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

By George M. Marsden | Go to book overview

Christianity and Culture

XV. Four Views circa 1910

In retrospect, we can see that the decade preceding America's entry into the Great War was the end of an era for the American evangelical establishment. Throughout the nineteenth century there had seemed to be reasonable hope for establishing the foundations of something like a "Christian America." With the knowledge of what has happened since, it is apparent that this ideal was illusory and that the evangelical consensus itself was already irreparably damaged. The impasse that was to come could only dimly be perceived in the early twentieth century in the context of a long past of evangelical advance and a vigorous present. Competing denominationalists, liberals and conservatives, individualists and social reformers, confessionalists and primitivists had long worked together in many of the same interdenominational agencies, published in the same journals, prayed for the same mission causes, and shared many of the same hopes. 1 There were indeed many sectarians and immigrant groups on the fringes which had little to do with the central evangelical movement. Yet the majority of Protestants who did identify with it had long since learned to live with some differences and cooperate in working for many common goals.

The new conservative coalition against liberalism was part of this establishment. It belonged to the mainstream and, as The Fundamentals project shows, aspired to bring about a consensus of religious thought in America. At the same time it was becoming more and more a voice of dissent, sometimes sounding a sectarian or anti-intellectual note.

If this emerging anti-modernist movement was in any sense a distinct entity, it was torn by internal disagreements and tensions. These differences could have a number of explanations, including incompatible denominational or doctrinal traditions. It may be more illuminating, however, to look at these divisions in the context of the spectrum of opinion on an issue central to the present inquiry—the relation of Christianity to American culture. Should the movement attempt to reshape the culture and its churches from within or rather condemn them and separate itself from them? On this

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