A Preview of My CFH Talk on Pietism at Bethel

CFH 2012 Biennial ConferenceThis weekend I’ll be joining the other members of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH) for its biennial conference, held this year at Gordon College outside Boston. CFH is my favorite professional society, and I’m honored to be part of a Saturday morning panel on Pietism and Christian colleges and universities in the 20th and 21st centuries.

My paper will look at Bethel College (now University) since it became a four-year college after World War II. Roughly, I’ll break that period into three presidencies: that of Carl Lundquist (1954-1982, focused on the 1950s and 1960s), George Brushaber (1982-2008, plus his tenure as college dean from 1975-1982), and our current president, Jay Barnes (since 2008). Under Lundquist and Barnes, Bethel has been unique in having a leadership and faculty so vocally committed to Pietism — a Christian movement often denigrated as being anti-intellectual.

My co-panelist Jared Burkholder shared a fragment of his paper a couple of weeks ago. I don’t work that fast, but I did send my paper off to our panel’s chairperson yesterday, so let me preview my talk by passing along a couple of paragraphs.

Carl Lundquist
Bethel University Digital Library

Having presented a few illustrations of how Lundquist and others at Bethel appealed to Pietism, I pause to note that this kind of rhetoric was remarkable in its time. First, and as I’ve written about at some length on this blog, even those colleges founded by denominations shaped by Pietism tended to find that past to be unusable in the second half of the 20th century. Either they were far down the path to secularization, or (if they did retain a distinctively Christian identity or a relationship to their founding denomination) Pietism was found wanting and discarded. In the CFH paper I’ll give the example of Bethel’s Lutheran neighbor in Minneapolis, Augsburg College, whose centenary history in 1969 (by historian Carl Chrislock) tended to equate the Pietism of the school’s founders with an anti-intellectualism and legalism that later leaders helped Augsburg to outgrow.

But the case of Chrislock’s Augsburg is unusual. Far more common are silences: Pietism going unmentioned in the many conversations about the future of Christian and church-related higher education taking place in the 1950s and 1960s.

What I hadn’t adequately understood until preparing this paper was that a similar silence could be found in the historiography of Bethel’s founding denomination: the Baptist General Conference.

…the first BGC history was published in 1933 by J.O. Backlund, a pastor and former Bethel Academy instructor who had recently become editor of the denominational magazine, Svenksa Standaret. Even in its origins, he did not associate what was then still the Swedish Baptist General Conference with Pietism, devoting all of the first chapter to Baptist and Anabaptist history and taking no notice of the Swedish Baptists’ interactions with George Scott, the Wesleyan missionary who started a pietistic revival in Stockholm in the 1830s, or Carl Olof Rosenius, the lay preacher who edited the periodical Pietisten after Scott’s exile.[1] Five years later, L. J. Ahlstrom’s biography of John Alexis Edgren portrayed the Bethel founder as a heroic Baptist — but made no mention of Pietism.[2]

I’d add that — on incomplete, but fairly extensive review — Pietism is also absent from postwar BGC publications like the denominational magazine, The Standard, and the illustrated annual, Advance. Even as the denomination approached its 100th year, writer after writer celebrated heroic Swedish Baptists of the past without reference to Pietism. Then the story changed dramatically at the centennial:

Virgil Olson in 1956
Virgil Olson in 1956 – Bethel University Digital Library

The introduction of Pietism into BGC historiography came in the 1950s via the father-and-son team of Adolf and Virgil Olson, who collectively spent nearly half a century filling the church historian’s chair at Bethel Seminary. When the elder Olson published the denomination’s centenary history in 1952, he, like Backlund, started with a sketch of broader Baptist history, but Olson devoted mere paragraphs (not pages) to the Anabaptists. Instead, he followed the lead of University of Minnesota historian George Stephenson — whose magisterial study of religion in the Swedish diaspora Backlund did not seem to have read[3] — and connected early Swedish Baptist leaders like F. O. Nilsson and Anders Wiberg to the Scott-Rosenius revival that also produced the ancestors of today’s Evangelical Covenant and Evangelical Free churches.[4]His son, Virgil, continued in this vein in a 1956 article published in the seminary quarterly, in which he went on to identify five pietistic characteristics that continued to define the (no longer “Swedish”) Baptist General Conference.[5] Later institutional histories have repeated the origin story inaugurated by the Olsons.[6]

It is difficult to know how much the Olsons’ historiographical innovation influenced Carl Lundquist, though it’s probably not insignificant that Lundquist asked Virgil Olson to take over as college dean in 1968. At the very least, I suspect that the Olsons’ work reinforced Lundquist’s own preference for an experiential Christianity defined by conversion and sanctification, dedicated to the inner life of devotional practices and the outer life of evangelism and service, and accepting of a wide range of theological differences for the sake of the church’s peace and unity.

If you’re going to the CFH, please consider attending our panel this Saturday, 10:30-11:45am. (All sessions in the Ken Olsen Science Center.) In addition to Jared’s paper on Pietism and scholarly virtues, we’ll hear a paper from my friend and fellow Covenanter Kurt Peterson, on North Park College after World War II.

I’m not sure how much I’ll blog during the weekend, but I might share some observations via Twitter. Follow me there @cgehrz.


[1] J. O. Backlund, Swedish Baptists in America (Chicago: Conference Press, 1933).

[2] L. J. Ahlstrom, John Alexis Edgren: Soldier, Educator, Author, Journalist (Chicago: Conference Press, 1938).

[3] George M. Stephenson, The Religious Aspects of Swedish Immigration: A Study of Immigrant Churches (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1932), especially 11-16, 74-92.

[4] Adolf Olson, A Centenary History, As Related to the Baptist General Conference of America (Chicago: Baptist Conference Press, 1952), especially 9-17.

[5] Virgil A. Olson, The Baptist General Conference and its Pietistic Heritage,” Bethel Seminary Quarterly 4 (May 1956): 54-66. In a follow-up article, he described Bethel itself as having been shaped by the synthesis of Puritan biblicism and Pietist christocentrism; idem, “Historical Interpretation of Eighty-Five Years of Bethel Theological Seminary History,” Bethel Seminary Quarterly 5 (Nov. 1956): 12-17.

[6] For example, Virgil Olson’s successor as seminary historian asserted in a 1984 booklet that “It was within nineteenth-century Swedish pietism… that the Conference had its roots” and described Pietist emphases on “transformed lives” and “commitment of heart and will as well as intellect” as central to BGC identity; Norris Magnuson, How We Grew: Highlights of the First Hundred Years of Baptist General Conference History (Arlington Heights, IL: Baptist General Conference, 1984). See also James Spickelmier, “The First 100 Years,” in Five Decades of Growth and Change, eds. Spickelmier and Spickelmier, 1-3.


3 thoughts on “A Preview of My CFH Talk on Pietism at Bethel

  1. Hi, I found an old book written by a Carl Lundquist of Chicago in 1933 called “The Spirit of our Constitution”, and it’s signed by him. I was doing research on him and came to this page. I was wondering if it is the same Carl Lundquist. I was wondering if you are interested in the book.

    1. Hi Sheridan – It must be another Carl Lundquist. The one I study would have been far too young at that point. (I don’t think he started college until a few years after that publication date.) Chris

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