Thursday, December 03, 2009

Fundamentalist Defeat and Reaction

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the "Scopes Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tennessee in the summer of 1925. Bryan died just five days after the trial was over. Many in the popular media drew connections between the death of Bryan and a hoped-for demise of Fundamentalism.
Note: This post is a continuation of the previous one: The Beginning and Rise of the American Fundamentalist Movement. . . .

With such momentum behind it, only a public defeat, a national scandal, could slow down the fundamentalist movement in America. That defeat occurred in 1925 at Dayton, Tennessee.

Early on, the “Scopes Monkey Trial” was simply a case in which John T. Scopes, a young science teacher, would be tried for violating of a new Tennessee statute that banned the teaching of “any theory that denies the Story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible,” or of any theory “that man has descended from a lower order of animal.” But when the American Civil Liberties Union promised Scopes the best defense team in the nation and convinced him to confess, and when William Jennings Bryan agreed to join the prosecution team, the stage was set for one of the first real media circuses in American history. [1]

In spite of the prosecution’s initial victory—Scopes’ conviction was eventually overturned on a technicality—the coverage of the trial forever changed the image of fundamentalism in the United States. Clarence Darrow was one of the best defense attorneys of his day, and he took full advantage of Bryan’s miscalculated decision to serve as a witness in behalf of religious conservatism. What Bryan had somehow forgotten was that he would not be given an open platform. Instead, he would be required to respond to a series of barbed questions. From the standpoint of public relations, the trial was a rout from beginning to bitter end. The following exchange, for example, was reported around the world:

Darrow: When was the flood?

Bryan: I would not attempt to fix the date. The date is fixed as suggested this morning [i.e., according to Ussher’s Chronology printed in many Bibles of the day].

Darrow: But what do you think that the Bible itself says? Don’t you know how it was arrived at?

Bryan: I never made a calculation.

Darrow: A calculation from what?

Bryan: I could not say.

Darrow: From the generations of man?

Bryan: I would not want to say that.

Darrow: What do you think?

Bryan: I do not think about things I don’t think about.

Darrow: Do you think about things you do think about?

Bryan: Well, sometimes. [2]

Such reports were always accompanied by scathing editorials written by the likes of the caustic wit H. L. Mencken. As a result, the Scopes trial devastated the fundamentalist movement. Bryan’s true identity as a populist politician and spokesman was replaced by the image of a fundamentalist Pope. The character of the movement as an intellectually-engaged phenomenon with power centers in places like Chicago and Philadelphia was recast into something distinctively rural, unlearned and southern. As inaccurate as such representations were, they deeply influenced the way that Americans came to see fundamentalism. During the years that immediately followed the Scopes debacle, cultural ridicule drove the fundamentalist tradition to self-examination. The result was three distinctive groupings.

Closed Fundamentalism classifies those who, with little change, defended Protestant orthodoxy and a nostalgic early Americanism against modern trends. This approach is represented by the baseball-player-turned-preacher, Billy Sunday, Carl McIntire and his Twentieth Century Reformation Movement, Billy James Hargis and his Christian Crusade of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Bob Jones University. As a direct affront to the Federal Council of Churches--which later replaced “Federal” with “National’—in September 1941 McIntire, a prominent leader among the separatist fundamentalists, organized the American Council of Christian Churches. Its purpose was to be militantly pro-fundamentalist and anti-modernist. Hallmarks of this branch of the movement included a vehement rejection of both pacifism and any coexistence with suspected Communism, which was thought by these fundamentalists to be rampant. [3]

Open Fundamentalism classifies those who carried on the fundamentalist tradition, particularly its doctrine of dispensational premillennialism, without sharing the extreme attitudes, methods, and results of the isolationists. Representatives of this approach include the Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary, Hal Lindsey, author of The Late Great Planet Earth, and what became of the journal Bibliotheca Sacra. [4]

Evangelicalism classifies those who, while maintaining a commitment to the basic premises of the fundamentalist version of Protestant orthodoxy, clearly attempted to disassociate themselves from both groups of fundamentalists. At virtually the same time that Carl McIntire founded the ACCC, the National Association of Evangelicals was organized in October 1941. Because the term “evangelical” was not new, but was now taking on a new and more-specific definition, in the early days those who came out of fundamentalism often referred to themselves as “neo-evangelicals.”

[1] Perhaps the best account of the proceedings and ramifications of the trial is provided by Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: the Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997). For an excellent short overview, see George M. Marsden, “Scopes Trial” in the Dictionary of Christianity in America, 1058-59.

[2] This part of the trial transcript is taken from George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 187.

[3] Description and advocacy of this branch of the movement is set forth by George W. Dollar, A History of Fundamentalism (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University, 1973).

[4] Though Lindsey is spoken of as an “evangelical” in a Christianity Today news article [vol. 28 (December 14, 1984), 51], the piece goes on to report that “Serious Bible scholars reject Lindsey’s fanciful depictions of how today’s world events mesh with biblical prophecies.” It also observes that even Lindsey’s alma mater Dallas Theological Seminary did not take his interpretations seriously. Thus, one factor that apparently distinguishes open fundamentalists from their neo-evangelical siblings is the degree to which one insists on the correctness of dispensational premillennialism. More than any other figure, it was New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd, an intellectual leader among the first generation of neo-evangelicals, who severed the close tie between dispensationalism and conservatism. In one of his earliest books, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom (London: Paternoster, 1959), Ladd powerfully argued that according to the New Testament the kingdom of God was present during the ministry of Jesus and the life of the earliest Christians. The force and import of his argument seriously damaged the dispensationalist claim that because of Jewish unbelief the Lord postponed the establishment of his kingdom and inaugurated in its place the “church age.”


Brian said...

scopes is buried in the same cemetery as my mother in Paducah, KY

Frank Bellizzi said...

There's a lot of truth in that six degrees of separation thing.