The Usable Past: Pietism and Bethel University

Today I’m going to wrap up a series of posts on the notion of Christian colleges looking to a “usable past” for guidance as they consider their missions and identities. Thus far, we’ve mostly found that schools founded by denominations originating (at least in part) in Pietism have not found such utility in that tradition. Either because the schools have gone so far down the path of secularization that any Christian tradition has only distant relevance, or because it is simply too hard to disentangle Pietism from other influences, or because the anti-intellectual (or legalistic) temptation within Pietism served as an obstacle to the development of church-related higher education.

At the close of the previous post, I offered one brief counter-example: the history of North Park University, the school founded by and still associated with what’s now the Evangelical Covenant Church. Its founder, David Nyvall, and later leaders like Karl Olsson rejected or transcended any tension between conversional piety and intellectual rigor; for them, Pietism motivated the project of Christian higher education.

And there are certainly echoes of such voices at North Park today. Certain NP documents allude to a Pietist heritage: the Seminary mission statement identifies “classical Lutheran Pietism” as one of the main sources of its identity; the standard NP employee application form states that one of the school’s guiding principles is to “involve all our constituencies in maintaining and extending our tradition of pietistic and evangelical Christian higher education”; and the school’s 2010-2011 self-study quotes a Board of Trustees policy on the role of faculty in preserving NP’s distinctiveness:

North Park’s mission and vision as a Covenant institution in the broad evangelical and Pietistic Christian tradition requires a conscious balancing of the Christian perspectives in the faculty and staff who are the “bearers” of the tradition.

Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, Angels, Worms, and BogeysAnd it is not hard to identify North Park faculty who exemplify this goal. To name three leading examples: we’ve already heard here from NP History professor Kurt Peterson, who co-wrote a chapter on Pietism and Karl Olsson in our Pietist Impulse book; Seminary professor Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom has received acclaim for her concise introduction to Pietist ethics; and her colleague (and longtime dean) Jay Phelan has written on the influence of Pietism on, among other things, how Covenanters read Scripture.

But my sense (and I’d very much welcome comments to the contrary) is that Pietism is of declining relevance to the administration and faculty of North Park University, especially on the College side, where connections to the denomination (whose leadership, we noted last time, has been so vocal in claiming a Pietist identity) are weaker than those found in the Seminary (where future Covenant pastors regularly take classes on Pietism). As one example of this…

Samuel Schuman, who interviewed administrators, professors, and other community members for a chapter on North Park in his 2010 survey of religious colleges (Seeing the Light), reported no reference to Pietism. Schuman, of course, could have missed this influence, but if Pietism were widely seen on campus as providing a usable past, you’d think some leaders or faculty would have stressed this. Instead, current president David Parkyn emphasized the school’s ambition to be an urban and multicultural university. Parkyn, who spent a quarter-century at two other schools with Pietist roots (Messiah and Elizabethtown) before coming to Chicago five years ago, seems not to have mentioned Pietism in any of his speeches and reports made as NP president (as best I can tell by searching the many addresses stored on his NP webpage, which quotes the Schuman book).

Jay BarnesConversely, Jay Barnes (also late of Messiah) has repeatedly listed Pietism among the distinctive influences on himself and Bethel University since becoming its fifth president in 2008, even as the leaders of that university’s founding denomination have demonstrated less and less interest in the Pietist past. (There is no longer any mention of Pietism even on the history page of the website for Converge Worldwide, the “missional name” for Bethel’s sponsoring denomination, the Baptist General Conference, though the “Our Story” page does stress “holding to a conversion-centered experiential faith under the stabilizing guidance and authority of the Scriptures.”) In an essay on his “Faith Journey,” he describes himself as “evangelical with Anabaptist and Pietist leanings,” and thanks his “Pietist friends” for teaching him “to see God in the daily things and to deepen my walk with Him through heartfelt prayer and devotional reading of Scripture” and “to focus more on core issues and to have more humility about secondary beliefs.”

But beyond his own life, Barnes frequently roots Bethel’s identity within a Pietist heritage. About a year ago on his blog, he asked whether an “irenic, Pietist evangelical” would burn the Qur’an (occasioned by this news story), and stressed several elements of Bethel’s (and his) Pietist identity that help explain why the answer would be “no,” including this one:

Historically, Pietists were more likely to be oppressed than to be the oppressors. It would be uncharacteristic of Pietists to engage in acts that people of other faith traditions would find hateful.

And while he acknowledges that Baptists “have a reputation for being feisty or divisive,” the irenic spirit inherited from Pietism gives Bethel and its sponsoring church a different feel: “While we have convictions and are not afraid to disagree with others, we try to do it without being disagreeable.”

In his preface to our Pietist Impulse book, Barnes asserts that “Pietism shapes the culture and trajectory of Bethel University.” After describing how Pietism helped form the convictions of those who founded the BGC, he continues, “Those convictions resulted in an approach to education that was centered on a devoted life, intellectual engagement with key issues in culture and discipleship carried out in community. From founder John Alexis Edgren onward a Bethel education has been characterized by a devoted heart and a keen mind” (p. xi).

To be sure, Pietism is only one of several influences on Bethel and its founding denomination. Most obviously, Bethel was founded by Baptists and continues to draw large numbers of students (and smaller numbers of faculty) from Converge Worldwide (Baptist General Conference). BGC historians like Adolf and Virgil Olson have also identified a strong Reformed influence on Swedish and Swedish-American Baptists, and BGC pastor and former Bethel professor John Piper is a leader in the neo-Reformed movement. (Of course, one of the chief targets of Piper’s criticism shares the same description: BGC pastor, former Bethel professor.)

And to a far greater extent than their Covenant/NP cousins, BGC and Bethel leaders have found themselves at home in the post-World War II neo-evangelical movement. For example, the two Bethel presidents before Jay Barnes, Carl Lundquist and George Brushaber, played leading roles with evangelical flagship institutions like Christianity Today magazine, the Christian College Consortium, and the National Association of Evangelicals (which the BGC joined, unlike the ECC). While most Bethel leaders viewed such partners as congenial to Pietism, Robert Sandin, a Bethel alumnus who later served as dean of North Park College, argued in the early 1960s that “American fundamentalism has been at least as determinative in the history of the Baptist General Conference as European pietism,” creating “discrepancies” that had “always made it difficult to eliminate confusion and disagreement over the concrete implications of Bethel’s religious and philosophical traditions.”

Recognizing that such tensions were becoming more significant as the BGC outgrew its Swedish immigrant identity and drew in a more diversely evangelical membership, mid-century Bethel leaders like Lundquist, Virgil Olson (a Seminary professor and then College dean), and Clifford Larson repeatedly defined Bethel’s distinctiveness by reference to what Covenant president Theodore Anderson (in a talk for Bethel’s 1957 “Founders Week” series) called “Our Pietistic Heritage.” Though again noting a Calvinist influence, Olson concluded in a 1956 article that Pietism was the one word that best encapsulated the heritage and experience of the BGC and its forebears. Pietist themes recurred in Lundquist’s speeches and writings, including his annual reports to the BGC. In his 1965 report, for example, Lundquist asked what set Bethel apart from the thousands of other colleges and universities in the United States. Citing the distinctive influence of European Pietism, he argued that Bethel was unique even among theologically conservative, evangelistic schools in its irenic spirit and emphasis on distinctive living. (see my January 2011 Christian Scholar’s Review article for more on Lundquist)

Dalphy Fagerstrom with Eugene McCarthy
Dalphy Fagerstrom (right) with then-Representative Eugene McCarthy (center) – Baptist Pietist Clarion

Perhaps the most important attempt not only to name the BGC heritage as Pietist but to analyze how it shaped education at Bethel College came from history professor Dalphy Fagerstrom, in a 1956 address to his colleagues. Seeking ‘useable elements’ in European Pietism, Fagerstrom identified four characteristics most directly relevant to education at Bethel: concern for “the spirit rather than the forms of Christianity,” and so personal experience over dogma; the expectation that Christian belief would bring about a changed life; an individualism that caused Pietists to stress the role of the laity; and “an inherent simplicity” of belief and demeanor.

From these, Fagerstrom then derived two basic themes distinctive of education at Bethel College. First, while Conference Baptists had preserved “orthodox Protestantism,” there was a basic anti-authoritarian streak that emphasized

the Christian commitment of the individual and on the working out of the consequences of that commitment in the maturing total personality of the student. This will be the emphasis rather than an imposition of a detailed blueprint of belief and conduct upon the skins of our students.

Among other implications stemming from this anti-authoritarianism, he praised Bethel’s embrace of academic freedom and the liberal arts. Like David Nyvall at North Park, Fagerstrom assumed “that a faculty of committed Christians can teach fairly and effectively in the liberal arts, and… that this can be done coordinately with the Christian instructor’s effort to relate the arts to the Christian faith.” He then argued that the same impulses in Pietism that produced a high view of spiritual and political freedom also yielded

…a more subtle kind of democratic contribution… namely, criticism of the socio-cultural environment. The pietist example for this lies in their criticism of an institutionalized Christianity which was closely tied in with the social and political structure. It also lies in their insistence that the Christian life means a new way of walking in contrast to the world.

For Bethel College, this meant that courses on the ethical and social dimensions of Christianity loomed large. Concluded Fagerstrom, “The role of the man of God as a critic of the world has been asserted from Old Testament times. This role is relevant to any institution of higher learning, but our institution ought to seize the role from an inner compulsion and make it a continuing part of our character. Within and from our college there should be a constant stream of social criticism.” (This perspective, of course, came at the same time in history that neo-Anabaptist historians like Harold Bender and Robert Friedmann were asserting that Pietists cared little for anything approximating social criticism.)

While appeals to a Pietist past could be heard from Bethel leaders throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, even in 1962 Sandin could reasonably question whether Pietism remained relevant or useful for the larger faculty — or for the Baptist churches that continued to supply the lion’s share of students. Then as the effects of the Baby Boom subsided in the 1970s, Bethel (like North Park and most other religious colleges) sought to broaden its base.

For most theologically conservative schools hoping to appeal to a larger pool of potential students, the preferred strategy was to foster a more generically evangelical identity, at the expense of minimizing historic distinctiveness. (This is a major theme in the collection of “usable past” essays in Richard Hughes and William Adrian’s collection of Models for Christian Higher Education, including the two chapters about schools with Pietist roots: Paul Toews observes the decline of the neo-Anabaptist “Idea” at Fresno Pacific after 1979 and Douglas Jacobsen reports that talk of an Anabaptist/Pietist/Wesleyan synthesis temporarily disappeared from Messiah College’s identity statements in the mid-1980s.)

Similarly, some Bethel faculty felt that the school went through an identity crisis under Lundquist’s successor, George Brushaber, and urged a return to the “usable past” of Pietism. In 1985 philosophy professor Stanley Anderson asked what continued to set Bethel apart from better known evangelical liberal arts schools like Wheaton College, Calvin College, and Gordon College, and wondered provocatively, “If Bethel College is not distinctly different from other American Christian liberal arts colleges, then maybe Bethel ought not to exist because we may have too many of them….” To recover a distinctive identity, he encouraged faculty to “study the past to learn who we are and what we have been. We would find more of value in Conference and Bethel history than most of us think is there; the Conference was not just another American fundamentalist denomination.”

G.W. CarlsonLikewise, history and political science professor G.W. Carlson (one of my co-editors on The Pietist Impulse in Christianity) warned a decade later that “This [Baptist pietist] heritage is one that ought not to be discarded with great ease. The new generic evangelicalism may not be compatible with many of the traditional, pietist, Baptist distinctives.” As the co-author of two histories of Bethel and the editor of an annual newsletter, The Baptist Pietist Clarion, Carlson has continued to affirm the primacy of what he calls “the Swedish Baptist Pietist heritage.”

And at least two former Bethel professors returned during the Brushaber era to give faculty retreat talks urging that Bethel recover its Pietist identity: Virgil Olson in 1988, and historical theologian Roger Olson in 2006. Reflecting on his long tenure at Bethel and then comparing it to the vision of a Christian college articulated by then-Wheaton president Duane Litfin (in a book we all read for the retreat), Olson found that Bethel simply didn’t fit the categories provided by Litfin:

I’ve told many of my colleagues and others about Bethel’s distinctive ethos which is reflected in much of what we do at the seminary where I teach.  No single term describes it adequately, but it clearly is a manifestation of Bethel’s and the BGC’s pietist heritage.  Here Christ-centered education begins with the experience of knowing Jesus Christ personally.  And that is not just an individual experience; it is a community experience.  Jesus Christ and our experience of him called “conversional piety” form the glue that holds everything together.  This is expressed in the motto “whole and holy.”  Christian higher education at its best is about transformation more than information.  Or, to be more specific, it is about character transformation more than information dissemination.  The goal of Bethel education is to facilitate the process in which God makes people whole and holy both individually and communally.  Bethel can’t do it alone; it is a work of God and Bethel is God’s instrument.

What I find missing in Litfin’s treatment of Christian higher education is this note of spiritual and personal transformation by means of encounter with the living God through Jesus Christ.  This transcends mere moralism as well as integration of faith and learning as an academic exercise.  It goes beyond asking and answering “What would Jesus do?” to asking and answering “What does it mean to be a person shaped by inward experience of the living Redeemer and Savior Jesus Christ such that desire to be whole and holy flows automatically from within?”  That means the college or university plays a role in facilitating spiritually transforming experience that shapes character in the image of the person of Jesus Christ.  I call that transforming experience “conversional piety.”  To me, that’s what crucially makes Bethel a distinctively evangelical Christian college as opposed to a merely orthodox Christian college.  You see, to pietists dead orthodoxy is heresy; a college or university can be structurally or systematically Christian in Litfin’s sense and not really be evangelical.  The opposite is also true; a college or university can revel in spiritual experience and contain all kinds of grotesque distortions of authentic Christian faith such as anti-intellectualism, dualism and fanaticism.

(I’m not sure if it’s available to readers beyond the Bethel community, but here’s the link to Roger’s talk, in case you’d like to check out the full text.)

On a closing, personal note… This talk (following a couple of months after a faculty development workshop led by Jake and Rhonda Jacobsen of Messiah College that emphasized non-Reformed traditions and Christian higher education) steered me in the direction of setting aside (temporarily?) my research in international history and taking up the history of Pietism and higher education, with particular interest in what that heritage might mean for Bethel.

Which has made me a participant-observer in what I’ve been describing today. (Next Saturday morning I’ll be part of a Homecoming panel discussion on the topic of this post.) But it’s one thing for a handful of professors to get it in their head that Pietism can provide a usable past for an institution; I’m more struck by the degree of support this project has received from the administration of Bethel, from President Barnes on down.

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