Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

Secularization of the Academy: A New Challenge to Baptist Historians

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

Secularization of the Academy: A New Challenge to Baptist Historians

Article excerpt

By 1920, the North American Baptist community boasted over 130 colleges, universities, and theological schools in forty-five states and three Canadian provinces. (1)

As time and circumstances evolved, however, the list of Baptist-related colleges was pared down considerably. Several of the early schools floundered and closed within their first half century. Reasons included weak financial foundations and lack of an adequate constituency to maintain an exclusively denominational college. Later, a more serious set of factors led to the departure of important institutions from the roster of Baptist church-related schools. This process is referred to as "devolution." (2) The historian of the Baptist saga is confronted with a complex set of circumstances occurring across a long period of time and in varying circumstances. In some cases, Baptists mirrored the experience of other denominations; in other situations, it was a uniquely Free Church set of variables. Within and without denominational circles, a debate over the factors of devolution has emerged. (3)

Recent Analyses Fail To Explain Adequately the Baptist Paradigm

Several books over the past two decades have dealt with the development of higher education in the Christian religious heritage. Two of those books addressed what has been labeled the "secularization hypothesis" and are worthy of ongoing discussion: George Marsden's The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (1994), and James Tunstead Burtchaell's Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches (1998). To date, no one has answered adequately these theses with respect to Baptist experience, and thus historians of the Baptist experience face a serious contemporary challenge. Baptist historians are up against "giants in the land," and we find ourselves in a situation not unlike Thomas Crosby who, in 1735, found the prevailing history of Puritans by Daniel Neal entirely lacking on the contribution of Baptists. Crosby's concern led to the first serious history of our denomination.

In The Soul of the American University, Notre Dame scholar George Marsden noted the transition from what he considered a "remarkably evangelical" majority of colleges in the United States to institutions that became "conspicuously inhospitable to the letter of evangelicalism." (4) Writing from a Reformed theological heritage, he critiqued the regime of early American colleges, and rather than lamenting their demise or "finding culprits," he found "unintended consequences" of administrative decisions. His main burden seemed to be that in a just society there should be more room for the free exercise of religion in relation to higher learning. (5)

As Baptists might read it, much of Marsden's work is historically commendable, particularly his treatment of the University of Chicago. Yet, one might wonder what was meant by a "low church idea of the university," since it seemed not to capture the inherent ambiguities in egalitarian Free Church models of institutional development. Marsden's analysis was most problematic in his critique of William Rainey Harper's "conflation" of Christianity and democracy, which Marsden likened more to John Dewey's secularism than to Harper's sincere biblicism. James Wind's analysis was more sympathetic to Harper's vision of "nationalized Bible study" than Marsden's halting applause for Harper's experiment. Perhaps Marsden's most significant omission, though, pertained to his following of George E. Coe's early work and Steven Schmidt's more recent analysis that fundamentalists and African Americans were excluded from Harper's Religious Education Association and by implication, from Harper's otherwise egalitarian ideals. (6) This point was somewhat misleading, given the longstanding attempts of Shailer Mathews to include dialogue with fundamentalists in the Chicago Baptist Association and the admission of a prominent group of students who would become leading intellectuals in the African American community. …

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