I attended a Christian high school in the Lynchburg area, and during my time there the sponsoring church took a swing in a more Fundamentalist direction when our pastor left and the deacons hired a replacement who was a graduate of Hyles-Anderson College. Where we had been more or less of the truly independent strain of fundamentalists (where our pastors tended to be self-taught) or had been of the Bob Jones family, we gradually became a Jack Hyles church. This meant among other things that where before we had no real bias toward one college or another, there was now a tendency for the church to encourage the top-flight students to at least consider Hyles-Anderson.
During roughly the same time Jerry Falwell added a focus to the ministry at Thomas Road Baptist Church; where Thomas Road had previously been one of the fastest-growing churches in America, or one of the fastest-growing Sunday Schools in America, Jerry added an emphasis that Liberty be the fastest-growing college in America. This shift in focus included a building boom on Chandler’s Mountain/Liberty Mountain and a substantial scholarship program. This caused some tension inside our church and school; Hyles was the school of choice, but Liberty was more attractively priced (especially if the first two years were nearly free) and doctrinally sound.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Liberty was already parting ways at multiple levels with its fundamentalist roots. While the Liberty faculty generally had credible fundamentalist credentials, with lots of graduates of Cedarville, Dallas Theological Seminary, Tennessee Temple, Pensacola, Bob Jones, etc. not to mention a fair number of unaccredited Bible college graduates and the occasional truly gray diploma mill graduate, Liberty itself was a peer to Bob Jones and Tennessee Temple; students often chose between these schools in pairs, so rumors traveled more or less freely between the two schools. We later heard from Bob Jones that Daryl Hall and John Oates had played a concert in the convocation center (not true) and that Liberty faculty returning to Bob Jones for alumni weekends with Liberty stickers on their cars were disfellowshipped by letter and told never to return (unconfirmed).
Hyles, oddly, was in a different orbit within fundamentalism; students who were true believers in the Hyles point of view rarely ended up at Liberty, even if attracted by the price. Those who did rarely stayed. Bob Jones people often left Liberty for Bob Jones after a year or two; rarely did people do a year or two at BJU and then transfer to Liberty, despite the fact that this was an effective way to launder credits from an unaccredited institution and get an accredited degree.
This was something of a touchy subject in the fundamentalist-evangelical nexus; many programs at Bob Jones were top-flight, but graduates sometimes faced difficulties landing jobs or getting admitted to graduate school, while Liberty graduates supposedly had less trouble. Lack of accreditation was a badge of honor for BJU, and at least at some administrative level they considered themselves more distinctively Christian for not having being accredited by a secular accrediting body.
I got to Liberty through a maze of fundamentalist Baptist churches; after my parents married we attended Thomas Road briefly, then a church pastored by Elbert Yeatts, who went to no college at all, then one pastored by a Tennessee Temple graduate, then one pastored by a Hyles-Anderson graduate. Along the way I ducked in and out of Bob Jones churches when visiting relatives. In our neck of the woods Bob Jones graduates more or less set the tone for fundamentalist Baptist churches, but graduates tended to preach sermons that varied only by flavor and not by kind.
The preachers we heard tended to preach mostly topical sermons, and the topics were chiefly the following:
- The literal truth (meaning historicity) of the Bible
- The importance of being born again
- Hierarchical social order; particularly, the obedience of the church to the pastor, the family to the father, and in some typically indirect sense, of everyone to God.
- Expectations of the Rapture, and to a lesser degree, interpretation of current events in a Hal Lindsey framework
- Adherence to a behavior and demeanor code, including short hair for men, longish skirts for women, and avoidance of anything worldly; this typically meant no drinking, but we sort of finessed questions surrounding smoking.
As a latter-day “mere Christian” I tend to react badly when I find myself in a church where the pastor camps out on a distinctive (autonomy of the local church, predestination and election, musical instruments, what-have-you), but that’s a story for a later post.
I have to admit that even in the early Seventies Jerry Falwell was already breaking ranks with the fundamentalists somewhat. Where the fundamentalists tended to rest their sermons on their interpretation of the Bible and their own authority, Jerry had already started adding figures from Gallup and George Barna into his sermons, thereby blurring the line between the things we believed because they were directly stated in Scripture or were part of our interpretation of Scripture (“special revelation”) and things we believed because they came from some other authority or could be observed directly (“general revelation“).
Also, Jerry deviated from our fundamentalist preachers in one other important way: where fundamentalist preachers read the small size of their churches as evidence they were preaching difficult truth, and therefore were doing God’s will, Jerry took the fact that his ministry was growing quickly as evidence that he was doing God’s will. Jerry, strictly speaking, was outside the main stream of the Church Growth Movement, because he had his own in-house church growth expert (Elmer Towns) and navigated some of the challenges of building a megachurch in an idiosyncratic way.
One of the things that struck me when I spoke to students who had attended Liberty a cycle or two earlier than me (so, say 1980 or 1984 graduates) was how different the school had been just a few years earlier. Jerry had just been easing into his Moral Majority persona, and he had started by traveling with Doug Oldham and a polyester-clad singing group that I think were called the I Love America singers or the I Love America Chorale or something like that. They sounded like the New Christy Minstrels, more or less, but without the drug references.
At this point Jerry was already starting to leave his fundamentalist roots, partly because Fundamentalists are by definition separatist and incapable of making common cause on political issues, and partly because Fundamentalist churches were typically pretty hardcore “no slacks, tracks, or blacks” places, meaning that the music had to be piano and organ (no taped backing tracks, especially with drums or guitars), women had to wear dresses or at least skirts, and of course the churches tended to be all-white, give or take the occasional Asian war bride.
Liberty took most of its cues from the schools that had produced much of its faculty and leadership: Bob Jones University, Tennessee Temple University, and Cedarville College (now Cedarville University): places with pretty lean authority structures and definite cultural markers. I have heard stories, for example, that as late as the early Eighties the guard shack at the main point of entry to the Liberty campus wasn’t just manned, but guards would actually stop the occasional car and check it for denim. Not drugs or alcohol or copies of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, but jeans and jean jackets.
By the time I arrived in the fall of 1985 the guard shack was still manned, but the guards mostly checked for freshmen out after freshmen curfew.