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

By George M. Marsden | Go to book overview

strength to pass a report of the Judicial Commission dealing with the situation in the New York Presbytery. This measure allowed the Assembly to review the Presbytery's ordination of ministerial candidates who had refused to affirm the five-point doctrinal test. This was precisely the judicial procedure the exclusivists needed to begin uprooting liberalism. The liberal party was dismayed by this Assembly action, which would have severely limited their freedom. By the most dramatic move in the controversy, the threatened defeat was turned into an inclusivist victory. Henry Sloan Coffin of New York, perhaps the best known of the Presbyterian liberals, "rushed to the platform" and read a prepared statement from the Presbytery of New York, declaring in effect that the Assembly's action was unconstitutional and that the New York Presbytery would not comply with it. Here was a scene and an issue that closely resembled that which had split the denomination the previous century. A New School party stood defiant against an Old School effort to force New York Presbyterians into doctrinal conformity. Although much more important theological issues were involved this time, in the 1920s among Presbyterians there was far less willingness to split the denomination even at the expense of important doctrinal questions. In the tense moments that followed Coffin's declaration, the inclusivists made their next carefully planned move. Erdman, leaving the Moderator's chair, proposed that a special commission be appointed to study the spiritual condition of the church and report back to the next Assembly. This motion received wide support, and was seconded by both Coffin and William Jennings Bryan.28

It was not immediately obvious that the exclusivist fundamentalist movement in the Presbyterian Church would be killed by referral to a committee. In fact, it was. The working strength of fundamentalism everywhere depended greatly upon the national mood. In the early summer of 1925 fundamentalism was at its peak; by the next year its strength was rapidly sinking.


XXI. Epilogue: Dislocation, Relocation,
and Resurgence: 1925-1940

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of "the Monkey Trial" at Dayton, Tennessee, in transforming fundamentalism. William Jennings Bryan's ill-fated attempt in the summer of 1925 to slay singlehanded the prophets of Baal brought instead an outpouring of derision. The rural setting, so well suited to the stereotypes of the agrarian leader and his religion, stamped the entire movement with an indelible image. Very quickly, the conspicuous reality of the movement seemed to conform to the image thus imprinted and

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