Dr. Rolland McCune Message #5 on Fundamentalism – W. B. Riley, Billy Graham, and Northwestern Schools

In 1992 my young wife and I visited Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. We were warmly greeted by the president, Dr. Rolland McCune. After walking through the building and meeting some of the professors, Dr. McCune took us out for lunch. Trish and I felt greatly honored–“The Seminary PRESIDENT took little old US out for lunch!”

When we finally moved out there was a lag of time before we could settled into our apartment. Where to stay? Somehow (I don’t remember) Dr. McCune found out, and told us he and his wife Daisy would be out of town that very week we’d be there, and they offered their home to us. At the time we also had our first daughter who was nearly a year old. How many seminary presidents would do that? These expressions of Christian love made a definite impact on us.

Dr. McCune’s love never sacrificed or ignored truth for the sake of what would then be unbiblical, ungodly, unchristian love. Truth and love were not separate characteristics; both were essential. Love is only truly known and expressed in the sphere of truth. Without truth genuine love cannot be known. Truth and love as attributes of God can only be rightly known from God, and thus from the Christian Scriptures. I thank the Lord for Dr. and Mrs. McCune teaching and living this out before us.

This message is, as Dr. McCune described it, a vignette in the history and development of fundamentalism, considering the transition of leadership of Northwestern Schools from its founder, W. B. Riley, to Billy Graham. Unfortunately, the conclusion of the message is not on the recording, as Dr. McCune spoke longer than one side of a cassette tape.

The material here is not in any of McCune’s journal articles on fundamentalism and new evangelicalism, nor in his book, Promise Unflufilled. Yet this message he gave is so important to learn–

  1. Who Graham really was. There is the tendency to think that as his life advanced Graham changed and became softer and compromised in ways he shouldn’t have. That was not the case. Graham always denigrated defending the faith. He always sought a broad coalition of practically any kind of “Christian” for the sake of “evangelism.”
  2. How Riley was so wrong about Graham. Riley assumed too much and too well of Graham. The consequences of Riley’s failure regarding this had tragic results; within a matter of years Northwestern schools completely changed from fundamentalism to new evangelicalism.

Dr. McCune made a statement in this message that has stuck with me through the years and which experience has demonstrated to be true:

It’s not the direction one’s nose is pointing (what he says), but where his toes are pointing (what he does).

Because the content of this message is not in print, here is a thumbnail sketch of it:

W. B. Riley’s (WBR) original choice of Billy Graham (BG) as president of Northwestern (NW)

  • WBR’s heart set on BG succeed him as president of NW—6 reasons (1947): youth, personality, speaking ability, recent college days, contacts with people of means, attitude in theology (an out-and-out fundamentalist; doctrinally oriented, particularly fundamentalism, fighter and defender)

Graham’s presidency of NW, 1948-1952–The board thought they were getting someone who would be

  1. Head of three schools
  2. Outspoken on the subject of theology, because WBR was
  3. Profound conviction

What they got was a change in direction, because this is who BG was and where he was going. BG changed direction of things at NW—

  1. Exposing error—WBR was a polemic and attacked error; BG was almost never negative dealing with error; he was not a defender of the faith and was turned off by those who did so; positive, not a defender
  2. Priority/popularity of evangelism—under BG NW went from polemics to evangelism; BG was popular, WBR was polemical; BG was not going to be anti-, he was going to reach out to people; it was popular to be in evangelism, not polemics; BG’s interdenominational efforts were not concerned with doctrine as a basis
  3. Philosophy of education changed—NW took on a Wheaton look, a “Wheaton college of the north,” a liberal arts school; change the philosophy bringing a change with disastrous effects; press for accreditation; primacy of evangelism—‘the most important thing is evangelism,’ but they separated evangelism from doctrine
  4. Relationship with the NAE changed—WBR criticized the NAE, but after he died, NW became very sympathetic with NAE; Ockenga and BG were very close friends; during annual WBR lectures BG brought in Carl Henry who taught the students the principles of new evangelicalism.
  5. Relationship to Fuller Theological Seminary—Marsden has demonstrated FTS’ objective, “Reforming Fundamentalism,” and that is what NW schools’ objective became under BG’s leadership; calls for peaceableness and loveliness were subtle attacks against WBR and fundamentalism

I hear calls today from within fundamentalism we need less or no polemics but we need apologetics. What does that mean? I think the two are intertwined, but the idea [of the statement is] we don’t want these combative, Riley-types; we want those who can explain and preach and do that. We’re hearing that today.

Dr. McCune, 29:00

WBR’s failures

  1. Too enamored with success of BG—Riley was playing to the grandstand on this one
  2. Failed to guard the doctrinal aspects of the transition, too optimistic about BG being an ardent fundamentalist and not a middle-of-the-roader
  3. Failed to ascertain the true convictions of BG—BG’s interdenominationalism was pragmatic, ecumenical; WBR’s was doctrinal, fellowshipping because they believed the same things

39:55—“In one student generation conviction was turned to compromise and convenience and militancy to moderation and mediocrity. This occurred in part to reach greater crowds in his evangelistic work.”

Listen and/or download:

Fundamentalism: W. B. Riley, Billy Graham, and Northwestern Schools