Wheaton College: For Christ, His Kingdom, and Islam?

Thanks to John Fea I now know about a graduate of Wheaton College, Aaron Griffith, who thinks that Dr. Larcyia Hawkins is simply doing what the institution’s founder, Charles Blanshard, would do (WWCBD?):

With this history in mind, Hawkins’s activism on behalf of Muslims begins to look a lot less like an aberration and more in keeping with the original vision of the college. The antebellum evangelical tradition Hawkins drew upon was one primarily concerned with upholding human dignity and advocating for those on the margins. Muslims facing discrimination and threats of violence in present-day American life surely fit that description.

In 1842, Jonathan Blanchard preached a sermon on slavery before a church synod in Cincinnati. Over eight pages, he presented forceful arguments against slaveholding Christians, pointing out flaws in their Biblical exegesis and showing how “the property-holding of men is the worst conceivable form, and the last possible degree of oppression.”

During his sermon, Blanchard spent two short paragraphs in the sermon talking about the doctrine of God, where he argued that “Whatever leads men to regard Jehovah as something different from what he is, prevents their acting towards him as they ought.” It was clear from these few lines that Blanchard saw theological precision as an important good.

But Blanchard was not especially worried about muddled theology in and of itself. Instead he argued that slavery corrupted “true religion.” Failure to love one’s neighbor or denounce oppression was the real theological problem.

Hawkins, with her stress on “embodied solidarity” with her Muslim neighbors, would have found herself in good company in 1842. She drew not on liberal theology, secularized notions of human rights or shared American identity, but on a robust evangelical tradition of the biblical call to advocate on behalf of people made in the image of God.

So what happened to Wheaton? According to Griffith who follows John Schmalzbauer, it’s fundamentalism’s fault:

In the early 20th century, dancing, card playing, and theater attendance replaced slavery and mistreatment of Indians as Wheaton’s moral bugaboos. Focus on the fundamentals unfortunately meant that social concerns were often swept aside, and, as religion scholar John Schmalzbauer has shown, fundamentalists tied to Wheaton propounded their own brands of Christian bigotry (in this case anti-Semitism).

Schmalzbauer alleged anti-Semitism was part of Wheaton’s past (even though the dots were pretty disconnected):

In 2010 I returned to campus to deal with some of these ghosts. In a lecture series commemorating Wheaton’s 150th anniversary, I lamented the history of Protestant bigotry in my native Twin Cities, focusing on two fundamentalist firebrands. Together, they led journalist Carey McWilliams to declare Minneapolis the “capital of anti-Semitism in the United States.” Welcoming the paramilitary Silver Shirts to the First Baptist Church (“Why Shiver at the Sight of a Shirt?”), William Bell Riley actively promoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion throughout the Upper Midwest. Preaching a similar message, Luke Rader’s River-Lake Gospel Tabernacle was deemed “the worst place, barring none in the Twin Cities, as far as anti-Semitic vitriol.” Both men had ties to Wheaton College. While Riley preached the funeral sermon for Wheaton’s second President Charles Blanchard, Rader’s brother Paul was a college trustee.

But what do these Wheaton grads think Wheaton was back in the days of Jonathan Blanchard? Lena Dunham’s Oberlin? George Marsden’s reasons for including Wheaton’s founder and founder’s son in his history of — ahem — fundamentalism were sound, even common sensical:

These fights [against Masonry and Roman Catholicism] were simultaneously conservative and radical. Blannchard, who had by now been joined in his campaigns by his son Charles, believed that America was a “Christian nation” and worked for a Christian amendment to the Constitution. Their concepts of Christian ideals, however, showed little regard for prevailing middle-class stands. The 1874 platform of the National Christian Association included recognition of Christianity in the United States Constitution, Sabbath and prohibition laws, outlawing secret lodges, preservation of the “civil equality secured to all American citizens by articles 13th, 14th, and 15th of our amended Constitution,” international arbitration for peace, that “land and other monopolies be discountenance,” “justice to Indians,” abolition of the Electoral Colleges, and election of the President and Vice President by direct vote of the people….

Jonathan Blanchard’s son Charles, thought deeply dedicated to preserving his father’s views, completed Wheaton’s transition into the new evangelical and eventually fundamentalist outlook. The alliance with the Moody forces was clearly the crucial step…. By the end of his career, Charles was a significant figure in the fundamentalist movement. In 1919 he drafted the doctrinal statement of the Word’s Christian Fundamentals Association and in 1926 arch-fundamentalist William Bell Riley delivered the eulogy at his funeral…. Among [Blanchard’s] favorite texts, recalled from his anti-Masonic forays, were “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness” and “Come out from among them and be separate. (Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 29, 31)

We don’t need selective history to justify cherry-picked theology.

Yes, it’s a shame if Dr. Hawkins loses her position over her remarks. Yes, it’s tough for administrators to protect faculty privileges while also maintaining institutional identity (not to mention satisfying alumni and donors).

But we don’t need to make up theology or history to justify our own rooting interests. The idea that the Blanchards would have been on the side of Muslims is risible, almost as funny as thinking that anyone would want to justify an institutional policy or personal conviction today by appealing to — wait for it — Jonathan and Charles Blanchard. Those guys would chew any contemporary Protestant up and spit us out. If they’d do that to Protestants dot dot dot