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

By George M. Marsden | Go to book overview

XIX. Would the Liberals Be Driven
from the Denominations?
1922-1923

Sentiment for the fundamentalist program of recovering lost national foundations was growing rapidly, and the fundamentalists were in the optimal position to push their demand for faithfulness to the Bible in the denominations. In those denominations where there were large parties on each side, schism was widely feared. Everyone concerned seemed to envision the fundamentalists driving the liberals out of these denominations. Although in retrospect the obstacles to such an outcome are obvious, they were not all apparent in the spring of 1922, as the Baptist fundamentalists were laying plans to press their seeming advantage.

Thus, on May 21, 1922, as the Baptist Convention was approaching, the popular liberal Baptist preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, launched the liberal counteroffensive with a sermon entitled. "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" This sermon so exactly captured the liberal sentiments of the moment that it received wide publicity, appearing in at least three journals as well as in a widely distributed pamphlet.1 Unlike the authors of some other liberal attacks who tried to dismiss fundamentalism by associating it with one or another form of extremism,2 Fosdick showed himself well-informed on the nature of the movement. Fundamentalists, he said, were especially intolerant conservatives. They were strongest in the Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. Their fundamental doctrinal tests were (I) special miracles such as the Virgin Birth (2) the inerrancy of Scripture (which Fosdick took to involve something like stenographic dictation), (3) the "special theory" of substitutionary atonement, and (4) the second coming of Christ to set up a millennial kingdom (a point which Fosdick persisted in identifying with all fundamentalism).3 On all but the third of these points, Fosdick contrasted in some detail the fundamentalist position with that of other "multitudes of reverent Christians" who saw natural historical processes as God's way of doing things. He also mentioned in passing fundamentalist efforts to exclude "teaching modern biology" in public schools, a subject on which he had just debated with Bryan in the New York Times.4 But his central concern was for the churches. Repeatedly he emphasized that the fundamentalist goal was to force those with other views out of the churches. The central theme of his message was the urgent need for tolerance on both sides.5

The fears that Fosdick entertained were somewhat allayed at the 1922 meeting of the Northern Baptist Convention because of the inability of the

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