A brief history of the world’s most unusual university

BJU at 90.

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As Bob Jones Sr. traveled the Chautauqua lecture circuit evangelizing in the 1920s, parents told him time and time again that they had sent their children off to college and when they returned home, they had rejected their faith.

Jones’ answer: Start a college that would emphasize the Bible, evangelism, and high academics — and not one that would ram evolution down students’ throats.

Ninety years after Bob Jones University opened its doors in the Florida panhandle in 1927, Bob Jones University President Steve Pettit said the importance of BJU is as great as ever.

Steve Pettit, photo by Levi Monday

“Bob Jones University was founded to give students a Christian liberal arts education with a strong emphasis on the development of one’s character,” said Pettit, who became the fifth president in the school’s history in 2014 and the first who is not a member of the school’s founding family. “I think there still is a need for that. I haven’t come here to change Bob Jones University. I came here to keep it on its mission.”

After a stop in Cleveland, Tenn., the school moved to Greenville during the height of the post-World War II higher education boom 70 years ago. In the years since, the school has found itself embroiled in controversies, first over its racial policies and most recently when an independent nonprofit organization, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, criticized its handling of reports of sexual abuse. Battles with a declining enrollment have also been a problem.

“I do believe that Bob Jones University can grow. I can’t answer that question absolutely, but I am convinced we’ll do everything in our power to build the school,” he said. “I don’t believe we’re doing everything we can do right now. But we are improving, and I think we’ll show growth.”

One of the keys to doing that is that the school has regained federal tax-exempt status, something it lost after a 13-year battle with the Internal Revenue Service over its racial policies.

Bob Jones didn’t admit black applicants until 1971. For the next four years, it admitted black students only if they were married “within their race.” In 1975, the university started admitting unmarried black applicants but banned interracial dating. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the government’s interest in ridding education of racial discrimination trumped the university’s First Amendment rights to religious free speech, stripping the school of its nonprofit status.

The university regained its nonprofit status in March after a reorganization that merged it with the operation of its nonprofit elementary school. Bob Jones restructured so that the elementary school’s nonprofit, called Bob Jones Elementary School Inc., was renamed BJU Inc. and the university was put under that umbrella.

“Getting 501(c)(3) status was really quite a miracle,” Pettit said. “It was something BJU has needed to do for quite some time.” But the school did not try to regain its tax-exempt status until after Pettit took over.

Pettit said it was fitting because the university no longer holds the same beliefs about race. “It was a hill we shouldn’t die on. There are things I’ll die for as a Christian, but this isn’t one of them,” he says. “Interracial dating is a social and cultural issue, not a biblical issue.”

The beginning

Bob Jones Sr. held his first revival meeting at the age of 12. At 13, he organized his own congregation. By 15, he was a licensed circuit preacher. By 1925, he was one of the most sought-after evangelists in the country, booking campaigns four years in advance and bringing in more money than all other evangelists except Billy Sunday, according to Dr. Daniel Turner’s “Standing Without Apology.”

About this time, the teaching of evolution started taking hold, and fundamentalist parents told Jones their children were going off to school and discarding their faith in God and the doctrines of the Bible because of the influence of unbelieving college professors, Turner writes.

While sitting under a shade tree at a roadside rest area in Kissimmee, Fla., Bob Jones made a decision to found a “real Christian school,” Turner adds. When Jones told his wife, she said, “Robert, are you crazy? Honey, you don’t know anything about a school. You’re not an educator. You can’t found a school.”

“I know I can’t. But God can,” Jones answered.

The school opened in 1927 with 88 students.

Boom to bust

The school’s start was tied to a new subdivision, Long Point on St. Andrews Bay near Panama City, Fla. Jones agreed to lend his name to the development in exchange for land for the school and some of the proceeds when the prime lots sold.

The Great Depression hit two years after the school opened. But Turner wrote that the Florida land boom had turned to bust well before that. Very few students paid in full. One student even paid for his tuition with collard greens.

By 1932, Jones told the faculty the school was broke. Talk had already begun about moving the school to a more accessible part of the country when Jones’ son, Bob Jones Jr., passed the boarded up Centenary College in Cleveland, Tenn.

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Immediately after the last “amen” of the final commencement in Florida was said on May 31, 1933, Mrs. Bob Jones Sr. and Bob Jones Jr. climbed into a car that had been brought to the back door of the auditorium and left immediately for Tennessee, starting a new chapter.

Enrollment grew at the new school.

By 1945, Bob Jones had to buy trailers from the federal government to accommodate an influx of returning war veterans. BJU had become the largest liberal arts college in Tennessee.

The college needed room to expand, but some neighbors resisted selling. Finally, Bob Jones said the school was moving.

Turner wrote that nine cities — including Asheville, N.C. — indicated interest in being the college’s next home. Orlando reportedly offered $1.5 million in financial aid and an old air base. But the city was eliminated from contention because it was unable to guarantee the required land options by the deadline. School officials were also concerned it was too far south.

Asheville, N.C., was eliminated because a group of ministers took out newspaper ads saying they’d fight the move and that BJU was unwelcome in their community because of its fundamentalist theology, Turner wrote.

Knoxville had offered 300 acres of land for $100,000. But when Jones showed up with enough money in his pockets to buy the land, the woman who owned the land backed out.

Last minute plea

Greenville wasn’t in the picture until realtor E. Roy Stone received a letter from his daughter, Martha Stone, a junior music major at BJU.

“By the way, the school is considering a move,” she wrote. Stone wrote to Jones listing Greenville’s advantages, among them being in the heart of the Bible Belt and the city’s desire to become a cultural center.

Stone later approached Richard Arrington, president of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce and president of Union Bleachery, about attracting the school to Greenville. According to Turner, Arrington ordered the board to form a committee with instructions to get the college “whatever the cost.”

But it seemed too late. Bob Jones and other college representatives were in a lawyer’s office in Knoxville ready to sign an option on some land when Stone reached them to urge them to check out Greenville.

“I can remember so clearly when Dr. Bob walked out on this piece of land and stood by a tree out from of the spot on which the library is built,” Turner quoted Stone as saying. “He turned around and swung his arm and said, ‘Lefty [Johnson, the school’s financial officer], this is it.’ Then he turned to me and said, ‘Mr. Stone, this is the land, isn’t it?’”

Jones told Stone the least the city could do is purchase the land for the school. Two days later, the chamber had options on most of the land.

On April 25, 1946, Bob Jones Sr. announced in chapel that the school was moving to Greenville.

“Greenville was booming in the late 1940s. The textile industry did extremely well in World War II,” said Furman University history professor Courtney Tollison.

But the move didn’t come without problems. The Chamber’s campaign to raise $175,000 for the land got off to a good start with $30,000 raised in the first day and $90,000 by the end of June. But fundraising stalled after a “satanic whispering campaign” in opposition to the school started, Turner wrote.

Dr. John McSween of Fourth Presbyterian accused Bob Jones, which was nondenominational, of recruiting students away from state Presbyterian colleges, and he publically criticized those in Greenville who contributed money to the campaign, Turner wrote. The city’s more liberal religious leaders said the school would bring “a fanatical following of religious radicals” to Greenville that would “ultimately hurt the social development of the area and eventually take over the town,” Turner wrote. More than three decades later, the chamber settled the debt for $50,000, according to Turner.

Growing enrollment and influence

BJU’s enrollment continued to grow, and the school had an increasing impact on Greenville County, both culturally and politically.

After World War II, Bob Jones Jr. took a $30,000 acquisitions budget and started buying Baroque art, which had fallen out of favor with art collectors. The Museum & Gallery opened on Thanksgiving Day in 1951, with up to 40 paintings. It was a modest start to what has become known as one of the country’s best religious art collections, a collection that now includes work by Rubens, Tintoretto, Veronese, Cranach, Gerard David, Murillo, Ribera, Van Dyck, Honthorst, and Dore. The museum is currently closed for renovations and is expected to reopen in 2019.

Many of Greenville’s artists have Bob Jones ties as well.

“Bob Jones University has turned out some amazing visual artists, including Jonathan Andrews, Diane Kilgore Condon, and Kevin Isgett, to name just a few. Carl Blair, who taught in the visual arts department for many years, had a profound impact on individual artists both within and outside the university community,” said Metropolitan Arts Council Executive Director Alan Ethridge. “His influence is readily apparent in many of Greenville’s most accomplished and successful artists. Greenville is very fortunate to have these artists as part of its cultural community.”

Politically, the university has had an impact, too, although its influence is being diluted as Greenville grows, said Furman University political science professor Jim Guth.

In the 1960s, when Greenville was almost solidly Democrat, voters with BJU ties got involved in the county Republican Party, Guth said. He said the nomination of Democrat Barry Goldwater drew a lot of Christian fundamentalists into the Republican Party. By 1976, BJU graduates, faculty, and staff took over the local Republican Party by flooding precinct meetings. It was a time when enrollments topped 5,000. The number of graduates who pastored local churches increased the school’s reach.

Anybody who was anybody

At one time, it was common to see several BJU graduates on local governmental bodies and in the state legislature. The school was an obligatory stop for conservative GOP presidential candidates, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. “Just about anybody who was anybody showed up,” Guth said.

Former BJU president Bob Jones III said in 1980 that homosexuals should be stoned when he and a group of fundamentalist preachers went to the White House with a petition opposing the extension of the Civil Rights Act to homosexuals. He apologized in 2015.

“Upon now reading these long-forgotten words, they seem to me as words belonging to a total stranger — were my name not attached, “ the apology said. “I cannot erase them, but wish I could, because they do not represent the belief of my heart for the content of my preaching.”

Controversy erupted once again during the 2000 campaign when Sen. John McCain made an issue of Bush not condemning the university’s ban on interracial dating during a campaign stop on campus. Jones III later said during an interview on “Larry King Live” the ban was repealed the afternoon before his appearance on the show.

“You talked about the now-controversial Bob Jones University. The truth is, I guess, we have always been controversial,” Jones III told King.

Later in the interview, Jones III told King the school couldn’t back up its dating rule with a verse from the Bible and that the school was not racist because the ban was in place before blacks were admitted to the school. But he told King he dropped the rule earlier that day because it was so insignificant to the school and never talked about, but so significant to the world.

After the Bush flap, Republicans steered clear of BJU until this past presidential primary when Republicans Ted Cruz and Ben Carson made stops. The university also pulled back from overt politics during that time because Stephen Jones, who became president after Jones III, was not as interested, Guth said.

“Bob Jones University made a much larger imprint on the community before Greenville grew. It’s difficult to foresee circumstances where the influence of the university is anything like it was in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s,” Guth said.

About 25 percent of the school’s graduates — more than 10,000 — live in the Upstate, which has a population of 1.4 million. More than 100 pastors in the Upstate are BJU graduates, said Randy Page, the school’s director of public relations.

Mayor Knox White said Bob Jones University’s true influence has been with its alumni and their contribution to the community. “Their students graduated and stayed here. The alumni have had a big impact on every profession and walk of life in Greenville,” he said.

The future

Pettit said the school is now focusing on how it can be relevant to students and the world they’re living in today while maintaining its mission of providing a quality Christian education while developing students’ character.

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“We’re a much more relational organization,” Pettit said.

A renovation a few years ago made the entrance to the campus more open. “Even though it hasn’t always been clear, the university cares about the community in which it lives,” said BJU social studies professor Linda Abrams. “The huge hedges around the university gave the appearance the school was hiding away and did not want to be part of the community. We had to correct that misperception. It’s taken a lot of work.”

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But, Pettit said, make no mistake: The mission of the school is still the same. “Anyone who comes here knows we’re different,” he said.

While the university has students from 48 states and 42 countries, enrollment has dropped over time, something Pettit blames on the decline in size of churches and liberal arts programs as well as competition from community colleges.

“We lost 90 to 95 students this year because of financial aid,” he said. “They could go to community colleges for less money.”

Pettit said the number of incoming freshmen has stayed flat and the school laid off some employees this year to “right-size” the school to its present student body. “We had been needing to do that for quite some time. We can’t go much lower,” he said, adding BJU had been on the higher end of staff-to-full-time students among area schools.

But Pettit said he’s confident the school can increase its enrollment. In 2012, it was estimated there were 1.5 million home-schooled children in the United States. If 10 percent of those are really conservative, that gives BJU a lot of potential students, he said.

“We just have to do our part better,” he said. “I don’t know if we can grow to 4,500 to 5,000 students like we once had, but I think we can grow.”

A big push now is to improve the school’s facilities. Twenty-two of its buildings were constructed in 1946 and 1947 and many need to be upgraded to meet the needs of today’s students, he said.

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The school is updating its strategic plan and will embark on the silent stage of a capital campaign soon. The campaign would not have been possible without tax-exempt status, Pettit said. “We’re really like a stallion ready to bust out and run,” he said. “Our strategy is to focus, invest, and grow.” School officials are still working on details of projects to be included in the capital campaign.

“I personally want BJU to be a blessing to South Carolina,” Pettit said. “We offer the liberal arts, a conservative lifestyle, and an evangelical, missions-oriented Christian education. We believe there are lots and lots and lots of people looking for that kind of education. We just have to do our part a little better.”

BJU timeline

Dec. 1, 1926 — Ground broken in Bay County, Fla., for Bob Jones College.
April 1, 1933 — Bob Jones College board votes to move to Cleveland, Tenn., at the former Centenary College.
April 25, 1946 — Bob Jones Sr. announces move to Greenville.
Oct. 1, 1947 — BJU in Greenville opens with more than 2,500 students. That same year, Bob Jones Jr. was elected president of the university.
Thanksgiving Day, 1951 — The BJU Museum & Gallery opened.
Jan. 16, 1968 — Bob Jones Sr. dies.
1971 — Bob Jones III becomes president. First black student admitted after school changes policy to allow black students who are married “within their race.”
1973 — The 7,000-seat Founder’s Memorial Amphitorium was opened to accommodate a growing student body. The building was dedicated to the memory of Bob Jones Sr.
1983 — U.S. Supreme Court rules the IRS could revoke the university’s tax-exempt status because the government’s interest in ridding education of racial discrimination overrode the school’s First Amendment rights to religious free speech.
Nov. 12, 1997 — Bob Jones Jr. dies.
2000 — Bob Jones III drops school’s interracial dating ban.
2005 — Dr. Stephen Jones, the great-grandson of the school’s founder, is installed as president.
2006 — School gets accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools.
2008 — Stephen Jones apologizes for BJU’s past racial discrimination.
2011 — BJU restarts intercollegiate athletics for the first time since 1933.


May 2014 — Stephen Jones resigns because of health reasons and Steve Pettit becomes the president.
Dec. 10, 2014 — Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment report criticizes the school’s handling of sexual abuse reports.
2017 — BJU regains federal tax-exempt nonprofit status.

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