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NHC Home TeacherServe Divining America 20th Century Essay:

The Rise of Fundamentalism
Grant Wacker
Duke University Divinity School
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The first task is to define the word "fundamentalism". The term is commonly used in newspapers, television newscasts, backyard arguments, and above all in churches, both in negative and positive ways. The word means different things to different persons. I suggest that it is best to distinguish small "f" from capital "F" usages: fundamentalism as a generic or worldwide phenomenon versus Fundamentalism as a religious movement specific to Protestant culture in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Generic fundamentalism refers to a global religious impulse, particularly evident in the twentieth century, that seeks to recover and publicly institutionalize aspects of the past that modern life has obscured. It typically sees the secular state as the primary enemy, for the latter is more interested in education, democratic reforms, and economic progress than in preserving the spiritual dimension of life. Generic fundamentalism takes its cues from a sacred text that stands above criticism. It sees time-honored social distinctions and cultural patterns as rooted in the very nature of things, in the order of creation itself. That means clear-cut and stratified roles for men and women, parents and children, clergy and laity. On the other hand, generic fundamentalism seeks to minimize the distinction between the state and the church. To hold that the state should operate according to one set of publicly shared principles, while individuals should operate according to multiple sets of privately shared principles, is morally pernicious and ends up harming everyone, believers and nonbelievers alike. Religious truths are no different from the truths of medical science or aeronautical engineering: if they hold for anyone they hold for everyone.

Historic Fundamentalism shared all of the assumptions of generic fundamentalism but also reflected several concerns particular to the religious setting of the United States at the turn of the century. Some of those concerns stemmed from broad changes in the culture such as growing awareness of world religions, the teaching of human evolution and, above all, the rise of biblical higher criticism. The last proved particularly troubling because it implied the absence of the supernatural and the purely human authorship of scripture.

Social changes of the early twentieth century also fed the flames of protest. Drawn primarily from ranks of "old stock whites," Fundamentalists felt displaced by the waves of non-Protestant immigrants from southern and eastern Europe flooding America's cities. They believed they had been betrayed by American statesmen who led the nation into an irresolved war with Germany, the cradle of destructive biblical criticism. They deplored the teaching of evolution in public schools, which they paid for with their taxes, and resented the elitism of professional educators who seemed often to scorn the values of traditional Christian families.

Fundamentalists fought these changes on several fronts. Intellectually they mounted a strenuous defense of the fundamentals (as they defined them) of historic Christian teachings. Thus they insisted upon the necessity of a conversion experience through faith in Jesus Christ alone, the accuracy of the Bible in matters of science and history as well as theology, and the imminent physical return of Christ to the earth where he would establish a millennial reign of peace and righteousness. Fundamentalists conveyed their convictions in numerous ways, but most prominently through the wide dissemination of twelve booklets called The Fundamentals (1910-1915).

Fundamentalists also pursued the battle through legislatures, courts, and denominational machinery. In the 1920s they tried to monitor public school curricula by presenting anti-evolution bills in the legislatures of eleven states (mostly in the South). Undoubtedly the best-known instance, the so-called "Monkey Trial," pitted the Fundamentalist politician William Jennings Bryan against the agnostic lawyer Clarence Darrow in a steamy courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee in the summer of 1925. Bryan won in the court but lost in the press. Partisans also fought their opponents, commonly known as Modernists, in the general conventions of several mainline denominations, including the Northern Baptists and Northern Presbyterians. Here too their record proved mixed at best.

Nonetheless, Fundamentalism continued to grow and eventually to flourish. In the 1930s it moved underground, so to speak, where it built a network of day schools, colleges, seminaries, and missionary agencies. More importantly the movement soon established a print and telecast industry of its own. It also created a system of parachurch organizations aimed to meet the spiritual needs of numerous socially discrete groups (youths, unmarrieds, veterans). Above all Fundamentalists found innovative ways to address the religious concerns of common people. Though it would be unfair to say that they were anti-intellectual, they made a point, as evangelist Billy Sunday once said, to keep the cookies on the bottom shelf. And they proved remarkably successful in passing their beliefs on to their children. Historic Fundamentalism, largely forged before World War I, helped to produce the massive evangelical, pentecostal, and charismatic revivals after World War II, as well as the Christian Right in the 1970s and 1980s.

Guiding Student Discussion

Few persons are neutral about Fundamentalism. You are likely to find that feelings run high. My experience with college undergraduates suggests that many students, coming from the outside, will try to dismiss the movement as narrow-minded and even bigoted. Others, coming from the inside, will try to defend it as the only valid form of Christianity (or any religion for that matter). In working with undergraduates I have found it helpful to frame Fundamentalism as a traditionalist movement, i.e., that it was an effort by earnest folk to retain a place for old fashioned (or at least what they took to be old fashioned) values in a rapidly modernizing world. I have also tried to stress the genuine apprehension or even outright fear that Fundamentalists experienced as they faced the future. That was particularly true of the evolution threat, for they saw their most precious possessions, their children, liable to be taken from them by alien teachings. The main point is that Fundamentalists proved similar to many other social and religious groups that looked backward to find resources for dealing with the troubling changes in the present.

Historians Debate

Fundamentalism has benefited from serious attention by historians, theologians, and social scientists. The most influential historical treatments remain Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism (1970) and George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980). The former casts the tradition as an intellectual movement, a cluster of ideas about the nature of the Bible and the direction of human history forged by a small number of well educated men on both sides of the Atlantic. The latter book sees Fundamentalism as a more broadly based social and religious protest against modernity's threats to traditional Christianity. The story of American Fundamentalism and its evangelical offspring is carefully traced in a masterful work by Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (1997).

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Related info in "Getting Back to You"

Grant Wacker holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and is currently Professor of the History of Religion in America at the Duke University Divinity School. He is the author of Augustus H. Strong and the Dilemma of Historical Consciousness (1985) and is coeditor, with Edith Blumhofer and Russell P. Spittler, of Pentecostal Currents in American Protestantism (1999). He is working on two books: a monograph to be titled Heaven Below: Pentecostals and American Culture, 1900-1925, and a survey textbook of American religious history with Harry S. Stout and Randall Balmer.

Address comments or questions to Professor Wacker through TeacherServe "Comments and Questions."

Religious Liberalism and the Modern Crisis of Faith | The Rise of Fundamentalism | The Scopes Trial | Marcus Garvey | Roman Catholics and the American Mainstream | American Jewish Experience in the 20th Century | Islam in America | Religion in Post-World-War II America | The Christian Right |
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