(Eighteenth in a series; on 4/30/24, series had views/listens of 10,076)

Last chapter in this series, we documented the many reasons the Trustees of Wheaton College had to rejoice in their hiring of President James Oliver Buswell, Jr. Serving their institution from 1926 to 1940, under his leadership enrollment more than tripled, the college improved their accreditation, faculty members were hired, the percentage of faculty holding the terminal degree increased, departments and degrees (including graduate) were added, the endowment grew, Wheaton’s reputation for Biblical orthodoxy combined with academic excellence attracted a student body of significant ethnic and national diversity so that Wheaton’s reputation went international.

Nevertheless, in January of 1940, Wheaton’s Trustees fired the man.

The campus was shocked. Many decades later, student leaders (including my father, Joe Bayly, and father-in-law, Ken Taylor) spoke of their regret and sense of guilt over the Trustees’ action.

Then, September of 2023, Wheaton’s Trustees went back and stomped the poor man a second time. Since he was in his grave, their stomping could no longer be firing him, so instead they trashed his reputation and expunged his name from the campus.

Now then, why? We’ve written many chapters of this story demonstrating that Ryken and his Trustees’ denunciation of Buswell as a racist is a lie, but now we ask another question. Why did two Trustee Boards separated by almost a century want to vilify this man and rid their immaculate selves of any association with him?

Appeasing students doesn’t explain why the Trustees fired President Buswell back in 1940, nor is it a sufficient explanation for why they denounced and purged his name from their campus this past year. Trustees a century apart publicly demonstrating the same malice toward the same man can’t mean nothing beyond mollifying angry students of color.

You say it wasn’t malice, but judicious exercise of governmental authority, and it’s my aim in this article to demonstrate otherwise.

There can be no doubt these students of color exercising their power chose a victim who was not simply dead and buried, but whom Ryken, Gieser, and their fellow Trustees would be pleased to have an opportunity to disassociate themselves from. In other words, the victim was a joint decision. Ryken and his Trustees wanted him to be the one denounced before their women of color chose him to be the one denounced. If some white Wheaton father had to be sacrificed, everyone knew which father was most safely put forward for the dishonor.

Note not one single voice has spoken up publicly in defense of President Buswell from Wheaton’s Trustees, administrators, or campus. Both the 1940 and the 2023 Trustees are unanimous in their stomping the man. So again, why?

Reading the history of his tenure at Wheaton, there is some possibility of placing the blame on the students, arguing the Trustees were merely appeasing the students back in 1940. President Buswell’s tenure in the office of the president had the usual campus bickering and student complaints.

Jean and Kenneth Hansen

Jean and Ken Hansen

Coach Fred Walker

One of those students who served as a spokesman for the complainers was Ken Hansen. Mary Lee and I knew Ken and his wife, Jean. We grew up at College Church with the Hansens and their children. Alongside Marion Wade, Ken was the founder and longtime CEO of ServiceMaster Industries. A major donor to Wheaton College, Ken served as a Wheaton Trustee from 1966 to 1978.

On my bookshelves is a pre-publication copy of Ken’s autobiography1 which contains an account of Ken’s time under Buswell as a Wheaton student. There he discloses how he and his college buddies met with a small group of Trustees to criticize President Buswell.

As a student, Hansen had been hired as a men’s athletic supply room attendant, and here he recounts his taking over the job:

When I walked in …I was stunned by the mess that greeted me. The spring season sports fellows and coaches had piled the dirty, damp uniforms and other togs and towels in hit or miss piles on the floor of the locker room and the supply room. [My coworker] Jim said that he had just been given the job of running the supply room which had been the purview of the head coach, Fred Walker, in the past. The college business manager, Mr. Kirk, Kay Gieser’s father, had made this change. It was furiously objected to by this coach when he arrived for his pre-season practice time… The door of the supply room was re-keyed by Jim. Only he and I had keys. None of the coaches did. That was a source of conflict from then on.2

Sources from the time document significant opposition to football Coach Fred Walker. President Buswell received a number of complaints against Coach Walker, but after he investigated them, Buswell found the complaints to be baseless. The man was honorable and falsely accused, so President Buswell refused to give in to the pressures brought to bear to fire him.

Hansen’s account provides further insight to this controversy, introducing us to James Graham hired by Buswell’s administration in an attempt to shore up Coach Walker’s acceptance by Wheaton’s students:

Dr. James R. Graham came into my life that fall in a major way. He was brought to the campus ostensibly to teach Bible and missions. In reality he was brought to give support to the head coach, Fred Walker. He was a magnet to many of us. He attracted the athletes because he was an athlete. He was a mountain of a man physically AND [emphasis original] spiritually.3

Later in the text, Hansen picks up the story:

Over the conflict of some staff and faculty with President Buswell I and some other students became involved. We organized into a self-declared leadership group which commissioned Don Hoke and me to go to the trustees in town to present our concerns. Don and I had the signatures of these student leaders and went to see a number of these local trustees. Thor Burtness, Herman Fischer, R. J. Nicholas, Edgar Dival, Wm. McCarrell were the prime ones.

…The major conflict had to do with Fred Walker, head coach. We self-declared student leaders sent a memo signed by all of us to the president expressing our disapproval of Mr. Walker. The next afternoon he was at my supply room door calling me to task for this action. As I look back, I am sure that there were more straws in that wind of conflict and change than any one living knows. I regret having a part in it at all.4

Hansens’s candor and expression of remorse are commendable. He continues:

Dr. Buswell made some key decisions for and accomplished much for Wheaton College. President Buswell did leave the college under pressure from the trustees.

Jim Graham was ostensibly brought to strengthen the president’s hand for coach Walker. He, however, became a factor opposing the coach and thus weakened the president’s position in this regard at least.5

So Jim Graham, the “mountain of a man both physically AND spiritually” who was brought in by President Buswell to support Coach Walker did the very opposite. He betrayed both Coach Walker and President Buswell by undercutting Coach Walker among the students.

This is very common in leadership. Whether in colleges, churches, or businesses, those under authority will badmouth the woman or man above them, demanding their superior be fired. It is a basic duty of the top authority to weigh the charges, not simply giving in to underlings’ complaints. Otherwise, the organization is under mob rule. Think of Korah’s rebellion against Moses.

God defended Moses.

The controversy over “the football coach” or “athletic director” is often mentioned as part of the explanation for President Buswell’s sudden termination. This sort of campus intrigue is to be expected in any Christian community. There were other matters of intrigue which could take up pages, including President Buswell pushing his Trustees to allow him to fully integrate the student body by accepting applicants “as black as the ace of spades.”

Buswell, the reformer

What is hidden but must not be missed, though, is the Trustees’ fundamental opposition to a significant part of President Buswell’s gifting and work for Christ and His Church. President J. Oliver Buswell Jr. was a reformer.

Institutional powers and authorities despise reformers.

No evidence more clearly demonstrates the tendentious nature of the Historical Review Task Force Report than their studied avoidance of President Buswell’s work of church reform. Thus, opening up this work is central to any understanding of the hostility Buswell faced from Wheaton’s Trustees.

Glaring evidence of the Task Force’s studied avoidance of Buswell’s leadership of reform is their mentioning J. Gresham Machen only once.

Machen was the titan towering above all other American church reformers of the twentieth century. Author of the classic Christianity and Liberalism and founder of Westminster Theological Seminary, for many years J. Gresham Machen worked side by side with J. Oliver Buswell opposing the heresies oppressing the American church, but the Task Force kept him out of their Report.

Mentioning Buswell’s co-laborer once, even that mention did not record Machen’s close association and work with President Buswell. Rather, Machen’s name appeared in their Report as an aside:

After graduating from Brown University in 1927, [Rev. Wyeth Willard] earned a Master of Divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1931, studying under J. Gresham Machen.6

Why such studied avoidance of President Buswell’s longtime close association and work with one of the most famous Biblical scholars in the history of North America?

The significance of the Task Force refusing to mention Buswell’s work alongside Machen is that obscuring this part of the history kept Buswell’s godly labors for church reform obscured, also. How could the Task Force recount the work of reform of Buswell and Machen in yoke together over many years opposing the mushrooming of heresies in the American church without some, at least grudging, respect for this aspect of Buswell’s presidential leadership making its way into their Report?

Buswell and Machen

The Task Force knew it wouldn’t do for them even to include the phrase “Machen and Buswell.” Elijah and Elisha, Paul and Barnabas, Luther and Melanchthon, Calvin and Bucer, Whitefield and Wesley, Koop and Schaeffer; but no, not Machen and Buswell.

Still, they couldn’t entirely hide this work in their account of President Buswell’s character and work. Across 144 pages, they had at least to mention it, and they did twice: first in the text of the Report itself, and second as the text of a line in a graphic:

[By] June 2, 1939 President Buswell’s job was seriously in jeopardy. By the beginning of the year, there were rumblings of dissatisfaction among both the trustees and prominent alumni, many of whom worried that Buswell’s constant embroilment in denominational conflicts… were reflecting poorly on the College.7

President Buswell is dismissed by the Board of Trustees due to his participation in Presbyterian denominational conflict and a dispute about the College’s athletics director. Dr. V. Raymond Edman, a member of the faculty, is appointed as the fourth president of Wheaton College.8

The Wheaton sort of Evangelical can’t understand why anyone cares about doctrine, so that they speak dismissively of defense of the faith as “denominational conflicts.” Let the reader understand “denominational politics,” meaning “egos and fatuity.”

Let us turn to President Buswell’s work of reform which Wheaton’s scholars dismissed as inconsequential.

Brothers born for adversity

During the years J. Oliver Buswell served as Wheaton’s president, he worked alongside Princeton Seminary professor J. Gresham Machen for the reform of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA). With a number of other pastors, they were seeking to remove the heresies oppressing the souls of their denomination, but those heresies were so entrenched that their reward for their labors of reform was Buswell, Machen, and their fellow reformers becoming increasingly ostracized by the majority of PCUSA pastors—both heretical and orthodox.

This needs to be emphasized: Buswell and Machen’s work of reform was not just opposed by the heretics, but also those who held to orthodox Biblical doctrine. The orthodox pastors and elders were hostile to Machen, Buswell, and the men they led fighting together for the purity of the Gospel.

In 1924, two years before Buswell began serving as Wheaton’s president, 1,274 church officers of the PCUSA signed The Auburn Affirmation (An Affirmation designed to safeguard the unity and liberty of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America). This Auburn Affirmation was a defense of heretics and their heresies, and the battle was engaged.

Historically, this is referred to as “the Presbyterian conflict.” Hostilities grew throughout the twenties. In 1929, three years after Buswell was installed as Wheaton’s third president, Professor J. Gresham Machen left his professorship at the denomination’s Princeton Seminary and became a founder of the independent Westminster Theological Seminary.

Westminster Theological Seminary, founding faculty: Oswald T. Allis, Rienk Bouke Kuiper, J. Gresham Machen, Allan A. MacRae, John Murray, Ned B. Stonehouse, Cornelius Van Til, Robert Dick Wilson, Paul Woolley

This work of church reform and its surrounding controversy continued into the thirties as the Auburn pastors’ heresies metastasized across the denomination. The betrayal of Scripture and the souls for whom Christ died had infiltrated even the denomination’s missions agency, the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. The most famous proponent of the Modernist heresies within the mission was best-selling author of The Good Earth, Pearl Buck, who served as a missionary in China.

In 1933, Prof. Machen wrote an overture to the PCUSA General Assembly which condemned and called for the reformation of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. The overture needed to be forwarded to General Assembly by Machen’s local presbytery, so New Brunswick Presbytery designated the overture for debate and action at its April 11, 1933, meeting.

The overture had four points, and the first was:

The Presbytery of New Brunswick respectfully overtures the General Assembly of 1933:

1. To take care to elect to positions on the Board of Foreign Missions only persons who are fully aware of the danger in which the Church stands and who are determined to insist upon such verities as the full truthfulness of Scripture, the virgin birth of our Lord, His substitutionary death as a sacrifice to satisfy Divine justice, His bodily resurrection and His miracles, as being essential to the Word of God and our Standards and as being necessary to the message which every missionary under our Church shall proclaim.9

Preparing to defend his overture at presbytery, Machen wrote a long pamphlet which he distributed to each of his fellow presbyters. He also sent copies to the board members of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions.

Heresiarch and Presbyterian missionary, Pearl Buck

Titled Modernism and the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A, Machen documented the heresies he, Buswell, and their fellow reformers were fighting to remove from the PCUSA. In his pamphlet, Machen turned, specifically, to the heresies of Pearl Buck documented in her speeches and articles:

Mrs. Buck deals more generally with missions and with the nature of the Christian religion, and what she says …is in thoroughgoing conflict with the historic Christian Faith. She represents the deity of Christ as a thing accepted by some and rejected by others, but certainly not essential:

Some of us (Christians) believe in Christ as our fathers did. To some of us he is still the divine son of God, born of the virgin Mary, conceived by the Holy Spirit. But to many of us He has ceased to be that . . . Let us face the fact that the old reasons for foreign missions are gone from the minds and hearts of many of us, certainly from those of us who are young.

She rejoices in the stripping of ‘the magic of superstition’ from Christ, and it seems clear that in the ‘magic of superstition’ she includes the miracles of Christ and the Biblical notion of the salvation which He wrought. . . She rejects directly the Bible doctrine of sin:

I am not inclined to blame human beings very much. I do not believe in original sin. I believe that most of us start out wanting to do right and to do good. I believe that most of us keep that desire as long as we live and whatever we do.

She rejects the old gospel of salvation from sin and even seems to advocate the denial of religious liberty to those who preach that gospel:

In the old days it was plain enough. Our forefathers believed sincerely in a magic religion. They believed simply and plainly that all who did not hear the gospel, as they called it, were damned, and every soul to whom they preached received in that moment the chance for salvation from that hell. Though heard but for a single moment, the preacher gave that soul the opportunity of a choice for eternity. If the soul paid no heed or did not believe, the preacher could not take the responsibility. He was absolved. There are those who still believe this, and if they sincerely believe, I honor that sincerity, though I cannot share the belief. I agree with the Chinese who feel their people should be protected from such superstition.

Pearl Buck was only typical of the corruption of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America. And very specifically, what were the corruptions?

  • Original sin
  • the denial of the Virgin Birth
  • the denial of the deity of Jesus Christ
  • the denial of miracles recorded by Scripture
  • the denial of the Atoning Death of our Lord Jesus
  • the denial of our Lord’s Resurrection from the dead

Without recounting the conflict at greater length, by 1936—three years after Machen wrote his overture and distributed his pamphlet to his fellow presbyters—the critical moment had arrived and charges were filed against a number of these reforming pastors, including Buswell and Machen. Shortly afterward, these men were expelled from the PCUSA.

Yet, by God’s sovereign will and power, their suffering was fruitful to the end that Machen and his fellow reformers founded Westminster Theological Seminary (1929), then the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions (1933); and finally, a new presbyterian denomination called the Presbyterian Church of America (1936).10

Walking a tightrope: Buswell’s efforts to get Wheaton trustees to admit Blacks

As these battles for the reform of the PCUSA were being lost, out in the Midwest at Wheaton College, tension grew between President Buswell and his Board of Trustees. This tension came to a head in 1939 as President Buswell sought the Trustees’ approval for a permanent policy change to permit racially integrated education. This work of Buswell opposing the college’s longtime but informal segregation was the context for the stiff warning Trustee Hugo Wurdack gave President Buswell in his June 2, 1939 letter to Buswell concerning this change:

I do not think it would be wise bring this matter up at this time. There are already a number of controversial matters before the Board with more to come. It would be my counsel to keep out of all controversies, so far as possible, even at the sacrifice of strong convictions.

For some time, President Buswell had been in correspondence with Rev. W. Wyeth Willard who was promoting the acceptance of a young Black female applicant he knew personally. In the end, President Buswell had the joy of informing Pastor Willard that his work had been fruitful:

June 15, 1939

Rev. W. Wyeth Willard
202 Montoleir Avenue Novark
New Jersey

Dear Brother Willard,

A rather difficult correspondence recently issued in the successful removing of the obstacles to the admission of Miss Rachel Boone. I therefore advised our admissions officer to admit her. He now informs me that Miss Boone’s registration at Houghton College has been completed and that her aunt is very well satisfied with the prospects.

I think, therefore, it would be unwise for us to ro-open the case.

I do want you to know, however, that this conclusion [the permanent policy change to permit Black racially integrated education] indicated in the enclosed memoranda has been reached.

Yours in Christian fellowship

(Signed)

JOB/AW

A “difficult correspondence” indeed. Recall Trustee Wurdack’s response to Buswell’s letter pleading for Black integration on Wheaton’s campus:

I do not think it would be wise to bring this matter up at this time. There are already a number of controversial matters before the Board with more to come.

Having limited capital, leaders must establish priorities, choosing their battles.

President Buswell was defending his football coach suffering false accusations while being undercut by his assistant coach. He was hiring faculty members, seeking to increase the number in possession of the terminal degree. He was working to address the college’s deficiencies, academically, which were obstacles to full accreditation by the North Central Association of Colleges and Universities. He faced inevitable budget shortfalls as the result of the explosion of Wheaton’s enrollment, and this during the Great Depression. He faced opposition by his Trustees to his advocacy of the racial integration of the college.

But underlying it all was the Trustees’ hostility to President Buswell’s work of “denominational conflicts”—which was his work of reform. His prophetic voice joined to that of J. Gresham Machen in defense of the Church’s Biblical integrity was deeply conflictual, and the organizational men leading Wheaton were as unimpressed with their President Buswell just as the organizational men of Princeton Seminary had been with their Professor Machen.

Were Buswell and Machen pugnacious? Were they the sort of punctilious men who make mountains out of molehills?11

Judge for yourself. To repeat, here are the doctrines they defended in their work of reform:

  • Original sin
  • the denial of the Virgin Birth
  • the denial of the deity of Jesus Christ
  • the denial of miracles recorded by Scripture
  • the denial of the Atoning Death of our Lord Jesus
  • the denial of our Lord’s Resurrection from the dead

Organizational men, reformers, and prophets

Back in 1996, a committee of pastors and elders was asked to evaluate the conflict within the church I was serving. After collecting letters and interviewing some of the leaders of the conflict, the group came up with recommendations for the congregation and its officers and pastors.

In time, I too met with the committee. Their spokesman said they thought a new man could get a fresh start, so it was their recommendation I resign. Their spokesman went on to explain they had spent a lot of time looking into matters and had arrived at a conclusion they wanted to put to me in the form of a question. He paused for a moment, then stated their question: “Can a man be a prophet and be a pastor?”

Later that night I recounted this to my brother, Nathan, who was also a pastor. He responded, “That’s the wrong question. The right questions is, ‘Can a man be a pastor and not be a prophet?'”

This is helpful for understanding President J. Oliver Buswell back in the 1930s leading up to the Wheaton Trustees firing him in early 1940. President Buswell was a prophet preaching and writing for the reform of Christ’s Church.

But can a man be a prophet and be a college president?

Wheaton’s trustees answered, “No.”

Are Machen and Buswell, too, among the prophets?

Some men love money. Some love power. Some love their own names and reputations.

Few love the Church of Jesus Christ, and even fewer are willing to do the thankless work of laboring for the Church’s purity and peace. Such men used to be called “churchmen.”

President Buswell was a churchman. Tirelessly, he toiled alongside Princeton Seminary professor J. Gresham Machen for the reform of their Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Along with a number of other churchmen, Buswell and Machen were seeking to expose and expel heretics and heresies from Christ’s church.

Do any Evangelicals remember the Apostle Paul’s farewell charge to his elders in the church of Ephesus:

I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. (Acts 20:29-31)

For their labors of love for Christ and His Church, Machen, Buswell, and their co-laborers in reform were disciplined by the Presbyterian religious leaders. Most were expelled from the PCUSA. In 1936, Wheaton College President J. Oliver Buswell was expelled. Then, three years later, Wheaton’s religious leaders also rid themselves of President Buswell.

False doctrine and the men committed to tolerating and promoting it had such a hold on the reins of money and power within the Presbyterian Church that Buswell, Machen, and their fellow reformers lost the battle.

Still, it must be noted that the battle wasn’t lost because those who were heretics were so many and strong. It was their fellow Presbyterian pastors who weren’t spouting heresies themselves, but who wanted peace at all costs within their PCUSA, who expelled the reformers.

Scripture’s doctrine is precious

Five centuries ago, at the time of the Reformation, an earlier reformer was twice fired and forced to leave his job and home in Geneva. Knowing the nature of conflict within the Church, John Calvin wrote:

The name of peace is indeed plausible and sweet, but cursed is that peace which is purchased with so great loss, that we suffer the doctrine of Christ to perish, by which alone we grow together into godly and holy unity.12

In 1940, Wheaton’s Trustees were scandalized by President Buswell’s battle against heresy. They wanted a peaceful campus and non-controversial president, so they fired President Buswell and promoted history prof, V. Raymond Edman, into the presidency.

Almost a century later another Wheaton president, Phil Ryken, was hired to serve as president by Wheaton’s Trustees. Quite compliant to the demands of his students and Trustees, he too stomped the reputation and honor of his predecessor, James Oliver Buswell Jr.

This is not difficult to understand. Unless, of course, one desires to be Tommy—the pinball wizard. Deaf, dumb, and blind.

(Eighteenth in a series; on 4/30/24, series had views/listens of 10,076)


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References
1Ken Hansen, The Ken and Jean Hansen Story: 1918 – 1989.
2Ibid, 53.
3Ibid, 58.
4Ibid, 59.
5Ibid, 60.
6Ibid, 50.
7Report, 51.
8Report, 112.
9Machen’s second through fourth points read:

2. To instruct the Board of Foreign Missions that no one who denies the absolute necessity of acceptance of such verities by every candidate for the ministry can possibly be regarded as competent to occupy the position of Candidate Secretary,

3. To instruct the Board of Foreign Missions to take care lest, by the wording of the application blanks for information from candidates and from those who are asked to express opinions about them, or in any other way, the impression be produced that tolerance of opposing views or ability to progress in spiritual truth, or the like, is more important than an unswerving faithfulness in the proclamation of the gospel as it is contained in the Word of God and an utter unwillingness to make common cause with any other gospel, whether it goes under the name of Christ or not,

4. To warn the Board of the great danger that lurks in union enterprises at home as well as abroad, in view of the widespread error in our day.

10This denomination split at the end of its first year of existence. Three years later, in 1939, the half that held on to the name Presbyterian Church of America changed their name to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Neither church is to be confused with the Presbyterian Church in America, a southern denomination formed in 1973.
11The next article in this series will address the denominational conflict which split the Presbyterian Church of America.
12John Calvin, on Acts 15:2.

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