Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
George M. Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture is deservedly still the standard work on its subject. Marsden’s approach is balanced, in that he attributes the development of fundamentalism to the confluence of several intellectual currents as well as to particular social circumstances after WWI, circumstances which served to consolidate the previous signs of a distinctive unity among those who would become the “fundamentalist” movement in the wake of the war. For this very reason, Marsden’s work signaled an advance in the treatment of fundamentalism, moving beyond previously popular approaches that looked on fundamentalism “as essentially the extreme and agonized defense of a dying way of life” (4). He also moves beyond the work of Ernest Sandeen, who sought to overcome such reductionistic social interpretations himself. Sandeen found the roots of fundamentalism primarily in dispensational premillenialism and the Princeton doctrine of inerrancy. Marsden gives significant weight to these issues, but he also gives weight to the earlier nineteenth century roots coming out of evangelical revivalism, such as the holiness movement, in addition to convincingly setting out a broad-based “militantly anti-modernist” stance among fundamentalists. The result is a work that is engaging and indispensable for understanding the development of American fundamentalism.
The book is neatly divided into four sections. The first section begins after the Civil War and moves into the 1870’s, and it deals with persistent evangelical optimism in the face of potentially destructive forces. “The old order of American Protestantism was based on the interrelationship of faith, science, the Bible, morality, and civilization. It was about to crumble” (17). Common Sense philosophy and Baconianism supported the affinity between scientific conclusions and the assertion of traditional, biblical faith. Evangelicals could still assert that America was a Christian nation (“evangelical” here used in the broad sense), and that evangelicalism was the dominant shaping force of culture. In Marsden’s analysis, it is Darwinian evolution that precipitates the beginnings of a significant division within the evangelical churches. Christians had to choose to respond either in the more conservative fashion of Charles Hodge, who emphasized Baconianism and stressed that evolution was unscientific and rested on naturalistic presuppositions, or in the more progressive fashion of James McCosh, who argued for greater compatibility between Christian faith and evolution.
Those who made the latter choice of affirming Darwinism often saw religion as less concerned with facts and more concerned with spiritual experience not open to scientific inquiry. Henry Ward Beecher (d. 1887) is offered as the early herald of such a view of the faith. In Beecher’s romanticism we find seeds of many of the later emphases of liberalism, such as the identification of the advance of the Kingdom of God with the advancement of civilization, emphasis on the moral dimension of Christianity, and the tendency to locate the supernatural within the natural. Although many conservatives continued to express their moral vision for America, which included surprisingly progressive efforts at social reform, the lack of response they received for their efforts indicated to them that America’s Christian stature was waning. The unity of evangelicalism was beginning to unravel, as those like Beecher moved to the left, and as conservatives began to make alliances among themselves, often centered around premillenialism and holiness.
These were also the days of D.L. Moody (d. 1899), who was “a transitional figure in an age of rapid change” (33). As a respectable revivalist who emphasized the love of God and downplayed hellfire, Moody stressed the teachings of holiness and individual Christianity. Neither his nor Beecher’s Christianity was that of the earlier nineteenth century, where social concerns were primary to the understanding of the Gospel. This was the day of American individualism, and the early Protestant responses to the growing problems caused by industrialization and urbanization [when did industrialization specifically?], were met with encouragement to conversion and personal moral living from the inside out. Moody’s abiding contribution to later fundamentalism would be his emphasis on victory over sin (holiness teachings), a premillennial view of eschatology, and the simple fact that many different figures that would later be prominent in fundamentalism shared a partnership with Moody’s ministry.
Section two, the longest section of the book, moves to a description of the emerging coalition among proto-fundamentalists from the last decades of the nineteenth century to the beginning of WWI. The key factors in this coalition were dispensational premillennialism, the holiness movement, apologetics, and the complex of views regarding the church’s relationship to culture. Several of the key tensions within fundamentalism can be sense in these factors as well, such as that between Moody and his disciple R.A. Torrey: the former placed great emphasis on religion of the heart, while for the latter Christianity was primarily a religion of the mind. These two emphases would be coexistent throughout much of fundamentalism.
Also contributing to a growing coalition were the moderate teachings on holiness promoted by the Keswick movement (b. 1875). These were embodied by Moody, “more or less canonized” by the dispensationalist C.I. Scofield in his reference Bible, and were embraced by many conservative Reformed Christians as well. This emphasis on holiness flourished through widespread “social religious gatherings” and Bible conferences and institutes, many of which served to proliferate the teachings of Dispensationalism, so much at odds with the increasingly immanentist postmillennialism of the more liberal wing of the churches. Contrary to many previous interpretations of the rise of fundamentalism, Marsden emphasizes, in his discussion of holiness, the return of social reform-mindedness among evangelicals in the late nineteenth century. He notes that “their record of Christian social service, in an era when social reform was not popular, was as impressive as that of almost any group in the country” (85).
Marsden sees a decline in this social interestedness in association with a shift among conservatives from a “Calvinistic” to a “Pietistic” view of the role of politics. The former emphasized confident cultural transformation, and the latter emphasized mere restraint of sin (“holding the fort”). From 1900 to 1930, this trajectory was furthered and “social concerns dramatically disappeared or were at least subordinated to others” (90), a move decisively shaped by “the fundamentalist reaction to the liberal Social Gospel after 1900” (91). Several tensions among conservatives threatened unity in the early part of the twentieth century, as dispensationalists and Reformed both dismissed the growing Pentecostal wing of the holiness movement, and as the premillennialists themselves could not agree over where the future tribulation fit into the overall scheme of the end of history.
Nevertheless, a common opposition served to solidify the unity of the dispensationalists, Keswick teachers, and denominational traditionalists. In the north, the conservatives fought within the Presbyterian church over the supernatural work of Christ, the status of the Bible and the accessibility of universal truth. These were all matters about which the conservatives could agree, regardless of their respective schematizations of redemptive history or formulas for holiness. This united opposition to modernism was expressed in the famous publication, The Fundamentals (1910-1915). This publication still expressed enough moderation, Marsden thinks, so as to make it improper to speak of “any firm identity” of a fundamentalist movement this early (123). The conservatives still belonged to the mainstream and were working for reform from within.
Marsden makes clear the diversity of answers conservatives gave to the question of the church’s relationship to the world. There were at least four distinct perspectives. The “premillennial extreme” condemned the present age and saw little use in widespread reform efforts. Among other premillennialists, the interest in evangelism and civic reform overrode the pessimism we generally think inherent in the premillennialist view, while it also overrode their engagement of contemporary intellectual life. The Moody Bible Institute and its members are a good example of this prominent disposition. A third position was that of William Jennings Bryan, who “represented the culturally dominant evangelical coalition” and wanted to maintain efforts to Christianize civilization. Progress, democracy, America and a practical Christianity that was not theologically rigorous all went hand-in-hand for Bryan. The fourth position was dominant among conservative Presbyterians, and that is the notion of “transforming culture by the word” (135). J. Gresham Machen, for instance, found liberal modernism and conservative isolationism equally unsatisfactory responses to the current cultural crisis. Rather, he advocated Christian learning and mastery of ideas, so that Christians could fight the crucial battle in this intellectual realm, which he was convinced would ultimately determine the direction of culture. When it came down to choosing, however, conservative Reformed Christians like Machen sided with the dispensationalists and those in the holiness movements, creating unlikely alliances in the face of a mutual enemy.
According to Marsden, WWI was a significant turning point for fundamentalism, as the various views on the church-world relation were overcome by a strong concern for the advancement of Christian civilization in America (including by the premillennialists). Without question, the war effort and fear of German “barbarism” aided this development. In 1917, also helping solidify fundamentalist unanimity and support for the War, was the first battle of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. Liberals from the University of Chicago accused premillennialists of being insufficiently patriotic or, what’s much worse, of being in cahoots with the Germans. The conservatives did, of course, respond by pointing out that the only thing German in this debate was the liberals’ “new theology,” which, they added, was itself the probable cause behind German barbarism. In 1919-1920, the post-war crisis (labor unrest, fear of Bolshevism, and many other events thought to fulfill premillennialist expectations) thrust the fundamentalists into an institutional unity that would be abiding. While “the postwar sense of crisis was apparently only a temporary disruption for most Americans, for fundamentalists it was the beginning of a crusade” (164). Unbridled patriotism became a mainstay for fundamentalists, with an endurance that surpassed even that of the liberals. With a unity and growing self-consciousness, the stage was set for decisive action.
The years 1920-1925 were the most critical for the development of fundamentalism. In 1920-1923, the movement appeared strong and was making significant strides forward. Because many conservatives thought the liberals had abandoned the fundamentals of the faith in the mission field, serious battles were fought within the denominations. Such disagreements also led to the fundamentalists’ development of their own inter-denominational connections, which gave them strength apart from the denominational structures. Not only concerns over fundamentals and missions, but the anti-evolution cause was also made enormously popular. William Jennings Bryan was its chief crusader, and national support was on the rise. Regarding the fights within the denominations, Harry Emerson Fosdick preached his famous sermon, “Shall the Funamentalists Win?”(1922), and J. Gresham Machen published his Christianity and Liberalism (1923).
If for a few years things were looking up for the fundamentalists, they would soon learn how quickly matters can change. Just when they seemed to be at the cusp of victory in a number of denominations, liberal defenses and appeals to the strong American sentiment of tolerance apparently won the sympathies of numerous conservatives. These conciliatory or moderate conservatives shared with the fundamentalists everything but militancy (desire to push the liberals out), but the result was bitter disappointment on the part of the fundamentalists and a failure to achieve their goal of purging the denominations. The 1925 Presbyterian G.A., and the relationship between Charles Erdman and J. Gresham Machen behind it, are highlighted by Marsden as a prime example of this dynamic in action; Erdman’s position was triumphant. And if 1925 were not already a bad year for fundamentalists, the catastrophe of the Scopes Trial and the embarrassment of William Jennings Bryan had the effect of making the “fundamentalist cause synonymous with rural backwardness” in the eyes of many (187). This event was a devastating blow and assured the downward trajectory of fundamentalism as a nationally respectable movement.
Even among the intellectually rigorous fundamentalists times were increasingly tough. Moving beyond the dates set out by the book’s subtitle, we find that the reorganization of Princeton Seminary in 1929 found Machen leaving Princeton Seminary to establish Westminster in Philadelphia. And he would later go on to found the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936, after the Presbyterian Church refused to allow him and other office-holders to participate in the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, which Machen had also founded.
After the 1920’s, anti-modernist sentiment became relatively quiet in the mainline denominations, as the battle there was over for the fundamentalists. The movement would, of course, persist in many smaller denominations and parachurch organizations.
The fourth section of the book further highlights Marsden’s contribution to the field, as the author takes a step back and looks at different historical approaches to the interpretation of fundamentalism. By looking at fundamentalism from different angles – as a social phenomenon, political phenomenon, intellectual phenomenon, and American phenomenon, respectively – Marsden demonstrates how each approach can contribute to an overall analysis of fundamentalism that must be comprehensive in approach. While little new information is added in this last section of the book, we are reminded of numerous persistent themes than ran throughout the chronological analysis and that move Marsden’s approach beyond previous interpreters who have focused too narrowly on either social forces (e.g. Hofstadter) or intellectual forces (Sandeen). The result is a much clearer picture, where Baconianism, Common Sense Realism, Premillennialism, holiness, desire for a Christian American, social uprootedness, and post-war trauma all playing an influential role. The end result is not simplistic, which makes it sound all the more true to the historical record.
Attention to the extensive endnotes in the book (sixty pages) will reveal that Marsden’s analysis is in part derivative and not entirely original. This is not a criticism, however, for his contribution is probably to be seen in the masterful job of synthesizing the conclusions of more specialized studies into a coherent and balanced survey that still serves as the basic historical textbook on the rise of American fundamentalism.