How Historians Are Quietly Rewriting the Typical Story of American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism

Writing 10 years ago in Books & Culture, David Bebbington suggested that the general consensus regarding the American evangelical story needs revision.

The typical story in his retelling goes something like this:

  1. [I]n the wake of the Great Awakenings, first and second, America was thoroughly impregnated with evangelical values in the years down to the Civil War.
  2. Afterward, however, there arose the challenges of industrialism, non-Protestant immigration, Darwinism, and higher criticism that together toppled the evangelical dominance.
  3. Fundamentalism arose in the 20th century to oppose the debasement of the faith, separating from the liberal mainline denominations and so becoming socially marginal.
  4. Only with the emergence of neo-evangelicalism from fundamentalism in the 1940s were the foundations of the modern movement laid.

In sum, “There was . . . a period of evangelical decay in the late 19th century and a hiatus in the evangelical tradition during the early 20th century.”

Bebbington points out that this narrative is not true of Britain, but asks, “Is it really even true of America?”

Bebbington has his doubts.

On 19th-century evangelicalism in America, he writes:

The Second Great Awakening generated not so much “an Arminianized Calvinism” . . .  as a full-blooded paradigm of moderate Calvinism that retained its hegemony in the pulpits of America down to the end of the century and beyond.

Alongside it among the Methodists was a warm-hearted Arminian theology.

The two seemed increasingly similar as the century wore on, but both remained thoroughly orthodox sanctions for vigorous evangelism.

D. L. Moody, who could count on supporters from both camps, made his enormous impact because the culture was still permeated with evangelical assumptions.

Black Christians were far more numerous and far more committed to evangelical doctrines in 1900 than in 1850.

Liberal theology was admittedly beginning its course, especially at Andover Seminary, but it was stoutly resisted.

What about the impact of industrialism, non-Protestant immigration, Darwinism, and higher criticism? Bebbington briefly deals with each:

Darwinism and higher criticism did not appear to be serious problems to most ministers, let alone most laypeople, until well into the 20th century. Their corrosive force on Christian profession has been seriously antedated.

Industrialism was generating a structured response, for many of the early social gospel advocates were . . . evangelical.

Non-Protestant immigrants were seen as a threat to be combatted and a community to be evangelized, not as an irresistible tide that had swept evangelicals away.

In short: “Evangelicals were still in the ascendancy in America at the end of the 19th century.”

When it comes to the 20th century and the relationship between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, Bebbington writes that this has been misunderstood:

Fundamentalism played a much larger part in American life than in interwar Britain, but it was not the sole repository of evangelical convictions at that time. There was a great deal of continuity in older evangelical bodies from the earlier period down to the later 20th century.

Methodism, which was barely touched by fundamentalist controversy, remained substantially orthodox (with some notable exceptions) and generated fresh evangelistic ventures.

Newer bodies that could hardly be called fundamentalist, such as the Salvation Army and the Nazarenes, possessed clear evangelical credentials.

The South as a whole, while sharing many views with fundamentalists, maintained the vigor of its earlier evangelical attitudes and practices.

Bebbington contends, “It is only by appreciating that there was such continuity in evangelicalism, much of it within so-called mainline denominations, that the phenomena of the late 20th century can be explained.”

For Billy Graham to be sponsored by the New York Council of Churches in 1957, for instance, indicates that there were many in denominations not normally described as evangelical who agreed with his message. These were people whom Graham himself thought of at the time of the founding of Christianity Today (1956) as “open to the biblical faith in the mainline denominations.”

It is highly significant that in the 2006 Baylor survey more people in the same mainline denominations embraced the label “Evangelical” than did those regarded by the investigators as belonging to evangelical bodies.

The 20th century witnessed far less interruption of the evangelical tradition than the usual emphasis on fundamentalism would suggest.

Bebbington concludes:

These amendments to received opinion about the main patterns in the historical evolution of American evangelicalism may help our understanding of the strength of the movement in contemporary America . . .

Evangelicalism remained a powerful force for longer than has usually been suggested, down to the end of the 19th century and even beyond. The movement’s broader-minded section continued to maintain its old emphases alongside the rise of fundamentalism. Hence there were more sparks to fan into a flame in the late 20th century than has normally been supposed.

Michael Hamilton, in a brilliant essay on “The Interdenominational Evangelicalism of D. L. Moody and the Problem of Fundamentalism,” critiques the influential narrative of George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture, which accords with Bebbington’s pushback.

Barry Hankins, in an essay on “Marsden and Modern Fundamentalism,” summarizes Hamilton’s argument:

Rather than seeing fundamentalism as a movement that coalesced and became militant as a result of the controversies of the 1920s, he [i.e., Hamilton] follows [Ernest] Sandeen in drawing a sharp distinction between the fundamentalist movement and the fundamentalist controversies.

On the one hand, the controversies consisted of battles for control of large northern Protestant denominations (fought mainly by northern denominational conservatives).

The controversies also include battles to outlaw evolution in the schools (fought mainly by southern evangelicals).

In other words, there was no “fundamentalist controversy”—singular. There were actually three distinct, non-overlapping battles:

  1. the conservative fight for denominational control of the Northern Baptist Convention
  2. the conservative fight for denominational control of the Presbyterian Church, USA
  3. the conservative fight to ban the teaching in public schools that man evolved from lower species

Hankins continues his summary of Hamilton:

The fundamentalist movement was actually a new form of interdenominational evangelicalism brought into being by Dwight L. Moody in the late nineteenth century.

It was [1] committed to dispensationalism and interdenominationalism, which made it anathema to denominational conservatives; and it was [2] based in the North, which made it foreign to southern evangelicals.

Despite these divisions, progressives of the 1920s lumped all three groups together and called them all “fundamentalists,” a framework that [George] Marsden adopted.

By contrast, Hamilton argues, the Moody coalition stayed on the sidelines of the controversies for the most part because it had no strong desire to wage war against modernism.

Moreover, the Moody coalition continued after the controversies with little change to its basic nonmilitant character.

Using Hamilton’s own words, here is a recap of his six interlocking arguments:

  1. There was no single coalition—no single fundamentalist movement—that organized itself in the early 1920s. The three major battles of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies were fought by three separate coalitions that had hardly any overlapping personnel.
  2. There was another major battle of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies, one that was resolved before the other three. This was a dispute over the meaning of the term “fundamentalist.” By late 1923 the modernists and their progressive allies had won this fight, developing the definition of fundamentalism that we now accept as the scholarly consensus.
  3. The fundamentalist battles did not generate a new movement. The popular movement that after 1925 came to be called “fundamentalism”—that is, the movement based in independent Bible institutes, missionary organizations, and large autonomous urban churches—had been organized in the late nineteenth century by Dwight L. Moody and his lieutenants. Before World War I it already had a self-conscious identity, an institutional network, and recognized leaders.
  4. Most of the Moody network and its key leaders were never involved in the denominational battles or the battle over evolution in the schools. The movement as a whole had substantial sympathy for the militant antimodernists, and a very small handful of leaders from the network did become involved in the fights. But most of the network’s leaders, institutions, and grassroots constituents remained on the sidelines in the 1920s.
  5. The Moody movement did not retreat to the cultural periphery after the battles of the 1920s. Its institutional location in relationship to the rest of American cultural institutions had already been established and locked into place before World War I. Their location in independent parachurch organizations outside the denominational structure did put them farther from American political, educational, and media centers. But it also put them closer to ordinary Americans—at a time when an organizational revolution within the denominations was distancing the denominations from ordinary Americans.
  6. The Moody movement was assigned the name fundamentalist by those outside the movement. But more often than not these so-called fundamentalists declined to call themselves that, and with good reason. For what Moody midwifed into being was in fact a new form of interdenominational evangelicalism that has reshaped American religious life. Moody gave this movement a basic character and structure that, though affected by the fundamentalist-modernist controversies, remained fairly constant through the emergence of Billy Graham in the 1950s.

Hankins concludes his analysis:

If the Dayton-Bebbington-Hamilton-Carpenter et al. interpretation someday supplants the Marsden paradigm, then fundamentalism will likely be understood as an important movement but one that was never at the center of evangelicalism.

In other words, the standard story that has been told may not be the full story. Matthew Avery Sutton has sought to offer an alternative to the Marsden paradigm, though historians like Hankins and Carpenter think it still has its flaws.

So we await the future work of historians who will put together this alternate narrative in a comprehensive way.


Update: George Marsden graciously responds in the comments below. I thought it’d be worth highlighting his response in the body of the post it. Here it is:

Thanks for this. For whatever it may be worth, my attempt to incorporate these helpful nuances into an overall account of the rise of American fundamentalism is found in my essay “The Rise of Fundamentalism” in Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism, ed. Heath W. Carter and Laura Rominger Porter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017). There I try to emphasize that fundamentalism (like “evangelicalism” today) was never close to being any one thing. Rather it was a cluster of various movements with family resemblances and some loose interconnections. Many have contributed valuable new perspectives on our understanding of fundamentalism since I first wrote about it almost forty years ago.

Here is one of the relevant sections from Professor Marsden’s essay:

Because fundamentalists were shaped by prior religious traditions, there was much more to outlooks than just militancy. They were dedicated to preserving and protecting the fundamental teachings of their particular heritage because they were convinced that the gospel message was a matter of eternal life or death. These high stakes steeled their passionate dedication to proclaiming the Good News. Evangelicalism and missions were top priorities. Some believe that, for the sake of promoting these aims, it was better to emphasize the positive elements of a simple gospel message rather than emphasize what they were against.

So fundamentalists came in many varieties and with varying degrees of militancy. The dispensationalist revivalist movement continued to be a driving force for much of fundamentalism. . . . [After WW1] Even if evangelism and missions were still its primary concerns, hard-liner militancy, alarmist characterization of cultural trends, and uncompromising gatekeeping were now among its most conspicuous traits. (149, 150)