Fundamentalism and American Culture

While I work on writing the final piece for my Harry Potter and objectionable elements I thought I’d write a review of a nonfiction book. This history of Protestant Fundamentalism by George Marsden is responsible for the resurgence of American religious history particularly American evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

Marsden in his book, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Galaxy Books), discusses and analyzes the origins and influence of Protestant fundamentalism. He pays careful attention to fundamentalism’s initial development from American evangelicalism and movements within it such as dispensational premillenialism, the various holiness movements, efforts to defend the faith, and the varying views of Christianity’s relationship with culture. Marsden’s overarching theme is that fundamentalism is a unique reaction of evangelical Christianity to specific cultural changes and emphases, most of which occurred in the early twentieth century. Within this main theme Marsden discusses three smaller sub themes. The first sub theme is fundamentalism’s identification with both the “mainstream� and also the fringe. The second sub theme discusses how fundamentalism relates to earlier American evangelicalism. The third sub theme deals with fundamentalism’s intellectualism and anti-intellectualism.

Marsden’s assertion that fundamentalism was both mainstream and fringe is quite insightful. Fundamentalism’s roots can be traced back to American evangelicalism which was the mainstream religious movement during most of the nineteenth century. Because of this heritage, early fundamentalism behaved like it represented the dominant mainstream religious perspective. Marsden points out that this did not last because the fundamentalists, especially after World War I, realized that the dominant movement was liberalism. From that point on fundamentalists acted like a defensive, separatistic minority. Marsden also notes that the fundamentalists attitude of being mainstream or not was parallel to their relationship with mainline denominations. Early on fundamentalists remained in the major denominations and tried to purge them of liberal tendencies. This time period was also when they considered themselves a mainstream movement. Later when they realized the major denominations were past saving many separated from them and formed new “orthodox� denominations. Sometimes these acts of separation involved loss of church property and also prestige and respectability. Before and during the separatist period fundamentalists began to realize that their views were held by the minority and that liberalism had taken hold among the majority of Protestants. Marsden’s analysis of fundamentalism’s wavering between the mainstream and fringe seems to be an accurate and fair interpretation of the facts.

The second sub theme that Marsden identifies is fundamentalism’s relationship with earlier American evangelicalism, particularly the pietistic and revivalist movements. The revivalist heritage can be seen in fundamentalism’s emphasis on the authority of the Bible and the ability of the individual to understand and interpret it. Marsden spends a good bit of time describing the history of revivalism and how it developed. He notes that revivalism focused on the individual and his personal need for salvation. Revivalists appealed to scripture in their messages and maintained a supernatural view of it. The revivalist movement is traced back to its early Puritan and Calvinistic origin. These traditions emphasized human depravity and inability to bring one’s own salvation. Paradoxically they also encouraged the development of the intellect and the Christianizing of salvation. Fundamentalism continued the dilemma and tension faced by the Puritans in trying to balance living in the world, but not being of it. The early pietist movements of groups such as the Moravians and more recently the Methodists emphasized religious experience and personal holiness. Revivalist preachers also incorporated these themes into their messages. Marsden notes that the Holiness movement heritage of fundamentalism is often overlooked. The strong emphasis on holiness later manifested itself in fundamentalism’s militancy over doctrinal purity. Fundamentalists also emphasize the need for holy living in the current sinful world. The adoption of dispensational premillenialism by many fundamentalists encouraged a pessimistic world view and an emphasis on living for the next life. Marsden’s connection of fundamentalism with earlier evangelical movements seems to be a fair evaluation of the facts. He does not seem to be forcing his thesis on the facts, but rather he seems to be trying to draw his conclusions from his analysis of what happened.

The final sub theme deals with fundamentalism’s intellectualism and anti-intellectualism. Marsden discusses how fundamentalism was willing to accept some modern ideas, but only select ones. In the 1920s fundamentalism was presented as being anti-intellectual and anti-scientific, but as Marsden points out that simply is not true. In the nineteenth century and earlier conservative evangelicalism and later the fundamentalists wholeheartedly embraced Baconian science with its emphasis on careful, reasonable inductions from specific facts. The rise of dispensationalism actually corresponds with this acceptance of the scientific method. Dispensationalism was supposed to be a more scientific way of studying and interpreting scripture. Scottish Common Sense Realism was also embraced and it formed the philosophical basis for most conservative theologians. Some fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals even allowed that some form of scientific evolution could be scripturally acceptable. These men were in the minority among fundamentalists, but still not all fundamentalists rejected modern ideas. In the more general sense, some fundamentalists were anti-intellectual. Marsden notes that fundamentalism’s revivalist and more specifically Methodist roots are the one of the main sources for the anti-intellectualism of the movement. Typically Methodists and revivalists emphasized personal experience and the individual’s ability to understand the Bible unaided by any outside source including advanced education. Fundamentalists also chose to reject modern ideas that were diametrically opposed to their views of the Bible and Christianity such as the rationalistic views of scripture. Marsden’s discussion fundamentalism’s embrace and rejection of modern ideas is logical and carefully thought out. His analysis is succinct, clear, and seems reasonable.

Overall, George Marsden’s work seems to combine careful historical research with clear and logical interpretations. His assertion that fundamentalism was a specific reaction by conservative evangelicalism to modern ideas during the early twentieth century is reasonable and carefully defended. His development of his three sub themes throughout the work aid the readers understanding of the historical facts and their context. By intertwining the sub themes throughout the work Marsden is able to link the narrative with insightful historical explanations. Marsden’s book creatively combines a wide variety of sources and provides a lively narrative. His work marks a transition in the historiography of fundamentalism as he presents fundamentalists in a better light and makes them more respectable. This accomplishment is similar to what Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan did for the Puritans. Marsden’s book is an excellent history of fundamentalism and contributes a great deal to the field of American religious history.


2 thoughts on “Fundamentalism and American Culture

  1. Tim,
    This was a very helpful review. Thanks a lot. I had not read the book yet, but it is on my must-read list now. I was wondering if Marsden comments on the assertion that Fundamentalism imbibed more Modernism than they realized, and that this contributed to the further dividing and fracturing of the movement. Do he have any insights?

    Also, when discussing the intellectualism/anti-intellectual issue, does Marsden discuss the transition from the Presbyterian leadership of Fundamentalism (mostly late nineteenth century) to the Baptist leadership of Fundamentalism? While I am not asserting that Baptists are anti-intellectuals, do you think that the rise of anti-intellectualism among fundamentalists could be attributed in part to this? I am thinking of the ties that the Baptists and Methodists had in the camp meetings of the early nineteenth century. With that commonality, ideas would flow back and forth gaining strength, and the anti-intellectualism could very easily be one of them. Just a few ideas. Well, thanks again for the good review.


  2. Nathan,

    Judging from the books published by the Presbyterians and the Baptists, it would appear that the Baptists dropped the ball on the intellectual aspects. I would argue that this was only an “apparent” problem. It is a problem if you define fundamentalists by those who use the label. In that case, as the Presbyterians moved out, the intellectual content of the movement decreased. If you define fundamentalists by their beliefs in Scripture, then the movement would still include the intellectual giants like Warfield et al.

    Either way, a significant portion of Baptists within the movement were not opposed to education (consider BJU). But, unfortunately, many Baptists seemed to view any education beyond a college or bible school degree as a waste of time. I have talked with Baptist preachers who believed that advanced degrees were unnecessary. They argued that God used men who were not highly trained for many years.

    Many reasons exist for these opinions about intellectual training:
    – To many intellectuals went liberal
    – God uses people without education
    – Priesthood of the believer (the Spirit will teach me what I need to know)

    Still it is an interesting subject: why did the intellectual iants leave the Fundamentalist organization? I would like to see more work in this field. Does anyone know a good book on it?

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