Monthly Archives: October 2012

George McGovern and Wheaton College

George McGovern, historian, senator and representative from South Dakota, died on October 21, 2012. Forty years ago, on October 11, 1972, he spoke at Wheaton College, a rather unlikely campaign stop for the Democratic presidential nominee against Republican Richard Nixon. The event was initially suggested by McGovern’s staff, asking for a venue in which he might engage Evangelicals. Activist Jim Wallis, attending Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, was asked to organize the senator’s visit, arranging a breakfast with prominent Christian leaders, in addition to an engagement at Wheaton College. “Actually,” writes Wallis, “the Wheaton Student Council, which issued the invitations to both candidates, accidentally switched the letters, sending Nixon’s by mistake to McGovern.” However, only McGovern accepted. A quiet man raised in a devout Methodist family, McGovern soon found himself in the pulpit of Edman Chapel, standing before an atypically divided house. A few supportive students cheered his unpopular anti-Vietnam War position, but many more booed, waving pro-Nixon banners.

Wallis had asked black evangelist Tom Skinner to introduce McGovern:

…Skinner…was a strong supporter of the senator and also, remember, I was banned from speaking at Wheaton. In an embarrassing moment, the students almost booed Skinner off the stage. McGovern’s aides were astonished. When the senator finally came out, the Wheaton students booed him too — a candidate for President of the Unites States.

Despite a rude reception from this portion of the campus community, McGovern calmed the noise, speaking knowledgeably and even charmingly, stating that he had once considered attending Wheaton College, but did not because his family could not afford it. Wallis recalls: “McGovern then…gave a speech that was perhaps the best I have ever heard about the relationship between Christians values and public life.”

The speech is heard here.

Wallis also remembers:

…a question McGovern got from an aggressive professor of Christian apologetics who asked the senator how somebody who attend the liberal Garrett Theological Seminary could have an adequate view of the fallen state of human nature. McGovern surprised the evangelical leaders by giving a theologically knowledgeable and biblically balanced exegesis of the Apostle Paul’s view of the human condition and then ended with a joke that broke up the house: “So because I don’t fully subscribe to the theology of complete human depravity and because Richard Nixon practices it, you’re going to vote for him?”

According to English professor Paul Bechtel, “Challenging ideas were set before the students with conviction, with charitable fairness, with no evidence of hollow political cliches.” Alas, McGovern lost the election with 17 electoral votes against Nixon’s 520. McGovern’s books include Abraham Lincoln (2008) and What It Means to Be a Democrat (2011).

Jim Wallis’s essay, “The George McGovern I Remember,” is published in the October 25, 2012, online edition of Sojourners: Faith in Action for Social Justice. The papers of Jim Wallis (SC-109) and Sojourners (SC-23) are housed in the Wheaton College Special Collections, available to researchers.

The cartoons are scanned from Coloring Book of Wheaton College, Spring 1973.

History’s Lesson for the Ages

Over twenty years ago, the Wheaton Alumni magazine began a series of articles, titled “On My Mind”, in which Wheaton faculty told about their thinking, their research, or their favorite books and people. Associate Professor of History Emeritus Thomas Kay (who taught at Wheaton from 1959-2004) was featured in the Spring 2003 issue.

Historians are often asked, “What does history teach?” Such an inquiry suggests that history is a measure by which we might evaluate the present and project the future; it makes the past absolute, definitive, and normative. Hence,”Whatever was, was right.” Thereby, the past serves as window both to the present and also to the future. The historian becomes both pundit and prophet.

My response to such queries is always, “History teaches change.” Each unique historical event may provide an understanding of the past, the present, and perhaps a glimpse into the future, which is not to say that the past determines the present or the future.

Sages of ancient Greece and Rome sought to discover in history the element of a balanced and complete social and political structure that could be implemented for all time. From those elements one might develop the best of human associations, perfecting their members and possessing eternality. Their efforts and formulae for well-intended reform and renewal broke down under their own weight and a failure to grasp the character of the fundamental human condition–sin. Self-interest, personal gain, and power undercut the search for peace, stability, order, and community. The laws of the jungle became the master.

The advent of Jesus Christ came when many aspects of the Roman Empire and classical civilization were giving way. Even in the glow of the cessation of civil strife and the popular hope that Augustus Caesar would be harbinger of peace and a new, enduring order, the rule of the stronger continued. In the midst of grasping, praying, and hoping for political, economic, social, and moral stability there were many changes. Rome fell prey to the whims and desires of leaders bound by their personal goals of power, self-glorification, and deification. That for which Rome yearned–peace, order, eternality–would not come through changes wrought by sheer power, even by those who exemplified the highest classical values. Such change came and continues to come to every person in the advent (past, present, and future) of Jesus Christ, whose eternal kingdom, the City of God, transforms the human experience now and forever.

As throughout history, life has always been, and will continue to be full of changes. There are the changes of birth, growth, and death; the changes in human relationships and changes of residence, work-place, and martial status.

Ironically, the essence of Christianity is also change. There is the change of becoming a new creation in Christ and the ultimate change that will mark the denouement of history: “In a moment in a twinkling of an eye, we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52). It is only after history is finished that non-change becomes fully possible; in that place where there is no day nor night, no tears, no illness and no death.

History teaches change and coping with change. This is the human predicament. Change is only transcended by both the temporal and eternal foundations of the City of God. It is this for which all humanity has sought, and will continue to seek throughout the ages.


The following statement was included at the time of publication: Dr. Thomas Kay has been professor of history at Wheaton for 44 years and served as coordinator of the interdisciplinary studies major for 14. He received his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago and serves on many load and state historical society boards including chairing the Illinois State Historical Society Symposium this year Dr. Kay’s current projects include a history of College Church in Wheaton, where he represents the middle of five generations of family attending. Dr. Kay and his wife Janice have three children and seven grandchildren, including two sets of “grand twins.”

Wheaton College and Quarryville Presbyterian Home

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, boasts a singularly rich Christian heritage, dating to the founding of the country. Closely associated with Amish, Mennonite and Quaker settlements, this district also enjoys the presence of Quarryville Presbyterian Home, founded by Franklin S. Dyrness. Graduating in 1931 from Wheaton College, Dyrness enrolled at Westminster Theological Seminary. Later serving as a pastor in Pennsylvania, he attempted locating housing for several elderly women from his congregation. Finding nothing suitable, he decided to establish his own home, but this one would be different. “We’re here not here just to have people take care of old people,” he told an interviewer. “I’m not interested in that. Let the government do it. We’re here with Christian concern in action. The Lord has led them here, and they have come of their own accord. People say that you ought to be happy that you established this. I say, please don’t say that. I have no credit. I don’t want any. The Lord is the only man who can do it and he did. Therefore, give God all the honor and praise.” While studying at Wheaton College Dyrness met his wife, Dorothy (“Dot”) Ruth Rasmussen. Franklin’s brother, Enock Dyrness, acted as the college Registrar from 1924-69.

Quarryville is tied to Wheaton College in other significant ways, as well. Throughout the years, many staff and alumni have retired here, notably Katharine Tiffany, longtime English teacher, who called it “the Conrad Hilton of retirement homes.” A room at the Home was named after her, the K.B. Tiffany Memorial Center. Dr. J. Oliver Buswell, third president of Wheaton College, lived his final years at Quarryville. Unlike his successor, V. Raymond Edman, who died of a heart attack quite publicly while preaching a chapel message at Wheaton College, Buswell simply slumped in his wheelchair, passing quietly. He is buried in Quarryville Cemetery. Wheaton’s fifth president, Dr. Hudson Armerding, spent several retirement years at Quarryville, assisting the chaplain with preaching and room-to-room visitation, before returning to Wheaton shortly preceding his death in 2009.

Franklin Dyrness served as president of Quarryville Presbyterian Home from its 1948 inception until his retirement in 1985. He was elected to the Wheaton College Honor Society and was bestowed the Doctor of Divinity in 1960. The Home and his alma mater contributed funds to establish the Franklin S. Dyrness Chair of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College. He was also president of the Board of Trustees of The Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America. According to his son, F. Seth, Jr: “We gathered around his bed and sang some of his favorite hymns for him. As we sang the final verse of Rock of Ages, he closed his eyes and went to be with the Lord. It was beautiful and deeply comforting for us as a family.” Franklin Dyrness died on June 16, 1990.

New Book on Evangelical Left Published

A newly released book by Wheaton College graduate, David Swartz is receiving favorable reviews by scholars and critics alike. Significant research was conducted in the Sojourners Records and other archival resources of the Archives & Special Collections prior to publication of Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (University of Pennsylvania Press). Dr. David R. Swartz is an assistant professor of history at Asbury University. He earned his Ph.D. in American history at the University of Notre Dame under the direction of George Marsden and Mark Noll. Areas of expertise and teaching interest include American religious history, twentieth-century American politics, global religion, and issues of war and peace.

According to the book’s website, “Moral Minority charts the rise and fall of a forgotten movement: the evangelical left. Emerging in an era when it was unclear where the majority of evangelicals might emerge politically, the evangelical left held great potential. The convergence of civil rights and antiwar activism, intentional communities, and third-world evangelicals in the early 1970s prompted the Washington Post to suggest that the new movement might ‘launch a movement that could shake both political and religious life in America.’

In the end, it did not. Moral Minority charts how identity politics roiled the evangelical left–and how the Democratic Party in the 1970s and the religious right in the 1980s left progressive evangelicals behind. The failure of the evangelical left, thus, was the product of a particular political moment more than a reflection of evangelicalism’s inherent conservatism. As a new century dawns, Swartz suggests that this marginalized movement could rise again, particularly if the Democratic Party reaches out to evangelicals and if Christian immigrants from the Global South are able to reshape American evangelicalism.”

According to the New York Times:

“Moral Majority is a vivid topography of a little-understood corner of evangelical thought. It is not an account of a political movement–because there was no movement to speak of. This is a story of failures and might-have-beens, but it is just as illuminating as a history of political success.”