Wrap-up: Bethel at War

This summer I’ve been writing over at the Bethel at War project blog. And while you are certainly welcome to browse the content on that website, I want to highlight here what I consider to be some of my most interesting work.

IMG_0004 (3)First among that work is my five part series chronicling the Baptist General Conference’s response to the Vietnam War era. The BGC was founded by Swedish immigrants in the late 19th century and operates today under the name Converge Worldwide. In 1871, a Conference Baptist named John Alexis Edgren founded a small seminary — in its first semester there was only one student enrolled — for the purpose of training Swedish-language pastors. That small seminary, operated under auspices of the BGC, has since developed into a masters-level University with over six-thousand students and campuses on both coasts.

After introducing the series and laying out some goals, I begin with a reflection on the changes within evangelical culture since the mid 1960s, noting especially how the political ethos among evangelicals was broader and more open to dialogue with the center and left before the war.

Part three covers 1964-1967 and notes the central role of the chaplaincy in mediating the war to a domestic audience; I also document the existence of significant debate within the Conference over the war. But by 1968-69 (covered in part four), that debate has been eclipsed by a renewed focus on the domestic. That ‘Sunday School’ ethos pervaded even the chaplaincy, which saw increasing focus given to the men’s domestic and rear-line activities. In part five, I note the disappearance of Vietnam related material in the Conference magazine, the Standard, and trace the emergence of the social issues that would come to define the evangelical right in the 1980s and beyond.

Although tangential to the school, it’s a series that touches on many of the themes more central to the Bethel at War project. And if my encouragement to read it isn’t quite enough, I’ll let one of my professors, Chris Gehrz, talk the series up:

I’d especially encourage my friends who study 20th century American Christianity to read this — it’s some of the first serious scholarship on the BGC that’s conversant with larger themes in the history of evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

b55077Beyond the five-part chronological series, I’ve written on the BGC from a thematic view as well. Back in July, I profiled the activities of a Conference Navy chaplain. And in conjunction with the forty-fifth anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, I looked at what the Conference’s reaction to that event said about their public theology. Finally, I examined the prevalence of militaristic language and imagery in the early Vietnam period — an imagery that gradually elided as the war progressed.

A second series — of sorts — that I’ve written looks at the activities and arguments of the evangelical left during the Vietnam era. I began by blogging through an important chapter in David Swartz’s new book, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. And I contrasted Bethel’s experience with that of a peer institution, Calvin College, which saw a significant shift in the way faculty viewed the war.

Back at Bethel, I examined the school’s own institutional histories and puzzled out a historiographical problem: in spite of abundant writing on the school’s history, most authors have ignored the role of warfare as an instigator of institutional development, let alone an agent of societal upheaval and personal change.

132 - Cartoon - 1971-11-29I also did a brief post on the school’s visual culture during Vietnam, excerpting from the school’s newspaper every cartoon published between 1964 and 1976. While most of those cartoons weren’t produced by Bethel students, they are still revelatory of the attitude of the Clarion’s editorial board and document changes in student outlook and mindset.

Finally, I looked at the phenomenon of professionalization at Bethel. In 1967, only thirty-four percent of the full time faculty held doctoral degrees. Today, that number stands at seventy-nine percent — still low compared to other private Minnesota colleges, but concentrated in departments such as Art and Business for which a masters-level credential is acceptable. That change broadly mirrors shifts in Christian higher education — and to a lesser extent, American higher education in general — that took place in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Still forthcoming are posts on the War on Terror years. Among them, I plan to write on the effect of the internet and social media on the school’s newspaper as well as post-9/11 changes in the language used to describe incidents of campus violence.

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