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

By George M. Marsden | Go to book overview

XXIV. Fundamentalism
as an Intellectual Phenomenon

Clarence Darrow said in Dayton that his intention was to prevent "bigots and ignoramuses" from controlling the schools. This view of the fundamentalist intellect would continue to prevail in the liberal community. Stewart Cole populated his History of Fundamentalism with "religiously disturbed" defenders of "antiquated beliefs," contending against "open-minded seekers for the truth that makes man free."1 According to H. Richard Niebuhr "inadequate development of educational institutions" and "the distrust of reason and the emphasis on emotion" resulted from the isolation, poverty, and hardships of farm life.2 Norman Furniss observed that "ignorance ... was a feature of the movement; it became a badge the orthodox often wore proudly." Fundamentalists' "distorted opinions," said Furniss, were based on "complete misunderstanding" of evolution and modernism. They had to resort to coercion because they "were aligning themselves against ideas that had the weight of fact behind them...."3 These interpretations gained some stature in the American historical community when Richard Hofstadter identified the "paranoid style" of fundamentalist thought as a species of "anti-intellectualism" reflecting a "generically prejudiced mind."4

As Hofstadter showed, anti-intellectualism was a feature of American revivalism, and fundamentalists were certainly not free from this tendency. The suggestion that the ancestors of Ph. D.s were monkeys and baboons was always good for a laugh from an anti-evolution crowd. Likewise the titles of the learned were enumerated "D.D., Ph.D., L.L.D., Litt.D."—ending with "A.S.S." Even the well-educated and usually humorless Reuben Torrey would stoop to this.5 Moreover, some champions of the Bible school movement were beginning to assert that Bible education was the only proper education, not just an expedient for lay evangelists, as it was originally conceived. There was a strong tradition in America that the Bible in the hands of the common person was of greater value than any amount of education.6 As William Jennings Bryan often said "It is better to trust in the Rock of Ages, than to know the age of the rocks; it is better for one to know that he is close to the Heavenly Father, than to know how far the stars in the heavens are apart."7

If one reads fundamentalist literature, however, it is apparent that such Bible-versus-science themes were usually brought up only as a last line of defense. The Bible was thought to be scientific (in the sense of reporting the facts accurately)8 whereas evolution was wholly unscientific. Scientists and

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