the Mennonite Brethren and their leading school, Fresno Pacific University. In the work of historian Paul Toews and other MB scholars particularly dedicated to a neo-Anabaptist vision for Fresno Pacific, Pietism’s founding role is minimized and its legacy for Fresno Pacific is a negative one: namely, it is identified with fundamentalism and legalism as key impulses in the school’s founding as a Bible college.

Which takes us into the one of the key ways in which Pietism has been seen to serve as a negative influence on (or obstruction to) the development of Christian higher education in North America. More on that problem in part 2 of this post, coming next week.

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