Fundamentalism and American Culture, the Shaping of the Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 by George M. Marsden

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Marsden has become the unofficial church historian dealing with Fundamentalism. This particular volume, which concerns itself with the origins and early days of the Fundamentalist movement, is one of Marsden’s best efforts.

While Marsden is not a Fundamentalist himself (and at times it shows) for the most part he is fairly objective. He recognizes that while the movement was a reaction to cultural changes and influenced by philosophical theories such as Scottish Common Sense Realism (pp. 14-16), it nevertheless grew primarily out of a literal understanding of Scripture. Fundamentalism’s roots are traced to Calvinism, the Holiness Movement and Dispensationalism. As the movement began to crystallize it became predominately premillenial with Dispensationalism leading the way. However, strong Reformed Calvinists such as J. Gresham Machen would play a vital role, especially on the intellectual side.

Theologically, Fundamentalism was largely a reaction to growing liberalism of the late 1800s and its Social Gospel. Marsden, unlike some, portrays the liberals as the original aggressors and the Fundamentalists as those forced into the position of defending the faith. What separated the Fundamentalists from other evangelicals was the militancy with which Fundamentalists attacked liberals.

The movement had its watershed moment at the Scopes trials in 1925 in which Fundamentalism came off looking ridiculous and anti-intellectual. Realizing that they had lost the high ground in public opinion, Fundamentalists retreated into their own subculture. They created separatist schools, Bible colleges and seminaries, churches, conferences and denominations. Whether this was the best choice remains debatable, but the Fundamentalists of the 1920-30s believed they had no other option if they and their view of Scripture was to survive. Eighty years later it appears they were correct.

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