"This Is It, Isn't It, Brother Stone?" the Move of Bob Jones University from Cleveland, Tennessee, to Greenville, 1946-1947

By Matzko, John | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July 2007 | Go to article overview

"This Is It, Isn't It, Brother Stone?" the Move of Bob Jones University from Cleveland, Tennessee, to Greenville, 1946-1947


Matzko, John, South Carolina Historical Magazine


BY THE EARLY TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, GREENVILLE'S BOB Jones University exercised in upstate South Carolina a political, social, and religious influence out of all proportion to its size and academic reputation. During the 1990s, one political commentator called the BJU community "the most disciplined, best-organized player in the political life of Greenville," and the Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion claimed that BJU "all but controls local Republican politics in its hometown."1 In 2007 a BJU faculty member held the district's seat on county council; its state representative was the widow of a BJU graduate, Terry Haskins, who had served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1984 until his death in 2000, the last five years as speaker pro tempore; a state senator representing part of Greenville County was a BJU graduate, and another was married to a Bob Jones graduate. In 2007, moreover, of the thirty-five fundamentalist churches in the Greenville area recommended by the university, virtually all had been founded by BJU students or graduates.2

Yet for all of its modern politico-religious influence, BJU's rise to prominence largely has escaped the attention of historians. The rise of the university can be traced to 1947, when it abandoned Cleveland, Tennessee, for Greenville, South Carolina. In Tennessee, Bob Jones College, as it was originally known, had been a promising pioneer effort, but it was not yet twenty years old and hardly distinguishable from dozens of small Bible schools and denominational institutions. In 1933-1934, the college enrolled only 158 students.3 Its greatest asset at the time was its founder and president, Bob Jones, Sr. (1883-1968), the most famous living evangelist from the late 1930s until Billy Graham gained national celebrity in 1949.4

Jones was the eleventh of twelve children born to a Confederate veteran and hardscrabble fanner in southeastern Alabama. Even as a youngster, Jones exhibited a quick mind and unusual speaking ability. As a twelveyear-old, he gave a spirited, twenty-minute defense of the Populist party while standing on a dry-goods box in front of a Dothan drug store. The same year, he held his first revival meetings and saw sixty conversions. Jones's gifts were recognized by a missionary educator, who invited the young man to serve his family in exchange for room and board while he attended high school. In 1901 Jones entered Southern College (later Birmingham-Southern College) in Greensboro, Alabama, supporting himself through his preaching. Three years later, he left without taking a degree, already so prominent an evangelist that he believed it his responsibility to contribute to the support of his two widowed sisters. By 1920 Jones had spoken at a gathering of evangelists in Winona Lake, Indiana, with both Billy Sunday and William Jennings Bryan in the audience, and during the third decade of the century, Jones became the most highly paid evangelist in North America, except for Sunday.5

Like many fathers, Jones thought his only son a prodigy. Unlike most, he was right. By age six, Bob, Jr., was reading at the fifth-grade level; at ten, he sprinted through fifty missionary biographies in a month; by fourteen, he had read all of the novels of Alexandre Dumas. During the fundamentalistmodernist controversy of the 1910s and 1920s, Jones had grown increasingly concerned about the growing secularization of American higher education. As an evangelist, he had heard many stories about children attending college and then rejecting the faith of their parents. Where could such a child as his be educated without being exposed to unbelief?6

Jones tried, without success, to find some prominent man to help him found a new interdenominational college. Suddenly, in early April 1925 (a few months before the Scopes Trial), Jones was impressed that the time had come to found such a school. In December 1926, he broke ground at a site on St. Andrews Bay, near Lynn Haven in the Florida panhandle, and the college opened on September 12, 1927, with about eighty-eight students/Jones took no salary, and in fact, for years afterward, he nursed the college along on his savings and offerings from his evangelistic campaigns. …

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