The Cultural History of American Fundamentalism: A Review Essay

Bendroth, Margaret Lamberts. Fundamentalists in the City: Conflict and Division in Boston’s Churches, 1885-1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Carpenter, Joel A. Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Watt, David Harrington. A Transforming Faith: Explorations of Twentieth-Century American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

In 1980 George Marsden published Fundamentalism and American Culture, a history of the first decades of American fundamentalism. The book quickly rose to prominence in the historical profession, provoking new studies of American fundamentalism and contributing to a renewal of interest in American religious history. The book’s timing was fortunate, for it was published as a resurgent fundamentalism was becoming active in politics and society. The rise of the Christian right provoked the question: where did the movement come from?1

The historical interpretation of fundamentalism that was then current could not provide an adequate answer. In the standard narrative, fundamentalism was a reaction by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century evangelical Christians against modernizations in American society, such as industrialization, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and changes in popular mores. Fundamentalists resented modernization because it clashed with their out-of-date worldview and literal faith in the Bible and Christian doctrine. Within the American denominations, fundamentalists fought modernists in losing battles over doctrines such as the inspiration of the Bible, the creation of the world, and the virgin birth of Jesus, but fundamentalists were eventually driven from their denominations in defeat. Fundamentalists also mounted a bid to retain control of American society, most notably through laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. Their attempt was soundly defeated and ridiculed at the 1925 Scopes trial. After the trial, fundamentalists were demoralized and in retreat, sufficiently marginalized that they could never again make a serious effort to control the nation. By defining fundamentalism as a reaction against modernism, the standard narrative implicitly predicted that fundamentalism would disappear as the United States completed modernizing.

When fundamentalism reappeared in the 1970s, the flaws in that interpretation were revealed. In its place, a new body of historical work, including Marsden’s book, redefined fundamentalism not as evangelicalism reacting against modernism, but as evangelicalism adopting modernism. The first historian to make this argument was Ernest R. Sandeen in The Roots of Fundamentalism. Sandeen saw fundamentalism as a movement descended from American and British evangelicalism with the additions of dispensationalist eschatology and an explicit definition of the verbal inspiration of the Bible. George Marsden expanded on Sandeen’s definition by unpacking the significance of those additions. Dispensationalism divided history and biblical prophecy into a series of eras, or dispensations—a type of scientific classification. By defining biblical inspiration as extending to the very words of Scripture, fundamentalists created a new hermeneutic which treated the Bible as a source of data to be mined and scientifically analyzed. Marsden further observed that fundamentalism added borrowings from the Holiness movement and from Scottish commonsense realism.2

The implications of Marsden’s redefinition were radical. He revealed that fundamentalism was not rural, Southern, and pre-modernist, but rather urban, often Northern, and aggressively modern. Its relationship to modernism led to a paradox in fundamentalists’ identity. On the one hand, fundamentalists identified as heirs to the Protestant establishment of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, they saw themselves as displaced from power by a new modernism, though partaking of what they found desirable in it. Marsden’s explication of this paradox had great power to explain fundamentalism’s struggle to control the United States at the same time that they felt alienated from it. Even though Marsden ended his book in the 1930s, his thesis could explain how fundamentalism, moribund after the Scopes trial, could rise again in the 1970s.3

Joel Carpenter extended the history of fundamentalism beyond the 1930s in his book Revive Us Again. Carpenter agreed with Marsden that fundamentalism was not merely a reaction against modernism. Carpenter’s insight was that fundamentalists’ defeat at the Scopes trial did not necessarily mean that fundamentalism retreated after the 1930s. Rather, Carpenter looked at how fundamentalists created their own network of extra-denominational institutions, most notably Bible colleges that turned out thousands of pastors, evangelists, and missionaries. Also important in linking fundamentalists together were publishing houses, radio shows, and Bible and prophecy conferences. In one sense the creation of these networks was a retreat, because fundamentalists increasingly withdrew from “the world” and from liberal denominations, thus forming their own subculture. Still, because most fundamentalists tended to form para-church institutions rather than denominations, one could identify as a fundamentalist and contribute to fundamentalist organizations even while remaining in mainline denominations. Fundamentalists’ withdrawal was driven far more by their theology of separation from the world than by any marginalization at the Scopes trial.4

Even in the period that Carpenter studies, fundamentalists refused to give up their claim to cultural dominance and instead planned for a revival. What was surprising about 1970s fundamentalism, then, was not its strength or its claims to cultural primacy, but the decision of leaders like Falwell to give up withdrawal in favor of political activism. Even political activism, though, was a part of fundamentalists’ heritage. They were heirs to the evangelical reform movements in the nineteenth century, such as temperance, abolition, and benevolence. Fundamentalism was also a way to be modern while critiquing the reformers of the Progressive era. Anti-evolution crusades were, for example, an attempt to defend the doctrine of creation, but they were also critiques of efforts to reform society scientifically, such as eugenics.5

Legal historian Edward J. Larson took up the study of fundamentalism and anti-evolution in his Pulitzer prize–winning book Summer for the Gods. The book is a history of the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, covering both the trial and its aftermath. Larson pointed out that Dayton was not particularly fundamentalist, but that boosters drummed up the trial as a publicity stunt to put their town on the map. The trial might not have turned into a religious showdown until Clarence Darrow, a famous trial attorney who was a public agnostic, and William Jennings Bryan, a politician and leader of the anti-evolution movement, took the case as lead counsel for the defense and the prosecution, respectively. Darrow and Bryan, along with reporters like H. L. Mencken, turned the trial into a cause célèbrethat tested the validity of fundamentalist Christianity, climaxing in Darrow’s questioning of Bryan on the witness stand as an expert on the Bible.6

Larson proves that the Scopes trial was not the defeat for fundamentalists that historians have portrayed it as. Indeed, fundamentalists won the trial and took it as encouragement in their crusade. On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court used a technicality to avoid fining John Scopes but also to avoid striking down the anti-evolution law, which remained on the books for decades. The rewriting of the history of the Scopes trial into a victory for modernism did not occur for decades, most notably in the writings of Charles Beard and in the Broadway play and film Inherit the Wind, produced in the 1950s as a fictionalized critique of McCarthyism.7

Larson’s book makes it possible to write a history of fundamentalism that could escape the undue influence of the Scopes trial. For too long, historians have relied on the trial as a milestone marking the periodization of religious history. Because it was extraordinary, the trial is a useful lens for studying American religion, but because it is extraordinary, the trial cannot be taken as typifying the course of fundamentalism. What is needed is a history of fundamentalism that takes the trial into account, yet which refuses to periodize the history of fundamentalism around the mistaken notion that it was a turning point. By doing so, historians can move beyond the narratives of declension and revival into which religious history too often falls.8

Marsden and Carpenter’s cultural histories provide one way of situating fundamentalism, whether in decline or revival, within American culture. In A Transforming Faith, David Harrington Watt provides a complementary approach. Where Marsden and Carpenter explicate fundamentalists’ distinctive subculture, Watt examines how American culture shapes and controls the culture of fundamentalism. His approach depends on the same definition of fundamentalism as modern, yet it recasts the inquiry in a profitable new way.9

Watt examines how a subculture can maintain its identity within a dominant culture, a hegemonic relationship he terms “asymmetrical power.” Watt argues that American fundamentalists since the 1950s, for all their withdrawal from and critiques of American culture, bought into the major characteristics of the dominant culture. Watt begins with an essay on Bill Bright’s evangelistic tract “Have You Heard of the Four Spiritual Laws?” pointing out how the text markets Christianity as a commodity. He extends similar analysis to other parts of evangelism. Evangelical teaching on marriage and the family were often indebted to feminism, while evangelical counseling owed as much to psychology as to the Bible. Evangelical politics bought uncritically into conservative, free market ideas. Watt’s title points to evangelicalism not as a faith that transforms culture, but as a faith that was transforming under culture’s influence.10

Marsden’s, Carpenter’s, and Watts’s books are cultural histories that attempt to examine fundamentalism as a whole, to come to grips with its essential characteristics while remaining within the particulars of history. A local history that points in a promising direction for new research is Margaret Bendroth’s Fundamentalists in the City. Bendroth’s book is a fine-grained study of fundamentalist congregations, leaders, and events in Boston from the 1880s to the 1950s. Her chapters on Tremont Temple and Park Street Church in particular make good use of demographic data and show a fine sensitivity to the local motivations and methods peculiar to each congregation. Defining fundamentalism as “oppositional” evangelicalism, Bendroth finds that fundamentalists in Boston did not fight primarily against theological liberals, many of whom called Boston and Cambridge home, but rather against Catholics. Fundamentalists’ battles were inextricably linked to local politics, which in Boston were defined by a statehouse controlled by Protestants and a city hall controlled by Catholics. This kind of insight which could not be deduced from a national history is precisely the promise of local histories of fundamentalism. Bendroth’s study also does valuable work in confirming the conclusions of broader studies, for example, by illustrating how Gordon College was a crucial nexus for Boston fundamentalists, and by showing how fundamentalism flourished even in Boston in the periods when it was supposed to have been in decline.11

Bendroth’s history might well be taken as a model by future historians of fundamentalism, who must fill up the deficit of local histories of fundamentalism. To be sure, there have been many highly particular books on recent fundamentalism. Some of these are exposes, whether as journalism or as memoir. Of more scholarly use are David Watt’s brief ethnographic studies of three Philadelphia congregations in the 1990s, and James M. Ault’s sociological study of a Baptist congregation in 1980s Worcester, Massachusetts. These studies are all recent, though, and they are not histories. What is needed are local studies of fundamentalist congregations or institutions, researched in the tradition of ethnographic history and focusing on the congregants rather than the leaders. If the sources are extant, numerous congregations present themselves as options: J. Frank Norris’s First Baptist Church in Fort Worth; William Bell Riley’s First Baptist Church in Minneapolis, John R. Rice’s Sword of the Lord conferences; A. C. Dixon’s Moody Church in Chicago or Metropolitan Tabernacle in London; and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Westminster Chapel in London.12

If the history of fundamentalism could benefit from going local, it could also benefit from going transatlantic. Some of the British connection of fundamentalism are well known, such as the tours in Britain by evangelists from D. L. Moody to Billy Graham. Other known connections include how American fundamentalism imported dispensationalism and the literal interpretation of biblical prophecy from John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren, and later imported apologetics and fiction from C. S. Lewis. Some pastors, such as A. C. Dixon, held pulpits in both Britain and United States. Less well known, though, is how British and American Christians interacted on a regular basis, and how fundamentalism in America and conservative evangelicalism in Britain functioned in their different political and cultural circumstances. Some excellent work has been done in tracing evangelicalism in the Anglophone world, most notably the series A History of Evangelicalism, edited by Mark Noll and David Bebbington. A transatlantic study along those lines could free the study of American fundamentalists from what may be invalid assumptions about its peculiar Americanness. Such a transatlantic history would be a return to Ernest Sandeen’s insight that dispensationalist theology could be understood only by linking British and American history.13

Historians of fundamentalism have made many advances since the 1980s. They have dispelled mistaken interpretations of fundamentalism and contributed a great deal of knowledge about the movement’s culture. These gains might be consolidated in a history told finally without dependence on the Scopes trial. And they might be advanced by pursuing further studies fundamentalism in both its local and its transatlantic contexts.

  1. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

  2. Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 16-18, 43-71, 80-100, 102-22. Marsden’s helpful definitions of the terms fundamentalism and evangelicalism and their varying usage over time are on pages 234-35. Fundamentalists themselves have put much effort into defining their movement, for example, David O. Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850 (Greenville, SC: Unusual Publications, 1986), 3-12. These definitions tend to be normative rather than descriptive.

  3. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 6-8.

  4. Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 13-32, 57-75, 124-40. For a study of fundamentalists’ appropriation of modern mass culture, see Douglas Carl Abrams, Selling the Old-Time Religion: American Fundamentalists and Mass Culture, 1920-1940 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001).

  5. Carpenter, Revive Us Again, 32, 54, 110-23, 187-232.

  6. Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 92-93, 101-5, 116-21, 198.

  7. Larson, Summer for the Gods, 225-66.

  8. An example of a work which purports to displace the Scopes trial as “antievolution’s defining moment” is Michael Lienesch, In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), which nevertheless spends only two chapters tracing the history of anti-evolution movements after Scopes.

  9. David Harrington Watt, A Transforming Faith: Explorations of Twentieth-Century American Evangelicalism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991). Most histories of fundamentalism, like those of Marsden and Carpenter, have tried to explicate fundamentalism’s subculture. Another fine work in this mode is Randall Herbert Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). A recent book that, like Watt, is more concerned to show how American culture has influenced religious subcultures is Matthew Avery Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007).

  10. Watt, A Transforming Faith, 4-7, 15-32, 49-154.))

  11. Margaret Lamberts Bendroth, Fundamentalists in the City: Conflict and Division in Boston’s Churches, 1885-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 3-9, 99, 101-24, 155-76.

  12. For expose as journalism, see Kevin Roose, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2009). For expose as memoir, see Frank Schaeffer, Crazy for God: How I Grew up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007). Schaeffer’s book is notable only for being the most shameless of the ex-fundamentalist memoirs. For a far more sensitive and sympathetic memoir, used as a means of introduction to the history of fundamentalism, see Brett Grainger, In the World But Not of It: One Family’s Militant Faith and the History of Fundamentalism in America (New York: Walker, 2008). David Harrington Watt, Bible-Carrying Christians: Conservative Protestants and Social Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); James M. Ault, Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

  13. Three volumes of A History of Evangelicalism, published by Inter-Varsity Press, have appeared. The two projected volumes, The Disruption of Evangelicalism: The Age of John R. Mott, J. Gresham Machen and Aimee Semple McPherson, to be written by Geoff Treloar, and The Gobal Diffusion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Billy Graham and John Stott, to be written by Brian Stanley, will cover the period of American fundamentalism.