On Alcohol Bans at Christian Colleges

I’d rather it run a feature on the Bethel physics professors and alumni who have recently received National Science Foundation grants and fellowships, but The New York Times covers Christian higher education rarely enough that I suppose any press is good press. Re: Moody Bible Institute’s decision (reported here earlier) to lift its longstanding alcohol ban for faculty:

Moody Bible Institute
Moody Bible Institute – Wikimedia

Last Saturday, [Moody professor] Michael McDuffee had his first beer since 1994. It was a cold beer, refreshing. It was a long time coming.

“I had been a man convinced that three drinks can quench our thirst: milk, lemonade and a cold beer,” said Mr. McDuffee, who practiced his drinking as a Marine. “And for 20 years I was drinking milk and lemonade.”

…The new policy has repercussions beyond Mr. McDuffee’s imbibing practices. It is symbolic of a shift in evangelical attitudes away from teetotaling and the theological desirability of strict systems of rules.

Times religion reporter Mark Oppenheimer did his usual fine job with the story, getting helpful quotes from author Jerry Jenkins (chair of the Moody board of trustees) and historian Molly Worthen and placing the Moody decision in the context of “a clear trend, in which evangelical colleges try to stay in step with the culture, however gingerly.”

Both as a historian of Bethel and a faculty member who’s experienced a shift like this, I can speak a bit to how this trend has played out at this particular evangelical school. While I was perfectly happy to see the faculty alcohol ban go away at Bethel (about five years ago) and even played a small role in moving that forward as a member of our faculty senate, I do understand the origins of that ban — and appreciate that we still retain what’s called the Covenant for Living Together.

I won’t attempt anything remotely like a comprehensive history, but let me sketch a few points:

The experience of Prohibition itself was so miserable that it’s easy to overlook just how significant a problem alcohol abuse was in the 19th century. Both Ken Burns’ documentary and Dan Okrent’s popular history on Prohibition do a credible job of reminding us of the astounding volume of alcohol consumed and the damage that resulted — particularly within families. (Here’s the “Roots of Prohibition” page for the Burns documentary site.) For evangelical Christians, temperance was not only about personal holiness, but social justice.

Incidentally, here’s Dwight L. Moody on temperance, quoted in the biography published in 1900 by his son William:

D.L. Moody
Moody Bible Institute founder and temperance advocate Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899)

There are two sides in this matter, and I want to give a rap at both. I think every Christian church ought to be a temperance socity. Look at the men who are stumbling over this great evil, going down to a drunkard’s grave! I am a total abstainer; have never touched liquor, and never intend to do so. I am able to do a day’s work without it.

Now for the other side. I think the temperance man makes a great mistake who always harps on that one question. Everything in its own place. If I go to prayer-meeting I don’t want to hear incessantly about temperance or the higher Christian life….

I wouldn’t have a temperance meeting on Sunday night. I would hold Sunday evening sacred to preaching the Gospel of the Son of God…. The Gospel covers temperance and everything else. A great many will not come to a temperance meeting, but they will come to a gospel meeting, and may get temperance thrown in.

Temperance was in the DNA of Bethel and the Baptist General Conference, going back to their roots in the Swedish pietist revival of the mid-19th century. Here’s BGC/Bethel historian Adolf Olson on Swedish society at that time:

Intemperance had become, by the middle of the century, so universal that, as one of the newspapers put it, ‘the distillation of whiskey is the corn of the Swedish nation; if you tread on it, the whole nation shrieks.’ Practically all classes operated stills, from the nobility and the ministers to the poorest among the peasants. In 1829 the stills numbered 173,124 and the annual per capita consumption of liquor was approximately twelve gallons, exceeding that of every other country in Europe. [In the United States it was about seven gallons, three times what it is today.] Alcohol came to be regarded as a household necessity, a part of the daily diet of both men and women. Even the child in the cradle was not spared from the fiery drink which was claimed to be an effective cure of all ills. Thus the whole generation became saturated with whiskey. And the harvest did not fail: immorality, misery, crime and economic depression followed.

As Olson continued, he linked temperance to the religious revival that eventually generated the Baptist Pietist movement:

To bring about reform of such a deep-seated evil was a herculean task. George Scott, the English Methodist preacher [who started the revival], devoted himself not only to the saving of souls, but he also became a pioneer in the temperance movement in Sweden. Local temperance societies. King Alcohol, however, was not at all inclined to abdicate his throne. Even the state church, the supposed defender of faith and morals, assumed a passive or, more often, hostile attitude to temperance reforms. A partial explanation of this may lie in the fact that the temperance movement became an integral part of the religious revival that swept over the country, being especially promoted by pious and free-church people. That the consumption of strong liquors gradually declined was in no small degree due to the influence of the increasing number of men and women whose lives had been transformed through the revival of religion. (Adolf Olson, A Centenary History, As Related to the Baptist General Conference of America, p. 12)

Carl Gustaf Lagergren
Carl Gustaf Lagergren – Courtesy Bethel University Digital Library

One Swedish Baptist temperance advocate, Carl Gustaf Lagergren (one-time editor of The Swedish Temperance Friends’ Paper), served as Bethel’s president from 1890-1914 (then eight more years after retirement as seminary dean). His successor, G. Arvid Hagstrom, was a staunch advocate of Prohibition. In their 125th anniversary commemorative booklet on Bethel history, my colleagues G.W. Carlson and Diana Magnuson note Hagstrom’s attempts to keep a pool hall from being set up near campus; when a restaurant opened in its place, Bethel Academy president A.J. Wingblade personally investigated and reported back to Hagstrom that it was a ‘speakeasy’ serving “moonshine.” As national debate over the repeal of the 18th Amendment continued in late October 1932, the student newspaper, The Clarion, reported that “Bethel students had their views on the prohibition question confirmed” by a local business owner who spoke in chapel, where “In his vigorous and humorous manner he knocked down prop after prop of the wet’s arguments.”

Teetotaling remained important to Bethel’s longest-serving president, Carl Lundquist (1954-1982), as part of his larger commitment to personal holiness remaining integral to education at Bethel. Here’s how I framed that commitment in my 2011 article on Lundquist in Christian Scholar’s Review, quoting from his 1965 report to the BGC:

…even outside the classroom, Lundquist wanted the pietist college to train its students in “the distinctive Christian life as one of voluntary self-discipline,” set apart from the permissiveness of the larger culture. Among other practices, he warned of the evils of premarital sex, the use of alcohol and tobacco, social dancing and “indiscriminate participation in the average Hollywood or Broadway type of entertainment.”

Jim Spickelmier, 1981
Jim Spickelmier in 1981 – Bethel Clarion

As I was researching Monday’s post on Jim Spickelmier, I came across an issue of the Clarion from the last months of Lundquist’s tenure devoted entirely to “Bethel Lifestyle” — as prompted by “what seemed to be an endless stream of staff discussions about lifestyle… rumors and jokes about the lifestyle and problems with compliance.” While a front page article reported that a study of evangelical colleges by Covenant College dean John Cummer found that proscriptions against drinking, smoking, and dancing remained widely in force (unlike those on movie and theater attendance), one Bethel dean asserted that “There is a lack of commitment on the part of students to the Bethel lifestyle. Smoking and drinking are the major violations, but dishonesty is also one.” The issue featured an interview with Jim in his capacity as campus pastor. He strongly defended the policy, but

admitted that Bethel, in regard to lifestyle, is “at a more critical point than [it has] been in previous years.” If the rest of Christian society rejected the lifestyle prohibitions, Bethel would have to alter its position. Nevertheless, he neither anticipates nor advocates radical change in the policy by the Board of Regents. “We can’t want to run ahead of our constituency,” he said.

Indeed, the theme of keeping up with changes in “the rest of Christian society” seems to have been near the heart of the Moody change. Whatever the evangelical commitment to temperance in the 19th and early 20th centuries, in the early 21st century a ban on faculty consuming alcohol has struck many of us legalistic. In the Times article, Jenkins recalled Moody president J. Paul Nyquist entering office and pointing out that it was becoming more difficult to hire evangelical scholars who found it “kind of pharisaical of us to have a bunch of lists of rules.” Nyquist convened a committee that reported back, in his words, “We know the Bible tells us that God gives us our food and gives us our drink. So use your biblically discerned conscience and do what God wants you to in these areas.”

“Pharisaical” legalism was at the root of Lundquist contemporary Karl Olsson’s concern about the “pietistic concern for student behavior” that he found enshrined in North Park College policies mandating chapel attendance and abstinence from drinking and smoking. While I acknowledged that concern (along with the problem of keeping up with vs. running ahead of the culture) in the CSR article, I ultimately found myself more sympathetic to Lundquist’s position than when I first came to Bethel and hadn’t given much thought to how Pietism shapes education:

Some of [Lundquist’s lifestyle] proscriptions seemed outdated even in 1965. Still, if Olsson is right that we should understand education as leading to the “salvation of the whole man” [here quoting from his 1959 address to the North Park faculty], it would hardly be unreasonable for Lundquist to expect a pietist college to seek the transformation of the “physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual impulses” that, for Olsson, made up the human person. Orthopraxy, after all, is even more important than orthodoxy for Pietists.

For that reason, I tend to think that it’s more important that a self-styled Pietist college like Bethel maintain its Covenant for Life Together than that faculty continue to have to sign off on its twelve-article Affirmation of Faith. While I think we’ve tended to set up a hierarchy of sins within that covenant (homosexual behavior, drinking, smoking, and gambling seem to be viewed as graver offenses than, say, less than “wise use of time, ability, and money” or “of natural resources”), the founding spirit of covenanting together as a community committed to the education of “whole and holy persons” remains valuable. (And the way our student life staff approach discipline when the Covenant is violated seems to fit Lundquist’s goal that it be “redemptive and helpful to the student.”)


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