Pietism, the BGC, and Bethel University: G.W. Carlson

Today’s post is the second in a new, occasional 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 started with longtime Seminary historian and College dean Virgil Olson, and continue now with my colleague, history/political science professor G.W. Carlson.

Last week we ended the Fall 2011 semester at Bethel University. Which means that there is now only one semester remaining before G.W. Carlson retires from a place he’s called home the better part of half a century. And If my hair completes its transformation from brown to gray this academic year, it’ll largely be due to anxiety produced by the thought of our department and our university continuing without GW.

G.W. in 1974
GW as he looked in 1974, when he organized a conference at Bethel on the effects of the Vietnam War - Used by permission of the Bethel University Digital Library

In 1961 GW left New Jersey for his freshman year at Bethel College (shifting from an early interest in math to political science and history) then returned as a member of its faculty in 1968, after a brief spell teaching high school in the St. Paul area. (He never abandoned his passion for public education, spending a decade on the St. Paul Board of Education later in his career.) While teaching courses on everything from Christian non-violence to American political ideologies to world history, GW completed his dissertation on the relationship between Russian Protestants and American evangelicals in the years after Josef Stalin’s death, studying at the University of Minnesota under the eminent historian Theofanis Stavrou. He has also been highly active both in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party and in the Baptist General Conference.

Especially in the last two decades, GW has also been a leading figure in preserving the history and heritage of the BGC and Bethel. First, he has collaborated with our colleague Diana Magnuson (also the BGC/Bethel archivist) on writing two Bethel histories (the booklet Persevere, Läsare, and Clarion, for the school’s 125th anniversary; and a chapter on Bethel for the recent Five Decades of Growth and Change, which covered the histories of Bethel and the BGC from 1952 to 2002). Second, since 2002 he has co-edited an annual newsletter, The Baptist Pietist Clarion, whose mission he defined as “[defending] the Swedish Baptist Pietist heritage, as it was reflected in the writings of John Alexis Edgren [Bethel’s founding president] and further developed by leaders throughout the history of the Baptist General Conference (BGC).” Third, he has given multiple talks at Bethel reminding its faculty and student body of what GW calls the “Baptist Pietist heritage.”(And by “talks,” I mean both the academic variety, and the less formal, more common kind that start with a tossed-off “How was your weekend?” and end half an hour later with you late for class but more thoroughly edified about the state of Bethel, the BGC, and/or the world in general.)

For the most recent example of the third type of contribution, watch the video of the October 2011 discussion I moderated for Bethel’s Homecoming, which featured GW and our Pietist Impulse in Christianity co-editor, theologian Christian Collins Winn. But to give a taste of how GW understands that heritage, let me summarize two earlier talks: one published in the 1994-1995 issue of the Bethel College Faculty Journal, and a second appearing in the Spring 2008 issue of that same journal (now titled the Bethel University Faculty Journal).

In the 1994 talk, “The Recovery of the Baptist Pietist Tradition: An Investigation of Its Meaning for Education at Bethel in the Twenty-First Century,” GW contended that “it is not whether or not one values tradition, but what tradition one values and why” (p. 27, italics original), then explained how his exploration of his “Swedish Baptist pietist heritage” (which he connects with both pacifism and evangelical feminism) affected his understanding of himself as a historian and educator. He first defined Pietism, recalling Virgil Olson’s 1988 talk (covered in the first post of this series) and quoting from Brethren historian Dale Brown to the effect that Pietism often connotes “integrity, goodness, and holistic responses in terms of life styles; regeneration, sanctification, holiness, and the work of the Spirit in the context of biblical themes; and freedom, charity, tolerance, and equality in the areas of ecumenism and mission” (quoted from Understanding Pietism, 1978 ed., p. 10).

Here GW stressed that “The new generic evangelicalism may not be compatible with many of the traditional, pietist, Baptist distinctives” (p. 28). As I argued in an earlier post on Pietism as providing Bethel with a “usable past,” it’s important to understand GW’s talk in the context of evangelical higher education in the 1980s and 1990s: to combat declining enrollment, colleges like Bethel typically sought to appeal to a more broadly evangelical constituency, which created the temptation to discard more distinctive characteristics rooted in the particular experiences of colleges founded by smaller denominations historically tied to an ethnic-immigrant group.

Those distinctive “Baptist Pietist” characteristics being, in GW’s view of Bethel:

F.O. Nilsson
F.O. Nilsson (1809-1881) - Bethel University

1. “…courageous Christian living”: Here GW reflected not only on the courage of persecuted Swedish Baptist leaders like F.O. Nilsson, but also that of Christian women and men who pursued “justice, peacemaking, human rights, and reconciliation” in the modern age: civil rights activists Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.; Quaker abolitionist John Woolman; Catholic journalist Dorothy Day; Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farm, an intentionally interracial Christian community in Georgia; Calvinist pastor André Trocmé, who rescued thousands of Jews during World War II; and 19th century feminist and temperance advocate Frances Willard. GW noted their shared ability to identify with the marginalized, their Christ-centered (and Sermon on the Mount-influenced) faith, their “integration of intentional Christian spirituality and social action,” their participation in encouraging communities of faith, their “willingness to ‘live in the world but not of the world,” their “high view of the sacredness of life” and commitment to let all persons share in the benefits of Creation, and their desire for biblical simplicity in opposition to “materialism and hedonism.” In Bethel’s history, he argued that a Baptist Pietist ambition for courageous living showed up in the longtime History Department objective that “student and faculty… appreciate and value ‘an intelligent, Christ-centered nonconformity'” (pp. 29-30).

We recently revised our department’s mission and objectives statement (in part because students often professed not to understand the phrase “intelligent, Christ-centered nonconformity”). But we retained emphases on empathy, hospitality, and the history of marginalized peoples, and stated our desire “to form our students as followers of Jesus Christ who ‘busy themselves on Earth’ though ‘their citizenship is in heaven’ (in the words of The Letter to Diognetus, an early Christian apologetic). While they sojourn in this world, our students will ‘busy’ themselves in a variety of callings, but all to two basic ends: what the Pietist educator A. H. Francke summed up as ‘God’s glory and neighbor’s good.'”

2. “…linkage of pietism to missions and social concern”: Here again, GW drew on his own particular tradition (noting Virgil Olson’s conclusion that the Swedish Baptist tradition linked pietism with “sacrificial missionary activity,” as well as his own youthful experience with the Klingberg Children’s Home) as well as the broader history of Christians “integrating faith and political concerns about economic inequality,” figures like William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army, and — believe it or not — the Reformed Baptist revivalist Charles Haddon Spurgeon. While admitting that Spurgeon “generally supported traditional Victorian self-help ideology,” GW described a pietistic streak that led Spurgeon to place a higher value than other Victorian evangelists on social concerns, shaped by devotion to God and study of Scripture and best addressed by character formation.

GW found four factors threatening this blending of spirituality and social concern and thereby “[relegating] discipleship to an escapist religious lifestyle that still allows us to feel good while doing nothing about the manifest social and economic ills that surround us”: (1) the suburbanization of the church; (2) conservative evangelicals’ growing tendency to espouse a “fortress religious ideology”; (3) an “eschatology that provides little hope for the future”; and (4) evangelicals being seduced “by a strident American hedonistic materialism and failure to be near to and therefore respond to people in need” (pp. 31-32. And if this sounds sanctimonious, ask GW about his own church’s decision to stay in an urban area, to share its space with an immigrant church, and to open a homeless shelter and engage in other social ministries.)

3. An irenic spirit: Finally (and, as throughout this talk, drawing on Virgil Olson’s research), GW expressed his appreciation that “Although there is a basic commitment to a Biblically based theology, there is a tendency in the pietist tradition to greatly respect those who differ on areas of applied theology and are fearful of political tests for spirituality” (p. 32). Against what he viewed as the increasingly strident and uncivil discourse of the “new right” (e.g., Cal Thomas) and the radically secular left (e.g., Paul Ehrlich and Robert Lifton, whose apocalyptic rhetoric GW found unhelpful), GW appealed to the “irenic spirit” so strongly identified by Bethel leaders like Carl Lundquist with the Baptist Pietist heritage.

Philipp Spener
Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) - Wikimedia

Here GW identified roots both in traditional Baptist desires to keep church and state separate, to value “human volition in the salvation experience,” and to avoid creedal tests of orthodoxy, and in the classical Pietism of Philipp Spener, who disdained “heresy-hunting” and encouraged his readers to consider their theological opponents “to be our neighbors (as the Samaritan was represented by Christ in Luke 10:29-37 as the Jew’s neighbor), regard them as our brothers according to the right of common creation and the divine love that is extended to all (although not according to regeneration), and therefore are so disposed in our hearts toward them as the command to love all others as we love ourselves demands” (quoted from Spener, Pia Desideria, p. 30 — presumably the 1964 Tappert translation).

As one example of how both strands have influenced GW’s response to events… In the Five Decades chapter on more recent Bethel history, GW and Diana recounted the debate in the late 1990s over Greg Boyd (a BGC pastor and then-Bethel theology professor) and his embrace of “open theism.” GW wrote this piece as a participant-observer. In addition to leading the defense of Boyd’s academic freedom at Bethel, in the BGC he had helped steer opposition to an effort to amend the BGC Affirmation of Faith (which all Bethel faculty must affirm) to include a belief in God’s foreknowledge being “exhaustive.” (This opposition included a committee of clergy and laity that proclaimed itself committed to “Preserving Pietism, Evangelism and Civility in the BGC” and eventually spawned the aforementioned Baptist Pietist Clarion newsletter.) While Boyd did leave Bethel in order to focus his attentions on pastoring a BGC megachurch, GW and Diana concluded that “In this controversy, as in the others [debates over biblical inerrancy and women in the ministry], Bethel sought to maintain its commitment to the Baptist pietist heritage and an irenic spirit” (p. 50).

In closing the 1994 talk, GW argued that as much as scholars ought to “see the events of their times and attempt to understand their roles within them” in light of the “core principles of the professional discipline,” they shouldn’t shy away from the “filter” of their own particular tradition. In his case, he attributed his ability “to avoid the dangers of secular alienation, a strident Christian nationalism, and a love for a comfortable American hedonism” (plus “imperialistic Americanism and the attractions of apocalyptic arrogance”) to “the filter of Baptist pietism.”

Gordon Johnson and Virgil Olson
Gordon Johnson and Virgil Olson - Bethel University Digital Library

Fourteen years later, GW returned to this “filter” for a talk entitled, “Pietism and Bethel’s Educational Values: A Gift to the Future.” Inspired by reading and hearing the words of former Bethel deans Virgil Olson, Clifford Larson (who emphasized connections between Pietism and both Anabaptism and the social activism of Walter Rauschenbusch and Martin Luther King, Jr.), C. Emanuel Carlson, and Gordon Johnson, and by hearing a talk on religious liberty by Baptist historian Edwin Gaustad, GW sought again to illustrate the continuing relevance of the Baptist Pietist heritage for an institution perhaps in danger of forgetting it. I’ll skip ahead through his definition of Pietism and his history of the BGC and Bethel, and pick up the talk with his discussion of one of my central research subjects: Carl Lundquist.

Under Lundquist, GW claimed (entirely correctly, I think) that Bethel continued “to operate within the Baptist pietist heritage” and “began to extend its mission to a larger evangelical community” (p. 84). But, GW argued, the influence of the Baptist Pietist heritage waned after Lundquist’s retirement, when successor George Brushaber sought to make Bethel more broadly evangelical by recruiting professors and students from other Christian traditions, and attempted to bring more gender equality and “an expanded multicultural presence” to campus (pp. 85-86; “The pietistic heritage should not be a hindrance to this [latter] effort,” GW insisted). In addition, the BGC distanced itself from a Baptist Pietist identity (e.g., many congregations dropped “Baptist” from their name and embraced evangelical church growth strategies). And GW worried about pressures from other sources: those within the BGC who would emphasize “more creedal expressions [of Christianity] and move toward a more confessional rather than pietistic heritage,” and the ‘market’ forces affecting any educational institution.

All of this led GW to conclude:

If Swedish Baptist pietism is to remain part of the Bethel educational community it will have to be as a “tradition of choice” rather than a tradition of heritage. (p. 87)

Appealing again to a “more broad-based understanding of Swedish Baptist pietism” and considering “its potential impact on the ‘missional’ focus on Bethel University,” GW identified ten “core characteristics” of the tradition, plus historical examples of each and their present-day implications for Bethel. According to GW (and often echoing themes from the 1994 talk, so I won’t always add much explanation from the 2008 one), Pietism…

  1. “…encourages an experiential understanding of the Christian faith through emphasizing the need for Christians to be ‘born again’ and is supportive of a ‘revivalist’ based church ministry” (p. 87): While GW did not explicitly identify an implication of conversionism for education at Bethel, he did state that a non-“exclusivist” and non-“isolationist” revivalism “must always be central to Bethel’s mission. They [sic] must cultivate a desire for students and faculty to allow the Holy Spirit to infiltrate our lives and culture” (p. 88).
  2. “…encourages an intentional devotional lifestyle through prayer and Bible study, often centered in small group relationships” (p. 89): Here again, GW was less concerned with working out what this might mean in terms of teaching, curriculum, or other elements of higher education, than with showing the continuing resonance of such classically Pietist themes in Bethel’s history (in which leaders like Lundquist and C.E. Carlson had so highly valued a life of prayer and Bible study).
  3. “…encourages a Bibliocentric and Christocentric Christian educational community which tend [sic] to be leery of confessional or creedal expressions” (p. 90): see above — e.g., the “open theism” debate.
  4. “…values the life of the mind, but values most the life of the heart” (p. 93): Interestingly, GW quickly steers this theme back to the “irenic spirit”: “A pietistic oriented [sic] educational community must always balance the relationship of wisdom and the cultivation of experiential and devotional Christianity. We are called to value Christian diversity and not let non-essential theological debates divide us and keep up from our primary mission agenda which is to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
  5. David Moberg
    David O. Moberg - Bethel University

    “…supports a Biblical commitment to Christians as a ‘prophetic people’ who seek economic and social justice in the societies in which they live” (p. 95): Here GW reminded us of the legacy of sociologist David Moberg, an early advocate for Bethel’s growing emphasis on reconciliation. Moberg, according to GW, identified two Baptist Pietist principles that conduced to a prophetic Christianity: first, a Christ-like emphasis on ministering to the whole person; and second, a belief “that all people are children of God whose gifts and talents are to be developed and creatively used.” Quoting liberally from longtime Bethel Seminary professor A.T. Pearson, GW placed Bethel in a tradition that started with the Hebrew prophets’ commitment to justice and righteousness, but continued with the German Pietist A.H. Francke and his philanthropic institutions in Halle, the Swedish-American Baptist J.E. Klingberg (who, like Francke, founded an orphanage — mentioned already in GW’s 1994 talk), and Bethel’s history of encouraging women in ministry.

  6. “…desires that believers espouse a Christian concept of ‘hope’ which challenges both a utopian vision of human progress and apocalyptic nihilism and is premised on the divine intervention of Christ and a call for transformed lives and effective involvement in today’s world” (p. 98): Lamenting that his students often “see the future in [terms of] negative and often apocalyptic trends” and that they construct hope chiefly around advances in science and technology, GW called for the Christian university to advance a belief in a “transforming hope” that requires that (quoting Robert Sandin, from a 1959 article in the Bethel Seminary Quarterly) “Christians ground their lives in effective and meaningful social service and value a person’s progress in the life of faith.”
  7. “…demands a strong commitment to religious liberty and separation of church and state” (pp. 99-100): This is clearly one place where GW’s Pietism is very much a Baptist Pietism rooted in 19th century Swedish history (churchly German Pietists in the late 17th and 18th centuries benefited from state sponsorship in some respects). And, sympathetic as I am to these principles myself, I have to admit that GW leaves unclear exactly what the BGC’s affirmation of church-state separation means for education at Bethel, except that Bethel professors like political scientist Walfred Peterson were strong advocates of the separation of church and state.
  8. “…encourages a linkage of a devotional lifestyle and Christian service” (p. 103): See the second major theme in the 1994 talk.
  9. “…expresses an appreciative understanding of the immigrant experience and the struggles of the various ethnic, religious heritages to integrate into a democratic, pluralistic community” (p. 105): This appreciation can be rooted in Bethel’s own history, founded as it was as a seminary for Swedish immigrants training to pastor Baptist churches in the New World. What does that mean for Bethel today? I think GW actually hints at a connection in his tenth and final “core characteristic” of Pietism, which…
  10. “…understands the need for a global vision and a missional focus that includes evangelism, economic and social justice, reconciliation and peacemaking, and constructive denominational expressions” (p. 108): Both as a university founded by immigrants and as an institution serving an increasingly globalized world, GW deemed it “essential that Bethel encourage students to have a global identity through travel, educational experiences abroad, and classes that allow students the value the history and culture of other areas of the world.”

    G.W. Carlson
    GW, in a 2008 portrait

Let me close by pulling out four central themes in GW’s treatment of Pietism. First, while he values Spener and Francke, GW is less interested in classical German Pietism than in a broadly defined “Pietist impulse,” especially as it moved 19th century Swedish Baptists and their emigrant descendants. Second, while his own tradition is that of Baptist Pietism, he freely draws on other Christian movements whose members might not define themselves as Baptist or Pietist. Third, as a student and practitioner of politics himself, GW is wont to find connections between Pietism and American politics that some of us more quietistic sorts would never consider. And fourth, GW is a scholar-activist who writes in a highly personal (even familial) and polemical fashion.

Not content to describe, or even to prescribe, GW has sought to be an agent of change. While this sometimes prompts him to take to the pulpit for talks like the two summarized here, GW promotes his understanding of “the Baptist Pietist heritage” primarily by teaching and mentoring young people. As he told a reporter for Bethel’s student newspaper recently, GW has four dreams for all his students: that they accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and commit to the Gospel; that they undertake a “Christian spiritual journey”; that they become lifelong learners; and that they serve others, particularly those on the margins of society.

<<Read the first post in this series

5 thoughts on “Pietism, the BGC, and Bethel University: G.W. Carlson

  1. Your post reinforces the observation that pietism cuts across denominations. One wonders which is a more important defining characteristic; the denomination we belong to or being pietists.

    Granted that pietists tend to downplay creeds and confessions, we are limited in how far we can go in that direction. Baptists, for example, probably cannot accept infant baptisms as valid. Lutherans can ditch most of the confessions, but probably must retain at least the Small Catechism.

    The danger that arises when we downplay creeds too much is slippage into some kind of syncretist morass where we lose the solid faith in the basics that has characterized pietism in the past. For example, I know some liberal Church of the Brethren folks and Quakers who consider all believers in any deity to be worshiping different understandings of the same God. If devout non-Christians do not believe Jesus Christ is God Incarnate, how can they be worshiping the same God? And if we accept their beliefs as equally valid as our own, are we still Christian?

    1. Very good points, Jim. I particularly resonate with your concern about “anti-creedalism” leading us down a slippery slope “into some kind of syncretist morass.” Spener and Francke may not have wanted it in a “dead” form, but they did believe in orthodoxy. But particularly once Pietism spawned its “Radical” wing, it got into some creative theology. Which isn’t entirely a bad thing: Radical Pietists had a robust pneumatology, and challenged “churchly” Pietists when they grew a bit too comfortable with the Kingdom of the World. But (as Mark Noll and others pointed out) they also had to struggle to maintain a theological “center.”

  2. I mentioned to G.W. a few months back, when I first heard this would be his last year, that we were going to have to change the name of the university, since it couldn’t properly be called “Bethel” without him. I said it like I was kidding–but, given the degree of his positive influence, I’m not really sure I was. It’s a little scary to think what the rest of us are going to have to do fill those shoes.

    I would also add that I suspect that it’s the very dangers involved in insisting on that “irenic spirit” that have kept Bethel viable as a Christian University: As Chris points out, those early pietists had to “struggle to maintain a theological center.” But I think the key there is the word “struggle.” One doesn’t struggle to maintain something one doesn’t value–so, in many ways, it’s the willingness to struggle (and to risk failure) that makes the value both authentic and dynamic. When one is unwilling to cave on _either_ value (irenism and academic freedom on the one hand and a robust basic orthodoxy on the other), one commits to a difficult (and often messy–but never boring) way of thinking and living. But it’s also a way of living that by nature encourages an energetic and intellectually vibrant faith: there’s no comfortable falling back into a stale, rote, robotic orthodoxy on the one hand _or_ a wishy-washy, anything-goes pluralism on the other. It’s hard to be complacent when you’re dancing on a knife’s edge. But it’s that very dance, I think, that allows Bethel to be a “Christian University” that fully honors both parts of that term.

  3. Very well put, Mark. I like the image of “dancing on a knife’s edge” between stale orthodoxy and meaningless pluralism. (Do you use Erasmus in Western Humanities? One of favorite literary allusions is that of Odysseus charting a path between the Scylla and the Charybdis. I think of Pietism both times we encounter him employing that image in the CWC reading packet…)

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