Pietism, the BGC, and Bethel University: Virgil Olson

For a blog called The Pietist Schoolman, there’s been surprisingly little posted here about Pietism in recent weeks. So today I’m starting a new series on the role of Pietism in the history of Bethel University and its parent denomination, the Baptist General Conference (now going by its “missional name”: Converge Worldwide).

Rather than give my own take on these topics, I’m going to summarize the work of some earlier Bethel scholars who have covered this territory. (And if I can talk them into doing it, I’m going to ask some of my colleagues at Bethel to share their own perspectives on this topic.) We’ll start today with Virgil Olson, both one of the leading figures in the BGC during the second half of the 20th century and one of the chief chroniclers of that history.

Adolf Olson
Adolf Olson, ca. 1952 - Baptist Pietist Clarion

The son of Adolf Olson, who taught history and systematic theology at Bethel Seminary for several decades, Virgil helped write part of his father’s Centenary History of the Baptist General Conference (published 1952). (He later recalled “how, when father had completed the final paragraph, mother and I knelt with him by the dining room table and thanked God that the writing of the hundred year history of the Baptist General Conference was completed” — from Virgil’s preface to Five Decades of Growth and Change, the recent BGC/Bethel history that picks up the story where Adolf Olson left off.) After graduating from Bethel Seminary just before World War II, Virgil pastored churches in Michigan and Chicago before returning to the seminary in 1951 to teach church history (and later, missions). In 1968 he moved to Bethel College as its academic dean during the transition from St. Paul to the current campus in the suburb of Arden Hills. From 1974 until his retirement in 1981, he headed the BGC World Mission Board (after having spent one sabbatical teaching in Ethiopia). He then spent five years as president of William Carey International University, founded to help missionaries and NGO workers continue their education from the missions field.

For more on the life and influence of Virgil Olson, see the May 2011 issue of The Baptist Pietist Clarion, available to download as a PDF. The above biography draws chiefly from the piece by Jim Spickelmier, and I’ll quote from several other articles in this post. My own interactions with Virgil have been limited, as his health has finally started to fail him in the years since I arrived at Bethel. However, one of the most significant memories of my academic career involved Virgil Olson… At our “Pietist Impulse” research conference in March 2009, he spoke as part of a roundtable on Pietism in the historiography of Swedish immigrant churches. At the end of the session, my friend Jim Hawkinson, whose decades-long role as the chief storyteller of the Covenant Church somewhat mirrored Virgil’s position in the BGC, rose to request that “the elder bishop” close us in prayer. It was an appropriately ecumenical conclusion to a rare reunion of four Christian traditions rooted in Swedish Pietism.

Writing in appreciation of Virgil, long-time Bethel Seminary professor Clarence Bass (who took over for Virgil’s father in teaching systematic theology) put him atop the list of BGC leaders and deemed him that denomination’s “soul-force”:

His life reflects preeminence in both leadership abilities and personal piety. Throughout the years he has modeled a quiet, unassuming spirit; a compassion for the less fortunate; a passion for truth; leadership by example; fervent chronicler of BGC history; and a prayer-related dependence upon the Spirit. He has been the foremost articulator of the pietistic heritage which he has inherited and for which he stands as an example. (Baptist Pietist Clarion, May 2011, p. 17)

It’s that last legacy that I want to revisit today, focusing on three of Virgil’s works that examined the distinctive influence of Pietism on the Baptist General Conference and its flagship institution of higher learning: two articles he wrote in 1956 for the Bethel Seminary Quarterly, and then an August 1988 talk to the Bethel College faculty published that fall in their journal. (See also two seminar talks on Swedish Baptist Pietism and the history of the BGC that Virgil presented at the BGC’s 2006 meeting, reprinted in the June 2007 issue of The Baptist Pietist Clarion.)

Virgil Olson in 1956
Virgil as he appeared in the Bethel student newspaper in 1956 - Courtesy of the Bethel University Digital Library

In the two articles from 1956, Virgil considered, first, the influence of Pietism on the BGC and then Pietism as the chief influence on Bethel Seminary, then celebrating its 85th anniversary. (Virgil had written its 75th anniversary history.) As I discussed in an earlier post on Pietism as providing a “usable past” for Bethel, the 1950s marked a time in the history of Bethel and its sponsoring denomination when both experienced significant growth and increasing tension. As they outgrew their origins as Swedish-American immigrant institutions, both institutions drew newcomers who did not necessarily know the Swedish Baptist Pietist story — or, in some cases, share its emphases and convictions. In this sense, Virgil was joining like-minded colleagues in the Seminary and College like Carl Lundquist, Clifford Larson, and Dalphy Fagerstrom in both describing the historic role of Pietism in that story and (not uncritically, especially in Virgil’s case) defending its continued relevance to the BGC and Bethel.

In the article on the denomination itself, Virgil found that while Pietism as a movement was much more evident in mid-19th century Sweden than in the life of Swedish Baptist immigrants to America, it was nonetheless “true that many of the important characteristics of pietism have lingered with our people to bless their ministry this past century.” He named five:

  1. “The centrality of the Bible in the life of the believer”: Hearkening back to the Swedish “readers” (läsare) who helped spread and sustain the Pietist revival beyond the cities, Pietism within the BGC context meant that “each individual believer should be a Bible reader and a Bible student…. The all-important question in every decision was this: ‘What does the Bible say about it?'” (Bethel Seminary Quarterly, vol. 4, p. 62)
  2. “…insisting on a born-again experience for every believer”: The BGC stresses a “regenerate church membership. Great stress has been laid on the fact of whether or not a person has had an experience with the Lord” (p. 63), as seen in prevalence of testimonies before baptisms.
  3. “Holy living”: Which Conference Baptists have often interpreted as “separation from worldly pleasures,” which has sometimes been misunderstood as “social and cultural indifferentism.” Here Virgil admits that Swedish Baptists were not great political leaders or social reformers, but attributes that to language difference and emphasis on ministering to fellow Swedes. Acknowledges that some now (as in 17th century Germany) view this “separatism” as legalism. (pp. 63-64)
  4. Pietism as a “layman’s movement”: Baptist/Pietists distrusted hierarchy and preferred democratic church governance (which, Virgil suggested, worked well so long as the BGC remained small). There was also an economic connotation: “Poor Swedish Baptists.” (p. 64)
  5. Revivalism: “Pietism seemed to be the breath of God moving among the dry bones, bringing life to the various valleys of arid skeletons of theology and religious formalism.” (pp. 64-65)

Virgil ended this article by recommending, first, a return to Bible study among all, laity and clergy, and second, a “careful union of the stress on a living faith with a living theology.” Here Virgil decried how an emphasis on conversion and separation had often led to neglect of theology, doctrinal preaching, and “giving an adequate foundation for Scriptural victorious living.”

In the end, Virgil concluded, Pietism cannot be perpetuated, since it is a “God-breathed life.” Yet it will always arise in reaction against “superficial Christianity whether it be found in rotting formalism, a thinned-out evangelism or a misfired scholasticism, or anything else that has the form of piety and lacks the power thereof.” (p. 65)

Virgil Olson at 1964 Bethel Seminary ceremony
Virgil speaking at the 1964 ceremony laying the cornerstone for Bethel Seminary's new campus - Courtesy of the Bethel University Digital Library

In the second article from 1956, Virgil identified four distinctive themes in the history of Bethel Seminary. One was the influence of Pietism — but not in isolation. Instead, Virgil (as his father had argued in the Centenary History and as some Conference Baptists would probably prefer to ignore) stressed the blending of Pietism with Reformed Protestantism — specifically, that learned from American Puritans.

From the Puritans (as mediated by Swedish Baptists’ training in American seminaries), Bethel had chosen an emphasis on the authority of Scriptures and a biblical theology; from the Pietists, the belief that the Bible, while central, “was associated with the experience of the believer,” centered on “a conversion experience which resulted in a certain kind of activistic moral life” (Bethel Seminary Quarterly, vol. 5, p. 14). So Bethel’s curriculum, in Virgil’s reading, blended study of Bible and theology with a “deep spirit of piety and spiritual fervor”; an appropriate mixture, since he believed that “With the trained mind there must be the burning heart” (p. 15). Puritan “Biblio-centrism” leavened by Pietist “Christo-centrism” had also bequeathed Bethel Seminary a “spirit of inclusiveness in doctrine as well as in practice” (p. 15).

Over three decades later, in his second retirement, Virgil spoke at Bethel College’s 1988 faculty retreat. Borrowing a suggestion from George Marsden that Protestant academics “recover some sense of tradition” (from a 1987 talk published in Christian Scholar’s Review the next June), Virgil again identified four influences. One of which, again, was Pietism. (The other three: ethnic identity; missions; and the relationship with the BGC and Baptist churches.)

From Pietism, Virgil described four legacies for Swedish Baptists and their college:

  1. Swedish Baptist Pietists reacted to the “cold formalism, dead orthodoxy” of the state church by stressing lay study of Scripture.
  2. They were revivalistic, emphasizing “the need for a person to have a vital born-again experience in Christ,” rather than “infant, baptismal regeneration” (Bethel College Faculty Journal, Fall 1988, p. 8). Among Swedish Baptists and then at Bethel, revivalism resulted in an emphasis on evangelism and the requirement that students indicate that they were believers in Christ. But while “Years ago young people from Swedish Baptist churches knew what that meant,” Virgil pronounced himself less “certain that many of our young people understand today what it means to have a vital experience with Christ as an identifing [sic] mark of being a Christian” (p. 9).
  3. They promoted the role of the laity, and sought “rule by the people.” So even the Seminary dean at Bethel, who “was a kind of theological and ecclesiastical primate,” did not have too much power (p. 9).
  4. Finally, Swedish Baptist Pietists were “people of strong convictions, shaping their theological opinions and Biblical interpretations out of vigorous dialogue and debate” (p. 9). In his experience, Bethel faculty had held opposing positions on several issues (e.g., free will, eschatology, atonement), with the result that while “my education at Bethel Academy and the Junior College might have been short on some academic counts… in terms of the vitality of intellectual discussions on religious themes and current topics I was not cheated” (p. 10). Indeed, while he acknowledged that “Today pietism is often depicted as being passive, irenic to the point of being irresponsibly pleasant and harmonious” and “The early founders of Bethel College would not despise the pleasant, harmonous [sic], and the good fellowship,” he added that these founders “would not hold back from vigorous debate on things that they thought were essential to the Baptist faith experience” (p. 10).

Virgil concluded on a somewhat wary note, one that still resonates over 20 years later:

While a change was taking place in the College as it was becoming more sophisticated, academic, secular, a change was also taking place among the Baptist General Conference churches. The ethnic, pietistic glue that had held the BGC together was rapidly melting away. Unfortunately nothing came upon the scene to take the place of ethnicity, to capture and polarize the imagination and loyalty of the Conference constituency. Instead, with the hope of rallying churches and people there has been a parade of a conglomeration of short term programs together with the promotion of evangelical contempoary [sic] slogans that are about as long-lived as the current TV commercials. The strength of a solid core identity in the BGC, which was true when Bethel became a four year college forty years ago, is not present today. How or when a new kind of cohesiveness will come together remains to be seen. Maybe it will never come.

Maybe not, but Virgil would keep things in perspective. Perhaps the most significant remembrance of Virgil in the entire Baptist Pietist Clarion issue mentioned above comes from his son Dan, a sociology professor at Purdue University. At a time near the end of Virgil’s tenure as Bethel College dean, when finances were even tighter than usual, he admitted to his son that Bethel might even go bankrupt. “Doesn’t that bother you?”, Dan asked, surprised. Here’s how Virgil responded:

Well sure it bothers me. I’ve worked hard and committed many years of my life to Bethel…. [But] you have to remember that Bethel isn’t going to last forever. It’s just a human organization. Someday it will end. But ultimately I don’t work for Bethel. I do what I do because I want to contribute to God’s Kingdom. Bethel is my way of doing that. Bethel may fail, but God’s Kingdom is forever. (Baptist Pietist Clarion, May 2011, p. 18)

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