In the May 1972 issue of Christianity Today, Frank Nelsen, a history professor from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, proposed creating “evangelical living and learning centers for undergraduate students [to] be built on private property near large state universities.” These centers would provide students with space to pursue “an intellectually honest investigation of the Christian faith and its relation to secular disciplines.”
Nelsen suggested the idea—targeting a niche between campus ministries, local churches, and Christian liberal arts colleges—as a solution to what CT had identified a year earlier as the “Crisis in Christian Education.” The postwar boom in higher education was waning, and evangelicals were unprepared to respond. Rather than stick to an aging model, Nelsen asked: “Is there an educational alternative to the private college for evangelicals to consider in the light of current economic stresses and strains?”
The question is, unfortunately, as timely in May of 2020 as it was in May of 1972. Once again, universities—both public and private—are facing a tidal wave of new “economic stresses and strains.” And what of Nelsen’s proposal? In the almost-half-century since, “evangelical learning centers” have popped up on dozens of college campuses, from flagship public institutions such as the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin–Madison to elite private schools including Yale and Duke. The 30 or so individual centers have formed a national Consortium of Christian Study Centers, founded in 2008. While the details of Nelsen’s proposal never came to fruition (he suggested separate Christian dormitories and accredited coursework), the idea took on a life of its own.
The path from CT article to national consortium was anything but straightforward. Charles Cotherman’s new book, To Think Christianly, is the first comprehensive history of the Christian study center movement and its many roots in postwar evangelicalism. Focused on an influential, if small, class of educated evangelicals pursuing deeper cultural engagement with contemporary thought, To Think Christianly carefully reconstructs a vast web of intellectual networks and institutional struggles that most recent histories of postwar evangelicalism ignore, resisting the dominant narrative of evangelical cultural engagement since World War II.
Two New Frameworks
To Think Christianly may be the first time many readers encounter the institution of the Christian study center. Cotherman, it should be clear, is exclusively concerned with the genealogy of “evangelical learning centers.” In the 19th century, organizations like the YMCA and the Chautauqua movement fulfilled a similar role for lay Christians. Catholics have built a vast Newman Center network, and mainline Protestants founded centers like the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, Switzerland, in the late 1940s. Even Christian Science Reading Rooms resemble Christian study centers. Cotherman ignores this wider Christian history in favor of explaining contemporary evangelical study centers in particular. This may rankle some readers, but the choice also sharpens his focus on a distinct evangelical engagement with culture that remains understudied.
Evangelical Christian study centers trace their roots to two progenitors: Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri community in Switzerland and Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. While both were founded outside of the United States, they were deeply attuned to midcentury American evangelical concerns. Founded in 1955 in the Swiss Alps, L’Abri became a destination for travelers and wanderers to learn at the feet (or more often at the cassette tape) of ex-fundamentalist Francis Schaeffer. A one-time missionary, Schaeffer and his wife, Edith, recognized the growing appeal of hosting young travelers in their home. As Cotherman observes, L’Abri’s “home-based hospitality” of open-ended stays, communal work, and eating together made it “a working, living, studying, praying community before communal living became a countercultural standard.”
L’Abri’s “radical hospitality” helped to popularize Schaeffer’s novel conservative Protestant engagement with art, philosophy, and culture. By the late 1960s, Schaeffer was a best-selling author with speaking tours across the United States. Yet there were limitations. Especially as he became a leader in pro-life politics in the 1970s, he developed a guru-like aura among his followers. Rather than engage directly with other thought leaders, he maintained an insular circle of intellectual partners. While most historical accounts of Schaeffer linger on this later phase of political activism, Cotherman emphasizes how a generation of intellectually inclined evangelicals were inspired by Schaeffer’s earlier period at L’Abri.
If L’Abri’s hospitality modeled a new type of evangelical community, Regent College suggested a novel framework for evangelicals to pursue academic knowledge. Initiated by a circle of educated Plymouth Brethren in Vancouver, Regent started as a graduate school for lay Christians, eventually affiliating with the University of British Columbia. Regent’s founding in 1970 was shaped by its first principal, James M. Houston, a Scottish geographer who left Oxford for the job. Houston quickly assembled an impressive faculty, including J. I. Packer and W. Ward Gasque, which led to growing enrollment.
One of Houston’s early struggles was to maintain Regent’s focus on relational lay theological training and to resist developing Regent into a large seminary. As Cotherman puts it, Houston wanted education “to do away with the trappings of technocracy in favor of personal relations.” There were many benefits to this approach. With its mission to lay Christians, Regent was more welcoming to women (predominantly as students) in an era when it was almost impossible for women to enroll in evangelical seminaries. Regent encouraged women and men alike to become theological thinkers.
Why so much attention directed to this pair of institutions? In Cotherman’s telling, the twin legacies of L’Abri and Regent “helped sow an emphasis on hospitality and relationship” for the study centers that would follow. Moreover, the majority of later study center founders had some connection to L’Abri or Regent. These common evangelical roots were revealed through overlapping interpersonal networks and a shared intellectual agenda. The relationship of knowledge to faith—of “mind and heart”—was the umbrella under which each new generation could contemplate certain core questions: What role does Christian faith play in the pursuit of academic knowledge? What does it mean to have a faithful Christian presence in a modern university community? How should Christian thought form an engineer, a doctor, an architect?
Cotherman’s other examples—R. C. Sproul’s Ligonier Valley Study Center in Stahlstown, Pennsylvania, and New College Berkeley near the University of California (now affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union)—diverged from the early models. Ligonier eventually became a national cassette and video tape ministry that relocated to outside of Orlando, Florida. New College Berkeley nearly folded in its attempt to gain accreditation in the 1980s, deciding instead to embed itself in an existing network of seminaries and theological centers in the San Francisco Bay area. More closely linked to the contemporary Christian study center movement is the Center for Christian Study on the campus of the University of Virginia, which under the leadership of Andrew Trotter in the 1990s and 2000s developed the cooperative model between university and study center that now dominates the movement. (Trotter would become the first director of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers in 2009.)
Carrying the Torch
Cotherman’s story largely sidesteps the familiar culture-war and Christian-right themes that currently receive so much attention from journalists and historians. Study centers themselves are scattered across the political spectrum. Schaeffer played a crucial role in the Christian right until his death in 1984, while New College Berkeley’s roots are in the evangelical left of the 1970s.
This diversity does not mean, however, that Cotherman overlooks the areas where Christian study centers overlapped with conservative evangelical politics. Many study centers pitched (and still pitch) themselves as a “shelter” and specialize in apologetics, creating Christian “bubbles” of students floating in secular campuses. The US Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which allowed universities to implement far more muscular anti-bias regulations, only hardened this posture. According to Cotherman, the decision aided a “reactionary and isolationist strain” that can work against stated missions of cooperative academic engagement. And while the study centers that followed in Regent’s path were substantially more accessible to women than evangelical seminaries, most often they have been founded and led by white men.
Cotherman’s narrative choice is refreshing, suggesting an alternate story of postwar evangelical cultural engagement that is challenging, insightful, and, at times, inspirational. Like all histories, this one is shaped by the questions asked of the past. The Consortium of Christian Study Centers has recently experienced remarkable growth, as more than half of its 30 member centers were founded after 2010. To Think Christianlyreflects this narrative of growth, tracking the movement’s shift from an “innovation” mindset to a “multiplication” mindset. It remains unclear if the movement will continue to grow, or what its broader influence on evangelical thought will be. Observers beyond Cotherman, including historians Mark Noll and Molly Worthen, have highlighted study centers as potential bright spots in an intellectual landscape darkened by the multiple crises afflicting evangelical intellectual life and higher education.
These cycles of educational crisis, voiced by Nelsen in 1972, are, admittedly, here to stay. “Crises are nothing new for the Christian colleges,” he observed, “their histories are replete with them.” Cotherman’s excellent book illustrates how there has been and will continue to be an evangelical impulse to care for the mind, body, and spirit of these university communities. Whatever crises lay on the horizon, we can expect a host of Christian study centers to build creatively on the foundations laid by previous generations, carrying the torch of evangelical cultural engagement with the same verve and resilience.
Daniel G. Hummel is an honorary research fellow in the history department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a staff member at Upper House, a Christian study center based there. He is the author of Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations (University of Pennsylvania).