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.

Summary

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.

Historiography

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.

26 Mar

Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (1991)

The Divine Dramatist traces the biography of George Whitefield, “Anglo-America’s most popular eighteenth-century preacher” (xiii). Harry S. Stout recounts this life story through Whitefield’s published writings and diaries, letters, magazines, and newspapers from the eighteenth-century. This book examines Whitefield’s popularity in terms of social and cultural history. Stout argues that Whitefield “bequeathed a new, more modern sense to the term evangelical. His field preaching competed not only with the ‘velvet-mouthed’ preachers of his church, but also with the vendors, sportsmen, and entertainers of the marketplace” (65-66). According to Stout, “It was left to Whitefield to become Anglo-America’s first religious celebrity, the symbol for a dawning modern age” (xvi). Whitefield infused religion with modern forms of consumption and helped shift the meaning of “revival” by employing modern notions of epistemology to conversion. Stout concludes that Whitefield was an American icon, a Pauline evangelist, and an American patriot.

Summary

The young Whitefield enjoyed theatre, but scorned secular entertainment after an epiphany at Oxford. As a “boy preacher,” Whitefield harnessed the power of the press to debate Anglican Bishops and publish sermons. While in Georgia, Whitefield continued publishing in the Journal to maintain his religious audience. In the 1730s, Whitefield induced revivals in London, colonial America, and Scotland. He transformed the sermon into “a dramatic event capable of competing for public attention outside the arena of the church—in fact, the marketplace” (66). By 1750, America and Britain experienced the first seeds of a “consumer revolution” (xvii) that focused on the marketplace, manufacturing, capital, and leisure. The new language of consumption did not include religion and “threatened to overtake social discourse” (xviii). Whitefield integrated religious discourse into this language of consumption to show that “preaching could be both edifying and entertaining” (xvi). Whitefield attracted international attention, especially among women, as well as controversy. Samuel Foote satirized Whitefield as Dr. Squintum and criticized his use of theatrics to market religion.

In the 1740s, Whitefield worked to restore relationships with religious authorities and continued his revivalist mission. Stout argues that Whitefield “helped introduce a new concept of religious experience that grew throughout the nineteenth-century into a recognizably ‘evangelical movement’” (xx). This concept of religious experience was grounded in revivals, typified by Whitefield, that were based on personal conversion experiences. Whitefield’s revivals in the mid- eighteenth-century departed from Puritan revivals. This departure resulted from a shift in epistemology. Puritans “denied that conversion could be experienced by those who were ignorant of the theological terms on which it rested. This meant that the teaching function of the church had always received primary interest” (206). Whitefield reversed this emphasis so that “individual experience became the ground for a shared theology” of conversions and, therefore, revival. Stout traces this shift to Lockean epistemology, which focused on sensation and experience: “As sensation represented the only avenue for natural knowledge in Lockean epistemology, so the supernatural experience of New Birth became the sole authentic means to spiritual knowledge in the evangelical revivals” (205). Modern evangelicalism is marked by a shift in the ways Christians experienced conversion and revival. Conversion and revival transformed from “a mysterious, local, communal event to one that was predictable and highly subjective” (xxi). The conversions and revivals of Whitefield were based on individual, personal, and emotional experiences of the supernatural.

Historiography

The Divine Dramatist is an important contribution to the study of American religion. Stout provides a much needed historical account of George Whitefield’s itinerancy. As Stout notes, “Studies of Whitefield have too often abstracted him from the age in which he lived” (xvi). Scholars often present hagiographies of Whitefield, not historical analyses. Stout does much to correct this. However, Stout’s biography may overstate the degree to which Whitefield embodied “American” values. Stout suggests that both Whitefield and Americans “chafed against authority and arbitrary powers” (91). This reading presupposes “the revolutionary spirit” of “Americans.” Many colonial Americans, especially males, supported the white, male hierarchy of the colonies. Women, slaves, and non-landowning males had little political, social, or economic authority and could not challenge established order. A stronger biography might fully situate Whitefield within this hegemonic, Anglo structure. Whitefield was an Anglo-American in the sense that he, like other Anglo-Americans, were British subjects.

Stout also presents Whitefield as the driving force behind the integration of religious discourse into the marketplace. Whitefield is presented as a phenomenon and innovator for his use of media, the marketplace, and modern epistemology. Whitefield is a lone hero who transcended the public sphere and transformed religion: “Only Whitefield thought to transcend denominational lines entirely and, in effect, ply a religious trade in the open air of the marketplace” (xviii). In presenting Whitefield as a hero, Stout borders on elevating Whitefield’s biography to hagiography. To be sure, Whitefield was a popular itinerant preachers who achieved international celebrity. However, as Charles G. Finney remembered in “Measure to Promote Revivals,” Whitefield was not always so popular in British-America. According to Finney, “When Whitefield came to this country, what an astonishing opposition he raised! Often he well nigh lost his life, and barely escaped by skin of his teeth. Now, everybody looks upon him as the glory of the age in which he lived.” Many British-Americans did not recognize Whitefield as an American hero as Stout suggests.

Moreover, as other historians have shown, Whitefield’s tactics were not all that new. He did not initiate preaching outdoors, using the press for religious discourse, or calling for revivals based on personal experience. As David Hall argues in World of Wonder, Days of Judgment, print media were an integral part of popular religion in seventeenth-century New England. Moreover, Sarah Rivett challenges notions that Puritans were not modern. In The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England, Rivett shows how sixteenth and seventeenth-century Puritans employed Lockean epistemology to experience the supernatural for personal conversions. Whitefield was more of a product of his social and historical surroundings than Stout suggests. Nevertheless, Stout’s work remains significant for its recognition of the centrality of media, the marketplace, and modern epistemology to eighteenth-century Anglo-American religion, particularly Whitefield’s evangelism.