Putting to Bed the Term "Fundamentalist/ Modernist" Crisis

Janine Giordano Drake

We've all heard the old version of the story. "Modernism" took hold of the academy--indeed, the world--in the early twentieth century, and influenced Bible scholars and theologians to understand Scripture as set of fallible historical documents. American institutes of higher education, as well as the entire Protestant clergy, were forced to decide how much they adhered to the teachings of these "Higher Critics" and with it, what really was the central message of the gospel. Many chose to reject the application of scientific and research principles to the study of Scripture. They held on to older versions of the Bible, and even reinvented the Scripture itself for what they saw as the defensive battle for "Old Time Religion." They focused heavily upon personal conversion. Others dismissed Scriptural literalism in favor of a message of the gospel that emphasized "social salvation." Hence, the Fundamentalist /Modernist crisis was a battle over the relevance of science, the meaning of the gospel, and the purpose of churches.

Scholarship throughout the last thirty years has added to this story significantly. We now know more about premillenial dispensationalists, especially women,  who spent years dedicated to revivals and care for the poor and needy--on behalf of a kind of Social Gospel. We know that the rise of Scriptural literalism coincided with fears about women's participation in the public sphere--the attention to Scriptural literalism was not divorced from social issues of the day. We also know more about the modernists, their overlap with other movements for social uplift and Progressivism, and their sophisticated, if different, Biblical hermeneutic for the Social Gospel. Yet, despite the many elements that complicate the binary of a Fundamentalist/ Modernist crisis, we have largely continued to use the term within conference panels and syllabi. That is, we have largely accepted as a field that the crisis, however complicated and multifaceted, can be captured in the battles over the acceptance or rejection of Modern Scriptural translation.

I think, however, this terminology no longer fits our scholarship. I'd like to point our attention, briefly, to two books published in the last few years--Matthew Bowman's The Urban Pulpit and Priscilla Pope-Levison's Building the Old Time Religion. While the books are very different, they each look to orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy as a source for understanding religious life. That is, they focus upon religion not as it was prescribed (for example, in sermons and Bible editions) but as it was practiced within the functioning of religious institutions. What they each find is that a focus upon significant sermons, Bible editions, and even political orientations of significant Liberal and Fundamentalist leaders only tells a small portion of their story.

Bowman emphasizes the extent to which both Liberals and Fundamentalists selectively appropriated and rejected aspects of "Modernity." First, he said, liberals wanted to hold on to certain pre-modern concepts of an ineffable Christ, and hold that at the center of their sacramental theology. Through studies on the congregational practices of prominent New York "liberal" ministers, he shows that they ought to be rightly categorized as "evangelicals." For, their institutional churches, missions, and other ministries were evangelistic in focus. Their work throughout other organizations, as well, was motivated by an evangelistic impulse. In fact, Bowman argues, the stakes involved in fighting with Fundamentalists was the very defense that their work was evangelistic. Bowman shows that Fundamentalists, meanwhile, did not reject all aspects of "modernity" at all. After all, they deployed many modern assumptions about what Scripture could tell us. They deployed modern communication practices in churches. They were moderns in certain key ways.

Pope-Levison's primary goal is to reclaim the histories of women evangelists in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era--women who mostly adhered to premillenialist, Holiness, and Pentecostal doctrines, and therefore who would later be categorized as Fundamentalists. However, her book accomplishes much more than simply retelling these women's histories. She shows that the Pentecostal movement of this era was everything but a rejection of modernity. Her subjects, such as Martha Avery Moore (a socialist turned Catholic convert), Emma Ray (African American Methodist), and Iva Durham Vennard (white Methodist) are primarily institution builders. They are similar to their "social betters"--the iconic elite women of the Progressive Era--in their drive to create institutions to serve and educate the poor, and they utilize every tool at their modern disposal to maintain their ministries. While they may have preached about the dangers of "modernity," they were also moderns. They were women who either lived as single women or put their ministries ahead of their marriages--and worked as public figures in an era when they could not even vote. They built Bible Colleges, new denominations, vocational training institutes, and evangelistic rescue missions.

I wrote a review essay on both these books for a forthcoming issue of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. There is much more to say about the merits of each of these books and what they have to offer to scholars of religion and the era overall. Others writing on the blog have reviewed these books individually as well.

What I want to emphasize here are the stakes involved in putting to bed the "Fundamentalist/ Modernist Crisis" as a term we readily use in our teaching and writing.

When we abbreviate the story to say that the battle was over Scriptural interpretation, we privilege the side of the story that demands the battles should be about scripture. When we assent to the categorization of Biblical literalists who use modern showmanship, print ephemera, new colleges, and new denominations as the opposite of "Modernists," we agree to a very limited and historically pointed definition of the term "Modern." That definition reduces the term to an embrace of the scientific method and university education, while it conceals the many ways that Fundamentalists embraced other modern aspects of bookkeeping, commercialism, close study, and communication. What would the story look like from a perspective that naturalized the evangelicalism of the Modernists, and showed Fundamentalists as the aggressors--in relief against them?

Matthew Bowman takes on that challenge and shows us how the church crisis and schism of the 1920s can look very different. But it is also much more complicated than any intellectual binary. It was about the possibility of an American and Protestant theology. It was about the purpose of Protestant churches in twentieth century America and the challenge of how to Americanize--and "Christianize" immigrants and Catholics and urban African Americans. 

The point here is not, of course, to defend one side against the other. The point is to recognize that so much history of religion in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era  has been written over the last 30 years--attention to race, class, gender and region--and so little of it can be explained through the Fundamentalist/Modernist prism. We now have an abundance of research that directly shows the limits of a methodological focus upon sermons, print ephemera, and Bible editions which fight over Scripture. We should now feel comfortable moving on and describing the Progressive Era and its aftermath as the complicated mess of social and intellectual schisms that it really was.


Matt Sutton at: February 10, 2015 at 1:02 AM said...

Thanks for this Janine. I really like both of these books and will check out your review. But I wonder how the chronology here impacts your argument? It is certainly inappropriate to read the fundy-modernist controversy backwards into the progressive era. But after WWI, once we have the emergence of an explicit, identifiable fundamentalist movement (or network), I still find the "controversy" or "crisis" label useful, although with all of the usual caveats, the most important of which is that the controversy had little to do with how most people lived and worshiped. But it did split churches, schools, and denominations.

Janine Giordano at: February 10, 2015 at 5:42 AM said...

Matt- Thanks so much for that comment, because that's a really good point. Both of these authors, as you know, complicate our understanding of what the crisis was about but don't deny a crisis after WW1. I don't myself reject the fact that there was a major set of church crises and controversies after WW1, but I do object to the title we assign it.

While (of course) there was an explicit and fundamentalist movement network, I think that to put it in opposition to the term "modernist" just explains that fundamentalist movement in fundamentalist-identified terms. It recreates the opposition of the 1920s from a fundamentalist perspective. As someone who myself studies the "modernists" (in the Federal Council of Churches) during and after WW1, I don't think the term "Modernist" best fits as a simple term to describe the folks whom I study....I wish we could find another label for the crisis that more elements within the controversy would recognize.

Mark T. Edwards at: February 10, 2015 at 8:20 AM said...

What a great post and discussion! I'm with Matt (Sutton) in that the "FMC" is still very useful as designating a particular time and particular set of battles. Your point about the "Modernist" label being defined by the fundamentalists is well taken, though. Fundamentalist opponents did own, if not coin, the modernist label--think Shailer Mathews's The Faith of Modernism (1924). I that same book, though, Mathews makes much of Modernist debts to evangelicalism (I think he even argues that Modernism began with Moody!). His reading of Modernism as the "evangelicalism of the scientific mind" certainly goes to your concern about labels. "Modernism" was in many ways a fundamentalist projection--a way to NOT deal with their own accommodations to techno-corporate America (one thinks of one of Bowman's main subjects, John Roach Straton, here).

Elesha at: February 10, 2015 at 9:12 AM said...

This is great, Janine. I don't know, though, how much the split can be dated or attributed to WWI. Within the Disciples of Christ, the church I looked at the most for my research, there was a progressive/anti-progressive division in the late 19th century that fell along similar lines to what's usually called modernist/fundamentalist. These lines were theological and also, as David Edwin Harrell amply demonstrated, social--regional, rural/urban, poor/rich, educated/less educated. So I guess I agree that the divisions weren't just about theological and biblical interpretation, but I'm not convinced that the divisions weren't present, in pretty recognizable form, prior to WWI. Also, within the Disciples at least, both factions were quite aggressive, the more traditional side bolstering its arguments with a large constituency, the much smaller liberal side (liberal is a word they used, along with progressive) bolstering its arguments with claims of superior academic knowledge.

Janine Giordano at: February 10, 2015 at 2:37 PM said...

I am not arguing that there wasn't a fundamentalist movement, nor that there weren't divisions brewing during the Progressive Era and before World War I. I think Pope-Levison makes a really good claim to the fact that Holiness revivalism looked different in the Progressive Era than it did in the 1920s--despite their close relationship.

I'm not disputing that there was a liberal Progressive evangelical countermovement to the Fundamentalist movement, either. All I'm really disputing is the terminology. I am persuaded by Mark Edwards (and indeed, Matt Bowman) that "Modernism" is a Fundamentalist projection. I would even take it farther than that and say that the binary of Fundamentalism against one other movement, like "Modernism," is also a Fundamentalist projection. (The way I see it, Fundamentalists rebelled against a whole host of patterns they saw as problematic, and we ought not reproduce their reduction of it for the sake of teaching the history.)

I'd love to brainstorm with all you RiAH readers and especially other historians of liberal/Progressive evangelicalism (like Matt Bowman, Elesha Coffman, Dave Burns, Matt Hedstrom, etc) about a better term for "Modernists." Matt Bowman started us with the term "Liberal Evangelicals." I like this a lot--as it fits my subjects from the Federal Council of Churches quite well. I wonder if it fits others' studies too.

But, in the end, I still don't like to teach the 1920s as an era of a singular major religious crisis. I see the rejection of women preachers throughout the Holiness and Fundamentalist circuits as important enough that I can't read the battles as simply theological and ecclesiological. I want us to come up with a way to describe the crises of the 1920s as social as well as intellectual, so I don't think a binary of an x/y crisis will work anymore.

Daniel Sack at: February 10, 2015 at 6:09 PM said...

This is fascinating--thanks, all. There were indeed some people running around in these decades that I would call modernist--liberal verging on Unitarian. But most of the (what we would now call) mainline clergy would not take that term for themselves. I am fairly certain that Fosdick ("Shall the Fundamentalists Win?") would not. I suspect that they would embrace the term "liberal evangelical." Through most of the 19th century, "evangelical" seemed to be a synonym for "Protestant." (But this leads to a discussion of "evangelical" which is another definitional snakepit.)

Matt Sutton at: February 11, 2015 at 2:14 AM said...

This has all been great--much to think about. On the fundy size, things will soon get even more complicated with the publication of Gloege's Guaranteed Pure and then Pietsch's Dispensational Modernism. I have read both books, and they will dramatically reshape the historiography on fundamentalism.

Tim Gloege at: February 11, 2015 at 5:48 AM said...

Great post Janine. Your last comment, especially, gets to the heart of the matter, I think.

The problem with trying to tie fundamentalism to various denominational "anti-progressive" precursors is that it presumes fundies were "traditional." They weren't (though they carefully crafted an identity as such, especially during the Fundamentals project in the 1910s).

Understanding the dynamics at play requires that we stop seeking creedal definitions of fundamentalism (I, like Sutton, prefer the network approach). It also requires us to resurrect the category "churchly conservative"--the folks who took both church-as-institution and their respective denominational theological traditions seriously. These were the Protestants with the strongest claim to being "traditional" in any meaningful sense. Yet our binary narratives alternately label them "mainline" (and thus "liberal") or reactionary (and thus "fundamentalists"). Fundies, in contrast, were radically individualistic, diminished the importance of church as a meaningful religious authority, and explicitly rejected denominational tradition for a non-denominational (and constantly-shifting) "orthodoxy" of their own making.

There are class considerations that should be accounted for as well, but that's another can of worms.

Tom Van Dyke at: February 12, 2015 at 2:59 PM said...

I'm afraid "liberal evangelical" conceals more than it reveals. I doubt many non-liberal evangelicals would want to concede the term to the very people "evangelicalism" arose to reject.

At best it's a neologism [like "Judeo-Christian"] and at its most contentious, "liberal evangelical" is simply an oxymoron.

The battle lines drawn by Fosdick and Machen are still more or less intact.

Machen parodied the liberal notion that each generation had to interpret the Bible or the creed according to its own time and place. Did not the modernist preacher, Machen wondered, hold to a static view of language when it came to such questions as whether six times nine equaled fifty-four or whether the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia? Why, then, was the theological affirmation of Christ’s resurrection any different? According to Machen, the standard liberal response was “Of course we accept the proposition that ‘the third day he arose again from the dead’” but because each generation has a right to interpret the creed in its own way “we interpret that to mean ‘the third day He did not rise again from the dead.’” Machen’s own rejoinder was to fear for the future of language. “If everything that I say can be “‘interpreted’ to mean its exact opposite, what is the use of saying anything at all?”

D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1994).

Mark T. Edwards at: February 13, 2015 at 9:57 AM said...

If you read Matt's book, Tom (or Janine's review, for that matter), you'd know that the term "liberal evangelical" is not Matt's but his subjects' term. Read Matt's wonderful book.

Tom Van Dyke at: February 13, 2015 at 2:15 PM said...

Yes, I got that from the context here, thank you, Mark. And again, I'd think that many or most non-liberal evangelicals think it's an oxymoron.

When a term is contentious, it's sometimes proper to prepend "self-described."

Janine Giordano at: February 17, 2015 at 10:05 PM said...

It's not contentious.

Tom Van Dyke at: February 18, 2015 at 5:25 PM said...

Certainly not here it ain't, Janine. However, when certain evangelicals have more in common with Darrow and Fosdick than Bryan and Machen, it's quite proper to ask


newer post older post