James David Bales (November 5, 1915 in Tacoma, Washington - August 16, 1995 in Searcy, Arkansas) was an influential Bible professor and administrator at Harding University (then Harding College) for almost 40 years. He was widely known for his conservative viewpoints, both in religious matters and in politics through his work with the college’s American Studies Institute and an adjacent institute, the National Education Program. Working closely with the founder of the National Education Program (NEP), Harding President and nationally known conservative activist George S. Benson, Bales played a leading role in establishing Harding, through the work of the National Education Program and School of American Studies, as a nationally known center for conservative activism. He published, among other works, The Martin Luther King Story: a Study in Apostasy, Agitation, and Anarchy, which attacks King as a radical and a communist.
A defender and author for conservative causes, Bales acquired an almost legendary reputation among those who had dealings with him at Harding and elsewhere in the Churches of Christ, among both supporters and opponents. One opponent, Don Haymes, concisely if ironically summarized a widespread view of Bales in a 1977 essay which represented the views of a faction within the Churches of Christ opposed to the strong political and theological conservatism Bales, Benson, and the School of American Studies represented.
In the beginning, 30 or more years ago, he was Young Lochinvar riding out of the West, a newly minted Doctor of Philosophy from Berkeley, boldly slaying the dragons of Error and rescuing the distressed damsels of Truth. If today he seems more like Don Quixote, loping along on a flea-bitten nag, helmet slightly askew, armed with a pen rather than a lance, befuddled by the alchemy of the printed word—it is perhaps only our perceptions which changed; where once we saw dragons and giants, the cold light of time reveals only windmills, and the fair damsels are seen to be homely harridans hawking their ware. ……..
As an author, Dr. Bales assumes legendary proportions. The Harding Graduate School Library lists 64 separate titles from The Christian Conscientious Objector (1944) to Psalm for Frightened and Frustrated Sheep (1976). He has published most of this remarkable output himself, or with the imprint of obscure purveyors of tracts and Bible school literature; but Baker Book House has issued three volumes and Christian Standard has published another; several, including his most notorious work, The Martin Luther King Story, were put out by Billy James Hargis' Christian Crusade. Beyond the books are countless articles on every item from religious controversy from the Pope to the Pentecostals. Through several serious illnesses and the siring of a trainload of talented and attractive progeny, James Bales has managed to propel himself into the eye of almost every storm confronting the Church of Christ for more than three decades.
Though everything Haymes says here is not correct (Baker Book House published at least four of Bales' books), Haymes here and in later remarks seems to touch on the salient aspects for which Bales is most remembered. His personal likability and sincerity were almost universally admired, even by his bitterest enemies. His intellectual honesty is demonstrated in that did not always espouse conservative issues simply because they were conservative issues. He did not hold to positions simply because they were popular. As the result of events and changing times, his views sometimes became objects of controversy and strong disagreement, from both within and without the Churches of Christ.
The definitive biography of Bales has yet to be written. Although a personal biography on Bales is lacking, an understanding of the history of the National Education Program at Harding, whose advocacy absorbed so much of his work and expressed and epitomized his own interests, concerns, and personal philosophy, provides a glimpse into some of Bales legacy. A very informative chapter concerning the NEP, "Burdens of Responsibility, the National Education Program Weathers the Storm," is contained in Edward Hicks’ book on Bales' close colleague and partner at Harding and the NEP, George S. Benson, Sometimes in the Wrong But Never in Doubt.
The influence of the NEP long colored perceptions of Bales and Harding College. A controversy involving Bales' influence at Harding, a dispute between Bales and a Harding Professor named James Atteberry, is also covered in Hicks' book. Ostensibly a dispute over the theological soundness of a private paper delivered by Atteberry at a Harding faculty meeting, the dispute seemed to involve dissenting faculty and student opinions regarding the overall zeitgeist of the NEP and political, cultural, and religious conservatism at Harding in general.
A consensus about Bales' overall legacy remains unclear, but it appears there has been a rapid decline of Bales legacy and presence upon his retirement and death, as suggested by Haymes' conclusion that “His influence in the Harding sphere ran broad and deep, but it has not, I think, run long.” On analysis, the legacy of James D. Bales may perhaps be more strongly seen, if indirectly, in the movement which Hicks and a number of conservative commentators credit the NEP, the quiet but definitive influencing of the formation of the Christian Right.