Didn’t the Pilgrims come to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to flee religious persecution?
How’s that working out?
The small town of Northfield, Mass., was at the center of evangelical revivalism in the late 19th century. In 1879, the celebrated evangelist and publisher Dwight L. Moody returned to his birthplace to establish the Northfield Seminary for Girls. Thousands of visitors flocked to Moody’s summer seminars to hear prominent preachers from around the world. A grand hotel was even built to accommodate them.
These days the school sits empty. There are no throngs of visitors to the sleepy town. Shopkeepers say they’re struggling to stay in business, and there are no more gas stations.
Even so, the billionaire Oklahoma family that is trying to revive the town’s evangelical presence is running into opposition.
“Throughout the 20th century, a new Christian view stressing social justice and good works in place of personal salvation grew not only in the world, but also on the board of trustees,” the school’s website says, explaining why it abandoned the original vision of “creating generations of committed Christians who would continue [Moody's] evangelical efforts.”
Unable to maintain its 217-acre campus and 43 buildings, the board of Northfield Mount Hermon tried to sell the campus for $20 million in 2005. With no takers and prohibitive annual upkeep costs, the school sold the property to the Green family of Oklahoma City, owners of the Hobby Lobby craft stores, for $100,000.
The Greens planned to give the property to the C.S. Lewis Foundation to launch a college with a Great Books curriculum. But the foundation’s fundraising fell short by the end of 2011 and the Greens began soliciting new proposals. The family does insist that whoever ultimately takes over the school promote Christianity in “the tradition of Moody.” That has people in Northfield worried about how well the new neighbors will fit in culturally.
One of those institutions under consideration was Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell. You can imagine how that went over:
In April, at a meeting of the Northfield Campus Collaborative—established by the Northfield Board of Selectmen to improve communication between interested parties—resident Bruce Kahn “brought up the ‘elephant in the room’ which was the concern that an extremist Christian campus might polarize and upset the peace and tranquility of the town,” according to meeting minutes. Resident Ted Thornton said it is a paradox that “we consider ourselves tolerant but we won’t tolerate intolerance.”
“Extremist Christians”? Do they turn both cheeks?
Would the self-righteous “tolerants” of Northfield, Mass. prefer their Christians to walk on bottled water? Give the lame parking spaces, the blind trained Golden Retrievers?
I don’t necessarily hold to every tenet of the Old or New Testaments, but I am extremely wary of modern revisions of ancient religions. Tolerance, yes; liberal pieties in lieu of religious pieties, no thank you very much. Such narrow thinking leads to tolerant intolerance of intolerance. (You figure it out; I can’t.)
At another public meeting earlier this year—one that included questions about the contenders’ views on creation and same-sex marriage—a Northfield resident argued that “the religious tradition of the area welcomes people of many faiths, belief or nonbelief. There is potential conflict with those who follow more restrictive teachings.”
Of course, this is hardly the first time Northfield’s status as an outpost of evangelical Christianity has roiled the town. Northfield had a “double character” by the end of the 19th century, newspaperman Herbert Collins Parsons wrote in 1937. Its “religious center for radiating the gospel to the world’s far corners” was at odds with “the old New England town, quiet, orderly, self-reliant, moderately prosperous, cautiously progressive and consciously beautiful.”
As the Green family moves forward with plans to find an organization to take over the campus, the town’s character will be tested again. Does the progressive town’s tolerance still extend to evangelicals?
The good residents of Northfield obviously believe in tolerance and diversity—as long as they don’t have to live with it. It’s 98.51% White. Wikipedia lists its minority population as 0.10% black (three people, maybe) and 0.58% Hispanic (17-ish—doubtless to mow the lawns).
But it does have a drive-in!
I wouldn’t dream of suggesting the citizens of Northfield are racist. I’m sure the 1.49% residents of color (forty-four, give or take an Asian) feel so included they can hardly move without a pallid group hug smothering them.
Religious people of “restrictive” (read: Biblical) teachings are not so welcome, however. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, but that doesn’t mean the Northfield Board of Selectmen can’t give it a shot.
Would that include a madrasah, one wonders, paid for by ample Saudi oil money? A campus full of devout Muslims from around America and the world would do wonders for Northfield’s demographic numbers. But the tolerance of all “faiths, belief, and non-belief” might fall; and the intolerance of tolerance might rise.