Biography of Dr. Vernon Grounds
- Sep 14, 2010
Dr. Vernon Grounds
July 19, 1914– September 12, 2010
President Emeritus and Chancellor
Denver Seminary 1956 – 2010
Biography by Dr. Bruce Shelley (1928-2010)
Senior Professor, Denver Seminary
Vernon C. Grounds was, during the last three quarters of the twentieth century, an internationally-known spokesman for evangelical Christianity. By stressing the centrality of Christian love and its role in life and ministry, Grounds helped to reshape the movement’s outlook and central mission in the world. “A fellowship of love,” he once said, “is the goal of human life. God made man to live in love with Himself and his neighbor.” And since men and women are made to live in love, they experience self-fulfillment only as they achieve human relationships which give them “a secure feeling of ‘at-one-ment.” In such relationships, he said, they are understood, accepted, and valued, but apart from such relationships they exist in loneliness, insecurity, and frustration.
This truth, which Grounds often underscored in his classes, was the central theme of his life. As a theologian and counselor during decades of the giant Graham crusades throughout the world, Grounds served first as dean, then as president of Denver Seminary. Under Vernon Grounds’ leadership the school grew to nearly 400, relocated in Denver, built a new campus, and gained national accreditation. When he retired from the presidency in 1979, Grounds was named Chancellor and retired to his vast library and office to continue to teach, travel, speak, mentor and write until the turn of the twenty-first century. Today, the Seminary offers multiple Masters and doctorate degrees and numbers more than a thousand students.
Grounds loved ideas, books, and words and he lectured on a wide range of subjects: ethics, psychology, literature, theology, and counseling. His personal library contains more than 19,000 books. But Vernon Grounds also excelled in human relations and was able to communicate big ideas to common people. He traveled constantly, for sixty years, speaking, teaching, and preaching, but still found time to write five books and hundreds of scholarly and popular articles.
During the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the years of vigorous evangelical renewal, Vernon Grounds was something of an evangelical ambassador-at-large. He spent most weeks teaching and counseling in Denver but come Friday he habitually flew away to a distant city or small town in America for a weekend conference. Often the sponsoring church or conference center, within easy driving distance to a college, gave him access to a Monday morning college chapel and some college classroom for lectures. During a typical weekend Vernon Grounds talked and listened to hundreds of students and their parents. In 1962 alone, the President of Denver Seminary estimated that he traveled 75,000 miles! Three times around the earth!
Vernon Grounds’ contribution to the evangelical renewal was both popular and academic, popular in his extensive travels and academic in the growth and stature of Denver Seminary. By the end of the twentieth century over 3,000 graduates of Denver Seminary were scattered across the nation and around the world in Christian ministry.
Born July 19, 1914, in New Jersey to John and Bertha Grounds, Vernon Carl Grounds grew up the youngest of three children. Though his father was a railroad engineer, young Vernon showed little interest in things mechanical. He much preferred books and early in life distinguished himself as a student. At Rutgers University he read widely, loved poetry, and sang in the glee club. He graduated from Rutgers with his B.A. in 1937 with Phi Beta Kappa honors.
These college years also challenged his family’s nominal Christian (Lutheran) faith. During his first year at Rutgers he seriously questioned Christianity’s truth claims, helped lead an anti-war rally, and purposed to join the Humanist society. The following summer (1933), however, while at home in Clifton, New Jersey, he listened one Sunday to a gospel quartet composed of his high school friends. After the church service, members of the quartet invited him to a home to discuss Christianity. Thinking that they might want of him a psychological insight or two, he went with them. But in conversation with them that evening he was struck profoundly by the fact that they had indeed experienced something significant.
Could God be real? Is the Gospel true after all? Is Jesus Christ more than a myth? Half skeptically, half seriously, as members of the group were praying aloud, one after the other, Grounds prayed too, asking God, if he was real, to show him that Jesus Christ could be his Savior too.
“I had no identifiable reaction whatever,” Grounds later recalled,” except a twinge of amusement at the fervent jubilation of the ardent Christians. Yet at the bottom of my heart I meant that prayer.” Slowly in the weeks and months which followed he forced himself to pray, read Scripture, and join the activities of his old/new friends. The old/new Rutgers student could report that his initial experience was mysteriously and overwhelmingly of God, but it was the first of a series that brought him a sense of divine reality.
During the following months two books were especially helpful to Grounds in understanding evangelical Christianity. On the one hand, Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain raised issues that perennially confront people. Mann offered no solutions, but starkly revealed that without the Christian gospel all culture, philosophy and experience reach what Grounds called “a self-destructive impasse.”
On the other hand, James Orr’s The Christian View of God and the World gave young Grounds specific help in reconciling faith and reason. This book, Grounds explained, “freed me from the haunting suspicion the belief in the gospel must be maintained by faith alone in defiance of learning and logic.”
Grounds soon joined his friends in the gospel quarter, serving as the team’s primary speaker for their youth rallies. Later, a pianist, Ann Barton, joined the group, and later still, in June 1939, Vernon and Ann Barton were married.
Grounds’ first extended ministry as a pastor was at the Gospel Tabernacle in Patterson, New Jersey. During his decade there (1934-1945) the congregation grew from 25 to 300. During these years Grounds also earned his divinity degree at Faith Theological Seminary in Wilmington, Delaware and ministered to his congregation through World War II.
Grounds’ full-time teaching career began in the fall of 1945, when he became Dean and Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Baptist Bible Seminary in Johnson City, New York. His concern for students there led to his life-long practice of counseling.
In 1951 Grounds moved to Denver to assume responsibilities as Academic Dean of the fledgling Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary (today’s Denver Seminary). Five years later he became president of the Denver school. His constant travel for the school explains his vast sphere of influence. After keeping his heavy schedule for years, Grounds finally completed his doctoral dissertation from Drew University in 1960, twenty years after starting. Titled, ‘The Concept of Love in the Psychology of Sigmund Freud’ the dissertation introduced him to the scholarly literature on the subject including the writings of Soren Kierkegaard. Grounds later testified that his frequent reading of the melancholy Dane’s Works of Love, convinced him of the “multidimensionality of love in biblical faith.”
“When we look back on our experience,” he once said, “it is very easy to victimized by self-deception. This is especially the case when we are telling about our God-experiences. How to distinguish an encounter with the ultimately Real from some purely psychological reaction?”
His psychological studies made Grounds aware of human delusions and the case for unbelief, but he remained steadfast in his belief in the essential truths of the Christian gospel. One summer during his early days in Colorado he was teaching a course in Christian Apologetics at the Young Life Institute in Colorado Springs. Though the field was thoroughly familiar to him, he buried himself again in reading and reflection, probing again the depth of the case for unbelief. He grappled afresh with the arguments against supernaturalism advanced by some of the most powerful minds in Western civilization from Democritus down through Nietzsche to Bertrand Russell.
The arguments were hackneyed, but he began to feel their force and cogency as never before. And he gradually grew more and more inwardly disturbed. How to answer the skeptical analyses of David Hume and Immanuel Kant? How to refute the naturalistic reductionisms of Feuerbach and Freud? What adequate explanation is there for the agonizing mystery of evil?
During these days of probing debate, Grounds understood viscerally why some keen-minded and evidently sincere people opt for atheism. But as he studied and pondered, he kept praying. Every afternoon he walked alone westward, facing the beauty and majesty of the Rampart Range of the Rocky Mountains outside Colorado Springs. One afternoon as he walked and thought and prayed, he no longer saw the landscape around him. He saw, he later said, a mindscape. “I saw with my imagination, not my reason. I saw a godless universe, an empty desolation worse than a frozen hell. And as I walked and thought and prayed I saw another mindscape.”
“I saw or I grasped the magnificent meaning, the almost breath-constricting joy, the radiance of a reality pervaded by and centered in Jesus Christ. Anyone observing me would have detected, I suspect, no change in my gait. I kept steadily walking westward, but within I was experiencing an upward soaring of spirit, an exhilarating sense of liberation, the kind of exultation that comes when listening to great music.”
“God! God! God! Yes, an engulfing, reassuring awareness of God filled my being- not merely my psyche but my whole being. The atheistic arguments were not answered, yet the fierce turmoil of the inner debate ceased. I knew why Job exclaimed, ‘I have heard of thee with the hearing of the ear, but no mine eye seeth thee.’ I did not see, yet I saw!”