Steps to Apostasy

Many Bible believing Christians deeply respect the Christian heritage of early America. Many have also wondered how Christian colleges and churches from that heritage gave up the faith over the years. It is amazing that institutions that believed and practiced the Bible could become completely secular. What led to their demise? What was the process?

Some years ago, I came across a book that helps answer these questions. The book is entitled From Evangelicalism to Progressivism at Oberlin College, 1866–1917 by John Barnard (Ohio State University Press, 1969; all quotes and references in this article are taken from this book). This book chronicles the process that led Oberlin College into apostasy. The college was founded as a Christian institution of higher learning, yet today is completely secular.

Many might think that Oberlin College is not the best example of apostasy from the Bible, since many of Oberlin’s founding attributes were not biblical. It is well known that Charles Finney, the second president of Oberlin and a popular pioneer evangelist, was an extreme Arminian. Finney so emphasized human responsibility in salvation that his beliefs were nearly Pelagian—that man could save himself by his own will without any help from God. Additionally, he held to the governmental view of Christ’s atonement. Even though this charge of unorthodoxy is true, Oberlin is still a good example of the road to apostasy because of its initial Christian policies and generally orthodox beliefs. With the exception of the quirks that came with Finney’s beliefs, Oberlin accepted the Bible as the fully inspired Word of God and the main doctrines of the Christian faith.

What led to the spiritual downfall of Christian Oberlin College? The answer is not as complex as you might think.

The Seed of Apostasy is in every Christian Work from Its Beginning.
Every born again Christian possesses a sin nature. This sin nature can trip us up (cf. 1 John 2:1). Over generations, doctrinal peculiarities and unconfronted sins from the sin nature can take over and lead to more deadly heresies and sins. Oberlin today points with pride to the radical parts of Finney’s theology emphasizing the human will. This emphasis led to many social causes outside the gospel. Oberlin was known for its stand on social causes such as the abolitionist movement and the prohibition of alcohol. Even though these causes were not bad, after they ran their course Oberlin was always looking for the next social cause that they could adopt. As their Christian heritage eroded, these causes became the catalyst to move the college toward the social gospel and abandon the gospel of Christ. A similar road could be charted for every movement that abandons the gospel.

They Tolerated Sins and Errors and Failed to Apply the Scriptures to the Sins and Errors.
Biblical fundamentalism is known for militantly confronting sins and problems that threaten the faith. In contrast to such militancy, when James Fairchild became Oberlin’s third president in 1866, the college became non-confrontational. Like Finney, Fairchild was an Arminian, and strongly disliked militancy. Darwinism and higher criticism were rearing their ugly heads, but Fairchild did not desire to defend the faith even from these errors. “His distaste for theological polemics was so strong that friends avoided even private discussion of issues in the troubled realm of science and religion” (p. 6).

Harry Huntington Powers, a young French faculty member who served from 1888 to 1892 pioneered this philosophy of toleration. Powers was liberal in his views of Christ, political ideas against capitalism, and social policy (p. 39). Even though one of the old guard evangelicals, Professor George Frederick Wright (an author in The Fundamentals), opposed Powers, this unbelieving faculty member was not forced out but was tolerated the whole time. He finally left Oberlin for the University of Wisconsin in 1892.

The College compromised with the theory of evolution after Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published in 1859. Many students accepted these new ideas more than the faculty. This, combined with the Arminian emphasis on the human will, led to the belief that “the very possibility of the exercise of free will with its corollary of moral obligation was, perhaps, a result of evolution” (p. 50).

Christians may be weak in the flesh and tire from the battle against sin and error. But by the Lord’s power, we are commanded to “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 3). “Look to yourselves, that we lose not the things which we have wrought, but that we receive a fully reward” (2 John 8). Even though the gates of hell will not prevail against the church at large (Matt 16:18), individual works can be lost over the years because of those who refuse to contend for the faith and do not look to themselves and the doctrine they believe.

Other Causes and Activities Took the Place of the Gospel.
As previously mentioned, Oberlin added many social causes that eventually led away from the gospel. Reform in society at large is not necessarily bad, but it becomes bad when the social causes take the place of the gospel. Anything that subtracts from personal salvation in Christ is an unbiblical emphasis. Christians know that people must be changed from the inside; they need a new nature. The idea that only external change is needed is the heart of the social gospel and Oberlin accepted this completely. Social gospel proponents such as Washington Gladden and Lyman Abbott were very popular after 1902 in the chapel program (p. 93). Gladden first spoke in 1883 with a message entitled “Poverty, Ignorance, and Sin.” He became a member of the board of trustees in 1896. In the early 1900s speakers at the college included Walter Rauschenbusch (known as the prophet and theologian of the social gospel), Shailer Mathews (an early modernist), and Charles M. Sheldon (writer of the popular social gospel novel, In His Steps).

Even Fairchild, the non-confrontational president, was troubled about these changes in the school and prophetically wrote, “If the teachers and officers of the school should lose their warm interest in the great gospel enterprises of our time, and should become occupied with their studies and calling simply as intel-lectual pursuits, rather than as involving the higher interest of men and of the kingdom of God, the character of the work would be greatly changed” (p. 8).

They Gave Up Their Christian Heritage to Appeal to the Secular World.
Early Oberlin College up through Fairchild’s presidency attempted to hire teachers who had graduated from Oberlin in order to perpetuate Oberlin’s heritage. “Fairchild always believed that most of the faculty members should be alumni. It became, however, more and more difficult to find candidates who combined loyalty to Oberlin’s evangelical tradition with respectable preparations for teaching” (p. 12). “In 1891–92, 74% had received at least part of their collegiate training at Oberlin. By 1901–02 this figure had dropped to 35%. The Oberlin faculty of 1901–02 was a far more heterogeneous body that it had ever been before. . .ten of the faculty members of 1891–92, slightly more than half, were graduate of theological seminaries, but only four were in 1901–02” (p. 79). What was true of the faculty was also true with the board of trustees. In 1866, five out of twelve of the board members were ministers of the gospel; in 1889, four out of twenty-four were ministers (p. 36).

In 1889, Henry Churchill King rose as the preeminent faculty member. He delivered one of the addresses at the inauguration of college president William Ballantine. He had enrolled at Oberlin Seminary in 1879 and after graduating, he earned a master’s degree in 1884 from Harvard. He later studied at the University of Berlin under liberal theologians Julius Kaftan, Otto Pfeiderer, and Adolf von Harnack. During his time in Germany, King adopted beliefs far outside of orthodoxy that were reflected in his own two-volume theology, Reconstruction in Theology (p. 75). In 1902, he became president of Oberlin College and completed the school’s descent into liberalism.

Oberlin repeated Esau’s error of giving up his birthright for a mess of pottage (Gen 25:30ff). Esau did so because he was godless (Heb 12:16); today we would say that he was secular. Oberlin gave up its heritage to gain the world’s acceptance rather than the Lord’s approval. Throwing away its Christian heritage declared that it was becoming godless and secular.

They Failed to Depend upon the Lord and His Word in their Daily Lives.
Before 1875, the College Board minutes show that each meeting was opened with prayer. After 1875, there was prayer only in crises such as financial emergencies or when considering a new president (p. 36). Oberlin faced great financial pressures in the 1890s and had no president from 1889 to 1891 and from 1896 to 1898. This led to both a divisive vacuum that allowed for the adoption of foreign ideas and to a general failure to preserve its heritage (p. 69). It was during this time that they needed great prayer and dependence on the Lord as they had in the early days when “if anyone walking along the sidewalks of Oberlin catches his foot and stumbles, nine chances out of ten, he stumbles into a prayer meeting.” It was during the pressures and crises of the 1890s that hiring secular faculty outside of Oberlin began in earnest.

They Gradually Gave Up Christian Standards.
All of these changes led to the incremental loss of Oberlin’s Christian atmosphere. The social life of the students up to the 1890s was extremely regulated. For example, men and women students were forbidden to be in private rooms together except by special permission because of sickness. “Attendance at approved social occasions, such as public lectures, picnics, and class socials, was carefully regulated. The library was sexually segregated. . .open at certain times only to men, at others only to women” (p. 23). All students were required to take Bible classes each year. Morning prayers were required every day (p. 25). No classes were held on Monday to avoid any temptation to study on Sunday and so students could attend both morning and evening church services that were required. Classes were opened with either a prayer or a hymn (p. 26). Private student prayer meetings outside the college were many. A visitor was so impressed by the spirit of prayer that he wrote, “Why if anyone walking along the sidewalks of Oberlin catches his foot and stumbles, nine chances out of ten, he stumbles into a prayer meeting” (p. 27). There was an annual day of prayer in January or February. Every year from the founding of Oberlin (1833), there were formal revival meetings with great numbers of students converted.

All of these facts show that Oberlin had the appearance and spirit of a Christian college. Modern Bible-believing Christians will note similarities to Christian colleges today. But modern Oberlin College has thrown all of this away. The college today is completely secular with coed dormitories and all the raunchiness that goes with any secular college in modern American life.

Until 1892, students were required to attend both morning and evening Sunday services, but this rule was substituted with permission to attend the local YMCA for the evening service. That year the requirement for any kind of second Sunday service was dropped (p. 103). The last college revival meeting was held in 1895. Not many students were converted and most were “indifferent” to the things of the Lord. Ten o’clock curfew was abolished in 1895 and playing cards was permitted (p. 105). Required morning prayer for student boarding houses was dropped in 1902 (p. 104). The custom of opening classes with prayer or a hymn slowly passed away. In 1906, all Sunday church service requirements were dropped. In 1915, Monday classes were regularly scheduled—they had not been scheduled so that students would attend church and not have to study on Sunday. Daily chapel was still required in the 1900s, but because of absences a monitoring system was started in 1913 (p. 121). Oberlin has a large chapel building but today has no chapel program. The social gospel and modernist speakers ended up killing the religious life of the college. Oberlin has no seminary; it closed in 1965 and its remnant merged with Vanderbilt School of Theology in Nashville.

Some people lamented these changes over the years. An alumnus wrote, “Really the old Oberlin is passing away. That is quite right, if only the old spirit of self-sacrifice can be maintained. It distresses me that the educational part in our colleges is not more thoroughly permeated with the Christian spirit, and education is looked upon so much as an end in itself” (p. 106).

Conclusion
What is the overall lesson that can be learned from the spiritual demise of Oberlin College? The lesson is stated well in 2 John 7–11, “For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward. Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.” If we are not careful, our institutions will become greenhouses for the very things we once opposed.

July 2008

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