The End of Lincoln Christian University: Why it Matters

By C J Dull

On May 31, 2024 Lincoln Christian University will close its doors.  It will truly mark the end of an era for the Independent Christian Churches, however hackneyed and trite that may sound. The formative years of this group are often considered a titanic struggle between two contrasting personalities, Dean Walker on the left and R C Foster on the right. The former perfected the art of turning eccentricity into profundity, while the latter was clear to the point of being accusatory, turning the debate skills he learned at Harvard on the whole religious landscape.  Yet on an institutional level, the two major figures were Leonard Wymore of the North American Christian Convention and Earl Hargrove of Lincoln.  

The discussion below will focus more on the contribution of Lincoln, which is not quite as obvious as the North American. Yet it should be remembered that at the end of May the two most significant institutions of the Independent Christian Churches during its formative period will only be history—or more bluntly, dead. That can hardly fail to be significant or perhaps crucial or essential for the group as a whole. Some may infer that this is a good time to echo the concluding words of the Springfield Presbytery and sink into the larger Christian world, however defined, but it seems rather that stripping the romanticized emphasis on unity is preferable.  

Intriguingly, while Emmanuel and Lincoln proposed different emphases, they derive from a common source, the Kerschner Butler School of Religion. This “common source” did produce different approaches. Emmanuel maintained an interest in contacts with the restructured Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) while Lincoln was quick to dissociate itself from them. Hargrove was motivated to enter the ministry while a member of a Disciples congregation and did his theological work at Phillips Seminary–thus, the irony of his original motivation and its contrasting later policy. One area in which he did maintain his Disciple interests was his view of women in the pulpit. He seemed particularly impressed by their ability to keep congregations loyal and coherent during a difficult period. When Prof. Heine (alumnus and professor of Lincoln) published a seminal article on the subject in 1977, it was not a new emphasis. Female graduates of Lincoln often found active careers in the churches. Eleanor Daniel was probably the most prominent Independent during this period, having served as a seminary professor and/or dean at all three seminaries and having demonstrated that she was “the expert” on Christian Education. Again, the irony of a school—and its female members–working to preserve a constituency that was not particularly sympathetic to such participation.  

The rise of Lincoln to a position resembling hegemony seemed to owe a great deal to timing and environment. Most are not impressed when we speak of those coming from “small farms”.  It often betokens a kind of sparse, parochial, sometimes remote background, mitigated only by hard work. Those in eastern Tennessee may easily conjure up images of tax defiance and moonshine. “Small farms” in central Illinois are a different story. They are generally flat—hence all the jokes about being located in a cornfield—fertile and mechanized. The congregation in Assumption, IL, where Ben Merold became somewhat prominent, also included Leroy Trulock, a very large implement dealer. Agricultural entities may be various sizes, but they generally are quite sophisticated in their approach to the practice. Most state universities in this area have schools of agriculture that are well-funded and often have vast extension services, the local one being the U of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Though an agricultural environment may not usually be associated with cosmopolitan awareness, in most such places the day begins with radio announcers giving the market and other reports often on a global scale. I recall quite distinctly giving a perfunctory greeting to a cousin who farmed and being rewarded with a lecture on the difficulty of competing with Brazilian soybeans. No doubt some remember those unbelievably impressive old consul radios able to reach almost anywhere in the world, which were a staple of many of our grandparents. It’s no wonder that their descendants found missions a congenial field. Lincoln, and regional Bible Colleges, had an immediate impact in missions, partly due to the agricultural environment, but also due to the fact the student body included many veterans of WWII.

The endorsements in Lincoln’s catalogue (and many others) by the American Legion as well as references to the GI Bill of Rights make it clear that many of the students were veterans of WW2 and Korea, and thus older and more disciplined—perhaps even more aggressive–than previously entering students. Such descriptions as more mature, more serious or solemn, and even more sophisticated may have been appropriate. Thus, we see the balancing of a specific regional area with a cosmopolitan emphasis—encouraged by the World Wars but already there, both of which impacted Lincoln and its influence on Independents.    

The conception that a Bible college can serve as a regional center for evangelism did not originate with Lincoln. Aside from historical examples (e.g., medieval western monasticism), probably the first example among the Independent Christian Churches was the formation of Pacific Bible Seminary, a Cincinnati clone, in 1928.  Alberta Bible College and Atlanta Christian College had similar missions before WW2. Yet, Lincoln—started after the war—demonstrated that the model was indeed productive. The one caveat is that Lincoln’s success was evangelism not in any simple or pure sense but largely by strengthening existing congregations. Especially in their early days, the faculty and many of the students were able to support themselves through supply preaching or even regular pastorates. 

Historically, then, the preference for Bible colleges came out of Lincoln, in the fifties. It appeared to have phenomenal success in rejuvenating congregations there (they regularly talk about 500 congregations within a hundred miles), and the model of a Bible college as a center of evangelism was born. The lack of interest in producing new liberal arts colleges was a combination of factors: (1) money—most of the supporting churches were rural and small; (2) public university education was strong and inexpensive in these states; and (3) liberal arts colleges (e.g., Eureka and Culver Stockton) had demonstrated both a susceptibility to critical views (which were not acceptable in this wave) and a declining ability to produce preachers. While Lincoln inspired the creation of Bible colleges as centers of evangelism, the staffing of them usually fell to other schools (e.g., Johnson, Minnesota, Cincinnati).

The other notable shift that was centered on Lincoln was the focus on theology. At a time when higher criticism was influencing churches and seminaries, all three of the seminaries of Independents opposed critical scholarship in the first generation. Emmanuel did the same as Butler and embraced it in the second generation. The other two in the second had degrees largely outside formal seminary areas, and often these disciplines are not particularly fond of NT scholarship, often considering it a kind of exotic scholasticism. During this period the preeminent discipline in our seminaries became theology, especially the work of Jack Cottrell at Cincinnati and James Strauss at Lincoln. With the closing of both Cincinnati and Lincoln, schools seem to be returning to an emphasis on basic biblical exegesis.

However, the lasting focus on preachers and preaching may be the result of Lincoln and other regional schools. The supply of preachers seems to have upgraded the position of the sermon. While preaching has always been important, often its most skillful practitioners had been certain professionals such as circuit riders or evangelists. In this period the sermon tends to take on a position as an essential part of the service, almost like a sacrament or ordinance that must be part of the service, even if it is delivered by one untrained in theology or church history. 

This focus on preaching, supported by Lincoln and regional schools, must be combined with two other key influential figures. It is difficult to understand the ministerial ethos among Christian Church preachers without understanding P. H. Welshimer. He took a congregation of 350 in 1903 and within 20 years had one of a couple thousand with an emphasis on the Sunday School, the simple Gospel and considerable sophistication in methodology. He was becoming prominent about the time a young man named Donald McGavran was graduated from Butler University, which gave Welshimer an honorary doctorate. The “church growth” McGavran later described in missionary terms he first saw personified in Welshimer.  McGavran took-up Welshimer’s emphasis on the priority of evangelism and “the simple gospel,” which has resulted in a kind of theological minimalism in the church growth movement and his successors in big churches. Ministers of large churches (even more so with the prevalence of business training) especially concentrate on adding members with a minimum of theology and a maximum of activity—ranging from familiar good works (e.g., Habitat for Humanity, prison work) to aerobics to parenting, debt-reduction or even pie-making workshops.

Thus, the key influences of Lincoln, have been the focus on preaching, on regional emphases and needs, practical ministries, church growth, and theology. With the closing of Lincoln, there is no question which, among these, will be its enduring legacy.[1]

Reflections on “The End of Lincoln Christian University: Why it Matters

By Paul Axton

C. J. Dull is one of the premiere historians and Greek scholars among “Independents”, so I asked him to reflect on the significance of the closing of Lincoln Christian University.

My tenure at Lincoln was only one year, and in that year, I studied almost exclusively with James Strauss. Though I could not always understand his precise point, Strauss’s charisma, breadth of reference, and enthusiasm worked a profound influence. His mode of doing theology inspired his students, like myself, to pursue higher degrees in theology. My work, in psychoanalytic theory and philosophy, may be unusually arcane but is one example of the directions inspired by Strauss. Though Strauss, like most all of his contemporaries, was limited by the paradigms of modernity, his legacy at Lincoln seems to have created space for those working in postmodern theology, philosophical theology, and historical theology. Strauss was a large personality and a dynamic speaker, with a wide presence and visibility in our churches, such that he made room for the subsequent outstanding theological faculty which gathered at Lincoln.

In the classroom, Strauss was famous for his various witticisms. When he would ask a question and receive no reply, he indicated we could ask any passing truck driver on Hwy 30 to answer. He referred to the slow infiltration of the “principalities and powers” into the Church as the frog in the kettle syndrome. The frog is happy to sit in the warm water and misses the fact that he is adjusting gradually to being boiled to death. Maybe evangelicalism as a whole, but certainly Independents, are now submerged in the boiling waters of pragmatism.

C J describes the cross purposes in Lincoln’s focus on preaching, church growth, practical ministries, and theology. Theology turns out to be the loser in a group geared toward church growth and pragmatics. It is not clear theological depth can survive among Independents. Lincoln was the key exception and now the primary exhibit, that this is the case. Sadly, any truck driver on Hwy 30 probably knows this.


[1] There are some interesting ways in which the regional schools have had something of an enduring effect.  One more salient aspect, but probably mostly under the radar, is the position of communion in the order of service.  Most older congregations continuously operative almost universally have preserved communion at the end.  Virtually everyone else has it just before the sermon.  Of course for years, if not decades, having a regular preacher was at best a luxury.  It was often the practice to have the song service and end with communion following.  If a preacher was available, his contribution was added after communion and became the de facto end.  The ready supply of preachers made available by the regional schools then systematized the position of communion in the center of the service so successfully that most members now cannot conceive of any other position.

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