This is the first article of a three-part series called, “The New Era of Faith”. Today is, “A Brief History of Fundamentalism” in which we look back and look at how we’ve arrived at our current trajectory. Later this week, “The Greatest Generation (Gap)”, and discuss the current cultural forces that divide two generations of faith in very historically unique ways. Finally, we’ll end with, “A Church in Transition, But To Where?” and bring it all together and explore the future of faith in America.
Recent controversy across the body of Christ resurrected some old arguments which were, consciously or unconsciously, used as the framework to conduct new ones. Marriage and media were merely this week’s context to hold, online and in real-time, centuries-old debates between the conservative establishment and the restless progressive. However, the modern mode of ultra-fast communication has changed more than how we talk about issues of faith with one another. The social media world has empowered a generation of disaffected, smart young thinkers like few other times in church history. The pioneer faith of early America is transitioning to the progressive faith of the 21st century. What will American Christianity look like a decade from now?
How did we get here?
The faith of our great-grandfathers had waned and mostly disappeared long ago, before many current young evangelicals were ever born. Yet the echoes of what was known as the holiness movement still have an impact on faith in America today. Some critics see the holiness movement as a mixed legacy of false piety and legalism mingled with a sincere desire to please God among its adherents. There may be some truth to that side of the story.
There is another side to it as well. These believers were our grandfathers and grandmothers. They represented the end of an era. The faith passed down to them had enjoyed a long, rich history involving some of the giants of Protestant history. Movements swelled and receded, only to swell again like the tides of the oceans. Denominations were born and are now fading from memory and influence. For two centuries – from 1730 to 1930 – this movement of holiness had a profound impact on believers as well as early Colonial, and then later American, government, culture, and social reform.
Holiness adherents helped to spark revolutions and abolition movements, change laws and cultural norms, and even affected the American Constitution itself.¹ Its practitioners could often be found in the late 19th and early 20th century honoring the spirit of John Wesley, showing the love of Christ to the outcasts of society and bringing them tenderly into the kingdom of God. I do not say this to endorse the holiness movement. I say this because there is always more to the story than the ideas we disagree with and the expressions of faith that we reject.
I say these things because today’s Christians have, seemingly, lost some of their history and their heritage. I don’t want to merely “chew meat” and “spit bones”. I want to remember my family in the faith and love them, warts and all. Learning to do so will help me practice the same love for my family in Christ today. I want to learn how to disagree with honor and tenderness and humility while remembering the story of how we got here.
We live in the era of the dogmatic overreaction. We do not know how to disagree with one another. It’s okay. Our great-grandparents – and their parents – did not know how to disagree either.
Roots of 20th Century Fundamentalism
From the earliest days of the Protestant Reformation, you can follow a strand of piety in the lives and writings of the saints that ran from the Anabaptists through the Puritans to the Methodists. Each group had their own motivations and distinctions, but these groups can all be connected to a common desire: holiness.
The Methodists, led by the brothers John and Charles Wesley, helped to spearhead a movement of holiness and a reach for perfection that rode on the wave of the First Great Awakening. The spiritual awakening ignited by such theologians and preachers such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield preceded the “Methodology” of the Wesley brothers to discover how far grace could take the human heart in living a holy life. The call of the Methodists was a call to holiness of heart connected to the power of the Holy Spirit.
This movement of holiness moved throughout the body of Christ in America in a way that was not solely tied to the Methodist movement or any single denomination. The later power of the Second Great Awakening to awaken and transform the lost across America – and the explosion of church planting and denominational growth – seemed to usher in a new era of faith in the American church which some imagined would usher in an era of righteousness and glory unlike any that Christians had ever witnessed.²
Then something catastrophic happened – a destroyer of dreams. The brutality, carnage, and pure wickedness in the hearts of men were graphically expressed through the American Civil War. What our generation forgets is that, for the generation that lived through it, a righteous end did not really salve the pain of the bloody wound that the Civil War ripped into this nation. We rightfully and joyfully celebrate the ending of slavery in this nation. Yet the steadfast abolitionists who won the day in their era were also personally scarred by the means to a national deliverance.
The Civil War seemed to bring an end to Christian dreams of a millennial paradise in America. The promise of revivals past, however, fueled new dreams of a holiness revival that could again sweep through America as it had in the days of Edwards, Wesley, then Finney. A sleeping church that had been awakened in the 1730’s had exploded in size and influence in the 1830’s. Now, in the post Civil War era, the next generation of holiness preachers sought to advance the cause of holiness and fervent, authentic faith throughout the nation.
They were living on the memories of revivals past and Wesleyan ideals that were in danger of being lost in the era of Reconstruction. The gains Charles Finney made in the “burned over region” of Upstate New York hinted at even greater shifts – not all of them positive – in the nature and expression of spirituality shortly afterwards. These shifts included the boom in Freemasonry in Utica, the rise of the Millerites, the birth of Mormonism in Palmyra, NY, and the birth of Spiritualism in nearby Arcadia, NY. There was a missionary zeal to see a new holiness movement emerge in America, and the camp meetings of the late-1800’s focused on this goal.
Out of these camp meetings two strands of this new holiness movement would emerge: the conservative expression, as embodied by the Salvation Army, the new Nazarene denomination, the Pilgrim Holiness Church, and the Church of God; and the more dynamic Pentecostal expression, which would later flow into the Latter Rain and later Charismatic movements. Within established denominations such as the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, churches and leaders were choosing allegiances and drawing lines to either join or renounce this new surge of holiness preaching.
At the same time as the rise of this new surge in exploring Christian Perfection, there was a surge in both global missions and social activism (woman’s suffrage and prohibition). Also, a new school of thought was arising in Europe: liberal theology, Higher Criticism, and the emergence of the Social Gospel (as well as Liberation Theology within the Catholic Church). The Holiness Movement is the seed-bed of modern American Evangelicalism; Liberal Theology, however, was a primary catalyst in the birth of American Fundamentalism. Between the reach for perfection and the reaction against liberalism, a very distinct expression of modern Christianity was born.
Fundamentalism, for the uninitiated, coalesced around the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith, which include: the inerrancy of scripture, a literal view of Biblical history, the virgin birth of Christ, the bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ to the earth, and the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross. A 90-essay, twelve volume work edited by R.A. Torrey, The Fundamentals, was financed and published to establish the foundations of the Christian faith in response to perceived attacks against traditional belief. The flashpoint of this new ideological war was the Scopes Monkey Trial and the introduction of Darwin’s evolutionary theory into mainstream thought.
The Victory of Fundamentalism
In the early days of American Fundamentalism, the rural Christian stood firm against the cosmopolitan Christian. Believers were clustered by region and by denomination. You walked to your local church and submitted to your local spiritual authority. Disagreement was difficult to navigate within closely knit communities bound together by similar moral value systems. If you wanted to challenge the status quo, you often did so by boarding a train to leave town, not by staging a public debate. New ideas were slow in reaching the masses, and rarely accepted by the masses when they did.
The war over an authentic expression of faith was fought primarily in the scholarly arenas and the activist societies that were born out of converted young students in primarily urban settings. The ideas and expressions of life borne out of the holiness movements – whether it be Christian perfection or a spirit-filled life – were far more accessible to the simple, rural Christian than the intellectual, liberal, activism-oriented faith being slowly imported from Europe. They spread faster, went deeper, and solidified themselves culturally in the pre-information age of England and America.³
However, we are in a very new hour for the movement and transference of ideas worldwide. The internet boom of the 90’s has led to an information age that is sparking upheaval and revolution like never before. What does this mean for the old-time religion of Wesley, Finney, and Torrey? How will the next generation shape American faith in an era of ideological upheaval? While American Fundamentalism won the first victory in shaping and fueling 20th Century Christianity, the old ideas found in early 20th century liberalism have enjoyed a rebirth. The ideas of Schleiermacher, Beecher, von Harnack, Bultmann, and Tillich have taken hold of a new generation – one with far more freedom, resource, and power to run with those ideas than ever before.
Will we run responsibly? What will we do with our newfound power?
We will look at the implications of the resurgence of liberal faith in a new generation in Part Two: “The Greatest Generation (Gap)”, later this week.
¹ Strong, Douglas M. Perfectionist Politics: Abolitionism and the Religious Tensions of American Democracy (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999)
² Smith, Timothy L. Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth Century America (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1957).
³ Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford University Press, USA; 2nd Edition, 2006).