Oceanographers sometimes encounter “dead zones”: areas of seawater nearly void of aquatic life. Cellular telephone users also encounter dead zones: areas of landmasses nearly void of signal coverage. Christian fundamentalism has its own variety of dead zones: areas of humanity nearly void of Great Commission efforts. America’s secular college campuses are usually prime examples.
Historian George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University includes a vivid portrayal of the circumstances and events that led to such an untenable situation. It will suffice here to know that it was the fundamentalist/modernist conflict of the early 20th century that ultimately drove a lasting wedge between fundamentalism and America’s secular colleges, public and private. That division continues largely unreconciled today, to the continuing detriment of both.
Obviously this does not mean that fundamentalists are absent from secular campuses today. On the contrary: self-identified fundamentalists are present in large numbers as students, staff, and faculty members at secular campuses nationwide. What it does mean is that fundamentalism—as a distinct subgroup of broader Christian evangelicalism—long ago collectively renounced secular colleges. As secular campuses became less hospitable to Christianity, fundamentalism often uncharacteristically retreated.
A counterproductive “Us vs. Them” mentality ensued. Soon, physical separation became nearly as obligatory as philosophical separation, to the extent that one’s mere presence on a campus might be branded as incipient compromise. What had once been considered auspicious “mission fields” consequently became places widely avoided and scorned. The tumult on many campuses in the 1960’s and 1970’s only exacerbated the rift. At present, some rancorous fundamentalists persist in using epithets such as “Satan U” and “Devil State” when referring to secular campuses. The cumulative outcome is that today few fundamentalist ministries are actively striving to “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matt 28:19) on secular college campuses.
As a case study, the massive University of Minnesota is a typical example. For me, it is also a very personal one. As my collegiate alma mater, I spent four years at “the U” (as it is colloquially known throughout the state) in the 1980s. Since graduation, I have retained a keen interest in the school’s history, including the fluctuating impact of Christianity upon the campus over time. It is apparent that fundamentalism has not actively attempted to influence this campus with the gospel of Jesus Christ for several generations. How such a regrettable situation developed can be readily recounted.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during the long, transformative presidency (1884-1911) of Cyrus Northrop, the U grew from a simple college of scarcely 300 students to a complex university enrolling 5,000. An unabashed evangelical, Northrop frequently shared his faith with the students. In The Basis of Belief: A Century of Drama and Debate at the University of Minnesota historian Steven J. Keillor provides several characteristic Northrop quotes. (Moreover, it is his fascinating account that provides many of the details from this period that follow.) Imagine the uproar if a state university president today were to proclaim to his or her students this challenge concerning Jesus Christ: “He must be more to you than an example. He is your Savior, if you accept Him. He is your King, if you will own Him. He is to be your Judge, whether you choose Him or not.”
As Northrop’s presidency was nearing its conclusion, the fundamentalist movement was gathering momentum. A series of twelve books titled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth was published between 1910 and 1915. These were intended to defend the essential Christian doctrines that were increasingly under attack by modernist theology. A showdown between orthodoxy and heterodoxy was looming.
At the U, subsequent administrations did not share Northrop’s evangelical aspirations for the students. A presumption of naturalism—rather than creationism—began to prevail in campus classrooms and laboratories. William Bell (W.B.) Riley, the longtime pastor of the First Baptist Church in downtown Minneapolis and a prominent leader among northern fundamentalists, took notice and took action. He launched a personal campaign to expel the teaching of Darwinian evolution from the U.
Rebuffed in his efforts by unyielding professors, more than one university president, the Board of Regents, and finally the state legislature, Riley successfully garnered four opportunities to voice his opposition directly to the students. The first, in November of 1926, packed the gymnasium/auditorium of the U’s Armory building. The boisterous crowd of more than 3,000 included some who initially raucously heckled Riley—behavior that drew prompt apologies from the editors of the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper and from university president Lotus Coffman. Riley, however, was unflinching; he calmly finished his presentation, but his entreaty was largely dismissed. His three later appearances were in a much smaller venue to more appreciative audiences of only 300 to 400.
There is really little more to the story. Fundamentalism at the U was not beaten; it was more or less just brushed aside. Supporters had seen one of their chief stalwarts rise to confront a challenge to a Christian doctrine…with little appreciable effect. Their champion had endeavored to slay a giant; but instead of dutifully falling, the giant merely gave him a sidelong look, shrugged, turned, and walked away. That was not what had been expected. It was disheartening.
Whatever objectives they held for the university waned as a result. Across the country, dramas with similar denouements played out on several other campuses, but the best known clash by far occurred in a sweltering courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee during the summer of 1925, at the Scopes Trial. (Incidentally, it was Riley who enlisted William Jennings Bryan’s participation there.)
An abiding legacy of these now nearly century-old scuffles is that fundamentalism walked away from secular campuses—and from untold opportunities to proclaim the gospel—over a doctrine itself tangential to the gospel. In a momentous overreach, fundamentalism insisted that some who presumably did not accept Jesus as the Savior nonetheless countenance God as the Creator. But to what end? Belief in creationism is neither a precondition nor a substitute for saving faith; but inherent in saving faith is a belief in the Creator. In their attempt to “put the cart before the horse,” the horse slipped its reins. Rather than consequently redoubling efforts on secular campuses to declare the gospel, fundamentalism chose to separate from secular campuses over what were not unprecedented demonstrations of unbelief.
During the 1930’s campus ministries were commonly underfunded, understaffed, and underwhelming. This was soon to change. God was about to deploy a fresh cohort of men and women restless to contend for the souls of America’s college youth. A result was the trio of evangelical parachurch organizations still dominant in American campus ministry today: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, The Navigators, and Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ). At the University of Minnesota each maintains an active evangelistic and discipleship ministry. A review of the student organizations at the U reveals that several smaller evangelical groups are also present. This begs a question: Where is fundamentalism?
In 2014 it is uncommon to find fundamentalist ministries reaching out to students on secular campuses with any regularity. At the U, The Gideons probably comes nearest this ideal, but this organization is disavowed by many fundamentalists for various reasons, and its presence is limited to the single annual day when it distributes New Testaments on campus. At the great majority of secular campuses in the United States fundamentalism’s presence is similarly lacking. A change is long overdue. Fundamentalism must cease being an unwilling “Jonah” to the “Nineveh” of secular campuses.
How can such a daunting reunification be initiated? Where might one even begin? These questions could be a source of considerable unproductive debate, or a fount of rousing solutions. Here are a few simple possibilities:
- Pray for your local campus. Pray that the students and others there would be receptive to the Truth. Pray that your heart would be burdened to share the gospel with them. Ask God to make you see the campus as He sees it.
- Learn about the “language,” culture, customs, and landmarks of your local campus. All campuses are unique in numerous ways, and a basic understanding of “your” campus will reap great benefits. Just as it would be foolish to travel to a foreign mission field without first studying the land and its people, the same is undeniably true in campus ministries.
- Walk through the campus. Be observant. Talk to students and others along the way. Humbly listen.
- Arrange to meet with the director(s) of an existing campus ministry. Introduce yourself with your personal testimony. Tell them that you desire their advice on how to reach the campus with the gospel. (They will undoubtedly perceive you as a valued ally.) Pick their brain(s). Again, humbly listen.
- Schedule a first-time event that you can invite students to attend. Utilize what you have learned in your research to decide what type of event to hold. Be vigilant for times and ways to speak the Truth into the hearts of your attendees.
Perhaps it is naïve to dream of fundamentalism establishing ministries on secular campuses in significant numbers. The movement currently seems almost wholly oblivious to the abundant ministry opportunities available. Is it somehow inevitable that campus ministry is to be accomplished almost exclusively by evangelicals? Why is this situation tolerated by so many fundamentalists? An acute need exists for a new infusion of life into these glaring “dead zones.” My alma mater and so many others like it need more Christians of all convictions who are willing to go and boldly proclaim the very grace which they have received. My earnest prayer is that many more fundamentalists will echo the words of Isaiah and say in response, “Here I am! Send me.”
Larry Nelson is a graduate of Fourth Baptist Christian School (Plymouth, MN), holds a BA in history from the University of Minnesota, and has been employed in banking since 1990. He is a member of a Baptist church in the Minneapolis St. Paul area.