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.