(Seventeenth in a series; on 4/30/24, series’ views/listens at 10,076)

Wheaton College has long proclaimed itself the “Harvard of Evangelicals.” Examining the Report produced by Wheaton’s best and brightest trashing J. Oliver Buswell as a racist leaves the reader with tectonic concerns for the state of the Evangelical minds professing there. Maybe it’s not a matter of bad scholarship, but the simple absence of intellectual curiosity? Or maybe it’s a character issue—say a lack of courage or an aversion to speaking truth to power?

Wheaton’s scholars to the side, among men and women of goodwill, some time ago in this series it became clear President Buswell was no racist. Just the opposite. The true historical record documents J. Oliver Buswell Jr. was an enemy of racism—that skulking evil which Galatians documents (Jews vs. Gentiles) has always dogged the Church of Jesus Christ. Sadly, sinners that we are, racism persists in the Church today. This is true, and it’s equally true J. Oliver Buswell Jr. was the enemy of racism.

Buswell fought racism manfully. In time he had the victory: first at Wheaton, with the commitment to the acceptance of Black applicants which he finally wrested from recalcitrant members of his faculty, administration, and Trustees. (The thanks he got was being fired six months later.) Second, he was victorious over racism through his sons (first and second) who followed their father and fought against it in famously public ways.

So no, President Ryken did not denounce President Buswell as racist and purge his name from Wheaton’s campus because the historical evidence proved he was a racist.

President Ryken denounced President Buswell because his Wheaton students of color demanded it of him. He complied with the students demands by assigning his faculty and staff the task of writing something that would provide him the best cover possible for his intended appeasement. He dignified this group of faculty and staff to which he had assigned this work with the name Historical Review Task Force. Two years later, when they had finished writing his report, he dignified it with the label Historical Review Task Force Report.

It’s challenging today to find a leader of God’s people who doesn’t resemble Aaron’s appeasement of his followers there at the foot of Mt. Sinai:

Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil. For they said to me, ‘Make a god for us who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”

…Moses saw that the people were let loose—for Aaron had let them get loose to be a derision among their enemies (Exodus 32:21-25)

Aaron, at least, admitted it. He told Moses the people are “prone to evil,” so I gave in to them.

Nothing as honest has been admitted by Wheaton’s Trustees, administrators, and faculty. Our students are prone to hissy-fits over their victimhood, so we threw files and correspondence into the fire and “out came” this Historical Review Task Force Report.

If anyone bothers to thumb through Ryken and his Trustees’ Report, nothing is striking. It’s anodyne.

Ryken’s staff have composed a 122-page/421-footnote medley on the usual crimes of the usual old white male authorities. Give the indigenous people back our land or pay them for it. Confess we stole it from them or confess that the people we bought it from stole it from them. We’re very sensitive to the evils committed by our great-great-great grandfathers. Can we please say we’re sorry and provide a scapegoat for a joint ritual of laying our ancestors’ terrible sins on his head and sending him outside the campus?

Since releasing their Report back in September of 2023, President Ryken and his fellow administrators have been celebrating their own righteousness achieved through confessing their great-great-great grandfathers’ sins. Their celebrations have been very public, and without the slightest irony or self-doubt. Nor has there been any criticism or pushback from Wheaton faculty members blessed with the protection of academic freedom.

None of Wheaton’s august minds have given their colleagues’ Report any scrutiny.

From outside the campus, though, Ryken and his Trustees have received private rebukes and warnings. The rebukes have come from high places including a group of wealthy alumni donors. Nevermind. The Trustees remain in self-congratulatory mode along with Wheaton’s administrators while President Ryken receives accolades from students in their campus paper, running puff pieces about how excellent his leadership has been. And conflict finds him unflappable.

Faithful and discerning leadership is so rare across Christian institutions, organizations, and the Church today. Then, when God is so kind as to send us a good shepherd, we kill him. Jesus lamented, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her.”

God sent Wheaton a good shepherd named J. Oliver Buswell. How did Wheaton’s Trustees respond to him?

At their January 20, 1940, meeting, they fired him.

Why? What made Wheaton’s Trustees want to rid themselves of President Buswell?

Was enrollment falling? Was the football team losing? Was he getting fresh with the coeds? Was he a plagiarist? A thief? Was the school’s ranking tanking?

None of these things.

In 1926 when Buswell’s presidency began, undergrad enrollment was 377. By 1940 when he was fired, it had increased to 1,110. President Buswell assiduously worked on the improvement of the school’s scholarly credentials, increasing the percentage of faculty in possession of the terminal degree, founding the Wheaton Graduate School, and gaining accreditation by the North Central Association of Colleges and Universities. In 1929, President Buswell reinstated the Bachelor of Philosophy degree; then, in 1938, he added graduate study in Theology—offering an MA in Theology.1

Ryken, his Trustees and faculty grudgingly admit this in their Report. But note their final sentence. They couldn’t help themselves:

During (Buswell’s) tenure as president (1926-1940), the College’s endowment expanded substantially, both the faculty and the student body roughly tripled in size (from a few hundred to more than a thousand), and the school’s academic rigor and national (and international) reputation grew as never before. Wheaton had become what some have referred to as “the Harvard of Fundamentalism.” But these dramatic changes were not accompanied by a more expansive vision for racial equality.2

Poor Buswell needed a “more expansive vision.” Tsk-tsk.

“For racial equality.” Tut-tut.

It’s a lie, but a useful one for protecting their own leafy suburban campus customer stream, salaries, and billion dollar endowment.

The reader of such effete criticism must, of course, understand every last member of the Task Force, administration, and Board of Trustees is certain he himself is in possession of the most expansive vision for racial equality possible. But it should strike fear into the hearts of these faultless men judging Buswell to spend a moment asking themselves what other expansive visions of impeccable moral equality their successors ninety years from now will discover as future generations turn to examining the detritus of their own lives, then denouncing them and purging their names from Wheaton’s campus.

We hasten to say this series of articles is no hagiography. President Buswell is a sinful father in the faith similar to fathers in the faith listed by Hebrews including Abraham, Sarah, Noah, Rahab, Samson, and David. There has never been a father or mother in the faith without sin. Our Lord Jesus Alone is spotless. President Buswell was not spotless, and if this series was something other than an exposure of the slander spread against him by Ryken and his faculty and Trustees, after much study of the man’s life and papers, I could write of some aspects of his life’s work I’m guessing he came to regret. As a matter of fact, it’s common to find him apologizing for this and that offence as one reads his letters to his co-laborer, J. Gresham Machen.

We’ll pick this story up in our next article in this series. Learning what motivated Wheaton’s Trustees to fire President Buswell in 1940 is crucial for understanding why, almost a century later, President Ryken and his Trustees denounced the man publicly, then purged his name from their campus.

(Seventeenth in a series; on 4/30/24, series’ views/listens at 10,076)

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1”Wheaton College Historical Enrollment Statistics/Tuition,” Office of Academic Records and Services, Updated July 1992.
2Report, 13.

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