Spurgeon. Pillsbury. Atlantic. Calvary. Northland. Now Tennessee Temple. These are all names of fundamentalist educational institutions that have closed their doors (through dissolution, merger, or “gifting” their campus to another entity) over the past decade or so. The most recent, Tennessee Temple, had been standing on wobbly legs for years. This week its board voted to shut the doors and to merge whatever is left of the school into Piedmont International University. Upon receiving word of the closing, one colleague remarked, “Another one bites the dust.”
Tennessee Temple will probably not be the last fundamentalist institution of higher learning to go bust. Most—maybe all—of the schools within historic fundamentalism are struggling for funding, students, or both. Some have managed to increase revenues by going to Internet-based education. Others have attempted to increase their constituency by appealing to the most conservative evangelicals. None of them, however, seems to be flourishing. The King James Only crowd likes to boast that schools like Pensacola and West Coast are thriving, and that may be true. These colleges, however, are not representative fundamentalist institutions, and their prosperity does not do anything to help normal fundamentalism.
As might be expected, voices on both sides are ready to offer explanations. Critics of fundamentalism have suggested that these schools are suffering from an inability to adapt to the present cultural situation, that they are paying the price for a grace-denying legalism, or that their own incompetence is simply catching up with them. Critics of change are quick to argue that these institutions have collapsed because they abandoned their historic commitments and alienated their constituencies. In effect, the former want to see aggiornamento, while the latter are calling for ressourcement. Both perspectives probably contain elements of the truth, though the reality is more complicated than either.
What is happening? Why are fundamentalist educations institutions closing at a rate of about one every two years? A comprehensive explanation must take account of many considerations, only a few of which can be mentioned here.
One is that all small schools (and fundamentalism has no large ones) are feeling pressure. For example, on the same day that Tennessee Temple announced its “merger,” Sweet Briar College also announced that it would be ceasing operations. Sweet Briar is a secular college. With a FTE enrollment of almost 700 and an endowment of over $80 million, it was in far better condition than most fundamentalist institutions. Nevertheless, its board believed that the school could not sustain itself in the future, and opted to close rather than to fight a prolonged battle for existence. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education estimates that around 250 other colleges or universities across the country are “vulnerable.” That equals five for every state in the Union—nearly all of which receive at least some government funding. Significantly, the forces that affected Sweet Briar also affect most fundamentalist institutions, most of which refuse to accept funding from the government.
Another consideration is that fundamentalists have been opening institutions as well as closing them. The number of little Bible colleges based in local churches has probably never been higher. The existence of these institutions (most of which lack credibility) tends to siphon students away from more mainstream and responsible schools. Also, schools that once offered only baccalaureate degrees have opened graduate programs. Some have gone on to open seminaries. Consequently, more institutions are fishing in the same pool, with the natural result that each institution attracts fewer students and donors. Not all can survive.
Furthermore, fundamentalist students have never had more options for post-secondary education. The stigma against secular schools has largely eroded, while the costs of going away to college have skyrocketed. More students are living at home and enrolling in community college—in some states, while they finish high school. Others are considering local universities or evangelical schools that would once have been proscribed.
The result is that churches are sending fewer of their young people to Christian schools. This problem is exacerbated by two factors. One is the widespread disintegration of Christian elementary and secondary schools. The second is the sharp decrease of interest in biblical education on the part of fundamentalist adolescents. Rising numbers seem eager to prosper in careers that a Bible curriculum simply will not advance. For more and more fundamentalist students, business trumps Bible as an educational choice.
Perhaps the most significant consideration is that the decline in fundamentalist higher education mirrors a decline in fundamentalism itself. In the main, fundamentalist churches and fellowships are shrinking. Many churches and institutions have closed. Other congregations and leaders have left for broader evangelicalism. Still others have spun (or been pulled) into the King James Only orbit. Even more have been pushed out of the movement by political machination or shrill denunciation. Furthermore, and with some exceptions, fundamentalist efforts at evangelism and church planting are bearing less fruit than they once did.
The shrinkage of fundamentalist education mirrors the shrinkage of the fundamentalist phenomenon, but that in turn reflects the shrinkage of American Christianity in general. The only corner of evangelicalism that seems to be growing is the charismatic movement, but its most flourishing segments are also its least biblical. Meanwhile, evangelicalism as a whole cannot decide whether Adam was an historical figure, what justification involves, whether anybody will ever be sent to hell, whether two people of the same sex can be married to each other, or whether God actually knows what people will do in the future. Fundamentalists may be watching young leaders depart from their movement for conservative evangelicalism, but conservative evangelicals are watching young leaders moving toward broader versions of evangelicalism, the left edge of which is no longer distinguishable from religious liberalism.
Even these far-left evangelicals find themselves marginalized within contemporary American civilization. The culture shifted so far in its hostility toward biblical Christianity that even the least conservative evangelicals are seen as fundamentalists by the movers of American society. The elites of Americana recognize little or no distinction between Fuller Theological Seminary and Bob Jones University.
All of professing Christianity—evangelicalism, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and even Mormonism—is against the ropes in America. The true agenda of the political Left is becoming clearer: for example, its leaders are now using the force of law to deprive people of their livelihoods for refusing to participate in immoral celebrations of fictitious marriages. In the meanwhile, evangelicalism (including fundamentalism) is fragmenting.
To be sure, fundamentalists have experienced certain failures of their own. It would be a mistake, however, to blame the closing of Spurgeon, Pillsbury, Atlantic, Calvary, Northland, or Tennessee Temple exclusively or even mainly on the peculiarities of those institutions. The same forces that have closed their doors are affecting all fundamentalists and, indeed, all people of faith.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Sing, Ye Saints, Admire and Wonder
John Ryland (1753–1823)
Sing, ye saints, admire and wonder,
Jesu’s matchless love adore:
Sing, for Sinai’s awful thunder
Shall upon you burst no more.
Sing, in spite of Satan’s lying;
Sing, though sins are black and large;
Sing, for Jesus, by His dying,
Set you free from every charge.
Sing, though sense and carnal reason
Fain would stop the joyful song:
Sing, and count it highest treason
For a saint to hold his tongue.
Sing ye loud, whose holy calling
Your election plainly shows;
Sing, nor fear a final falling,
Jesu’s love no changes knows.
Sing, for you shall heaven inherit,
Sing, and ne’er the song have done:
Sing to Father, Son, and Spirit,
One in Three, and Three in One.