Deeper and Wider

Deeper and Wider

Recently while sorting though an old file, I found the letter from Professor Gilbert James written in 1970. I had taken a leave from my formal seminary education in Kentucky and was in a year-long intership, teaching at the United Methodist School IPA, in the Republic of Panamá. Professor James at Asbury Seminary and I exchanged correspondence during the year. I was taking a reading course from him while away from campus.

Dr. Gilbert James,
Used Courtesy of the Archives and Special Collections of Asbury Theological Semina
ry

In the letter I recently discovered, Dr. James asks that I not share its contents because “if expressed openly on campus would be considered high treason.” Hyperbole is all too comon in the academy. However, I think Gilbert was quite serious. His comments in the letter would have created problems and perhaps even censure.

My spouse, Elaine, and I were in Panama. Back in the U.S. Gilbert was confronted with a “spontaneous revival” which had begun at the college across the street. Others have since spoken and written about the 1970 Asbury College Revival in positive terms. There are, indeed, powerful stories of persons finding emotional and physical healing and being restored in their faith.

What were these controversial comments in the letter? Gilbert writes of his dismay watching folks “getting high on ‘mass enthususiasm.'” As a social scientist, educated in both sociology and psychology, what he observed was a religious fanaticism, interpreted with narrow fundamentalist language, and celebrated with “abysmal Biblical ignorance.” Only that!

Gilbert and Esther James with Abbie Christian Establishing a Work in Indianapolis for the Department of
Interracial Evangelism for the Free Methodist Church (circa 1955).
(Used with Permission of the Asbury Seminary B.L. Fisher Archives and Special Collections)

Some saw in the enthusiastic fervor at Asbury College in 1970 a great time of spiritual renewal. Gilbert noted there was good, but expressed concerns rooted in his years of experience with such spiritual awakenings. There is irony in the fact that Gilbert James had spent much of his life as an evangelist, attending and preaching in many camp meetings and revivals. Between 1946 and 1960 he was the Superintendent of the Department of Interracial Evangelism for the Free Methodist Church. He knew the genuine article and celebrated it. In 1970 he also was troubled.

Knowing my teacher as a world class provocatuer, I suspect that his fear of being accused of being a traitor to the faith is correct. He might have been charged with something like “high theological treason” in that particular time and place five decades ago — and in many places still today. He saw some of the fanaticism of the events at the college across the street, spilling over into the seminary. My guess is that during the 1970 Asbury Revival his wife, Esther, had to tone him down each evening; although, I suspect she shared many of his perspectives.

With some discomfort I recall that Gilbert was a revivalist. He believed in seeking both personal and institutional renewal. My discomfort is primarily due to the fact that his breadth of theological vision seems to be in short supply in today’s world. Evangelism has been given over to a narrow set of understandings. It has been limited to only a change in an individual — who is being introduced into thinly disguised social and political understandings. Unlike the revivals in the Second Great Awkening, where a wide array of societal saw as injustices were addressed (poverty, slavery, voting rights for women, etc.), there is scant focus on institutional practices that need transformation, apart from a short list that includes fights against abortion and homosexuality.

Gilbert, the evangelist, believed in personal conversion — in transformation, possible through faith in Christ. Such change is affirmed in the letter — but he knew of an evangelism that was much deeper and wider. And he knew of the threats of individualism and fundamentalism that were at play. There were troublesome signs for him in the events surrounding the 1970 Asbury Revival that I don’t believe have been made public before.

So, here, 52 years later I offer this insight into his perspective of the 1950 Asbury Revival. I have highlighted in bold some passages mentioned above, the underlining was his.

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Letter from Dr. Gilbert James – March 31, 1970 – Wilmore, Kentucty To: Phil and Elaine Amerson – Republic of Panamá

Dear Phil and Elaine,

            “Thanks for your good letters and your patience with me… “ [Professor James then writes a few paragraphs about a reading course for Phil.] The letter then continues speaking of the 1970 Asbury Revival.

“I am sure you have read of the revival and all of the excitement around here with teams going out in all directions – classes suspended – and the academic quarter an educational shambles.

Letter from Gilbert James to Phil and Elaine Amerson, March 31, 1970

There were some remarkable individual examples and changed lives and I am grateful for every one of them.  There has been, however, I must in all honesty confess, a great deal of shear non-sense that was nothing more than “getting high” on mass enthusiasm.  I have never witnessed in my life more expressions of atrocious theology and abysmal biblical ignorance than I heard from the “witnessing” lips of those college students.  As a result, we underwent the usual “exorcism of demons” at the college until it was suppressed and now we have the most frightful outbreak of “tongues” at the seminary that we have ever suffered. The word is out that Asbury Seminary is the “Mecca” for the tongues movement.  I am just sick about it.  The most remarkable aspect of the whole affair is not that it occurred, but rather that as much good was accomplished as was with all the inane and disrespectful antics that went on with it.

Please do not write back to anyone about this, for what I am writing to you, if expressed openly on the campus would be considered high treason.”  I repeat, I am glad for the work of a sovereign God, in spite of man’s ignorance and sinfulness, but I predict it will be years to fully recover from the unfortunate results that have damaged the reputation of Asbury and reflected on the sound biblical basis of her message.

I am right in the midst of the elaborate planning necessary for the Chicago program.  We received $50,000 from Lilly for the experiment, and this is our big chance to try to seek some new directions in theological education. After a full day’s consultation with the Minister’s Study Board director of the NCC.  He said, in great seriousness, “This is one of the most exciting and unique experiments in American theological education.  He has agreed to direct our evaluation of the program and we hope to get a monograph out of it.

Love to you both – I must close.  Write soon about books you want.  Pray for me – please.

Gilbert James

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Teaching in Panamá, I was thousands of miles away from the spiritual, emotional, psychological cyclone richocheting in and around Wilmore, Kentucky. I was far from the events my teacher, Gilbert, saw at close proximity. However, a “spiritual awakening” was continuing for me at the time in Panamá. There I saw more clearly the injustice, racism and violence of institutions and nations. Gilbert James had been insturmental in alerting me of similar structures in the U.S. in my earlier years as his student. In Panamá, these were brought into even sharper relief. I saw, up close, what it was like to live in a nation suffering under a dictator who was propped up by the U.S. I saw the racism institutionalized in the practices of the Canal Zone and the abuses of so called “aid projects” privileging of wealthy, both in Panamá and the U.S. I saw hungry children dumpster diving to have something to eat. And there was the corruption of young women sold into sexual arrangements as teenagers. Evangelization needed to be wider and deeper than “individuals getting high on mass enthusiasm.”

In my review of materials from the 1970 Revival and from reports I recall receiving from others at the time, there were many testimonies about giving up cheating, lying, gossip, drinking alcohol, smoking, sexual petting, premarital sex or persons having an “insufficient prayer life.” It is almost exclusively about individual sins or a shortcoming of one’s self. Where are the witnesses who say, “We must now speak out against racism, war, poverty or violence?”

I do not agree with all of Gilbert’s perspectives, including some in this letter. That would make him happy… and he would, no doubt, want to have a conversation about where we differ and what we might together learn. Even so, I very much believe his call to an intelligent faith that combines personal and social transformation, informed by careful biblical and theological work was right then, and continues to be right today.

I can already hear some saying, but you must begin with the individual, then “changed persons will change society.” My response: Where is your evidence? It has now been fifty years. If you disagree, please point me to how this “revival” made the kind of difference in our society that came from the revivals of the Second Great Awakening. The Cane Ridge Revival began forty-six miles from Wilmore and one-hundred-and-sixty-nine years earlier.

[Attached is an extended reflection comparing the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 and the Asbury Revival of 1970: https://documentcloud.adobe.com/link/review?uri=urn:aaid:scds:US:8c3d4bbf-2e81-39c1-bbf9-d054ae64f7ef.

Other “Awakenings” or revivals involved more than an adjustment of personal pieties or individual behaviors and beliefs. For early Evangelicals like John Wesley or John Calvin, institutional changes accompanied personal change. For the Anabaptists, a new personal faith meant a commitment to pacifism and the persecution that ensued. There is the conversion of John Newton who wrote the lyric we now sing as “Amazing Grace.” Newton’s conversion led him to become an abolitionist, after serving as the captian of slave ships. More recently one thinks of the bombing of Coventry Cathedral in England and the ensuing spiritual awakening resulting in international work at peacemaking (See: Fire in Coventry, Varney, Stephen: Hoder and Stoughton Ltd., 1974). Dozens of other examples could be cited; the sadness is that even today Asbury College and Seminary have fallen into the narrow valleys of a tamed evangelism and pursue cultural stances that are more informed by reactionary political elites and shaped by categories of individualism.

Professor Gilbert James and Eugene Carson Blake, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches,
Taize Community, circa 1971. Used Courtesy of the Archives and Special Collections, Asbury Theological Seminary.

Gilbert James was way ahead of me in 1970, and I suspect even now. When traveling with him for a seminary class in Chicago, New York, Detroit or Minneapolis, it was always amazing how he nudged us forward to see the broader ecology and the challenges of ministry in urban settings. It was even more astonishing meeting the people he brought to those seminars. Today I think of Letty Russell, Bill Stringfellow, Bill Pannell, George Riddick, Richard Leuke, Stan Hallett and George Weber, to name only a few.

A 1974 article by Gilbert entitled “The Use and Abuse of Power: A Study of the Principalities and Powers” demonstrates his understandings of the challenges Christians face in urban ecologies. He understood the need to seek transformation that is more than individual renewal (http://place.asburyseminary.edu/firstfruitspapers/15/).

My last visit with Gilbert was, I believe, in the fall of 1978. Having finished my doctoral work, I was asked to cover his seminary classes for a semester. My brilliant teacher was decending into early onset dementia. He would die in 1982 at the age of 66. I traveled to the seminary from my home at the time in Evansville, Indiana.

As I walked down a hallway in the seminary’s administraiton building, there was Gilbert heading toward the mail room. As he approached, we both began to weep. Then he gave me a hug and said, “I should know but I can’t place who you are.”

Ah, Gilbert, my friend, my beloved teacher, what is truly sad is that too few today remember who YOU are!