The (Possible) Slow, Strange Suicide of Bob Jones University

by John Ellis

1700 Wade Hampton Blvd in Greenville, SC, has had a strong gravitational pull in my life going all the way back to my first memories. Even as a nearly fifty-year-old man who holds zero degrees from Bob Jones University (although I was a student there for a grand total of almost twelve semesters), and whose children will (likely) never include it on their list of universities and colleges to consider, I still feel its pull. There are many reasons for that, and while I’ll attempt to unpack some of that later in this article, it’s hard to corral, much less define, why that is in ways that are understandable for those on the outside of that gravitational pull. Bob Jones University’s old tagline “The World’s Most Unusual University” is truer than probably whomever coined it realized. The best way I know how to describe it is that for the longest time, BJU existed as the brightest, most-noteworthy star in the weird, hard to define cosmos called independent fundamentalist Christianity. However, it appears that BJU’s days may be numbered. Adding to the overall mystique of the place, it also appears that BJU’s impending death will be willfully self-induced.

From all accounts, BJU’s Board of Trustees is preparing to dismiss the university’s current president and CEO Steve Pettit, if not simply fail to renew his contract. This is the type of thing where caution is often advised because the epistemic waters can be murkier than realized. Except, in this case, I have spoken to or texted with several people who are intimately connected, in various ways, to BJU and the situation. I have also read online reports by conservative voices whom I know to be sober-minded and not prone to knee-jerk hyperbole. Many of these voices have direct access to the board and the university’s administration. And they all agree: A minority of the board members, supported and prodded by long-standing supporters and players at BJU who are unhappy with what they see as a liberal drift in the university’s standards and mission, want Steve Pettit out.

Those who never attended BJU likely find the accusation of liberal drift as quite odd, to the point of being stupefying. Visit their website and/or campus, and it’s immediately apparent that Bob Jones University is one of the most conservative universities and colleges in the country. While it’s shed some of its more fundamentalist idiosyncrasies, it still occupies an ideological and theological space to the right of places like Liberty and Wheaton.

For those who did attend BJU, especially those of us who attended pre-Pettit days, the changes are welcomed. For sure, the removal of some of the more stultifying external rules that were rooted almost solely in personal preferences that lived in a sort of Victorian era fever dream were needed. Frankly, I believe that more of those type of changes are needed. Ironically, Steve Pettit would adamantly disagree with the rule changes I’d propose, as would some of my friends still connected to BJU. However, the changes that many of us believe are the most impactful involve the university’s embrace of a healthier perspective on discipling and relationships. Over Pettit’s time as president, my faculty friends have rejoiced at how the doors have been swung wide open for them to minister to their students’ needs.[1] To be clear, it’s hard to extrapolate those changes from the loosening of things like dress code, hair check, music standards, etc., but those things are often downstream of intentional embraces and outworking of loving discipling. The fear of many is that the board’s actions signal a return to an older version of BJU. A return to the days of the North Wind’s tactics and away from the Sun’s.

If those on board who want Pettit out have their way (assuming all this is correct, and, again, I believe the reports to be trustworthy), the return to the bygone “glory” days of Bob Jones University spells doom for the institution. BJU-styled moderate fundamentalism barely exists anymore. Where will they draw their student body from?

Independent fundamentalist Christianity is not monolithic. While those on the outside may perceive it to be fairly uniform, the fact is that Christian fundamentalism is coursing with different camps, some of them warring. Charismatic personalities dominate churches and institutions, and many of those personalities’ egos do not broach cooperation with others. And within Christian fundamentalism, it’s easy, and self-satisfying, to find ways to one-up each other within the all-important construct called secondary separation.

What’s secondary separation? This may help:

If you go to a conference featuring a speaker who uses the wrong Bible translation, I must separate from you, never mind that you use the same Bible translation as I do. Purity is tantamount, and I can’t risk being sullied by your compromising associations. Hence, I’m going to separate from you because you refuse to separate from someone else.

Make sense?

Of course, it doesn’t. I mean, it makes sense, but if you’ve read the Bible, you likely find it quite puzzling.

Anyway. I grew up in a version of fundamentalism that existed in the space between two camps. My dad, who’s retired now, was a KJV-preferred pastor while I was a kid and in college.[2] Later, he worked for the FBFI. While my dad was in high school, the Peter Ruckman had been his pastor. My dad attended Tennessee Temple University and he considered Lee Roberson the epitome of a godly man. My mom attended Bob Jones and met my dad while teaching at Pensacola Christian School after she graduated from BJU. In fact, prior to the founding of PCC, my parents and the Hortons hung out on occasion.[3] As far as our home life, my sisters weren’t allowed to wear pants. Going to the movie theatre was a major sin. Anything remotely close to rock music was verboten. After all, my dad’s music teacher in high school had been the revered Frank Garlock. My piano teacher was Kent Hovind’s wife. Hugh Pyle and Barry Webb were two of the more frequent evangelists to speak at my dad’s church. Jerry Sivnskty and his wife were good friends with my parents. My youth group went to the Bill Rice Ranch for summer camp and Bob Jones University over Thanksgiving break. The Christian school I attended was the home of Aunt Caroline’s Children’s Bible Hour. If you own any of Aunt Caroline’s stories that were published in the 80s, there’s a good chance I helped bind the very book you own.[4] I could go on and on. As I tell people, my fundy street cred is legit!

If you recognize the names and places included in the previous paragraph, you may also realize what I mean when I say that the fundamentalism I grew up in existed between two camps. On one side, stood Bob Jones University. On the other, the even weirder world of KJV-onlyism. I had friends whose parents thought BJU was too liberal, even back then. I had other friends whose parents thought BJU was the closest thing to heaven as could be found on earth. My parents were closer to the second group of parents but while sharing some of the stricter views of the first group. For me, even though I wasn’t a Christian, I loved visiting Bob Jones University. You can read more about my story in my memoir series A Godless Fundamentalist, so I won’t go into more detail here. Needless to say, Bob Jones University dominated my world because at the time, BJU dominated the world of Christian fundamentalism. Everyone was either trying to be like BJU or they were trying to prove that they were holier (translation: more fundamentalist) than BJU.

Important for this article, at that time, in the 80s and 90s, a large system of feeder churches and schools for BJU existed. Across the country, especially in the Midwest and the South, institutions that looked to Greenville, SC, for direction funneled teenagers to the epicenter of their version of fundamentalism. That version doesn’t really exist anymore. Now, most people who claim the title of a Christian fundamentalist are staunchly KJV-only, anti-Calvinist, and even more entrenched in the lust for secondary separation than past generations. Self-described fundamentalists in 2022 loath BJU. Even apart from Steve Pettit, the fact that the school is not KJV-only, allowed girls to wear pants while playing sports ever since its founding, as best I can tell, and has tolerated Calvinist-leaning professors in the seminary for generations are enough to earn BJU the status of anathema. This isn’t new. That fundamentalist camp has existed for decades. They’ve always been suspicious of Bob Jones, and some have always gone so far as declaring the school apostate. What’s new is that it’s the only fundamentalist camp of any size anymore.

If you’re not KJV-only, don’t think it’s a sin for women to wear pants, and occasionally go to the movie theatre to see the latest Kendrick brother’s release, well, you probably also listen to the Getty’s and describe yourself as a conservative evangelical. And that’s the space BJU exists in, and it’s the space BJU has existed in really going back to Stephen Jones’ tenure as university president. This is the reason why the school was hemorrhaging students prior to Pettit’s arrival. Their “consumer base” had shifted and the school hadn’t caught up yet. It has now, thanks in large part to Steve Pettit and many of those who serve under him, including many of my faculty friends.

If the board moves BJU back in time to some desired halcyon days, their current “customer” base will disappear. And unless the board is willing to adopt positions that Bob Jones Jr. would be livid over, the university will never placate the larger group of self-called fundamentalists. The student pipeline will quickly dry up. Current students will transfer en masse. No doubt, faculty members are already updating their CV. It may take a few years, but BJU will not be able to sustain itself for long.

So, why would the board do this? I mean, I’ve not uncovered some grand secret about the changing landscape of fundamentalism. No doubt, the board is painfully aware of the consequences of removing Steve Pettit. At this point, I can only speculate about their motives. If you want to know my complete thoughts, reach out. I’m more willing to share my thoughts in private than to speculate in depth about others’ motives in public. Besides, it’s largely irrelevant. I will add, for the sake of readers who have little knowledge of BJU, that every year at graduation, the seniors promise to come back and shut the school down if it drifts into liberalism and compromise. From its very start, BJU had a sort-of poison pill mentality built into it. And I’ll say this, my only public speculation, I believe that there are members of the board and in related institutions/organizations (like the FBFI) who have concluded that their only option is to kill off BJU while they still can.

Another question is probably in the minds of some: why do you care, John? Well, for one thing, and most importantly, I have good friends, family members, and acquaintances who will be negatively impacted if Pettit is removed. I care for their sake.

There is a sizeable community of BJU alumni and friends of the university who have organized petitions, Facebook groups, prayer times, and campaigns to write letters to the board advocating for Steve Pettit to remain as president and CEO of Bob Jones University. I’m skeptical that their voices will do much beyond make board meetings a little more uncomfortable. I know fundamentalism well enough to know that those who want to see the changes at BJU rolled back will read the support for Pettit as proof that they’re doing the right thing. Fundamentalism (like broader American evangelicalism, in general) also possesses a martyr complex. The emails clogging up the board members’ inboxes will likely be viewed as attacks of the devil. They (the ones wanting to remove Pettit) will encourage each other to stand strong and resist the wiles of the devil. I pray I’m wrong. I pray that the outpouring of support for Steve Pettit will sway the requisite number of board members so that my friends and family members don’t have to face difficult decisions in the near future.[5]

But there’s also an existential reason why I care. For my entire life, BJU has loomed. Its absence would be odd, if not unsettling. BJU has been wrapped up in my identity, both as an affirmation and an antagonist, for so long, its demise would seem like the death of a family member or an old friend. While I don’t hang out with “them” anymore and have never really had anything in common, I like that they’re still here.

As a kid, there was something comforting about Bob Jones University. Even though I hated the rules, it provided me the sense that my family wasn’t as different as I supposed. While on campus, everyone looked like us. They dressed like us. They talked like us. And sections of the Campus Store weren’t off limits to me. Later, the Holy Spirit used my time as a student in the mid-90s to bring me to the end of myself, eventually leading me to place my faith in Jesus as my thirties came to a close. In my mid-thirties, when I returned as a student, I made some important friendships and learned some vital things at BJU.

For good and bad, Bob Jones University is a touchstone to my past and to my childhood in specific ways that will cease to exist if BJU doesn’t exist. And I’d mourn its loss.

So, yeah, that’s why I care. And why I pray that the minority on the board who want Pettit gone will not get their way.

Soli Deo Gloria

Edit: My thoughts on the most recent development can be read by clicking here.


[1] I do want to point out that during my time as a student at BJU, I have many professors who loved me well and attempted to minister to me. However, they did so in a system that pushed back on that.

[2] He’s since moved to a harder KJV-only stance.

[3] Their relationship soured years later after Horton got it in his head that my dad was telling the PCC preacher boys working at my dad’s church to transfer to BJU.

[4] My mom was a teacher at the school. During in-service week for the teachers, the faculty kids were stuck in the print shop working for free. No, it didn’t build character. It fostered resentment in my little atheist heart.

[5] Unfortunately, if Pettit is removed, I’m afraid that some of my faculty friends won’t be given a choice. They’ll be summarily fired.

2 thoughts on “The (Possible) Slow, Strange Suicide of Bob Jones University

  1. It’s weird to think that Jo Hovind was your piano teacher. Kent Hovind is now on wife #4 if I remember correctly. Him and Jo I think divorced after he was released from prison. Did you ever think of going to the new Dinosaur Adventure Land that he has in Lennox Alabama?

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    1. I knew Kent had remarried and divorced a couple of times. He was a strange, arrogant dude back then. I never had any desire to see the original Dino park thing he built in his yard (I saw it, just never visited it), so I definitely don’t want to visit the one in Alabama.

      Like

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