Monday, July 23, 2007

Fundamentalism and American Culture

A dispensationalist chart, depicting the eras of human history as told by the Book of Revelation.

Title: Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006; originally published in 1980)

George M. Marsden, of the history department at Notre Dame. Teaches "American religious and intellectual history."Has a PhD in American Studies from Yale, 1965 (minted seven years after Tom Wolfe). Author of several other books on fundamentalism, and a couple of books on the state of higher education (The Soul of the American University, 1994; The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, 1997). Most recently, author of a much-lauded biography of Jonathan Edwards.

Most fundamentally (ha), Marsden argues that fundamentalism needs to be seen (and studied) as a cultural phenomenon, not just a religious aberration; and as a fluctuating cultural organism, not a monolithic set of responses. This history of the evolution of fundamentalist Protestant activity in the era of modernization hits on three major themes, as Marsden writes in his introduction: the tendency of fundamentalists to identify "sometimes with the establishment, and sometimes with the outsiders" (6); ambivalence about major questions such as the church's relationship to society, faith in human intellect, and the organization of the church itself can be traced to fundamentalism's strong ties to the intellectual and theological ideas of its eighteenth and nineteenth century forebears, which emphasized revivalism and pietism; and, finally, as hinted at in the second "theme", major questions about religion's relationship with science and with intellectual activity in general. Marsden argues that fundamentalists' dismay at the way in which modern society developed had much to do with the fact that, with the onset of Darwinism, they were almost immediately demoted (in the eyes of public culture) from keepers of the intellectual flame to foolish, bumbling rubes.

Chapter-by-chapter (These are going to be short, because the sections are numerous):

Part One: Before Fundamentalism
Evangelical America at the Brink of Crisis:
Marsden introduces the underpinnings of the fundamentalist movement in the 1870s: the influences of Common Sense philosophy, which held that "common sense" could reveal the truth of the universe to any diligent observer, and of revivalism, which prized the emotional conversion of the individual. He then writes of the crisis which faced the old order in the shape of Darwinism and those within the church who attempted to find ways to reconcile religion with it.

The Paths Diverge:
Henry Ward Beecher is an example of a preacher who reaches beyond the boundary of acceptable doctrine, defending evolution and equating religion more with morality than with strict Scriptural interpretation. Meanwhile, the Blanchard family of preachers and educators, father and son, provide examples of how more conservative strains in the church reacted to this challenge. While the father (Jonathan) was initially postmillennial in his thinking (he believed that society could be reformed in order to bring about the second coming of Christ), the son (Charles) took to premillennialism, "seeing little hope for society before God returned to set up his kingdom" (27).

DL Moody and a New American Evangelism:
Moody, a transitional figure and extremely popular revivalist, is cited as an important progenitor of fundamentalism - he believed in premillennialism and Biblical infallibility; and he believed first and foremost in individual conversion (as opposed to helping with bodily needs) as part of the "holiness" movement.

Part Two: The Shaping of a Coalition

This Age and the Millennium
Prologue: The Paradox of Revivalist Fundamentalism:
Here, Marsden refers to the central tensions in fundamentalism: first, the conflict between exclusivist doctrinal preaching, and the belief that any person can achieve salvation/a holy state through their effort. (Moody, for example, came down firmly in the second camp.) He goes on: "Sometimes [fundamentalism's] advocates were backward looking and reactionary, at other times they were imaginative innovators. On some occasions they appeared militant and divisive; on others they were warm and irenic. At times they seemed ready to forsake the whole world over a point of doctrine; at other times they appeared heedless of tradition in their zeal to win converts. Sometimes they were optimistic patriots; sometimes they were prophets shaking from their feet the dust of a doomed civilization" (43).

Two Revisions of Millennialism:
The cultural context of the ideas of dispensationalism and premillennialism, which had the advantage, for evangelicals who saw the faith as shaky and in need of shoring up in the post-Civil War era, of being totally "explicit and concrete" - see, for example, the charts included in this entry, which show how this perspective simplified and concretized the Bible and faith itself (51).

Dispensationalism and the Baconian Ideal:
This idea is most interesting! Empirical scientific analysis, in the pre-Darwinian nineteenth century, was associated most firmly with Francis Bacon and his idea that all you had to do to know the "truth" of the world was to process the information available to you. (This also echoed ideals of Scottish Common Sense philosophy, which Angela Miller also talks about in regards to Frederic Church's paintings and the cultural belief that New England and its scenery could be made to "stand in for" the nation as a whole - a belief derived from Common Sense ideas of proof.) Dispensationalism (and fundamentalists, in general) saw the Bible as their trove of information to be processed, and thus believed that they themselves were scientific - more scientific, in fact, than the Darwinists, who were acting on a mere "hypothesis". By looking at the Bible, they believed that they could break human history up into eras - or "dispensations" - and thus, predict exactly when the end of the world would arrive.

History, Society, and the Church:
Further describing the fundamentalist context, Marsden points out that contrary to contemporary ideals of progress, fundamentalists believed that civilization was in decline. "The rapid spread of premillennial thought must have reflected some disillusionment with the progress of society," Marsden reflects (67). This complex of thought associated the fundamentalists with the more secular antimoderns, such as Henry Adams, or those described by TJ Jackson Lears, for example. This chapter also discusses reasons why premillennials did not feel compelled to abandon their churches (as a strict adherence to their doctrine might prescribe) - Marsden says that this is because for American religion, the key unit is the individual, not the institution (71).

Sir Francis Bacon.

The Victorious Life:
Basic ideas of "holiness", as preached by DL Moody, AC Dixon, and the Keswick theologians: "a profound personal experience of consecration, a filling with Spiritual power, and a dedication to arduous Christian service" (73). Especially pre-WWI, "experience and practice" were at the center of the movement. The major conflict over this concept had to do with whether or not the individual was seen to have the capacity for perfection.

The Social Dimensions of Holiness:
In the 1890s, holiness teachings led fundamentalists to work among the poor and working class. Postmillennialists were not alone in this project; some premillennialists, Marsden is careful to report, also took it upon themselves to work for prohibition and for humanitarian causes (though most did not).

The "Great Reversal":
Why did this interest in social concerns practically vanish by the 1920s? Reactionary reasons, Marsden says. "The factor crucial to understanding this 'Great Reversal' the fundamentalist reaction to the liberal Social Gospel after 1900" (91). The fundamentalists saw the Social Gospel as "emphasizing social concern in an exclusivistic way which seemed to undercut the relevance of the message of eternal salvation through trust in Christ's atoning work" (92).

Holiness and Fundamentalism:
More on American theologians influenced by Keswick's emphasis on the experiential, personal, and joyful, and the conflicts and confluences between these and conservative Protestants who were ready to fight intellectual and theological battles.

The Defense of the Faith
Tremors of Controversy:
Overview of the conflicts which arose within American denominations between the late 1870s and WWI, most of which saw traditionalists ally with dispensationalists and holiness advocates to battle modernists or progressives. (Interestingly, Marsden writes that Southern denominations simply did not have these debates, because dissent was "not tolerated" [103].)

Presbyterians and the Truth:
In Presbyterianism, the conflict was between infallibility (Common Sense-influenced views of The Truth) and previously upstanding Presbyterians who were accepting Darwinism and beginning to reject ideas of the miraculous and supernatural.

The Fundamentals:
The story of a series of volumes published between 1910 and 1915, funded by a "Southern California oil millionaire" (Lyman Stewart) and characteristic of fundamentalism's opposition to modernism. "These volumes...represent the movement at a moderate and transitional stage before it was reshaped and pushed to extremes by the intense heat of controversy" (119). This moderation was exemplified by the fact that evolutionary ideas were not totally rejected out of hand.

Christianity and Culture

Four Views Circa 1910:
1. This Age Condemned: The Premillennial Extreme:
In fundamentalist thinking at this time, the furthest-out idea was that everything about the modern age - including science and technology - indicated that the world was about to end, and that therefore true believers should just give up hope.

2. The Central Tension:
This tension was between the ideals of dispensational premillennialism - see above - and the constant commitment to evangelism. "These two...were fused together in spite of the basic tension between them" (128).

3. William Jennings Bryan: Christian Civilization Preserved:
Marsden sees WJB as a "representative of the culturally dominant evangelical coalition which took shape in the first half of the nineteenth century" - a coalition whose values held that America, as a Christian nation, had a destiny to guide the world ("Citty on a Hill" style) (132).

4. Transforming Culture By the Word:
Baptists and Presbyterians believed that Christianity had "an important mission to civilization" (136), and could provide society with a basis for true faith and thus moral action. Thus, many denominations were bound together by this affinity, despite their lack of a single total understanding.

Part Three: The Crucial Years: 1917-1925
World War I, Premillennialism, and American Fundamentalism: 1917-1918:
Why did fundamentalists become more militant after WWI? Marsden argues that this was partially a reaction against theological liberalism, and partially because during and after WWI, evolutionism was seen as more and more dangerous to American society: WWI had been instigated by a German barbarism which was seen to have sprung from the loins of social Darwinism. "The argument was clear: the same thing could happen in America" (149). The war also brought together various factions of conservatives who believed in different doctrinal points, uniting them all under the banner of attempts to save "Christian civilization".

Fundamentalism and the Cultural Crisis: 1919-1920:
During this time, after most Americans were returning to an antebellum state, fundamentalists saw their chance to revive a long-gone religious consensus.

The Fundamentalist Offensive on Two Fronts: 1920-1921:
Marsden's two fronts were the denominations themselves and the culture as a whole (especially the schools, where they tried to stop the teaching of evolution - a crusade which brought many more non-affiliated civilians into the conservative church, especially in the South). Here Marsden also discusses the importance of the mission in the maintenance of conservatism and dispensational premillennialism.

Would the Liberals be Driven From the Denominations? 1922-1923:
Coverage of the crises in Presbyterian and Baptist denominations.

The Offensive Stalled and Breaking Apart: 1924-1925:
Liberals began to break up the coalitions aimed at getting them out of the denominations, Marsden argues, by "appealing to the strong American tradition of tolerance" (180). Also, many fundamentalists were unwilling to purge the denominations at the expense of evangelistic efforts.

Epilogue: Dislocation, Relocation, and Resurgence: 1925-1940:
Interestingly, the Scopes trial, which had a tremendous impact on fundamentalism's place in the national scene, is relegated to an epilogue. The imagery of "small town, backwoods, half-educated yokels" which emerged into the popular eye was indelible, says Marsden (185). Marsden posits that this popular image, which ignored the urban and Baconian-scientific roots of the fundamentalist idea, began somehow to *become* what the movement was like - because so many moderate fundamentalists were embarrassed by the negative publicity and dropped out of the movement. Where did the rest of the fundamentalists end up? Marsden believes that some remained within the denominations, committed to them despite the presence of inextirpable liberals; some found themselves in the South, in Pentacostal churches, etc; and some formed their own denominations or churches.

William Jennings Bryan. (Are those guys behind him laughing at him, or with him? Hard to tell.)

Part Four: Interpretations
Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon:
Rejecting the idea of a rural vs. urban divide creating the fundamentalist movement, Marsden proposes that fundamentalism was founded by groups of "Anglo-Saxon" Protestants - especially of the lower middle class - who found themselves, at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, filling the role of "immigrants" in their own land. "Faced by a culture with a myriad of competing ideals, and having little power to influence that culture, they reacted by creating their own equivalent of the urban ghetto" (204).

Fundamentalism as a Political Phenomenon:
The theological movement's drift toward conservatism was, Marsden contends, partially motivated by the liberalism of the Social Gospel-ites, but was also fundamentally motivated by the idea of saving a "Christian civilization" (which meant that they would reject Marxism, Jewish people, etc.)

Fundamentalism as an Intellectual Phenomenon:
This section is basically a recap of the ideas put forth in the section on dispensationalism and Baconian thought. Interestingly, Marsden uses Thomas Kuhn to explain the problems that arise at the junction of the end of one paradigm and the beginning of another.

Fundamentalism as an American Phenomenon:
Why did this happen in America? Social factors: ethnic diversity and its threat to a narrowly evangelical religious culture; the recent displacement of fundamentalists from the throne of social dominance. Religious-cultural traditions: The overwhelming influence of revivalism on American religion "contributed to a tendency to see things in terms of simple antitheses": saved or not saved, evil or good (224). Intellectual tendencies: An anti-modern view of history, which did not partake in the idea that "history was natural evolutionary development...and the present can best be understood as a product of the past" (226; again, see Miller on the difference between Cole and his successors), contributed to a tendency to believe in eschatological interpretations of the Bible.

Part Five: Fundamentalism Yesterday and Today (2005):
An afterword that focuses mostly on increased political involvement on the part of fundamentalists and the paradox this implies when it comes to premillennial beliefs.

Another dispensationalist chart.

Reviews: In the Journal of American History, Donald Scott wrote that Marsden's book's strengths lie in the visualization of fundamentalism as both a genuine religious phenomenon and a legitimate cultural happening, one which could be analyzed in the same way as other cultural movements. Catherine Albanese, in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, wrote that the number of intellectual currents to which Marsden ties fundamentalism means that his interpretation can become confusing - but adds that since his writing is clear, the difficulty lies in the subject matter itself, and Marsden's book only clarifies the unclarity of the phenomenon. Meanwhile, the book was named one of Christianity Today's 100 "Books of the Century".

Vocab words:
"cynosure" ("something that serves for guidance or direction; a ‘guiding star’"; "irenic" ("pacific, non-polemic"); "Pelagian" ("a believer in the doctrines of Pelagius or his followers, esp. in the denial of the transmission of original sin, and in the principle that human will is capable of good without the assistance of divine grace"); "chiliasm" ("the doctrine of the millennium; the opinion that Christ will reign in bodily presence on earth for a thousand years").

Books to follow up on: Primary: Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (1970); HL Mencken's writings on the Scopes Trial.

Secondary: Anne Loveland, Evangelicals and the US Military (1996).

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