The Unusable Past: Pietism and Christian Colleges (part 2)

Today we continue to consider why, for most historians and leaders of colleges and universities founded by Pietist denominations, Pietism seems not to provide a “usable past,” a living history capable of sustaining a distinctive mission and identity.

In the first part of this post, I suggested, first, that this might be a byproduct of the larger phenomenon of secularization, that schools with only a nominal Christian identity or church tie might not be that interested in any historic Christian tradition, Pietist or otherwise. Second, I brought up the challenge of disentangling Pietism from the other traditions (Anabaptist, Wesleyan, Lutheran, evangelical, etc.) with which it has historically interacted in Europe and North America.

Today, I want to consider how Pietism has been viewed not simply as irrelevant, bygone, or hard to discern independent from other sources, but as an obstacle or detriment to the development of higher education. Then at the end, I’ll point to one university/church that has found Pietism and learning to be generally congenial partners.

This post is largely unchanged from two sections of the original talk on this subject that I gave at Bethel University last spring, both because this was a part of that paper that was fairly well-developed and because I’ve had a busy week and don’t want to push this off any further.

Gottfried Arnold
Gottfried Arnold

The most significant impediment to educators finding a usable past in Pietism is the tradition’s undeniable tendency to anti-intellectualism. As an extreme example, let’s return to the history of the Church of the Brethren (COB). In 1831 and again in 1857 the Annual Meeting of the German Baptist Brethren prohibited college education, which was viewed as an especially prideful way of conforming to the pattern of the world. They heeded the example of one of their Radical Pietist forebears, Gottfried Arnold, who had abandoned his professorship at the University of Giessen because he found that “it was impossible to be a real Christian in such a secular and pagan atmosphere. University education corrupted youths and led to vanity.” When more progressive members of the movement founded Ashland College in 1878, it helped provoke a schism among the Brethren. (Though conservatives soon founded their own institutions of higher learning.)

Meanwhile, the United Brethren (click here for a review of these small denominations influenced by Pietism), most of whom eventually found their way into what is now the United Methodist Church, demonstrated the same problem, according to the Methodist pastor and ethicist Michael Cartwright. The strongly pietistic UB eventually founded several institutions of higher learning, including what is now known as the University of Indianapolis, where Cartwright is a dean and former department chair. But in a 2008 article, he stresses that “Pietist ambivalence about the effects of education was not easily overcome, however demonstrable the benefits might be.” Institutions like Cartwright’s came into being only after decades of debate, a pattern he finds typical of Pietist groups:

Pietistic movements in Europe [sic] and North American contexts have tended to regard the prospect of higher education with wariness, and this ambivalence has marked the institutions of higher education that they have founded in different ways. The Oxford scholar/Anglican priest/“Methodist” poet Charles Wesley could write about “uniting the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety,” but American Methodists no less than the United Brethren would struggle in each generation with the tension between the need for a trained clergy and the intellectual conflictedness of the Pietist religious heritage about how to unite “head” and “heart.” (Methodist History, vol. 46, pp. 212, 217)

This head-heart tension is common to the historiography of many American Pietists, including Scandinavian-American immigrants like the Norwegian Lutherans and Swedish Mission Covenanters who founded Augsburg College and North Park University, respectively. But in the historiography of the latter school, we find examples of Pietist emphases being combined with a commitment to liberal learning and intellectual rigor.

Any history of North Park begins with its founder and longtime president, David Nyvall. His treatment by Covenant historians makes for an instructive contrast with historian Carl Chrislock’s assessment of Nyvall’s contemporary, Augsburg president Georg Sverdrup.

While acknowledging that Sverdrup (like Nyvall) “had an admirable command of the tools of scholarship” who nonetheless rejected the elitism of European education, Chrislock fears that his “assault on prevailing systems of higher education… left the impression that a narrow anti-intellectualism dominated Augsburg’s academic policy.” As a result, while their ‘humanistic’ rivals at St. Olaf College were lauded for academic excellence, Chrislock contends that it was hard for Sverdrup and the other Augsburg Pietists to shake the perception that their program “tended to substitute piety for scholarship” (Chrislock, From Fjord to Freeway, p. 51, 57, 61-62).

David Nyvall
David Nyvall - Covenant Archives

Meanwhile, Covenant historian Scott Erickson lauds David Nyvall for standing up to those in the Mission Covenant who wanted North Park (NP) to be a ‘simple preacher’s school’. Instead, Nyvall insisted that a strong general education program rooted in the liberal arts went hand in hand with traditional Pietist concerns. Writes Erickson in his dissertation, “Nyvall worked hard to calm the fears of Covenanters who were anxious that knowledge and reason were finding too strong of an emphasis at the expense of faith, simple gospel preaching, or conversion as ‘the one thing needful.’ He argued strongly that the Christian was capable of interpreting faith while also stressing concerns of intellectual development” (Erickson, “David Nyvall and the Shape of an Immigrant Church,” pp. 263-64).

In 1901 — with North Park seminary only ten years old and its undergraduate curriculum nothing but a newborn two-year program — Nyvall gave what would be his defining speech. His rather grandiose ambitions revealed again his refusal to pit intellectual achievement and Christian piety against each other:

To see this our beloved school the university of the world, to hear in these halls the echo of applauds from every quarter of the globe for thoughts nobly thought, for words nobly spoken, and for arts nobly executed, and this would be very small satisfaction to my great ambition… to plant here and here see growing and developed to full strength and power an institution which may deserve to bear the name of a mission school, a school where the gospel of Christ is the acknowledged standard of culture, fostering a school life whose very pulse is the love of Christ and of all those whom he loves, making this school a center from which radiates to all ends of the world the light of Christ’s truth, and the warmth of Christ’s love, and the beauty of Christ’s character. (quoted in Erickson, p. 267)

For the longtime dean of the NP history department, Zenos Hawkinson, the existence of Pietists like Nyvall belied the tradition’s supposed anti-intellectualism. As I’ve written in explanation of this blog’s title, Hawkinson held up Nyvall as but one example of what he called the “Pietist schoolman,” in the line of the university-trained educator and philanthropist August Hermann Francke:

…the Pietist schoolman as a type necessarily reflected the character of Pietism as a Christian movement. The Pietist schoolman was usually a university graduate profoundly discontent with the state of the church and determined to see it reformed. He was mainline in theological conviction but hungry and thirsty for living faith experienced in the company of others. He tended to place less emphasis on creed than on Bible, less on erudition than on pastoral care, less on the authority than on the responsibility of the pastoral office. The Pietist schoolman was urgent about his responsibility to the children of common people. Francke loved to say that his duty was twofold: God’s glory and neighbor’s good. (Hawkinson, “The Pietist Schoolman,” in Amicus Dei, ed. Philip J. Anderson, p. 99)

Hawkinson placed Nyvall’s student Karl A. Olsson, the Covenant historian and North Park president from 1959-1970, in the same line of Pietist schoolmen. For Olsson its Pietist past helped the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) chart a course between the Scyllas and Charybidises of 20th century Christianity. While scholars like Carl Chrislock (or, in the historiography of the Mennonite Brethren Church and its flagship school, Fresno Pacific University, Paul Toews and other neo-Anabaptists) associated Pietism with anti-intellectual fundamentalism, North Park and Covenant elites have typically welcomed it as offering an escape from what they see as false choices between secularism and fundamentalism, or liberalism and (neo) evangelicalism.

Gary Walter
Gary Walter - Evangelical Covenant Church

To this day, the Covenant Church is unique among American denominations in its embrace of Pietism. Launching a series of articles in the denominational magazine last March, ECC president Gary Walter declared that “the Evangelical Covenant Church is what you get when Pietists join together to do mission.” The same publication then dedicated its July 2010 issue to the theme “Pietist at Heart,” featuring articles by North Park professors Kurt Peterson and Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom.

In our next, and final, installment of this series, we’ll turn from my denomination (the ECC) to my employer (Bethel University), where Pietism has most strongly influenced the leaders and historians of an American institution of higher learning.

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