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the early twentieth century, and influenced Bible scholars and theologians to understand Scripture as set of fallible historical documents.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.