What Fundamentalists in America Had in Common

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In 2007, Wipf & Stock published a 1973 history dissertation out of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln by Robert E. Wenger, who has served for many years as professor of history at what is now Cairn University.

The subject of his dissertation was on Social Thought in American Fundamentalism, 1918–1933One of the interesting features of the work is a fair bit of original spade work in tabulating some of the social and cultural characteristics of fundamentalists and modernists in the 1920s and early 1930s. For example, there are tables on both the birthplaces and also the residences of 40 prominent fundamentalists and 40 prominent modernists, and the same is done with educational background, occupations, church affiliations, and so on. Generalizations die at the hands of detailed data.

Wenger concludes his work by showing that the inner unity or common denominator of American fundamentalism in this specific time period cannot be attributed to social or cultural characteristics and ideas:

While fundamentalists doubtless included rural and small-town Southerners and Midwesterners with little education, blindly loyal to the Constitution and capitalism, and suspicious of everyone with new ideas, the generalizations are not appropriate for the movement as a whole.

Wegner summarizes his conclusions regarding five proposed criteria that have been alleged to unite American fundamentalism between the wars:

Geographically, the movement appealed to persons from all areas of the country and even foreign countries, although its strongest support developed in the Middle Atlantic, East North Central, and Pacific regions.

Intellectually, its leadership included men of varying capabilities, and competent scholars made common cause with sensational pulpiteers.

In their attitudes toward minority groups, fundamentalists differed widely, but in general were considerably more moderate than the “hundred percent Americans” of the war and postwar years.

As advocates for social reform, they were again divided, with some taking a stand public evils and others viewing social involvement as a prostitution of the church’s calling. Even the crusades against liquor and evolutionary teaching did not enjoy the support of all.

Economically, most fundamentalists were satisfied with the present system but reserved the right to criticize evils in capitalism, unionism, socialism, and communism equally.

According to Wenger’s study, their unity rested in two things: (1) biblically based Christian theology and (2) nationalism.

On theology, he writes:

A sovereign and personal God, a written divine revelation, a perfect, virgin-born, crucified, and resurrected Savior, a life transformed by faith in Christ, and a hope of future eternal bliss all were threads woven tightly into the thinking of fundamentalists.

This theological core was what led them to reject certain aspects of modern thought, even at the risk of being called unscholarly.

It also moderated their nationalism and enabled most of them to avoid the worst features of the postwar intolerance engulfing the nation.

Theology determined their general philosophy of social reform, which always retained personal conversion as the prerequisite for permanent social improvement.

Theology was given generous application in the economic realm, leading fundamentalists to condemn greed and dishonesty wherever they saw it, to see the Depression as a moral crisis, and to propose a spiritual remedy for its solution.

In brief, biblical doctrine colored the thinking of fundamentalists on any subject they discussed.

On nationalism, he comments:

Nationalism was a secondary unifying force for fundamentalists, increasing their militancy as they saw the need to preserve Christian America from spiritual and political foes.

Patriotism played a large role in fundamentalist opposition to Al Smith, to modernism, and to communism, as well as in the support of prohibition and anti-evolution laws. But this nationalism rarely operated apart from the theological emphases of the movement. While an idealistic view of America’s history and destiny could easily become a new national religion for fundamentalists (and actually did for some of their successors) most of them resisted this temptation during the era under study. Instead, they warned that America could be a divinely used instrument only if her people returned to the God of their fathers.

Wegner’s work—more than four decades old—needs to be supplemented by more recent research like Matt Sutton’s American Apocalypse and Mary Beth Swetnam Matthews’s Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars. But it remains a valuable starting point for thinking about social thought in this time period.

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