Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925

By George M. Marsden | Go to book overview

I. Evangelical America
at the Brink of Crisis

In 1870 almost all American Protestants thought of America as a Christian nation. Although many Roman Catholics, sectarians, skeptics, and non‐ Christians had other views of the matter, Protestant evangelicals considered their faith to be the normative American creed. Viewed from their dominant perspective, the nineteenth century had been marked by successive advances of evangelicalism, the American nation, and hence the kingdom of God. Although many saw some unmistakably ominous portents, few expected evangelical progress to cease. The Civil War, widely interpreted as "a true Apocalyptic contest," had been the greatest test of American evangelical civilization. For many Northerners the victory confirmed, as one Presbyterian observer put it, that "we as individuals, and as a nation, are identified with that kingdom of God among men, which is righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost." 1 Mission enthusiasts foresaw similar advances worldwide. "The sublime idea of the conversion of the world to Christ," said Professor Samuel Harris of Yale in 1870, "has become so common as to cease to awaken wonder." 2

The seemingly inexhaustible power of spiritual awakenings was foremost among the factors that generated such confidence. America, lacking many older institutions, had been substantially influenced by revivalism. The negative associations of revivals primarily with excess or with the frontier were only distant memories. Awakenings were now most respectable and even necessary signs of vitality in cities as much as in the countryside, among the educated as certainly as among the unlettered. The most immediate common memories were of the popular revivals that had swept through army camps, both Northern and Southern, but the outstanding model for renewal was the great revival of 1857-58. These awakenings, centered in the cities, grew out of noonday prayer meetings led by businessmen and bankers. Revival was not confined to the poor or the ignorant. Most college-educated Americans had attended schools where periodically intense spiritual outpourings were expected among the student body. "Revivalism" in 1870 suggested such names as Jonathan Edwards, Timothy Dwight, Lyman Beecher, and especially Charles Finney (whose career was near its end)—all with strong New England ties and all distinguished educators known by their title "President."

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