Bruce Shelly on Vernon Grounds
Bruce L. Shelley, Transformed by Love: The Vernon Grounds Story. Discovery House Publishers, 2002. 285 pages. $10.95 paper. Published in The Denver Post in 2002.
It has been said that if you want to know a person, you must identity that person’s “ruling passion”—that which unifies their personality and sets their course for life. Yet in our fickle age of reinvention and frequent lifestyle changes, one wonders if some folk even possess a fixed core at the heart of their being. Historian Bruce Shelley, senior professor of history at Denver Seminary, claims to have discerned the ruling passion of his longtime colleague and evangelical senior statesman, Dr. Vernon Grounds (b. 1914), a Denver resident since 1951. That passion is the moral virtue of love—not love in a vague or sentimental sense, but rather Christian love, which is rooted in the understanding of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God’s love for humanity.
While Dr. Grounds’ doctoral dissertation at Drew University addressed the concept of love in the thought of Sigmund Freud, his concern for this great virtue has been far more than academic. Love has been a demonstrable way of life for Vernon Grounds’, as this book amply attests. Shelley credits this transformation by love to Grounds conversion during his college days, which occurred only after considerable intellectual struggles.
Shelley’s narrative skillfully situates the long and eventful life of Vernon Grounds in the context of both twentieth-century America and American evangelicalism specifically. (The book includes a rewarding appendix of Dr. Ground’s writings on a variety of subjects, as well as a select bibliography.) Emerging from his working-class roots in New York through his university and seminary education, Grounds became a significant figure in the development of American evangelicalism (or theologically conservative Protestantism). Although associated with more fundamentalist institutions in his younger years, Dr. Grounds became increasingly disenchanted with fundamentalism’s tendencies toward cultural separatism, anti-intellectualism, and lack of love toward those outside its opinions. Out of these concerns, he and his wife Ann moved to Denver in 1951 where he joined the fledgling Denver Seminary faculty as Dean. The seminary had only a handful of students and was located in an old and ornate mansion in downtown Denver, where it remained until 1968 when it moved to its present location in Englewood.
Fundamentalist backers tussled with the school until it eventually broke free from them to pursue a more open path. It now serves over six hundred students annually.
While highly gifted intellectually, Dr. Ground’s love for his institution pulled him from the life of a pure scholar to that of a leader when he became Denver Seminary’s second president in 1955, a position he held until 1979. Nevertheless, he taught (and continues to teach) a wide variety of classes in philosophy, theology, and counseling and published widely in these areas as well. In addition to his heavy leadership and teaching responsibilities, Dr. Grounds traveled nearly every weekend to churches around the country to preach, teach, and promote the seminary. (When asked how she coped with her husband’s constant traveling, Ann is quoted as saying, “I’d rather have Vernon Grounds ten percent of the time than any other man one hundred percent.”) For many people—in Denver and around the world—Denver Seminary and Vernon Grounds are virtually synonymous.
The book underscores that throughout his distinguished career, Dr. Grounds has been known for his commitment to academically excellent seminary education, his passion for social justice concerns, his path-breaking desire to integrate Christian faith with the best of psychological insights, and his voluminous knowledge. His legendary library of many thousands of volumes occupies the vast majority of his office space, where he regularly meets with a steady stream of alumni and students—and anyone who desires his warm and rewarding company.
I once met a man who introduced himself as “one of Vernon Grounds’ “twelve hundred close, personal friends.” After reading this book, one can see that this probably was not an exaggeration. It may have been an understatement.
--Douglas Groothuis heads the Philosophy of Religion MA at Denver Seminary and is the author of On Jesus and On Pascal.