The Gradual Demise of Christian Schools of Higher Education

A nationwide announcement went out recently in search of a Vice President of Academic Affairs at another formerly Christian college. It sent my mind to wandering. How many Christian schools of higher education do not secularize over time? Outside of revival, it is almost impossible to stop the slow grind into secularism.

An Interesting Example

In 1827, Baptist home missionary John Peck founded Rock Springs Seminary on his farm in Rock Spring, Illinois, just east of St. Louis. Its purpose was to train evangelists, pastors, and missionaries to evangelize and plant churches in the expanding West of the United States. In 1837 the college moved to Upper Alton, Illinois, where it was renamed Shurtleff College. Then in 1957, Shurtleff College closed its doors and reopened as the University of Southern Illinois, Edwardsville Campus. In 130 years the secularizing process was complete.

But what happened to Rock Springs Seminary, and then to Shurtleff College, that led to its eventually merger into the Southern Illinois University system? When was the idea of training men for Christian ministry lost? When was the concept of “Christian” removed from its curriculum and administrative principles? While not considering the particular demise of Rock Springs Seminary, this blog will address the gradual, constant, and sad drift of Christian schools of higher education into secularism.

A Sad Reality

There is very little in U.S. Evangelical culture sadder than the constant secularization of Christian schools of higher education. It is like an inevitable treadmill from which no Protestant School is immune. Further, it appears that there is virtually no antidote to this trend, save the occasional God-ordained and God-orchestrated revival.

[Thinking about the recent SBC Conservative Resurgence in theological education, two scenarios can be extrapolated: (1) There was an actual revival and/or Awakening in the 1980-1990s that accompanied the votes for SBC presidents that allowed for the redirection of the SBC seminaries to a theology in conformity with the Baptist Faith and Message; or (2) God withheld the decline of the SBC seminaries and allowed the resurgence without a corresponding revival. The former conclusion seems far more probable than the latter.

[Further, since we are now 15-20 years after the beginning of the SBC Conservative Resurgence, students who benefited from the education they received after the Resurgence are now impacting U.S. Evangelicalism in a positive sense, as can be noted through the popularity of groups such as T4G.]

In fact, it is amazing that this very clear downward cycle does not receive more academic attention, given the number of formerly Christian schools of higher education that have followed this sad trend. The patterns of secularization are very predictable, like steps going down a ladder. The changes in curriculum are equally predictable, as are the reasons for these changes. The Christian school’s financial struggles are also predictable, leading either to its dissolution or to large endowments funding a high-class secular education.

The fact that the changes are incremental and take place over several generations hide them from plain view. Further, each small change, in and of itself, appears wise, calculated, and necessary for the future benefit of the school.

God’s Sovereignty

A first response to this inevitable drift may be to wring one’s hands in despair, complaining to God that He ought not allow this downgrade to happen. Then comes the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit, “Fret not yourself because of evildoers” (Psa 37:1). Jesus said, “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matt 6:34).

It is so easy to fret that one can become completely paralyzed by discontent in the present and in a fear for the future. Yet God is working out His sovereign plan. He knew and cared about all the individuals alive during the cycles of apostasy of which we read in the Book of Judges. God knew and cared about the individuals alive during the cycles of revival and apostasy during the reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah.

The fact that Christian colleges are falling into secularism is not a surprise to God. In fact, it must be part of His mysterious sovereign plan.

Romans 11:33, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!”

There are some things that we will never understand about God’s sovereign plan, and the gradual demise of virtually every Evangelical school of higher education, given enough time, is one of these anomalies. But, we need not fret—God is in control!

And yet we do not need to succumb to the secularizing tendency and wash our hands of responsibility to “fight the good fight” in our generation. We ought to learn lessons so that we can be faithful, seeking to understand God’s ways, and then working with Him to keep His Word, His gospel, and His glory central in our focus.

Some Lessons from Doctrinal Demise

  1. God knows that schools tend to a downward trend if left to their own designs. The depravity and rebellion of human nature is no surprise to Him (Deut 31:29).
  2. God allows the personality clashes and battles that exist around classes and curriculum among faculty members and administration (1 Cor 11:19).
  3. Jesus calls His people to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves” (Matt 10:16). Dealing with doctrinal drift in schools in particular, and in theological education in general, requires uncanny wisdom and unusual gentleness.
  4. Often, knowing that a spiritual battle exists, and understanding its lines of demarcation, is the beginning of fighting that battle (2 Cor 10:3-5; Eph 6:10-13).
  5. By inference, God encourages the diligent study of the theological demise of individual schools, so that we can understand the issues, the pressures, and the solutions that are available via diligent historical inquiry (Deut 32:7; Mark 8:15; 13:5, 23; 1 Tim 4:16).

Let’s not forget Rock Springs Seminary, its demise as a seminary, along with the demise of many of its contemporary institutions.

1 Timothy 6:12, “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses”

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