Religious Focus Week: A Spiritual Response to Crises

 

An Introduction

The 1940s-1950s proved to be very shaky, yet formative, years for Baylor University.  A ubiquitous state of unrest blanketed the globe as the effects of World War II continued to escalate within the Eastern hemisphere.  Fear and uncertainty predominated this decade as many knew not what the future held due to increasing global turmoil caused by the warring between European nations.  Political and religious unrest permeated this time period.  Feelings of discontent brewed among the institution’s students as well as many of Baylor University’s constituents grew increasingly rebellious regarding the traditional approaches of evangelism, and as the devastation from the Second World War raged on, students sought spiritual discernment concerning the global situation and how to employ their religious beliefs in order to assist those in need (Denny, 1983).  Students did not want an emotionally exaggerated event without practical gleanings (Denny, 1983).  Baylor University’s response in times of global and spiritual crises involved the implementation of Religious Focus Week, an innovative program utilized by Robert S. Denny, the institution’s B. S. U. director, to minister to the university’s constituents when evangelism had reached an all-time low (Denny, 1983).  The introduction of this new program in the midst of global conflict and spiritual discontentment at the university reveals the value of the internal organizational voices of both the students and faculty as they incited meaningful change to traditional evangelistic programming through the creation of Religious Focus Week (Denny, 1983).

The Global Crisis

Despite the European conflict encroaching ever nearer to U. S. soil, Baylor University’s many students focused their attention on the numerous activities surrounding Homecoming, the construction of contemporary facilities, and forthcoming commencement ceremonies (Baker, 1987).  However, the environment surrounding Baylor University’s campus soon shifted as a result of the devastating Pearl Harbor bombings that occurred near the end of 1941 (Baker, 1987).  Unable to escape the global crisis any longer, Baylor University students and faculty alike prepared for war, both physically and spiritually (Baker, 1987).

The Spiritual Climate

An invigorated religious attentiveness to faith-based battles along the home front followed closely on the heels of this abrupt worldly consciousness as “a deep desire for spiritual enrichment became evident on campus” (Baker, 1987, p. 190).  The Baptist Student Union (B. S. U.) played an important role in shaping the religious environment of Baylor University as it synchronized numerous spiritual organizations including the Volunteer Band, the Ministerial Alliance, and Young Ministering Adults (Y.M.A.) (Baylor University, 1941).  The B. S. U. also operated in conjunction with local churches in the surrounding Waco area to provide Sunday School experiences for the university’s students (Baylor University, 1941).  Furthermore, the B. S. U. hosted various on-campus religious events such as yearly revivals, Morning Watch, and the Baylor Religious Hour, an opportunity dedicated to “quiet devotion and inspiration” each Wednesday night (Baylor University, 1941, p. 62).  Other religious activities sponsored by Baylor University’s constituents included frequent prayer and fellowship gatherings, continual support of world-wide missionaries, the College Young Women’s Alliance (Y.W.A.), and chapel services (Baylor University, 1941).

The Religious Predicament

The abundance of faith-based organizations with their evangelical messages, however, began to repel the university’s students.  Nationally, “evangelism had hit a pretty low ebb” along its cyclical pattern (Denny, 1983, p. 93).  Many of Baylor University’s students refused to serve in leadership positions in religious engagements and exemplified a “nobody’s going to cram religion down my throat philosophy” as a result of the squelched spiritual setting on campus (Denny, 1983, p. 51).  Emotionally overblown annual revivals in which “‘everybody made a decision; everybody walked the aisle’” increasingly received negative reactions from Baylor University’s students (Denny, 1983, p. 50).  Rebellious attitudes permeated the campus in response to the stifling religious atmosphere (Denny, 1983).  Aware of the grim religious circumstance surrounding the campus, Pat Morris Neff, president of Baylor University for the duration of the Second World War, sought to meet the spiritual needs of its students and faculty population by calling in religious reinforcements in the form of new spiritual director.

The Captain of Christian Cultivation

Baylor University administration felt increasingly compelled to share the Gospel message with their constituents in an intimate, on-campus setting as a result of the present global crisis (Baker, 1987).  However, many of the university’s students remained unreceptive to the numerous evangelistic lessons being impressed upon them (Denny, 1983).  President Neff (1941c) notes about the religious climate of Baylor University: “I feel that we have not during recent years developed their religious activities as much as we should do” (para. 2).  As a result of this downward spiritual spiral, President Neff (1941a) began searching for an innovative Christian leader in hopes that they may revive the constituents of Baylor University once more.  President Neff’s recruitment quest did not last long as Dr. Frank Leavell, Southern Baptist student ministry executive, advocated that Robert Stanley Denny serve as the B. S. U. director for Baylor University, a radical request at the time as B. S. U. directors were not seen as necessary on Baptist universities (Denny, 1983).  The perception that everyone on Baptist campuses lived as devout Christians made the director’s position appear redundant, but after some convincing from Sadie Crowley, Baylor University’s women’s dean, and Dr. Leavell, President Neff agreed to extend an invitation to the suggested individual for consideration of the director’s position of Baylor University’s B. S. U. (Denny, 1983).

Robert Stanley Denny (1983), a Kentucky country boy during the Great Depression, was raised in a Christian home with his parents and five siblings under the supervision of his grandfather, a Baptist preacher. Rather than following the ministerial path of his beloved grandfather, Denny (1983) pursued various vocational paths while studying at the University of Kentucky including philosophy, business, medical studies, and law.  During his time at the university, Denny (1983) remained involved at his local place of worship as well as became a committed participant of the B. S. U.  As a result of his active engagements within these spiritual organizations, Denny (1983) “felt more and more that [his] calling was into religion” (p. 6).  After completing law school, Denny (1983) applied and was accepted to the seminary in Louisville, but before the start of the year, he denied the offer in order to pursue a career working with Louisiana State University’s B. S. U. beginning in 1939 where he stayed for the next couple of years.

Two years later President Neff (1941b, para. 1) presented Denny (1983) with an invitation to serve as “the leader of [Baylor University’s] religious forces” in the director’s position within the campus’s B. S. U. organization on February 10, 1941.  Correspondence between the two ensued for the following three months until Denny (1941), after much deliberation, careful consideration, and many prayers, accepted President Neff’s offer to work at Baylor University as a faculty member in conjunction with filling the role of spiritual director on May 19, 1941.  A major duty of President Neff’s (1941c) new hire included “mobiliz[ing] [Baylor University’s] religious activities, primarily as to [the] students to see that we give them the highest service possible looking to their religious development and their religious activities” (para. 2).  President Neff (1941a) gave  full religious responsibility to Denny as President Neff felt him qualified to transform the spiritual nature of both the university as a whole.

The Method Modification

In addition to the numerous spiritual happenings already occurring on campus, Baylor University added Religious Focus Week to its repertoire of activities regarding spiritual life in February 1942 as a response to increasing religious resistance among the university’s students (Baker, 1987).  Denny (1983) adopted this new program and method of ministering to the university’s students from Jesse Bader, a pioneering evangelic during the time and creator of similar focus weeks, and Dr. Leavell, a major proponent of utilizing Bader’s focus week ideology onto Baptist campuses.  Baylor University’s “climate was ripe for a new technique,” notes Denny (1983), and the university’s religious foundations made implementing this innovative method of evangelism fairly simple (p. 50).  Denny’s (1983) main responsibility as Baylor University’s B. S. U. director was to conduct these Religious Focus Weeks each year on Baylor University’s campus in lieu of the revivals once hosted by the institution in addition to overseeing traditional university-sponsored religious events such as Baylor Religious Hour, the Volunteer Band, and the Ministerial Alliance, to name a few (Baylor University, 1942-43; Neff, 1941c).

The major function of Religious Focus Week was to spiritually develop both the lives of the student body and faculty members in an enjoyable, yet compelling, environment (Baylor University, 1942-43).  Presented by the B. S. U., Religious Focus Week consisted of various sub-events that occurred throughout the week on the university’s campus presented by an amalgamation of professionals with varying denominational backgrounds (Baker, 1987).  Additionally, Denny (1983) appointed one undergraduate student, one trustee, and one faculty member from an outside university to serve on the Religious Focus Week team.  Drawn from a variety of professional backgrounds, these guest speakers included individuals such as Hudson Titmus, a glasses lens producer from Petersburg, Virginia, Fred Smith, a businessman out of Dallas, and Ralph Overman, a renowned “atomic scientist,” to name a few (Denny, 1983; Focus Week at Baylor, 1949, para. 4).  Guest speakers would host religious sessions during chapel programs in Waco Hall and make appearances in classrooms to casually “talk and relate religion to the discipline of their specialty” (Denny, 1983; Wimpee, 1982, p. 72).  In addition, the Religious Focus Week team also hosted morning and evening sessions, rotating speakers so as to ensure equal representation of the present professions and their association to religion (Denny, 1983).  Immediately following the evening discussions, students, faculty, and the Religious Focus Week team of various professionals would gather within the residence halls and Greek houses to participate in what was known as “bull sessions” (Denny, 1983, p. 52).  These late night bull sessions, often lasting until midnight or one o’ clock, allowed the university’s constituents the opportunity to express their concerns regarding religion and its applicability within the context of the working world (Denny, 1983).  The structure of these Religious Focus Weeks consisted of very informal, conversation-based seminars in which students and faculty alike took part in religious discussion without the overblown emotions associated with the revivals (Denny, 1983).

Denny (1983) tailored the Religious Focus Week program to match Baylor University’s spiritual needs using student evaluations of the weeklong event.  As witnessed in the mass exodus from annual revivals, students did not wish to hear solely preachers and pastors communicating the Gospel message (Denny, 1983).  Students did not necessarily reject the message presented (Denny, 1983); instead, the university’s constituents desired to understand the practical applications of their faith within the working world from professionals in various career fields (Denny, 1983).  Rather than recruiting religious leaders from the pulpits, Denny (1983) enlisted laypeople within the congregation to serve as speakers during Religious Focus Week.  The only requirements for these speakers was active attendance in their local places of worship and success (broadly defined) in the professional world (Denny, 1983).  In fact, Denny (1983) claims one of the main parameters he gave these guest speakers includes:

One caution we gave these people, we are not bringing them in to preach little sermonettes.  If we want sermons, we’ll get professionals who can do it right.  But we want you to come in and share your religious faith and your philosophy of business and the coordination of the two. (Denny, 1983, p. 52).

Denny (1983) recognized the importance of ministering in such a way that produced a positive response from the university’s students and reached their spiritual needs and desire for religious applicability in all aspects of their lives.

Religious Focus Week Pamphlet  Courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University
Religious Focus Week Pamphlet Courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University

The First Religious Focus Week

            On February 8, 1942, Baylor University hosted its first Religious Focus Week (Denny, 1983; Baker, 1987).  The eventful week began with participation in Sunday morning church services in various places of worship around Waco and the surrounding area (Religious Focus Week, 1942).  Beginning at 7:00 a.m. each weekday, students were provided the opportunity to gather for breakfast in Alexander Hall with the guest team (Religious Focus Week, 1942).  Afterwards, various professionals within the Religious Focus Week group conducted Morning Watch and Chapel services in Waco Hall speaking on a variety of topics related to vocation and the Christian faith such as “Visible Christianity,” “Seeking Survival Values,” and “Applied Christianity” (Religious Focus Week, 1942, p. 7-9).  Throughout the day guest speakers would visit classrooms to engage students in informal conversation regarding Christianity and vocation (Religious Focus Week, 1942).  Later that evening students gathered in Waco Hall to attend an evening session at 7:00 p.m. immediately followed by an abundance of seminars at 8:00 p.m. (Religious Focus Week, 1942).  Seeking to develop students spiritually in times of global and spiritual crises, “Maximum Christianity,” the theme for the week, encompassed a variety of topics such as “Christianity and International Relations,” “Christianity and the Christian Student’s Faith and Doubt in the Present World Crisis,” and “Christianity and Vocational Choice” (Religious Focus Week, 1942, p. 11-12).  The bull sessions took place at 10:00 p.m. in various locations around the campus following the informative seminars and continued late into the night (Religious Focus Week, 1942).

Religious Focus Week Date Courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University
Religious Focus Week Date | Courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University

The Students’ Response

Initially, students reacted to Denny’s (1983) programmatic changes with restraint.  Afraid this strange group of visitors might “cram religion down [their] throats,” students reluctantly participated in Religious Focus Week activities at first (p. 54).  However, Denny (1983) researched the students’ desires, interests, and schedules in order to minister to them effectively during less stressful periods within the school year, and once the students grasped this, they responded unreservedly to Religious Focus Week.

Students described Religious Focus Week as an important event in terms of spiritual development on part of the university’s constituents that aids students in determining the practicality of Christianity (Baylor University, 1950).  Elsa Miller, student co-chairman of Religious Focus Week in 1949, defined this week long annual event as one that “stresses religious, moral, social, and vocational guidance” allowing for greater understanding of spirituality and its implications within the context of the “real” world (Focus Week at Baylor, 1949, para. 3).  Baylor University’s publications articulates Religious Focus Week as “an opportunity for the winning of those that are saved and for the further enlistment of the saved in definite religious service” (Baylor University, 1942-43, p. 53).  Religious Focus Week, especially the bull sessions, proved to be worthwhile experiences for students and faculty alike as they engaged in meaningful conversations with professionals about their vocations and how they linked religion to their everyday actions (Denny, 1983).  Mary Frances Ball, an editor of Baylor University’s Round Up, spoke enthusiastically about Religious Focus Week, particularly these late night sessions, claiming, “Focus Week has meant a lot to me.  Especially the informal discussions…” (Baylor University, 1945, p. Z-727).  Students grew fond of the program, and they desired to help make this program a reality each year (Denny, 1983; Bryant, 1949).  In fact, as many as “one hundred and fifty students” volunteered their time to see this program to fruition during the Religious Focus Week of 1950 (Bryant, 1949, para. 3).  Religious Focus Week became immensely popular among Baylor University’s campus as the university hosted many Religious Focus Week programs well into the future (Denny, 1983).

The Spiritual Impact and Conclusion

In reflection years later, Denny (1983) remarked, “These [Religious Focus] weeks had a lasting effect on the lives of students and faculty” (p. 54).  The program’s interdenominational approach to evangelism empowered the university’s constituents once more to take responsibility for their spiritual development by voluntarily participating in the event’s activities and learning about the applicability of their faith in the context of the “real” world in spite of the global turmoil taking place outside of the confines of the institution (Denny, 1983).  Students no longer needed to succumb to the drudgery of the emotional annual revivals or remain unreceptive to religious activities hosted by the university (Denny, 1983).  Denny’s (1983) fresh approach of presenting the Gospel gave more ownership to the campus’s constituents to create religious activities and events based on the university’s current spiritual needs and the overarching global issues at hand as he allowed students and university faculty to serve in leadership positions amongst various professionals on the Religious Focus Week teams.  By allowing students and faculty to mold and shape Religious Focus Week programs to fit the spiritual needs of Baylor University’s campus, Denny (1983) demonstrates the significance of internal organizational voice and its ability to incite meaningful change for the betterment of the whole.  Students’ longing for a different Gospel presentation method and for a change in traditional evangelistic methods became known through the voices and behaviors of the university’s constituents (Denny, 1983).  Through these student and faculty responses, Denny (1983) recognized traditional programming may require modifications if these programs no longer influence their intended audience.  Denny (1983) claimed, “It’s the gospel that’s sacred and not the program” (p. 93).  The malleability of the Religious Focus Week programs to adapt to pressing religious issues of the day further proves Denny’s (1983) point that sometimes changes in programs are necessary in order to accomplish the program’s overall purpose.  Religious Focus Week provided the spiritual jumpstart needed at Baylor University during the Second World War until the need for a new ministerial method became an institutional necessity (Denny, 1983).

Reference List

Baker, E. W.  (1987).  To light the ways of time: An illustrated history of Baylor University 1845-1986. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press.

Baylor University. (1941).  Baylor University Bulletin.  Waco, TX: Baylor University.

Baylor University. (1942-43).  Baylor University Bulletin.  Waco, TX: Baylor University.

Baylor University. (1941, December 19). Religious Focus Week date set on campus for February 8-13.  The Daily Lariat, No. 50, pp. 1, 4. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/lariat/id/33033

Baylor University. (1945, February 16). Students, Focus Week guests express opinion of activities.  The Daily Lariat, No. 36, pp. Z-727. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/lariat/id/34126

Baylor University.  (1950, January 17).  ‘Practical religion’ is Baylor student need.  The Daily Lariat, 51(61), pp. 1-2.  Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/lariat/id/24156

Bryant, C. E. (1949, December 16). Baylor University press relations [Press release].  The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.  Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/tx-pr/id/1183

Denny, R. S. (1941, May 19). [Letter to Pat Morris Neff] Pat Neff Collection, Series IV, Subseries #0463 (Accession Box #150 Folder #17).  The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Denny, R. S. (21 September 1983).  Oral memoirs of Robert Stanley Denny.  Interview by W. L. Pitts [Tape Recording]. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.  Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/buioh/id/1488

Denny, R. S. (22 September 1983).  Oral memoirs of Robert Stanley Denny.  Interview by W. L. Pitts [Tape Recording]. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.  Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/buioh/id/1488

Focus Week at Baylor. (1949, January 23). [News Letter].  The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX. Retrieved from

Neff, P. M. (1941, April 21). [Letter to Robert Stanley Denny] Pat Neff Collection, Series IV, Subseries #0463 (Accession Box #150 Folder #17).  The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Neff, P. M. (1941, February 10). [Letter to Robert Stanley Denny] Pat Neff Collection, Series IV, Subseries #0463 (Accession Box #150 Folder #17).  The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Neff, P. M. (1941, March 24). [Letter to Robert Stanley Denny] Pat Neff Collection, Series IV, Subseries #0463 (Accession Box #150 Folder #17).  The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Religious Focus Week. (8-13 February 1942). [Pamphlet] James M. Kendrick, Jr. Papers. #2749 (Accession Box #6 Folder #12).  The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Wimpee, W. J. (25 June 1982).  Oral memoirs of W. J. Wimpee.  Interview by K. Stokes and L. K. Cook [Tape Recording]. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/buioh/id/1994

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.