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

By George M. Marsden | Go to book overview
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for legislation concerning women's and children's labor, advocated better treatment of immigrants and blacks, and waged an unceasing campaign for world peace. 24 These efforts were part of a large evangelistically oriented conservative Protestant movement that continued to enjoy some sense of unity. This movement had many sides. Dispensationalism and holiness were two; social concern was another. At some time all these were intimately associated.

There was a tendency among the premillennialist holiness Bible teachers, expressed by Moody, to see the world as a "wrecked vessel," implying that one should concentrate on saving souls and stay away from social issues except for what could be reached by preaching conversion and repentance. Most evangelical preachers, furthermore, along with their businessmen supporters and most of their contemporaries, viewed the cause and cure of poverty as related directly to the initiative of the individual. The present account stresses the degree of involvement in social concerns but does not intend to deny the more prominent evangelical endorsement and confirmation of the prevailing values of middle-class America. The intention is to correct the impression that revivalist evangelicals of this era were overwhelmingly complacent and inactive on social questions. In fact, many of the same evangelist associates of Moody who took the lead in preaching dispensationalism and holiness also led in preserving the tradition of evangelical social work. Though they were dedicated first to saving souls, greatly occupied with personal piety, and held pessimistic social views, their record of Christian social service, in an era when social reform was not popular, was as impressive as that of almost any group in the country.


X. "The Great Reversal"

The evangelicals' interest in social concerns, which lasted into the early years of the twentieth century, has been something of a puzzle to historians of fundamentalism. The chief question is the rather dramatic disappearance of this interest—or at least its severe curtailment—by the 1920s. In recent years many evangelical interpreters have commented on this "Great Reversal" in evangelical social views, although they have not always been clear on precisely what was lost. 1 Non-evangelical interpreters have tended to see a less sudden transition. Some have seemed to discount late nineteenth-century evangelical social efforts because they were motivated primarily by desire to "save souls." 2 Others have concluded that, at least since the Civil War, an emphasis on the "private" implications of the Gospel has almost invariably

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