Jim Owen, former Associate Professor of History at The Master’s College, believes that historic fundamentalists, especially dispensationalists, have been unfairly portrayed by historians (including many evangelicals). These historians see “historic fundamentalists…as theologically ‘challenged’, politically indifferent, socially uncaring, and economically only one small step above a Social Darwinian Neanderthal” (p. xv). Owen writes this massive tome to set the record straight, specifically by “redress[ing] the misinformation” and demonstrating that an “important segment of historic fundamentalism was vigorously active in seeking to help alleviate the distress and poverty that attended the Great Depression” (p. xxiv). Additionally, “Historians must be questioned as to why they have allowed this important segment of historic fundamentalist’s history to be ignored, denied, misinterpreted, reinterpreted or downplayed so that the contribution they did make is never given due consideration” (p. xxiv). Owen’s goal is to prove that “the infamous fundamentalist siege mentality with its supposed indifference toward things political, disengaged compassion, and even, if you will, its anti-Semitism, is less the product of history than the creation of historians and critics of the movement” (p. 363).
Owen believes the harsh criticism that fundamentalists have received from the evangelical community by the likes of Mark Noll (pp. xvi, xxxvii, 117, 245, 338, 351) and Carl Henry (pp. 109-114) was due to its refusal to follow evangelicals’ social agenda (pp. xxv, 4, 10, 13, 27, 73, 113, 354). Evangelicals, following the lead of Carl Henry, ‘Insisted that the church was mandated not only to preach the gospel but also to redeem social order” (p. 118). Fundamentalists either separated entirely from the social/political arena to focus on preaching the gospel or, more commonly, while not believing the church as the church should be involved in trying to reform the world, nevertheless “was to be compassionate toward those in need, and the individual believer was encouraged to be involved in community needs and reform” (p. 118). As an example, throughout the Great Depression, the fundamentalist’s message was to return to God, not gold (p. 51).
The bulk of the book is dedicated to defending fundamentalism from 1933 to 1948 against unsubstantial accusations that the movement was anti-Semitic, unconcerned about the poor, did not speak out against Nazism and communism, and did not engage with current issues and debates. Owen addresses each of these concerns, specifically, the Great Depression (chapters 2-3), political engagement (chapter 4), World War II (chapters 5-6), anti-Semitism and the Jews in general (chapters 7-9). Through copious documentation Owen clearly shows how misrepresented and misinterpreted historic fundamentalism has been. More positively he shows contrary to frequent accusations, that fundamentalism is in line with historic Protestantism in its doctrine and philosophy (pp. 337, 344, 350, 364). The author does admit that some fundamentalists were extreme in their views and occasionally deceived. They were also guilty at times of being too pessimistic, being committed to the mythical idea of “Christian America” and, most seriously, “blatant racial segregation” (p. 364, cf., p. 126). Concerning these flaws historic fundamentalism must take ownership, but Owen believes in many other ways fundamentalism has been maligned.
Hidden History is an important work, setting the record straight concerning the historic fundamentalist movement. Owen’s documentation, found mostly in his footnotes, constitutes virtually a second book, by his own admission. For those both inside and out of the movement Hidden History needs to be part of the conversation, especially today as the social agenda within evangelicalism has once again gained prominence. One interesting feature, which I have never run across before, is that one the Forewords, written by Richard Pierard, took issue with many of Owen’s conclusions (p. x). It takes either great humility, or equally great self-assurance, to include a Foreward that disagrees with the context of one’s book. Maybe it was both. Whether the reader agrees or disagrees, Hidden History is well-worth careful attention.
The Hidden History of the Historic Fundamentalists, 1933-1948, Reconsidering the Historic Fundamentalists’ Response to the Upheavals, Hardships, and Horrors of the 1930s and 1940s by Jim Owen (Lanham: University Press of America, 2004) 383 pp. + xli, $72.99
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel