Bob Jones University (BJU) is a private institution founded in 1927 by the evangelist Bob Jones, Sr., at College Point, Florida. Hard hit by the Great Depression, the school relocated to Cleveland, Tennessee, in 1933 and then to its present campus in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1947. Enrollment in some 150 undergraduate and graduate majors has remained around five thousand since the 1980s.
Headed by four generations of Jones family evangelists, the university emerged from the separatist fundamentalist movement and has from its inception been committed to “combating all atheistic, agnostic, pagan and so-called scientific adulterations of the gospel.” Wary of any secular standards of education, the university eschews accreditation by external agencies, although it is state-certified to offer degrees from the bachelor’s level through the Ph.D.
The fundamentalism informing “the world’s most unusual university” (as BJU describes itself) emphasizes biblical literalism, noncooperation with all Protestant denominations, a strident anti-Catholicism, and dissociation from other academic institutions. Maintaining distance from all falsehood is, for separatist fundamentalism, essential to securing the purity of the faith. Hence, Bob Jones, Jr., labeled Protestant evangelist Billy Graham, once a student at the school, as “doing more harm” to Christianity than any other individual because Graham sought interdenominational support for his evangelistic crusades.
While striving for an academic excellence fortified by this sense of spiritual purity, the university has maintained strict codes of conduct governing relations between the sexes and leisure behavior, even when students are off campus. Participation in most secular forms of entertainment is prohibited. Although highly critical of popular culture, BJU has developed strong academic programs in communications media, ranging from music to cinema, and is noted for the high quality of its operatic and theatrical productions. Its museum houses one of the more important collections of religious art in the nation, with particular strengths in medieval and Renaissance religious painting.
The commitment to separatism also extended to contact between the races, even among those who were part of the university community. For its first half-century, the university maintained a policy of strict segregation. BJU did not admit African Americans until 1975 and prohibited interracial dating among students. As a result of BJU’s racial policies, the Internal Revenue Service sought to revoke the school’s tax-exempt status, an action upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983. By the close of the twentieth century, rigid segregation had ended, although interracial contact remained regulated.
The university’s separatist bent meant that students and faculty for many years eschewed active participation in politics and other aspects of public life. But as the surrounding culture became more religiously and ideologically pluralistic in the twenty-first century, the Jones family and members of the university community became identified with conservative political causes and lent open support to candidates whose views reflected the fundamentalist perspective and social values of the school.
Not denominationally affiliated, BJU anchors a network of independent separatist fundamentalist congregations, many of which have university alumni as pastors. Radio station WMUU has extended the university’s influence and further linked together those within BJU’s orbit. As well, believing that secular humanism pervades public education, the university has published curriculum materials for fundamentalist-oriented elementary and secondary schools and for use in home schooling.
Dalhouse, Mark Taylor. An Island in the Lake of Fire: Bob Jones University, Fundamentalism, and the Separatist Movement. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Dollar, George. A History of Fundamentalism in America. Greenville, S.C.: Bob Jones University Press, 1973.
Wright, Melton. Fortress of Faith: The Story of Bob Jones University. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1960.