Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Beginning and Rise of the American Fundamentalist Movement

I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!

This post is the first part of a paper whose working title is "American Evangelicalism and Old Testament Scholarship 1956-2006." In this first section, a good bit of the material is based on a set of outline notes shared with me by Dr. Douglas E. Brown, Jr., who formerly taught courses in theology at Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, TN. His worthy successor, Dr. John Mark Hicks, was also one of my teachers there. I have learned much from these two great men. May their work result in the honor of God and the blessing of others.

Prior to the Civil War, traditional Protestant (that is, “evangelical”) thought and life in the United States saw an impressive period of growth, sparked by the Second Great Awakening around the beginning of the nineteenth century.[1] The flip side to this phenomenon was that throughout the same period none of the liberalizing movements in American religion were able to gain much more than a foothold. For example, though Massachusetts liberals of the 1820s expected Unitarianism to spread “like a prairie fire across America,” the fire “sputtered out west of Worcester and south of the Connecticut line." [2]

But the Civil War not only brought unprecedented division. It also struck a blow to American confidence in divine blessing and in human ability to know the mind of God. President Lincoln described the two sides of the conflict with high rhetoric and his Augustinian sense of ambiguity:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. [3]

The post-war period of theological uncertainty opened the door to newer philosophical, political, and religious trends. And beginning around 1870, for the first time in American history, theological liberalism was steadily gaining ground.[4] In response, not far into the post-war years there arose a movement that intended to combat liberalism and develop a platform and strategy for the survival of traditional Protestant orthodoxy and the awakening of an increasingly-secular culture. Several indicators support this thesis.

First, conservative Bible conferences, forebears of the prophecy conferences and full-gospel fellowship meetings of the twentieth century, became common. The best example of this phenomenon is the immensely popular Niagara Conference which first met in 1868 and which led to the organization of the first International Prophecy Conference held in 1878. The popularity of these conferences led to the establishment of dozens of similar events, which were typically held during the summer a week at a time. Hallmarks of the ascendant liberalism of the day were the adoption of higher critical approaches to the Bible and a rejection of biblical literalism. Conservatives like those who attended the conferences believed that such trends were motivated by a desire to defame the Scriptures and to explain away the supernatural elements of the Bible, undermining its authority and its power to convert outsiders. In such a climate it was easy for conservatives to conclude that if liberals were offering damaging discourses about the Bible, the only antidote was positive proclamation of the Bible, and little else. Thus, it was no accident that at the Niagara Conference and the events it spawned , a new sort of exposition was developed. Commonly called “Bible reading,” it consisted of a collection of passages, all relating to a single Bible topic, which were read one after another with only brief comments in between. However, prompted by the urge to root out the prevailing postmillennialism and supplant it with premillennialism, in 1878, James Brooks ironically issued a fourteen-point “Niagara Creed” which not only upheld the correctness of the dispensational-premillennial view, but also affirmed the verbal inerrancy of the Bible. [5]

Second, conservatives established Bible institutes for the purpose of defending the Christian faith, conducting mission work, and restoring the spiritual vitality of the church. Prime examples here are the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, named for the great revivalist Dwight L. Moody (pictured here)[6] and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University), which featured the instruction of Yale Divinity School graduate and evangelist extraordinaire R. A. Torrey.[7] In 1959, Charles Fuller expressed what these para-church institutions meant to the fundamentalist heritage. Reflecting on his early years at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and his then-recent founding of a theological seminary, Fuller stated that at the close of the nineteenth century

many of our seminaries began to succumb to the lethal fumes of liberalism, and it became apparent that orthodoxy was soon going to be without an adequate supply of trained leaders. Providentially, God raised up many Bible institutes, which were very effective in training thousands of young men and women—many of whom were not college graduates—to know their Bibles and have a zeal for evangelism.[8]

Third, there appeared a tremendous quantity of distinctively conservative literature. Near the end of the nineteenth century, Charles Hodge [9] and A. H. Strong [10] produced systematic theologies. James Orr guided the production of the original International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, the first edition appearing in 1915. Most significant of all, between 1910 and 1915 a definitive series of twelve booklets entitled The Fundamentals was published and mailed to as many Christian leaders as possible in the United States, Canada, and England.[11] And in 1923, the conservative Princeton professor J. Gresham Machen published his book, Christianity and Liberalism, which declared that the liberalism of the day and historic Christianity were essentially two different religions.

Fourth, in 1919 the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, whose name was taken from the popular booklets, was organized in Philadelphia. The Association stood against the teaching of evolution in the public schools and the rise of theological liberalism among the denominations. William B. Riley, a Southern Baptist leader, published its official magazine, the Christian Fundamentals in School and Church, later called the Christian Fundamentalist.

Fifth, conservatives mounted efforts to oust popular liberal ministers and to recapture their large, influential churches for the cause of orthodoxy. The controversy surrounding Harry Emerson Fosdick and the New York Presbyterian Church provides the best example. Brought up a Baptist, Fosdick was by no means the most radical of the liberal leaders in the United States. But he was one of the best known. A gifted wordsmith, he gave eloquent expression to the liberal view in his sermons and popular books. Moreover, beginning in 1915, he served as Jessup Professor of Practical Theology at Union Seminary in New York. With influential positions in both the church and Christian academy, he was rightly regarded by conservatives as an important target. Fosdick intended his famous sermon of 1922, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” as a “plea for good will.” But its clear definition, pointed language, and national distribution led to a terrible controversy which ended with him stepping down from New York Presbyterian’s pulpit three years later. [12]

That these efforts came together in order to make a powerful force in American Christianity cannot be denied. Here one needs only to repeat the shopworn complaint of H. L. Mencken: “Heave an egg out a Pullman window and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today."[13]

[1] Peter W. Williams, America’s Religions (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 166-74 provides a good overview of the history and impact of what he calls “the Second Great Awakening(s).” Williams uses the unconventional plural because of what he identifies as three distinct centers of religious fervor. The first was Connecticut where the preachers Asahel Nettleton, a Congregationalist minister, and Timothy Dwight, the dynamic president of Yale College, were the main leaders. Another center was the southwestern frontier, particularly Kentucky, where the incredible Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 established the religious camp meeting as a staple of frontier life. The third center was western New York state, where the power and variety of religious life rendered the region “the Burned Over District.” See also the discussions offered by, for example, Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972) 413-35, and Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 166-90.

[2] William R. Hutchison, American Protestant Thought in the Liberal Era (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1968), 3.

[3] The quotation is from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865, just over a month before his death. I owe the recollection of these words and a sense of how they must have shaped post-war theological thinking to Jean Bethke Elshtain whose fine article “Abraham Lincoln and the Last Best Hope” originally appeared in an issue of First Things. I came across a reprint in The Best Christian Writing 2000 (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 92-104.

[4] See the overview provided by Hutchison, American Protestant Thought in the Liberal Era, 1-14.

[5] For one of the better discussions of the Prophecy and Bible Conference movement see, Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 132-61. Most summaries of North American religious history give some attention to the phenomenon, especially its connections to the rise of dispensational premillennialism. See, for example, Handy, A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada, 290-91. See also the references by George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 46, 51, 66, 93. For an overview of the Niagara Conferences, see the article by T. P. Weber in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. W. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), 773-74.

[6] See T. P. Weber, “Moody, (D)wight (L)yman (1837-1899)” in Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 768-69, hereafter cited as DCA. The standard texts on American religious history report on the life and impact of Moody. For example, Winthrop Hudson, Religion in America, 3rd. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981) 230-36 provides a good overview.

[7] See P. C. Wilt, “Torrey, (R)euben, (A)rcher (1856-1928)” in DCA, 1180-81.

[8] Christianity Today 3 (January 15, 1959): 13.

[9] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (New York: Scriber, 1872-73).

[10] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (Rochester, NY: E. R. Andrews, 1886).

[11] Notwithstanding the current derision associated with the word “fundamentalist,” Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 816, is right in his estimation of "The Fundamentals": The booklets, he says, were written “with dignity, breadth of subject matter, rhetorical moderation, obvious conviction, and considerable intellectual power. . . . The conservative case was firmly and honorably made.”

[12] For a reprint of Fosdick’s sermon, with a helpful introduction, see Hutchison, American Protestant Thought in the Liberal Era, 170-82. Hutchison cites as his source for the sermon The Christian Work 112 (June 10, 1922): 716-22.

[13] H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: Fifth Series (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926), 74.


Steve said...

Thanks for this.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi Steve. You're welcome. More to come.

Lynn Vogel said...

Stumbled across this post while researching the history of non-denominationalism for my Church History class. Thanks for the post. Do you know of any specific resources I could look at that might help in my research?

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi, Lynn. Glad you stopped by. To research non-denominationalism, I would begin by looking around in some of the standard reference works:



3. HANDBOOK OF DENOMINATIONS IN THE U.S., ed. by Frank S. Mead, et al.

Be sure to check the indexes of these volumes, where applicable. You might also check out the index in a standard survey like the one by Sydney Ahlstrom, A RELIGIOUS HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE.

Happy studying!