28 Mar

Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (1997)

Joel A. Carpenter explores the history of the American fundamentalist movement from the 1930s to 1940s. Carpenter argues that “Forced by their failed antimodernist crusades to rely on their own institutional network, fundamentalists spent these years developing a distinct religious movement with an ethos and identity that was different from the various denominational heritages of its members. Promoted by their revivalist heritage to dream of another great religious awakening in America, they set about to make it happen. The result was, if not a national religious revival, a popular resurgence of fundamentalist and other kinds of evangelicalism after World War II” (3). Central to the reemergence of fundamentalism was fundamentalists’ use of media, and the founding of institutions and organizations that served as national networks.


Fundamentalism survived the 1925 Scopes Trial debacle. In fact, the movement thrived as it developed “a complex and widespread institutional network to sustain its activities” (31). Fundamentalists founded Bible colleges and summer Bible conferences, continued foreign missions, engaged in publishing and radio networks, and trained leaders to evangelize. These leaders and institutions connected members across class lines and states. The intuitions and networks were integral to the success of fundamentalism because they allowed fundamentalists to work outside of the established, mainline Protestant denominations, which were experiencing rapid decline in membership. During the early 1930s, fundamentalists “were becoming a distinct religious community” (33). While they flourished, fundamentalists still felt ostracized from American culture and public life. Three factors contributed to this feeling. 1) The popularization and populism of fundamentalism “pitted it against the rising cultural authority of the university-trained expert.” 2) Dispensationalism predicted that orthodox Christians would be a fighting minority in the last days. 3) Once-respected conservatives were no longer taken seriously in public life. Thus, fundamentalists cultivated a separatist impulse of which the institutions and networks were a part.

This separatist impulse was cultivated in other ways through patters of devotion and thought “that marked [fundamentalists], both in the biblical and ordinary sense of the word, as a peculiar people” (57).  Fundamentalists rejected worldly pleasures like drinking, fashion, and dancing. They saw fundamentalism in conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil, and thus developed what Carpenter calls a “militancy and machismo” (66). They also believed in the Bible as the inerrant Word of God and supported Christian primitivism. Fundamentalist piety was characterized by conversion, or New Birth, and an event after conversion called “entering into a ‘higher Christian life’” (76). Fundamentalists viewed the world, history, the church, current events, and the future through dispensationalism. These habits of devotion and thought supported their notions of alienation and gave them purpose. That purpose, although paradoxical, was to quicken revival before the rapture. To bring revival to America, fundamentalists employed “a contemporary religious style by making extensive use of the popular arts and mass media: advertising, popular music and entertainment, broadcast journalism, and radio broadcasting” (125). At the same time, fundamentalists forged a coalition to present a united evangelical front. The National Association of Evangelicals, founded in 1942 and organized by moderate fundamentalists, foregrounded “evangelicals” in American public life. Thereafter, grassroots organizations, like Youth for Christ, set off “the revival of revivalism, which had percolated deep within the fundamentalist movement” (161). Revivalism reached beyond America as fundamentalists and evangelicals committed their efforts to foreign missions.

In 1947, Harold Ockenga called on fundamentalists to unite to win America. Okenga argued that fundamentalism needed “an intellectual overhaul” (193). Others joined in and called for an evangelicalism that “would affirm the great fundamentals but avoid the ‘deficiencies’ of fundamentalism. It would be intellectually engaged, socially aware, balanced and realistic about prophecy, positive about Christian unity, and based on a fresh and relevant rendering of biblical teaching” (201). This evangelicalism spread through colleges and universities among young people. In 1949, fundamentalism experienced the evangelical revivals it had hoped for in the widely popular crusades of Bill Graham, a preacher from North Carolina. Fundamentalism influenced the revival of evangelicalism in America culture and public life.


Revive Us Again serves as a sequel to George M. Marsden’s Fundamentalism in American Culture. Marsden argues that from 1925 to 1940, fundamentalism “was composed of less flexible and more isolated minorities often retreating into separatism, where they could regroup their considerable forces” (164). Marsden directed this conclusion at historians, like Richard Hofstadter, who suggested that fundamentalism was a social aberration destined for extinction. Carpenter examines this separatism more thoroughly to understand how fundamentalism survived and eventually thrived in American culture.  Carpenter convincingly shows how fundamentalism was more than a social aberration destined for extinction. It thrived in the 1930s and 1940s, and influenced the emergence and popularity of twentieth-century evangelicalism.

Revive Us Again is also important for its emphasis on the centrality of media and modernity in religion. Carpenter reminds scholars of Martin Marty’s description of modern evangelicalism: “there has been a symbiosis between unfolding modernity and developing Evangelicalism…Evangelicalism is the characteristic Protestant way of relating to modernity” (234-235). Carpenter concludes that secularism is a blessing to American religion: “In sum, the very secularity of American society—as well as it fluidity and pluriform nature—has made it possible for creative and entrepreneurial religious movements to win a hearing, a following, and, eventually, a measure of respectability” (239). This is an important point. Yet, Carpenter give little room for its explanation. If secularism is a blessing, what does this say about the relationship between secularism and evangelicalism, and, more generally, religion in America? Can evangelicalism exist without secularism? Can secularism exist without evangelicalism? What exactly does this symbiosis mean? Are evangelicalism and secularism of two different or overlapping spheres? What exactly does it mean that fundamentalists and evangelicals used media and secularism to thrive? The nature of the relationship between secularism and evangelicalism needs more parsing. Carpenter is not alone in evading the particularities of this relationship. Many scholars continue to ponder the meaning of secularism and evangelicalism today. Carpenter’s work is important for its emphasis on the centrality of media and secularism in American fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

28 Mar

George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980)

George M. Marsden examines the origins and rise of fundamentalism—“a [distinct] movement among American ‘evangelical’ Christians in the 1920s—from the late 1860s to 1940s. Fundamentalism and American Culture locates fundamentalism within a cultural studies framework to recognize how fundamentalists responded to “the social, intellectual, and religious crises of their time” (3). Marsden argues that central to understanding 1920s fundamentalism is the movement’s roots in late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century evangelicalism and the ambivalences therein between religion and culture. An examination of these ambivalences reveals that the decisive influence of fundamentalism was not premillennialism, but revivalism and pietism. These ambivalences also reveal that while fundamentalists appeared anti-intellectual and anti-scientific, they actually “stood in an intellectual tradition that had the highest regard for one understanding of true scientific method and proper rationalism” (7). Fundamentalists were committed to Francis Bacon’s method of observation and classification, and Scottish Common Sense Realism that “affirmed the ability to apprehend the facts clearly, whether the facts of nature or even more certain facts of Scripture” (7). Fundamentalist were modern intellectuals who observed methods of scientific investigation, which from the 1870 to 1920s  were “regarded as merely bizarre” (8).


Just after the Civil War, evangelical Protestantism remained “the dominant religious force in American life” (5). Evangelicalism had focused on Bible reading, reform, revivalism, Scottish Common Sense Realism, and empiricism since the early 1800s. This “older version of American Protestantism was based on the interrelationship of faith, science, the Bible, morality, and civilization” (17). In the 1870s, theologians confronted modern science and reasoning, and worked to reconcile evolution, skepticism, and Biblical criticism with Christianity and the Bible. These epistemology crises were compounded by industrialization, as well as social, labor, and political issues. By the end of the 1870s, a schism appeared in evangelicalism exemplified by the theological “liberalism” of Henry Ward Beecher and the post-antebellum evangelicalism of Jonathan Blanchard. Theological liberalism identified the progress of the Kingdom of God with that of civilization, equated morality with religion, and recognized the manifestation of the supernatural in nature. Blanchard’s evangelicalism recognized America as rebelling against God and in moral decline. Dwight L. Moody exemplified Blanchard’s evangelicalism, or proto-fundamentalism, at the turn of the century. Moody embraced revivalism, Biblical infallibility, holiness teachings, and ethical emphases. Yet, Moody lacked one trait that became essential to fundamentalism: he opposed controversy.

In the early twentieth century, evangelicalism continued emphasizing sin, conversion, holiness, revival, reform, and, premillennialism, particularly dispensational premillennialism. From 1865 to 1900, evangelicals’ interest in political concern diminished. From 1900 to the 1920s, evangelicals reacted to the Social Gospel, with its exclusively social concerns, by reducing their interest in social reform. At the same time, evangelicals reacted to theological liberalism by defending common sense interpretations of Scripture, which supported the direct experience of Truth through the Word. They defended these notions of Truth in “The Fundamentals,” a collection of essays published between 1910 and 1915, and other works like the Scofield Reference Bible (1909). By World War I, evangelicals explained their relationship to American culture in four, sometimes ambivalent, ways. 1) Some evangelicals condemned the current age and supported dispensational premillennialism. 2) Some appeared ambivalent about the total acceptance of evangelicalism over social reform. 3) Others “combined a commitment to preserve traditional Christianity…with a willingness to cooperate with those who differed and an emphasis upon the practical and social” (133). 4) Still, others, like the conservative Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen, called for the transformation of “academic centers of the culture” (138) through the Word. These perspectives did not obscure evangelicals’ essential commitments to the “supernatural, Biblically based, traditional faith” (138).

Between 1917 and 1920, American conservative evangelicals underwent a dramatic change so that by 1920 “fundamentalists” emerged among evangelicals.  Two factors contributed to this “shift from moderation to militancy” (141). 1) In 1917, the fundamentalist-modernist conflicts began between the University of Chicago’s Divinity School and the Moody Bible Institute. 2) The American social experiences of World War I and the Red Scare provided a sense of the dangers of evolution and immanence of cultural crises. These conflicts focused on the place of evolution and the moral decline of America. By 1920, fundamentalism emerged as a distinct movement that flourished in denominational battles over the fundamentals of traditional faith, and in American culture with its push to stop the teaching of evolution in public schools. From 1920 until 1925, fundamentalists aspired to push liberals out of their denominations. In 1925, the Scopes “Monkey” Trial transformed the fundamentalist movement. Although fundamentalists “won” the trial, which was a farce in itself, they lost in “the trial by public opinion” (186). Media coverage of the trial aligned fundamentalism with an anti-modern backwardness represented by the Southern States, and labeled it as an obscure movement. From 1925 to 1940, fundamentalism “was composed of less flexible and more isolated minorities often retreating into separatism, where they could regroup their considerable forces” (164).


Fundamentalism and American Culture is a significant contribution to the study of fundamentalism in America. It departs from other histories in its consideration of fundamentalism as a sincere religious movement and its interaction with American culture. Studies from the 1950s and 1960s recognized fundamentalism as a social aberration that would eventually be eliminated. In 1970, Ernest Sandeen rejected these sociological explanations and examined the doctrinal traditions of fundamentalism. Marsden extends Sandeen’s work by emphasizing developments in evangelical and fundamentalist theology as well as fundamentalists’ interaction with culture. Marsden’s study relocates fundamentalism as a revivalist and pietistic tradition in tension with American culture, rather than a purely premillennial tradition rooted in theological obscurity. Marsden presents fundamentalism as a modern intellectual movement grounded in common sense moral philosophy.

While Marsden provides notable insights into the relationships between fundamentalism and American culture, the book still reads as an intellectual history of fundamentalism. As Marsden notes in the 2006 Part Five addition, women were left out of his story. Fundamentalism and American Culture is the story of how white, male theologians engaged in debates about evangelicalism, fundamentalism, science, culture, and war.

War itself is treated as an idea that impacts evangelicalism and fundamentalism in important, but vague ways. This is most clear in Marsden’s discussion of the Civil War and its impact on evangelicalism. Something happened between 1861 and 1865 that changed American ways of thinking and practicing religion, but that something is never stated. Marsden notes that “With the end of the Civil War, however, that mainstream diverged into two distinct branches” (28). In another instance, Marsden suggests that “Victory in the Civil War had virtually put out of business the old national coalition for reform which had united against slavery” (29). The Civil War changed religion and ways of thinking so much that Marsden can identity a post-antebellum evangelicalism and theological liberalism. The impetus of this change is never clear. Instead, modernity carries the burden of the change. Modernity with its emphasis on Darwinism, higher biblical criticism, and new scientific methods are the markers of change. Marsden’s insights about the Civil War are significant and need to be examined. The Civil War changed American religion and American modes of thinking in ways that appear unexplored. How were the American Civil War and modernity linked in such ways that caused such changes in American evangelicalism?

To answer this question scholars may have to look beyond the American evangelical story. Marsden, like so many other historians of American evangelicalism, rely on the progress and domination of evangelicalism in telling their history of American religion. What other religious thoughts and movements shaped the intellectual, culture, and practical milieu of the antebellum and postbellum years. Looking beyond evangelicalism to the interaction between evangelicals and non-evangelicals may provide insights into the epistemological crisis that occurred in the late-nineteenth-century.

Fundamentalism and American Culture is a classic in American religious studies. It provides insights into the relationships between evangelicalism, fundamentalism, modernity, culture, and common sense moral reasoning. It calls on scholars to be generous in their examination of religious groups. Fundamentalism was not a social aberration destined to extinction, but a thriving, intellectual, and modern movement.