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

By George M. Marsden | Go to book overview

XVI. World War I, Premillennialism,
and American Fundamentalism:
1917-1918

Between 1917 and the early 1920s American conservative evangelicals underwent a dramatic transformation. In 1917 they were still part of the evangelical coalition that had been dominant in America for a century. Some theological conservatives, premillennialists, and revivalists were often warning against the modern tendencies of their liberal, postmillennial, or Social Gospel opponents; but all of these groups operated within the same denominations and interdenominational agencies, and at times still cooperated.1 Occasionally the anti-liberals became rather strident, but the relative moderation of The Fundamentals was more characteristic of the conservative tone of the time. After 1920 conservative evangelical councils were dominated by "fundamentalists" engaged in holy warfare to drive the scourge of modernism out of church and culture.

Two factors help to explain this remarkable shift from moderation to militancy. One is that more aggressive and radical forms of theological liberalism had developed. Fundamentalists themselves occasionally explained the phenomenon thus, and their claim had some basis. Clearly, however, fundamentalism was more than a reaction to theological change. After 1920 fundamentalism became conspicuously associated with a major component of social and political alarm—most evident in the effort to save American civilization from the dangers of evolutionism. This perception of cultural crisis, in turn, appears to have created a greater sense of theological urgency. Thus, fundamentalist theological militancy appears intimately related to a second factor, the American social experience connected with World War I.

The most important clue to understanding the impact of the war on fundamentalism is the lack of a distinctive social or political stance in the emerging anti-modernist movement before World War I. Although a variety of traditions was represented, most of the movement's leaders in fact expressed relatively little interest in political or social issues. Most retained to some degree the idea that the strength of the American Republic was rooted in Christian principles, and they encouraged legislation for select causes.2 Yet for a variety of reasons they had scruples against deep political involvement.

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