Dalhouse, Mark Taylor. An Island in the Lake of Fire: Bob Jones University, Fundamentalism, and the Separatist Movement. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
The story of Bob Jones University is compelling on many levels. Its historical roots trace back to the revivalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s, and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Though founded by a fiery evangelist, BJU became the school that laid red carpet on the sawdust trail. While its separatist stance drew criticism from all corners, BJU nevertheless sought to become a school for all orthodox believers, regardless of denomination. In An Island in the Lake of Fire, Mark Taylor Dalhouse traces its history with historical precision and careful reflection. In the process, he avoids two potential dangers: that of caricature, which sees the school as embodying the worst kind of religious extremism, and that of idealism, which sees the school as Heaven’s only hope in a world gone mad. Dalhouse’s portrayal is an insightful, engaging, and thought-provoking work that is a must-read for those interested in the history of American fundamentalism.
Dalhouse traces the reasons for BJU’s existence all the way back to the Enlightenment. The rise of eighteenth-century secular rationalism led to the church’s rethinking of previously unquestioned beliefs. Schleiermacher’s reinterpretation of Christianity, Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel, and Wellhausen’s higher criticism combined in the nineteenth century to create a formidable foe to orthodoxy. This gave rise to the fundamentalist-modernist debates of the 1920s, during which time the evangelist Bob Jones Sr. preached a sermon entitled, “The Perils of America.” Dalhouse identifies three of Jones’ concerns: America’s drifting from its founding ideals, the growth of modernism in the church, and the secularization of education. In response to the collapsing American culture, Jones Sr. opened Bob Jones College in 1927.
One of the most interesting features of Dalhouse’s work is his sense that the BJU practice of separation was not always what it came to be, but instead was intensified during the presidency of Bob Jones Jr. He cites as evidence the fact that Jones Sr. never officially separated from his Methodist denomination, though he did separate from his local church, an act the author attributes to his son’s recommendation (71-72). “Even after acknowledging that he had met Methodist ministers who denied the virgin birth of Christ, Jones insisted upon maintaining his membership in the Methodist denomination. Rather, he resolved to find ‘some good, uncompromising, orthodox Methodist pastor’ and place his membership in that man’s church” (51). Furthermore, in the early 1940s, it seemed that the direction of BJU would follow the path of broader evangelicalism, as both Joneses initially rejected Carl McIntyre and the ACCC, instead participating with the NAE. The Jones, Dalhouse argues, began to change course in the late 1940s and early 1950s, partially because of the NAE’s refusal to hold its annual conference at BJU. “While the Joneses ascribed this [rejection] to ‘personal jealousies’—and there may indeed have been some—there was another, more philosophical reason why [sic] an identification with the Joneses might have been less than appealing to a growing, influential group within the NAE [namely, the new evangelicals]” (67). The straw that finally broke the camel’s back was the evangelistic philosophy and methodology of Billy Graham (78-87). According to Dalhouse, the events in the 1940s and 1950s reshaped the application of separation at BJU until the present day. Chapter three details the debates concerning John R. Rice, Jack Van Impe, and Jerry Falwell.
The author includes an entire chapter describing BJU’s philosophy of education and Christian development. Readers will find this to be a fair, positive explanation of BJU’s raison d’etre. “For those who choose to attend and graduate from BJU,” Dalhouse concludes, “the evidence suggests that the strict lifestyle and attitude rules work rather well” (146). The final chapter, “Rapprochement,” shows BJU in the 1980s and 1990s positioning itself differently than before. Rather than taking a primarily defensive posture towards American culture, it has sought to showcase its positive side. An example of this is its change in motto from “The World’s Most Unusual University” to “The Opportunity Place” (160). After citing a variety of changes like this, Dalhouse concludes, “It is unmistakable evidence that the Joneses no longer feel compelled vehemently to assert their purity and their separation from those less pure. It is evidence that they feel more comfortable in a society that, at least in the 1980s and 1990s, pays respect to the values they have championed” (161).
American Christians live in a day that in many ways is much like the 1940s. The increasingly leftward bent of much of modern evangelicalism distresses many believers. The over-emphasis on relatively minor issues within many fundamental churches is equally bothersome. And with the rise of organizations and conferences that cross the evangelical-fundamentalist line (e.g., Together for the Gospel), the question arises (as it did in the 1940s), “How shall we go forward?” As there were a variety of answers then, so there are now. As we ponder the future of American Christianity, there is much that we can learn from our past to apply to the present day issues. An Island in the Lake of Fire is a worthwhile read to that end.