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Fundamentalism and American Culture (New Edition) Paperback – February 23, 2006
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"Marsden reveals a great deal of history, showing the origins, development and growth of evangelicalism and fundamentalism. His is a focused yet broad scholarly work that has stood the test of time, a worthwhile history resource on fundamentalism in America."--Congregational Libraries Today
About the Author
George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Jonathan Edwards: A Life.
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Marsden’s analysis of the intellectual roots of fundamentalist ideology builds on previous historians’ attempts to explain the phenomenon. While the Scopes trial portrayed fundamentalism as a belief system built on anti-intellectualism and anti-scientific backwardness, Marsden argues that the ideological roots of fundamentalism stem from “an intellectual tradition that had the highest regard for one understanding of true scientific method and proper rationality.” In this sense, Marsden is building on the works of Ernst Sandeen, George W. Dollar, and C. Allyn Russell, who rejected social explanations of fundamentalism in favor of examining the movement as an important element of American religious and cultural history. While Marsden agrees with Sandeen’s conclusions that dispensational premillennialism and conservative Princeton theology were the precursors to fundamentalist ideology, he also emphasizes the influence of nineteenth-century revivalism, the holiness movement, “Scottish Common Sense Realism,” Calvinism, and the ideas of the seventeenth century philosopher, Francis Bacon. His analysis of these early influences led Marsden to define the fundamentalism which emerged after World War I as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism.”
By examining the lives and works of many individuals within the early fundamentalist movement, Marsden seamlessly weaves this intellectual history of fundamentalism with a social history of American culture. Marsden underscores the contributions of Henry Ward Beecher, Charles Blanchard, Dwight L. Moody, Arthur T. Pierson, and Nathaniel West, among others, in order to personalize the various intellectual influences of the movement. This methodology works well for Marsden’s book, for it allows his overall argument to flow so smoothly that even readers with no academic background would be able to digest the complex theological and intellectual characteristics of the fundamentalist movement.
Marsden’s analysis of the role of fundamentalism in American culture not only distinguishes this book from previous scholarly attempts to define and historicize the movement, but it also reveals the periodization of the book. As Marsden explains, this particular Protestant response to modernity is almost uniquely American. Although Marsden points to social, intellectual, and religious-cultural explanations, he holds to the contention that fundamentalism should be understood as a “sub-species of American revivalism.” This may be a flaw of the book, since it limits the scope and influence of the fundamentalist movement to America. However, this is likely due to the timing of the publication. Marsden’s book was first published in 1980, at the beginning of resurgence in American fundamentalism. Since then, similar religious movements (in particular, the rise and spread of Pentecostalism, which Marsden acknowledges as a close cousin of fundamentalism) have risen in other parts of the world which now merit scholarly attention. In particular, the militant, anti-modern aspect of fundamentalism remains to be fully evaluated in the light of 21st century events. Marsden’s analysis nonetheless provides the foundation for future research in the study of fundamentalism in other contexts.
By placing fundamentalism within a broader American historical context, Marsden is able to illuminate the background of contemporary American evangelicals “whose common identity is substantially grounded in the fundamentalist experience of an earlier era.” Not only has Marsden rectified the relative lack of scholarship on an aspect of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American religious movement, he has also illuminated the cultural, intellectual, and theological roots of contemporary fundamentalism within American culture.
Marsden focuses on three major themes. First, he highlights a tension within fundamentalism--the tendency at times to preserve the perceived identity of American culture (viewing America as Israel), and at other times to take on the identity of a separatist minority sect (viewing America as Babylon). Second, he studies the prominent movements of Christian thought in American evangelicalism before the emergence of fundamentalism. He sees deep roots in America's revivalism, pietism, the popularity of holiness, and middle-class Victorian values. Third, Marsden observes a wavering stance among fundamentalists regarding science and the intellect. On one hand, the scientific "common sense" type of principles of 17th century philosopher Francis Bacon allowed the average person clearly to see the plain facts of God evident in Scripture. On the other hand, this same scientific approach allowed proponents of Darwinian evolution to discard the unrealistic, supernatural, miraculous accounts found in the Bible. Naturalism and evolution were powerful enemies of Christians who wanted to maintain the fundamental supernatural tenets of the faith. Increasingly over the years, anti-evolution became a more unifying passion than even adherence to Christian orthodoxy. Marsden comments, "Many people with little or no interest in fundamentalism's doctrinal concerns were drawn into the campaign to keep Darwinism out of America's schools... The more clearly [fundamentalists] realized that there was a mass audience for the message of the social danger of evolution, the more central this social message became" (170).
After chronologically recounting the origins of fundamentalism, its peak in 1920-1925, as well as the subsequent gradual growth of fundamentalist ideology through denominations and universities, Marsden shares his interpretation of the movement. Fundamentalism was initially a religious assertion against the threat of modernism, but the event of World War I gave fundamentalism crucial characteristics. War-related crisis provided an occasion for paranoia and militant defense of religious views. Marsden compares evangelicals experience of encroaching modernism to the "traumatic cultural upheaval" of cross-cultural immigration (204).
I find quite helpful Marsden's reluctance to paint the fundamentalist movement as either purely theological or purely social. By resisting extremes, Marsden's eyes are open to the great and sometimes even contradictory complex issues informing fundamentalism. He says it is "a mistake to reduce religious behavior to its social dimensions" and admirably acknoweledges the power of spiritual forces and deep-seated convictions (203). I wish he had made some value judgments, even if tentative and qualified, and used a biblical standard to grant the reader practical ideas for how to move forth with knowledge of historical fundamentalism. What traps and misconceptions did fundamentalists fall into that contemporary evangelical may be vigilant to avoid? For what elements of fundamentalism can we be grateful and which can we even strive to emulate? This desire of mine, though, is just because I'm more interested in ideas than events. I prefer philosophy to history. People who love history may have more fun reading this than I did. Marsden's objectivity seems appropriate to a scholarly book in the genre of history.