The Scopes Trial and Southern Fundamentalism in Black and White: Race, Region, and Religion

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THE ANTI-EVOLUTION MOVEMENT OF THE 1920s DEMONSTRATED THAT SOME aspects of Protestant fundamentalism flourished with particular vigor in the American South. Although fundamentalism, like the anti-evolution movement itself, originated in the North and Midwest, some southern states provided significant popular and legislative support, particularly in the area of scientific education, including Tennessee's infamous Butler Act proscribing the teaching of evolution, a 1928 referendum in Arkansas that also banished the topic from public schools, and similar limitations imposed by countless local school boards. Not by mere coincidence did William Jennings Bryan frequently cultivate anti-evolution sentiments in the fertile soil of the Bible Belt. Southern Protestantism and fundamentalism shared many social and theological foundations.

Yet this common picture of fundamentalism leaves out one major group of southern Protestants: African Americans. Despite the African American exodus from white-dominated denominations in the decades after emancipation, black and white southerners shared a common religious heritage marked by revivalism, conservative biblical beliefs, and often a sense of premillennial pessimism about the state of the world. It would have seemed natural for African Americans to be just as interested in the fundamentalist message as some of their white coreligionists were. However, the Scopes trial of 1925 demonstrated that black and white Protestants in the South differed in significant ways. Some conservative white evangelicals shifted to support fundamentalist Protestantism, leaving their black brethren upholding once-shared beliefs but rejecting the white fundamentalists' emphasis on aggressive cultural battles. (1) Despite conservative interpretations of the Bible among most African Americans and the best efforts of a handful of self-proclaimed black fundamentalists, few African American Christians traveled the path that led from conservative theology to militant righteousness. Ironically, the same southern heritage that predisposed black southerners to conservative biblical belief also prevented them from following some of their white brethren into a fundamentalist crusade to purge the churches and society of impurity.

The determination of whether black and white southerners became fundamentalists depends in part on the definition of fundamentalism. The formal movement commenced with the founding of the World's Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA) in 1919 under the leadership of white Minnesota minister William Bell Riley, but fundamentalism's organizational genesis says little about its content and character. Historians have generally moved beyond the early view--put forth by scholars for whom the anti-evolution controversy was still a live issue--that fundamentalism was a rearguard action by dispossessed rural Americans uncomfortable with education and scientific progress. Instead, scholars in the last three decades have examined the tenets of fundamentalist theology, the movement's roots in the nineteenth century, and the social and structural contexts in which fundamentalism thrived. (2)

At a basic level, fundamentalists were united by their adherence to a conservative theology. In the 1910s an emerging fundamentalist theology categorized as true Christians only those who believed five or six central doctrines. An overarching belief in the inerrancy of Scripture sheltered all the other fundamental tenets, including the virgin birth of Jesus, his sacrifice to atone for human sin, his bodily resurrection, and either the authenticity of biblical miracles or the inevitability of Jesus's return to earth to usher in a millennium of peace. These beliefs increasingly marked adherents as fundamentalists after the turn of the twentieth century, as science seemed to call into question most biblical miracles and so-called liberals and modernists in the churches began to call for a less literal interpretation of the Bible. …