Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism by George M. Marsden

Marsden lays out the thesis of his book in its opening sentence: “This book provides an overview of the history of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism plus interpretations of some important themes.”

As promised, much of the book (part one) is an excellent historical account of the origins and development of both the fundamental and evangelical movements in America. I found this section extremely valuable and filed away for future reference many important pieces of information.

On the other hand, part two, dealing with interpretation, was somewhat disappointing. While still packed full of helpful historical data, the problem lay in the interpretation. Marsden is considered one of the foremost authorities on fundamentalism and has written a number of books on the subject. However, he is not himself a fundamentalist and his perspective as an evangelical peering into the fundamentalist camp is often evident. This is especially obvious when he attempts to interpret the motives behind the fundamentalists’ stands on issues such as evolution, separation, inerrancy and the like. I felt at times that his bias bordered on condescension (see pp. 169-173).

The final chapter was a balanced piece on J. Gresham Machen, one of the driving forces of early fundamentalism.

Bottom line: I found Marsden’s historical record marvelous but some of his interpretations suspect.

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