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

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

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

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

Excerpt

From its origins fundamentalism was primarily a religious movement. It was a movement among American "evangelical" Christians, people professing complete confidence in the Bible and preoccupied with the message of God's salvation of sinners through the death of Jesus Christ. Evangelicals were convinced that sincere acceptance of this " Gospel" message was the key to virtue in this life and to eternal life in heaven; its rejection meant following the broad path that ended with the tortures of hell. Unless we appreciate the immense implications of a deep religious commitment to such beliefs- implications for one's own life and for attitudes toward others—we cannot appreciate the dynamics of fundamentalist thought and action.

Yet to understand fundamentalism we must also see it as a distinct version of evangelical Christianity uniquely shaped by the circumstances of America in the early twentieth century. This book analyzes the impact of that cultural experience. It starts with the premise of the centrality of genuine religious faith and takes into account some continuities with other Christian traditions. The focus, however, is primarily on how individuals who were committed to typically American versions of evangelical Christianity responded to and were influenced by the social, intellectual, and religious crises of their time.

The fundamentalists' most alarming experience was that of finding themselves living in a culture that by the 1920s was openly turning away from God. "Christendom," remarked H. L. Mencken in 1924, "may be defined briefly as that part of the world in which, if any man stands up in public and solemnly swears that he is a Christian, all his auditors will laugh." The "irreligion of the modern world," concurred Walter Lippmann in his Preface to Morals, is "... radical to a degree for which there is, I think, no counterpart." "There remains no foundation in authority for ideas of right and wrong," said Joseph Wood Krutch in a somber requiem for Western Civilization. "Both our practical morality and our emotional lives are adjusted to a world that no longer exists."

Fundamentalists shared with the discontented intellectuals of the 1920s, if little else, a sense of the profound spiritual and cultural crisis of the twentieth century. Unlike their more disillusioned contemporaries, however, they had very definite ideas of where things had gone wrong. Modernism and the theory of evolution, they were convinced, had caused the catastrophe by undermining the Biblical foundations of American civilization. "Modern-

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