[A note on the historiography of evangelicalism after the Civil War: Two major works have shaped recent historical study. One is George M. Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (1980); Timothy P. Weber, Living In The Shadow Of The Second Coming: American Premillenialism, 1875-1925 (1978) is the other. These works helped put the activities of evangelical preachers and institutions on the historical agenda. They identified the important figures and traced the growth of particular sets of ideas. Neither directly focused on the intellectual crisis evangelicals faced, although Weber did have important things to say about it.
The crisis itself is easily stated. Biblical scholarship, sometimes called the "higher criticism," demonstrated that the Bible as a whole, and the New Testament in particular, reflected a variety of religious traditions rather than a single continuous account of God's dealings with humankind. At the same time, developments in science, notoriously in the case of evolution but just as troubling in geology, made a literal reading of much of the Bible intellectually impossible. How were evangelicals to respond? Some, known as liberals and/or modernists, sought to find ways to understand scripture in the light of modern discoveries. This meant abandoning the doctrine of inerrancy and, with it, belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, miracles, and a literal Second Coming. It meant abandoning the belief that one could read biblical prophecies in the light of current events or current events in the light of prophetic writings. It meant, in short, abandoning what revivalist Billy Sunday called "Old Time Religion."
Other evangelicals would not, or could not, seek to accommodate faith to modern scholarship. They would become "Fundamentalists," people who identified Christianity with belief in Jesus as God, in his salvific death and resurrection, in his literal return at the end of days, and in a Last Judgment. If liberals or modernizers moved away from any of these "fundamentals," they argued, they ceased to be Christians. For their own part, Fundamentalists made no effort to accommodate modern discoveries.
Accommodation, Fundamentalists argued, came with too high a price. As J. Gresham Mechan, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote in Christianity and Liberalism (1923):
. . . the liberal attempt at reconciling Christianity with modern science has really relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity, so that what remains is in essentials only that same indefinite type of religious aspiration which was in the world before Christianity came upon the scene.
In trying to remove from Christianity everything that could possibly be objected to in the name of science, in trying to bribe off the enemy by those concessions which the enemy most desires, the apologist has really abandoned what he started out to defend.
Most particularly, what the liberal gave up was the certainty that Jesus was his or her personal Savior. Evangelicalism had achieved its great influence over American life by means of the revival, especially the Second Great Awakening in the decades before the Civil War. Millions found salvation through it. It was the essential evangelical experience. Liberals perforce turned away from revivalism and from conversion, the experience of being born again.
Fundamentalism came with a price as well. The believer had to choose ignorance over knowledge. He or she had to insist upon doctrines which contradicted known facts. Evolution provides the most obvious example. This choice of ignorance extended to the Bible. The Fundamentalist believed in a Bible at odds with what scholars knew to be true. "Bible study" required the believer to avoid learning anything actually true about Scripture.
Historians, following Marsden's and Weber's lead, do not explore this choice. Instead fundamentalist views are treated as the sincere convictions of people seeking the truth. But fundamentalist belief begins in an act of bad faith, a commitment to willed ignorance. Fundamentalists genuinely believe in Biblical inerrancy, to be sure, and in a variety of other doctrines as well. They usually also believe in what they call "Creation Science." Actual scientists do not let this pass. There is no shortage of polemics pointing out the meretricious character of creationism. Historians, however, do not point out that other key fundamentalist ideas are also demonstrably false. In some cases, as with Marsden, this is because the leading scholars are themselves fundamentalists. In others it may be due to a desire to practice traditional American tolerance where religion is concerned. People are free to believe as they choose. We should respect those choices even where we find them foolish or worse.
Tolerance in this case is the enemy of scholarship. It makes us overlook two important clues. One is the split between the experiential knowledge of salvation, gained so often in a revival, and expressed in the overjoyed cry "I know my Redeemer liveth," and scholarly and scientific knowledge. For millenia the two were compatible. Suddenly, in the second half of the nineteenth century, they became irreconcilible. This had profound implications.
The other clue is that the choice of ignorance necessarily required the believer to resolutely close his or her mind on an array of issues. Any open discussion on matters ranging from medical research to choosing books for the local library could threaten one's faith. Fundamentalism was, and had to be, a fortress mentality. This too had profound implications for American history and culture.
To grasp these implications, it is essential to appreciate how central the evangelical experience was in the shaping of American culture. Once we understand its crucial place we can begin to see what its "declension" meant. Declension was the term used by revivalists to describe the "backsliding" of Christians away from a true experiential sense of religion. The most important revivalist of the nineteenth century, Charles Grandison Finney, said" "Every revival presupposes a declension." In this instance we are looking at the decline of the revival itself and of the mentality it embodied.]
Charles Grandison Finney was the great figure of the Second Great Awakening in the decades precedeing the Civil War. Not only was he its most successful and famous preacher, he was the revival's great strategist and theologian. A revival was, by definition, an outpouring of God's grace. It was Finney's claim that a minister might nonetheless set about promoting revivals with at least as great an expectation of success as an experienced farmer had of growing a crop. The farmer also relied upon divine favor in that a drought or too much rain might frustrate his efforts. This did not prevent him from studying seeds, soils and other practical dimensions of his calling. Similarly the minister needed to study human psychology and the Bible. If he did, and if he applied himself wholeheartedly to the task and Finney claimed that promoting revivals was the minister's sole calling God would reward his efforts. Finney published a "how-to" manual, Lectures on the Revivial of Religion, based upon a series of sermons he preached in New York City in 1833.
Finney's insistence on the singular importance of revivals and his corresponding demand that ministers be judged entirely on their success in converting sinners earned him many critics among the "settled" clergy who distrusted "spasmotical" religious upheavals. Well they might.
When Finney came to a community he completely monopolized its religious and social life. Everyone, including local "infidels" (unbelievers), came to hear him. A former lawyer, Finney spoke as if addressing a jury. In plain language he would marshall the evidence of his listeners' sinfulness, explore their pet ways of excusing themselves to themselves, and, when he had them "convicted" in their own minds, explain the path to salvation. This was the critical moment. Sinners who wanted to be saved had to act. Specifically, the sinner had to approach the "anxious bench," a simple table at the front. There sinners had to make a public accounting of their sins. The person who hung back out of fear of what friends and neighbors would think was, Finney explained, still in love with his or her sin.
The minister, Finney pointed out in his Lectures, had to choose this moment of truth carefully. Too soon, and sinners would not yet be sufficiently convinced of the magnitude of their guilt. Too late, and they would be emotionally drained and unable to act. If the minister chose the right moment, however, first one or two sinners, often well-known in the community for their skepticism or infidelity, would approach the anxious bench. Then a few more would follow, then still more, and then the rest. At moments of such intense emotional fervor, Finney argued as had Jonathan Edwards during the first Great Awakening, that the Spirit could physically overpower members of the congregation. Some might faint, some cry out, some fall to the floor. Tears often flowed, tears of joy. Converts and Finney and his auditors used the language of conversion to mean this change of heart rather than a change of religious affiliation testified that they experienced a sudden sense of exultation. Many described it as a feeling of being borne aloft. Others described it as a flood of light completely enveloping them. All said it was the most profound experience of their lives. Converts could not doubt the genuineness of their experience. To those who did doubt they replied that, were they to be converted themselves, their doubts would disappear. [See The Testimony of a Hundred Witnesses (1858)]
What were born-again Christians to do once the revival was ended? Finney exhorted them to join a church, in the first place. A Presbyterian himself, he did not seek to get them to join his own denomination. Rather they should choose a church with a minister who preached sin and salvation and who would keep their new sense of religious dedication alive. Next they must alter their lives. It had been their old lives which had led them to disregard salvation. Now that they had found it, they had to change those old lives. Again, Finney did not tell them exactly what they should do. They might join a reform organization, he would say. That would be fine, provided they were active members. They might start organizations of their own. The point, he insisted, was that the convert live a new life.
One can gain some sense of Finney's power as a preacher from the published reminiscences of converts and colleagues collected for a memorial service at Oberlin College, where he served as president and Professor of Theology for four decades. Finney's own account, his Autobiography, is here. He devotes individual chapters to accounts of his activities in various town and cities, including the great revival in Rochester in 1830-31 which made him the pre-eminent figure in American evangelicalism.
As Perry Miller wrote in The Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War (1965), pp. 5-6:
. . . one can almost say that the steady burning of the Revival, sometimes smoldering, now blazing into flame, never quite extinguished (even in Boston) until the Civil War had been fought, was a central mode of this culture's search for national identity.
There was, in short, an evangelical basis to the newly emerging national culture. It affected the millions who flocked to revival meetings in the 1830s, '40s, and '50s. Converts flowed back into already established congregations where they demanded a new style of preaching and prayer. They also formed new sects, splitting established denominations in the process. They joined existing reform organizations, such as those for temperance or anti-slavery, where again they called for a more militant approach. They also formed their own reform societies. Beyond such institutional impacts, they set a cultural tone. They formulated the expectations that defined "respectability." In the process they influenced how "ladies" and "gentlemen" spoke, how they dressed, how they recreated. Evangelicals had an important say in determining which books and authors became well known. It is difficult to exaggerate their overall salience. Rev. Charles P. Bush, D.D. recalled the impact of Finney's first revival in Rochester for the memorial volume pubished in 1876:
It will be remembered that the year 1831 was a season of marvelous religious influences thoughout the land; but in few places, if in any, was the work so remarkable as in and around Rochester. We have already given the number of converts as eight hundred [out of a total population of 10,000]; but that figure is far too small if we include the surrounding towns, in many of which Mr. Finney preached more or less, whilst all drew much of their inspiration from what was going on there. One hundred and fifty that year were received into the First Presbyterian church of the cityninety-two at one time. One hundred and eleven were added to the Second church; and one hundred and forty to the Third. The Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopal Churches also gathered large harvests. The Presbyterian church in the neighboring town of Penfield received thirty-nine new members. Pittsford about the same number; Bergen one hundred; Clarkson the same; Ogden one hundred and thirty; and other towns in like proportion. Over twelve hundred new members were added that year to the churches of Rochester Presbytery alone, beside the great ingathering on the same field into churches of other denominations.
But the grandeur of that work is not to be estimated by numbers alone. The whole community was stirred. Religion was the one topic of conversation, in the house, in the shop, in the office, and on the street. The soul's interests were uppermost in all minds. God was near; eternity real; the judgment sure. Noise and confusion and lawlessness gave place to quiet and order and comfort. The only theatre in the city was converted into a livery stable; the only circus into a soap and candle factory. Grog shops were closed; the Sabbath was honored; the sanctuaries were thronged with happy worshipers; a new impulse was given to every philanthropic enterprise; the fountains of benevolence were opened and men lived to do good.
Evangelicalism was a worldview, a coherent way of making sense of experience. At its heart were notions of grace and of sin. Men were sinners. American children still learned at their mother's knee that "In Adam's fall sinned we all." But the revival, the experience of conversion which came with the sincere acknowledgement of one's own sinfulness and the acceptance of God's grace, enabled one to triumph over sin. The notion of triumph is crucial. Evangelicals did not simply believe, as their Anglican and Puritan forebearers had, that they were saved through grace. They believed that grace transformed them. The doctrine of Perfectionism, formulated by Finney in his Lectures to Professing Christians, held that Christians could conquer sin. The drunkard could stop drinking. The adulterer could become faithful. The slaveholder could free his slaves. The Christian could stop using the name of the Lord in vain, could observe the Sabbath, could be truthful, could, in short, obey God's commandments. This notion of conquest over sin provided an enormous energy to the converted. They could remake themselves. And, since society was simply a collection of individuals, they could remake it as well. Evangelicals were reformers by definition. As Gilbert Barnes demonstrated, revival converts provided much of the impetus behind the abolition movement. [The Anti-Slavery Impulse, 1830-1844 (1933)] They crusaded for numerous other reforms as well. They organized Sunday Schools and social service agencies like the Young Men's and Young Women's Christian Associations.
Reform meant eradicating sin, the sin of intemperance, the sin of slavery, violations of the Sabbath, prostitution, gaming, and so on. For each sin there were sinners who were responsible for the evil they wrought. Lincoln adopted this framework in explaining the meaning of the Civil War in his Second Inaugural Address:
The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hopefervently do we praythat this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."
God's "truth was marching on" sang countless Northerners during the Civil War.
What happened to that essential optimism? It largely disappeared in the decades following the war. And evangelical Protestantism changed profoundly as it did. The evangelical vision of a "Converted Nation" had yielded many successes, including victory in the war and the abolition of slavery. Temperance too enjoyed a wide degree of acceptance. True, the experiment with prohibition, the campaign for adoption of the Maine Law which swept across the northern and western states in the first half of the 1850s, had collapsed. But, its advocates had not lost heart. In the meantime, temperance had succeeded in profoundly changing the public culture. Charles R. Harding, an itinerant minister active between 1830 and the 1860s, wrote an unpublished autobiography in which he described "Achievements, in the cause of Temperence, in my day."
. . . when I commenced my publick career, intemperance was at a fearful height. The multitude, with few exceptions, drank rum. Ministers drank, churchmen drank, men drank, women drank; and children too. Every merchant sold it. It was a leading article of trade. It was the stimulant of the husbandsman, his crops could not be gotten in, or out, or off the field without it. It was as necessary for mechanical business, as water power, or tools. No marriage vows were complete without it, and no funeral party could mourn if it were wanting, it was as necessary to bury the dead, as a coffin, or a shroud. No favored parent, could rejoice over a new born babe, without plenty to drink. No building could be raised but by rum. It was an absolute necessity at huskings, at quiltings, at bees, at dances, and at parties of all kinds. It was the sweetener of social intercourse, and always stood upon the social board. Such was publick sentiment, and who had the temerity to oppose it? The hardihood to withstand it? No man was considered intemperate or intoxicated, if he could get home by holding on to the fence, and if not, his condition was a matter of merriment rather than regret. He who could drink the most, and the longest, was the hero, and if a man, a young man even, declined, for fear of being drunk, he was held up to publick scorn. This was an alarming state of things, beggary, pauperism, waste, dilapidation, misery, and wretchedness were on every hand. Whole neighborhoods, with few exceptions, were give up to this fell demon. You could tell a rum region in passing through it, chimmeys as though ashamed to show their heads, had drawn them in. Fences down, gates demolished, barn doors had given place to a few broken bars, and windows looked as though all the beggars in christendom had met and left their rags. Many saw the picture, and trembled, but how to stop the flood, was the question, entire abstinence was not to be thought of, and how to put checks upon it, puzzled the wisest heads, Ministers were becoming drunkards, church members, deacons, leaders, and stewards even, were becoming drunkards. Lawyers and statemen, and finally the rich as well as the poor, the high as well as the low, were becoming drunkards. What shall be done, was the anxious enquiry. Efforts were put forth to throw restraints around the evil, and moderation was urged, a few societies were formed pledging their members not to get drunk, total abstinence, none thought of. A convention of Ministers was called, somewhere in Conn., to devise some remedy, and after the morning's deliberations, they retired to the house of the resident Clergman, for dinner--their host bringing on his decanters, says "we have worked hard, now let us take a drink." But it was soon found that pledges to moderation, and all restraints imposed, as long as it was used at all, were like ropes of sand. This picture though startling, has not been overdrawn, it was a time of great darkness--so great was it that many professedly pious christians, urged its use. "It helped them to enjoy their minds so much better." At this stage of things, a standard was lifted up, Dr. Beecher, Dr. Fisk, and a few others had solved the question, and an important one it was; the remedy was simple, "Stop drinking, abstain entirely." They send out their appeals. They speak in eloquence that burns, in logick that withers. The clergy, first in every good work, are the first to move in this, now the wind begins to blow from a healthy quarter.
Respectable opinion turned against the use of alcohol, even in moderation. In other matters, however, the dream of a "Converted Nation" lay in tatters by the end of the 1870s. Reconstruction failed to redeem the South. "Redemption" there meant the return to power of conservative white Democrats and the reimposition of Black Codes. The hope of bringing northern evangelical values to the region that had animated many volunteers to go to the South and start schools became A Fool's Errand, as the title of Albion W. Tourgée's best-selling novel put it.
Immigrants, many of them Catholics and, increasingly, Jews, poured into the rapidly growing cities where they proved determinedly unresponsive to evangelical appeals. Often, as historian Robert D. Cross pointed out, Protestant churches moved "uptown" or out into the emerging suburbs, effectively abandoning the downtown neighborhoods. Those that remained usually served a small, elite congregation who travelled to the church for Sunday services and otherwise left it empty. Other churches became "institutional," attempting to provide social services to the working-class and immigrant population as a means toward luring them into the church. [Cross, "Introduction," The Church and the City (1967)] The evangelical message to immigrants and their children, however, fell upon deaf ears. It was this failure which spurred some to formulate a "Social Gospel," which redefined sin to include social evils such as unsanitary housing, long work hours, child labor, and the like. The "Social Gospel," in turn, inspired some ministers and prospective ministerial candidates to join the new settlement house movement. Allen F. Davis located biographical information on 274 "relatively prominent settlement workers." The large majority were active members of Protestant churches. Of the 120 for whom he could determine their father's occupation, 33 were the children of ministers. [Spearheads for Reform: The Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement, 1890-1914 (1967)] [There is an extended excerpt from Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1908) at the Modern History Sourcebook at Fordham University. There is a useful brief discussion of Rauschenbusch at Georgetown Unversity.] Social Gospellers became known as "liberals." The use of a politically-derived term was appropriate for the Social Gospel called upon the state to undertake a number of welfare projects. The "liberals" needed to move beyond scripture to find the basis of their "gospel." This alarmed many of their opponents. It was wrong, they argued, to import political ideas into theology. One should find one's salvation in the original four gospels and work out one's politics without claiming they constituted a fifth.
However beneficient the "Social Gospel" proved, it was not evangelical. It was instead a sort of least-common-denominator faith. One settlement worker, Arthur Holden, called it "the truly worthwhile Christianity, the Christianity of practice divested of dogmatic considerations." What this amounted to was the injunction to love thy neighbor. Holden thus found "even in the Jewish [settlement] houses, a dominating Christian spirit." [The Settlement Idea: A Vision of Social Justice (1922)]
"Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement--5 Cents a Spot" from How The Other Half Lives
If immigrants threatened the evangelical basis of American culture, so did the city. The city exercised a lurid fascination over the evangelical imagination in the post-Civil War years. Jacob Riis' How The Other Half Lives (1890) took readers on a guided tour of saloons, slums, and sweatshops. William T. Snead, a British journalist, took his readers through the brothels, and gambling dens of one Chicago district in If Christ Came To Chicago (1894). These are just two of the myriad works, fiction and non-fiction, detailing the moral and physical dangers of city life. Crusades against vice, like the one Snead described, generated lots of publicity, some arrests, but made no lasting difference. Gambling, prostitution, drinking, all went on as before as did bribery, graft, and corruption. Revivals too failed to bring changes on the scale Finney's revival effected in Rochester. Dwight L. Moody, the leading evangelical preacher of the era, could claim more souls saved than Finney. But the numbers did not signify. Finney's converts set forth to save the nation. Moody's contented themselves with their own salvation.
America, by the late 1870s, was clearly becoming a very different place than the one antebellum evangelicals had envisioned. One measure was the "war" over control of the Erie Railroad. In an April 1871 article in The North American Review Charles Francis Adams, Jr. detailed the struggle between Daniel Drew, Jay Gould, and Jim Fiske, on the one side, and "Commodore" Corneilius Vanderbilt on the other. Vanderbilt wanted the Erie to complete his monopolistic hold over rail connections between Chicago and New York City. Drew and his colleagues sold stock to the "Commodore" even as they secretly printed more. Vanderbilt found himself spending millions to acquire an ever-increasing number of shares. Frustrated, he sought a court injunction. Drew, Gould, and Fiske parried this by obtaining an order from a different judge. Vanderbilt then set out to buy a law from the New York state legislature. Its members, however, refused to stay bought. Gould went to Albany and paid off the legislators Vanderbilt had already bribed. Finally, the competing "robber barons" came to an agreement. Vanderbilt got his money back, and Fiske and Gould bought out Drew. Small stockholders lost nearly all of their investments. Yet Drew claimed to be a devout evangelical. One might dismiss his claim as sheer hypocrisy. But the amorality of the struggle, the wholesale corruption of the political and judicial processes it highlighted, could not be shrugged off. Something was seriously wrong.
No sooner had the "war on the Erie" ended then Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Chaflin prevailed upon the "Commodore" to back them in the stock brockerage business. Vanderbilt also agreed to finance their newspaper, Woodhull and Chaflin's Weekly. HIs reason for doing so was simple. Tennessee Chaflin was his mistress. Besides, Victoria Woodhull claimed to be a medium. She received, she said, stock tips from beyond the grave. When Vanderbilt died, the sisters began holding regular seances at which his spirit appeared, always with a hot stock to recommend. They also broke the story of the extramarital affair between one of the most famous ministers of the day, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, and a married parishioner, a scandal that would absorb much of America for several years.
What was a good evangelical to make of Woodhull and Chaflin? [At right is Thomas Nast's famous 1872 cartoon portraying Woodhull as "Mrs. Satan." For a larger version, at HarpWeek, click on the image.] Woodhull espoused equal rights for women and "free love." She lived in a household which included her current and previous husbands. Anthony Comstock, a Brooklyn merchant and avid supporter of the Y.M.C.A. and other evangelical efforts, knew what to do. He set out on a lifelong crusade to prosecute Woodhull and Chaflin and everyone else who posed a threat to public morality. He successfully lobbied Congress to pass the law, which bore his name, creating a special office in the Post Office to ban obscene materials from the mails. Comstock filled the office for forty years. He also helped organize the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice which also employed his services. [A recent article is Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, "Victoria Woodhull, Anthony Comstock, and Conflict over Sex in the United States in the 1870s," Journal of American History, September 2000.]
Comstock had the notorious sisters arrested and tried for obscenity. Neither was convicted. At this point the Vanderbilt family, embarassed by the notoreity and intent upon cracking the upper reaches of New York society known as "the Four Hundred," paid them handsomely to leave the country. They went to England. There Tennessee married into the aristocracy; Victoria married a millionaire banker. Both became grand ladies. Comstock did succeed in driving scores of pornographers out of business. And he jailed several people who publically preached "free love." These efforts, supported by evangelicals in high places and low, did nothing to change the moral temper of the times. Young men and women, coming to cities, still encountered dens of inquity. Prostitutes continued to ply their trade. Saloons flourished as did the theatre. Midnight suppers of oysters and champagne still lured thousands to spiritual death.
As the gap between the vision of the "Converted Nation" and the reality of modern America turned into an unbridgeable chasm, more and more evangelicals, including Dwight Moody, turned away from reform, temperance excepted. Many adopted, as George Marsden showed in Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980), premillenial views. Premillenialism holds that, prior to the thousand-year reign of the just described in the Book of Revelations, Jesus will return and there will be a climatic struggle between the forces of good and evil. [The entire King James version of the Bible, including the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revalation, is available at the University of Michigan.]
Premillenialism and its rival doctrine, postmillenialism or the belief that the thousand-year reign of the just will precede the Second Coming, need not spill over into the everyday activities of believers so long as they do not regard the Second Coming as imminent. Postmillenialists, virtually by definition, do not since the conditions they see about them do not easily lend themselves to the notion that the reign of the just is nearing its end. Premillenialists, in contrast, frequently see signs which they decode by reference to the Book of Revelations and the Book of Daniel and which they understand to foretell the Second Coming.
Marsden explained the ways and means by which premillenialism spread among evangelicals but not its appeal. Timothy P. Weber, whose Living In The Shadow Of The Second Coming (1979) is an indispensable guide, does but inconclusively. For some, he suggests, it may have "been a hedge against the fear of death." The believer will not die. Instead Jesus will return and he or she will be "gathered" in the "Rapture." Others may have been drawn by the promise of "momentarily meeting departed loved ones in the air at Christ's return." More still may have been attracted to what historian Ernest R. Sundeen in The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Milleniarianism, 1800-1930 (1970) called "'the psychology of deliverance,' the confidence that current toils, frustrations, disappointments, pains, or difficulites might be immediately eliminated by the appearance of Jesus Christ." However, Weber cautioned "it would be too simplistic to say . . . that people become premillenialists primarily out of some kind of pyschological need for security and escape." His argument rested in part on the fact that some versions of premillenialism, though not the most popular ones, hold that even believers will experience the first half of the "Tribulation," the reign of the Anti-Christ and, in part, on simple assertion. "All personal reasons aside, most people accept premillenial doctrine because they believe that the Bible teaches it."
"Post-tribulationism" is a thin reed for an argument, if only because it is not what the majority of premillenial believers hold. And a "psychological need for security and escape" is not the only alternative to the notion that most premillenialists believe "the Bible teaches it." Nor is the fact that believers believe an explanation. It is merely a tautology. Premillenialists did not come to their understanding of Scripture and prophecy on their own. They encountered the doctrine in pre-packaged form as a message. They read it in books, pamphlets, newsletters. They listened to sermons. They went to "prophecy meetings." Premillenialism resonated for them. It offered a way of making sense of their lives. What sort of sense?
Premillenarianism was a theological expression of despair with prevailing conditions. In the decades surrounding the Second Great Awakening, 1820s-1860s, evangelicals, especially those in the North, believed they could create a "redeemed" nation. Not only did they flock to reform movements of every kind, they also joined the new Republican Party. They supported the new public schools. They formed mechanics societies, and lyceums, and lending libraries. They saw themselves as the instruments of progress. [For a detailed discussion, see "A Frame for Understanding the 1850s."] In such a era, premillenialism attracked fringe groups, such as the Millerites who believed that the world would end on a specific date in 1844. Members of the mainstream evangelical churches, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists, were too engaged in changing the world to anticipate its imminent destruction.
Despite many successes, evangelicals came to doubt that they could effectively shape American society. Evangelical Christianity as a framework for understanding everyday experience worked less and less well. Also challenging the traditional evangelicals were the "Modernists." They sought to accommodate the historical scholarship which showed how the Bible had come together as a canonical collection of texts, traced the influences of other religious traditions, and placed the Judeo-Christian tradition in the context of the ancient Near East. They also tried to develop a version of Christianity compatible with developments in science, including Darwinism but also geology and astronomy.
Evangelicals lost control of some of the most important divinity schools to the "Modernists" and turned instead to Bible institutes to train ministers. By the end of the nineteenth century they were actively campaigning to drive their theological opponents out of the Presbyterian and Baptist churches. Their position was that, unless one subscribed to certain "Fundamentals," such as the divinity of Jesus and the reality of his resurrection, one was not a true Christian. By the early 1920s, as George Marsden pointed out, they seemed poised on the brink of success in this campaign to purge several Protestant churches of all who refused to adhere to the Fundamentalist creed. They did not succeed, however.
Moody and then Billy Sunday did win converts by the million. They all faithfully promised to foresake alcohol, card-playing, and dancing. Did America thereby become a holier place? One had only to open the daily newspaper to learn the discouraging truth. As the vision of the "Converted Nation" dissipated, evangelicals had to make a choice. They could continue to battle Satan or they could struggle again "social" evils like child labor where the sin was plain but the sinner hidden behind the legal process of incorporation. The Carnegie Steel Corporation was not about to approach the anxious bench.
So far as can be determined, Dwight L. Moody never even considered such a choice. Sin was sin. And, for every sin, a sinner. Further, the sins were always the same pride, lust, greed, gluttony, anger, envy, sloth. The terms of salvation were equally unchanging. Acknowledge one's sinfulness, admit one's total inability to effect one's own salvation, accept God's grace. Times changed. Except in the matter of adding music, Moody's revivals did not change with them. Moody saw this as steadfast fidelity to God's Word. At the conclusion of his revivals he made a point of speaking on the "responsibilities" of converts. They were to seek out the company of "experienced Christians." That way they could grow in religious devotion and not mingle "with the ungodly and the unconverted." The goal was to "be in the world and not of it." [D. L. Moody, "Address to Young Converts," Glad Tidings (1876)] Good would triumph. The Millenium would begin. Then the whole world would be converted. The believer's role in all this was simply to be ready. Read the Bible. "I have one rule about books. I do not read any book, unless it will help me to understand the book," Moody told his "young converts."
When Moody said he never read a book which did not help him to understand the book, he did not mean the scholarly literature created by historians and others. He did not want to understand how the synoptic gospels were compiled over a process of fifty to seventy years. He did not want to know how certain accounts of Jesus' public ministry became canonical while other "gospels" came to be considered aprocrypha. He did not want to ponder what the careful dating of various texts meant for the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. The "higher criticism" was "ruining revival work and emptying the churches," Henry Drummond quoted Moody as saying in his Dwight L. Moody: Impressions and Facts (1900), a deeply sympathetic portrait of the revivalist published right after his death. By reading only those books which helped him to understand the book, Moody meant that he would only read those works which deepened his own faith.
In 1880 he started the Northfield [Massachusetts] Bible Conferences which brought together leading evangelical preachers. And he founded the Chicago Evangelization Society in 1889, renamed Moody Bible Institute after his death. The idea behind both was to provide an alternative to existing Divinity Schools. Timothy P. Weber, in Living In The Shadow Of The Second Coming, quotes Moody as hoping to turn out "gapmen," "men who know the Word," and who would "go into the shops and meet these bareheaded infidels and skeptics." He "wanted his gapmen to know their Bibles," Weber observed, "but he desired evangelists, not exegetes." Divinity Schools no longer turned out such men. Instead they taught the new historical criticism, abandoned the doctrine of inerrancy, and sought an accommodation between Christianity and modern science.
Moody and Billy Sunday, who replaced Moody as the most popular and influential revivalist, made ignorance and revivalism synonymous. Modernists typically viewed biblical accounts of miracles as "symbolic." They interpreted the Second Coming in the same fashion. Harry Emerson Fosdick, perhaps the most influential modernist, put the matter clearly in a 1922 sermon.
The second coming was the early Christian phrasing of hope. No one in the ancient world had ever thought, as we do, of development, progress, gradual change, as God's way of working out his will in human life and institutions. They thought of human history as a series of ages succeeding one another with abrupt suddenness. The Greco-Roman world gave the names of metals to the ages—gold, silver, bronze, iron. The Hebrews had their ages too—the original Paradise in which man began, the cursed world in which man now lives, the blessed Messianic Kingdom some day suddenly to appear on the clouds of heaven. It was the Hebrew way of expressing hope for the victory of God and righteousness. When the Christians came they took over that phrasing of expectancy and the New Testament is aglow with it. The preaching of the apostles thrills with the glad announcement, "Christ is coming!"
Learning and revival ministry became incompatible. Finney had been president of Oberlin College, the first institution of higher learning to admit women on the same basis as men. Under Finney it became one of the best liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. The Moody Bible Institute was a school for prospective ministers and church workers who did not want to contaminate their faith with knowledge. In his "Old Time Religion" sermon Sunday put the matter with characteristic succinctness. "The way to salvation is not Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Vassar or Wellesley. Environment and culture can't put you into heaven without you accept Jesus Christ." In another sermon, he explained:
Some folks do not believe in miracles. I do. A denial of miracles is a denial of the virgin birth of Jesus. The Christian religion stands or falls on the virgin birth of Christ. God created Adam and Eve without human agencies. He could and did create Jesus supernaturally. I place no limit on what God can do. If you begin to limit God, then there is no God.
Sunday's insistence that either the Bible is literally inerrant or "there is no God" made no logical or theological sense. But Sunday was uninterested in the existence of any God but the one of his own faith. Unless the Bible were inerrant, that God did not exist. In the sermon just quoted, "Spiritual Food for a Hungry World," Sunday made clear both his distain for mere learning and his conviction, in Walter Lippmann's words in A Preface to Morals (1929), that "without complete certainty religion does not offer genuine consolation":
People are dissatisfied with philosophy, science, new thought all these amount to nothing when you have a dead child in the house. These do not solace the troubles and woes of the world. They will tell you that, when they were sick and the door of the future was opening in their face, the only comfort they could find was in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christianity is the only sympathetic religion that ever came into the world, for it is the only religion that ever came from God.
Take your scientific consolation into a room where a mother has lost her child. Try your doctrine of the survival of the fittest with that broken-hearted woman. Tell her that the child that died was not as fit to live as the one left alive. Where does that scientific junk lift the burden from her heart? Go to some dying man and tell him to pluck up courage for the future. Try your philosophy on him; tell him to be confident in the great to be and the everlasting what is it. Go to that widow and tell her it was a geological necessity for her husband to croak. Tell her that in fifty milion years we will all be scientific mummies on a shelf petrified specimens of an extinct race. What does all this stuff get her? After you have gotten through with your science, philosophy, psychology, eugenics, social service, sociology, evolution, protoplasms, and fortuitous concurrence of atoms, if she isn't bug-house, I will take the Bible and read God's promise, and pray and her tears will be dried and her soul flooded with calmness like a California sunset.
"Complete certainty" meant denying things like evolution which were nonetheless so. It meant setting faith against knowledge.
Billy Sunday brought that message to millions more in the first decades of the twentieth century. "I'm against sin," he proclaimed.
I'll kick it as long as I've got a foot, and I'll fight it as long as I've got a fist. I'll butt it as long as I've got a head. I'll bite it as long as I've got a tooth. And when I'm old and fistless and footless and toothless, I'll gum it till I go home to Glory and it goes home to perdition!
Sunday's sermons were filled with statistics. Seven million prostitutes fallen in a century, three-fourths of them because of dancing. The "Booze" sermon is crammed with numbers, some of them accurate. But Sunday cared not a whit for accuracy. He cared only for rhetorical effect. Playing cards was just as bad as dancing. So was going to the theatre. "I believe more people in the church backslide because of the dance, card playing and theatre gadding than through the saloons," he claimed in his famous sermon on backsliding. Salvation meant turning away from sin. Once enough converted, the Rapture would begin. If an extreme, unsupported assertion brought a sinner to salvation, then Sunday believed he had done his duty. [See Sunday's sermon on "The Second Coming."]
Sunday's indifference to social problems led a young Carl Sandberg to castigate him as a tool of capitalists seeking to exploit the poor.
When are you going to quit making the carpenters
build emergency hospitals for women and girls
driven crazy with wrecked nerves from your
goddam gibberish about Jesus -- I put it to you
again: What the hell do you know about Jesus?
Go ahead and bust all the chairs you want to.
Smash a whole wagon load of furniture at every performance.
Turn sixty somersaults and stand on your nutty head.
If it wasn't for the way you scare women and kids,
I'd feel sorry for you and pass the hat.
. . . . . .
You tell people living in shanties Jesus is going to
fix it up all right with them by giving them
mansions in the skies after they're dead and the
worms have eaten 'em.
You tell $6 a week department store girls all they
need is Jesus; you take a steel trust wop, dead
without having lived, gray and shrunken at
forty years of age, and you tell him to look at
Jesus on the cross and he'll be all right.
You tell poor people they don't need any more
money on pay day and even if it's fierce to be
out of a job, Jesus'll fix that all right, all right --
all they gotta do is take Jesus the way you say.
Sandberg mistook indifference to suffering for conspiracy.
Once millions of evangelicals, led by Moody and Sunday and thousands of lesser-known ministers, chose faith over knowledge, they made themselves objects of ridicule. H.L. Mencken put the case against them this way in the "Aftermath" of the Scopes Trial:
I do not know how many Americans entertain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan, but probably the number is very large. They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities. Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish. Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.
What should be a civilized man's attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings. The Baltimore Evening Sun, September 14, 1925
Revivals had helped shape American popular culture. Millions experienced "conversion" as the most meaningful and powerful experience of their lives. Further, evangelical Protestantism provided a frame for making sense of their experience. It supplied them with notions of what "decent folk" did and did not do. Revivals inspired Americans in the antebellum and Civil War years to attempt to create a "Converted Nation." By the late 1870s, however, revivalism turned away from the realities of American life. The revival had nothing to contribute to the ongoing national debates over issues of public policy. It became instead a kind of spiritual narcotic, a way of gaining a sense of euphoria. The imminence of "the Rapture" became a central preoccupation. Weber pointed out in Living In The Shadow Of The Second Coming that Moody was an "early premillennial convert, and nearly every major evangelist after him adopted his eschatology." The possibility of Jesus' immiment return, Weber noted, became a clinching argument in revivals for why the individual should accept Jesus as Savior now. Suppose he were to return this very evening, the preacher would ask. Would you be left behind as the members of the church gathered in the air?
The ridicule William Jennings Bryan's performance at the "Monkey Trial" brought upon their cause highlighted the degree to which traditional Protestant evangelicalism had become marginalized. This is a development of very great import in understanding the subsequent history of American culture. Hence this look at the Scopes Trial as a way of discerning what was happening to Evangelicalism.
DARROW: What do you think?
BRYAN: I do not think about things I don't think about.
DARROW: Do you think about things you do think about?
BRYAN: Well, sometimes. [Laughter.]
from Clarence Darrow's examination of William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial (1925) [Doug Linder has put together a very useful site on the trial at his Famous Trials site at the University of Missouri School of Law in Kansas City. There you can find the text of the anti-evolution statute, trial records, contemporary comments, and much else.]
Contemporaries regarded the "Monkey Trial," as the trial of John T. Scopes for violating the Butler Act was commonly called, as a reducio ad absurdam of the ongoing struggle between Fundamentalist Christians and their adversaries inside and outside of the church. William Jenning Bryan, pictured here in a Dayton, Tennessee pulpit, had championed the evangelical cause his whole adult life. He had challenged "liberals" and "modernists" within his own Presbyterian Church; he had crusaded for Prohibition; and, in the 1920s, he divided his time between a campaign to persuade state legislatures to adopt laws proscribing the teaching of evolution in public schools and a campaign to promote Florida real estate. Butler, the Tennessee Assembly Representative whose act Scopes allegedly violated, took his inspiration from a Bryan speech. So it was fitting that Bryan offered his services to the prosecution even as Clarence Darrow, a long-time champion of agnosticism, offered his to the defense.
Yet there was little reason, at the start of the trial, to expect a epic confrontation between the two. Both, though for different reasons, sought a guilty verdict. The American Civil Liberties Union had advertised in the Tennessee press for a teacher willing to challenge the law. The ACLU anticipated the teacher would be convicted. That would set the stage for their real objective, having the law overturned on appeal as an unconstitutional infringement of the establishment clause of the Tennessee Constitution as well as of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Darrow accepted this legal strategy but hoped to use the trial as a way of discrediting Bryan's anti-evolution campaign by bringing in a variety of scientists and theologians to testify to the truth of evolution and to its compatibility with the Bible, properly understood. The prosecution, of course, also wanted a conviction. They did not want testimony about evolution, however. They argued, and the judge ruled, that the issue before the court was a simple question of fact: Had John T. Scopes violated the Butler Act? Testimony about evolution was irrelevant.
There was irony in this. Scopes probably had not violated the Butler Act. He taught biology only as a substitute and, when approached about volunteering to challenge the law, observed that he could not remember whether evolution had come up during those few classes. Equally ironic is who approached him. It was Dayton's economic and civic leaders who sought to persuade him to challenge the law. They saw it as a way of drawing attention to the town. In this they certainly succeeded, albeit not in the way they hoped.
The plan, agreed to by all, was to find Scopes guilty. Once the judge ruled on the inadmissability of the testimony sought by the defense, the trial itself promised to be anticlimatic. It was not. Darrow called Bryan as a witness to testify on the Bible. From a strict legal point of view, this too was inadmissable, as the judge ruled the following day. But on that fateful July day, 1925, when Darrow called Bryan as a witness, Bryan overbore objections made by other members of the prosecution legal team, including Tennessee's Attroney General, and volunteered to testify. The trial would have a climax after all. There would be an open, no-holds-barred battle between the champions of traditional evangelical Christianity and modern rationalism.
Bryan's defeat, and no one doubted the outcome at the time, would help drive Fundamentalists out of the public arena for decades. Historians like Marsden have tried to rehabilitate Bryan but, in the process, lose sight of something crucial. Bryan was the leading spokesman for fundamentalism. He articulated the understandings of millions. And, since what he had to say amounted to a defense of willful ignorance, we need to look at his performance in Dayton, Tennessee.
Darrow's cross-examination of Bryan lasted several hours. It was broadcast live over the radio to thousands of listeners. The Associated Press account, which provided much of it verbatim, appeared in newspapers across the country the following day. Here is their exchange over the Flood as reported by the Associated Press. [I have added names before statements to make clear who said what.]
Darrow: "You believe the story of the flood to be a literal interpretation?"
Darrow: "When was that flood?"
Bryan: "I would not attempt to fix the date. The date is fixed, as suggested this morning."
Darrow: "About 4004 B. C.?"
Bryan: "That has been the estimate of a man that is accepted today. I would not say it is accurate."
Darrow: "That estimate is printed in the Bible [i.e., the Bible Bryan introduced into evidence]?"
Bryan: "Everyone knows, at least, I think most of the people know, that was the estimate given."
Other questions followed along the same line until Attorney-general Stewart objected to the cross-examination by Darrow of his own witness.
Bryan, however, assured the court that he desired the defense attorney to be given altitude, "for I'm going to have some latitude when he gets through."
Arising, he addressed both the court and the crowd:
"These gentlemen have not had much chance. They did not come here to try this case. They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it and they can ask me any questions they please."
Applause from the spectators brought an interchange of remarks between the attorney and the witness which concluded with the declaration of Darrow that "you insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion."
Another objection came from the attorney-general, who asserted that Darrow was making an effort to insult the witness. Judge Raulston, however, indicated that he did not wish to be purely technical and allowed the examination to continue.
The effort to establish the date of the flood was continued. Bryan asserting that the Bible gave the date as about 2343 B.C.
Darrow: "You believe that all the living things that were not contained in the ark were destroyed?"
Bryan: "I think the fish may have lived."
Darrow: "Outside of the fish?"
Bryan: "I cannot say."
Bryan: "Except that, just as it is. I have no proof to the contrary."
Darrow: "I am asking you whether you believe it."
Bryan: "I do."
Darrow: "That all living things outside of the fish were destroyed?"
Bryan: "What I say about the fish is merely a matter of humor."
Darrow: "I am referring to the fish, too."
Bryan: "I accept that, as the Bible gives it, and I have never found any reason for denying, disputing or rejecting it."
Darrow: "But the Bible you have offered in evidence says 2340, something, so that 4200 years ago there was not a living thing on the earth, excepting the people on the ark, the animals on the ark and the fishes? Don't you know there are any number of civilizations that are traced back to more than 5000 years?"
Bryan: "We know we have people who trace things back according to the number of ciphers they have. But I am not satisfied they are accurate."
Darrow: "You are not satisfied there is any civilization that can be traced back five thousand years."
Bryan: "I would not want to say there is because I have no evidence of it that is satisfactory."
Darrow: "Would you say there is not?"
Bryan: "Well, so far as I know, but when the scientists differ from 24,000,000 to 860,000,000 in their opinion, as to how long ago life came here, I want them to be nearer, to come nearer together, before they demand of me to give up my belief in the Bible."
Darrow: "Do you say that you do not believe that there were any civilizations on this earth that reach back beyond five thousand years?"
Bryan: "I am not satisfied by any evidence that I have seen."
Darrow: "I didn't ask what you are satisfied with; I asked if you believe it?"
Bryan: "I am satisfied that no evidence I have found would justify me in accepting the opinions of these men against what I believe to be the inspired Word of God."
Darrow: "And you believe every nation, every organization of men, every animal, in the world outside of the fishes ...
Bryan: "The fish, I want you to understand, is merely a matter of humor."
. . . . . .
Darrow: "Don't you know that the ancient civilizations of China are six or seven thousand years old, at the very least?"
Bryan: "No; but they would not run back beyond the creation, according to the Bible, six thousand years."
Darrow: "You don't know how old they are; is that right?"
Bryan: "I don't know how old they are; but probably you do. I think you would give the preference to anybody who opposed the Bible, and I give the preferences to the Bible."
Darrow: "I see. Well you are welcome to your opinion. Have you any idea how old the Egyptian civilization is?"
Darrow: "Do you know of any record in the world, outside of the story of the Bible which conforms to any statement that it is 4200 years ago, or thereabouts, since all life was wiped off the face of the earth?"
Bryan: "I think they have found records."
Darrow: "Do you know of any?"
Bryan: "Records reciting the flood, but I am not an authority on the subject."
Darrow: "Have you ever read anything about the origins of religions?"
Bryan: "Not a great deal."
Darrow: "And you don't know whether any other religion gave a similar account of the destruction of the earth by the flood?"
Bryan: "The Christian religion has satisfied me and I have never felt it necessary to look up some competing religions."
Darrow: "Do you consider that every religion on earth competes with the Christian religion?"
Bryan: "I would not say competitive, but the religious unbelievers."
Darrow: "Unbelievers of what?"
Another objection from the attorney-general as Darrow continued. His examination brought the response from the defense attorney that he had a right to cross-examine a hostile witness.
"Is there any way by which a witness can make an affidavit that the attorney is hostile?" asked Bryan, referring to the manner of procedure in Tennessee by which an attorney is required to make affidavit that he was surprised by the testimony of the witness and with the discovery that he was hostile.
A discussion of Confucianism followed.
Darrow: "Do you know it is more ancient than the Christian religion?"
Bryan: "I am not willing to take the opinion of people who trying to find excuses for rejecting the Christian religion when they attempt to give dates and hours and minutes and they will have to get together and be more exact than they have yet been able to compel me to accept just exactly what they say as if it were absolutely true."
"I have all the information I want to live by and to die by," the witness said in response to one question.
Questions and answers came fast as the examination continued. Both grew short as the questioner sat hunched forward on the corner of the table, the witness swaying a palmetto leaf fan.
Darrow: "And that's all you are interested in?"
Bryan: "I am not looking for any more religion."
Darrow: "You don't care how old the earth is and how long the animals have been here?"
Bryan: "I am not so much interested in that."
The witness here eluded his questioner and explained the differences between Confucianism and Buddhism, comparing each with Christianity. Buddhism he termed an agnostic religion.
The course was then shifted to a questioning of the story of the tower of Babel. Rebuke, not fear, inspired the action of God in causing confusion among the builders; the witness said.
He refused to attempt to tell how old the earth might be, although he said: "I could possibly come as near as the scientists do."
As both interrogations and replies became faster and shorter, the attorney-general was brought forward again to ask the purpose of the examination.
"The purpose is to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible, and I am perfectly willing that the world shall know that these gentlemen have no other purpose than to ridiculing every person who believes in the Bible," declared Bryan.
"We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States, and you know it, that is all," fired back Darrow.
The two faced each other on the platform. The witness asserted:
"I am simply trying to protect the Word of God against the greatest atheist, or agnostic, in the United States. I want the papers to know that I am not afraid to get on the stand in front of him and let him do his worst. I want the world to know that agnosticism is trying to force agnosticism on our colleges and on our schools and the people of Tennessee will not permit it to be done."
Some historians, beginning with George Marsden and including Paul Conkin and Edward Larson, have attempted to soften the harsh characterization of Bryan offered by H.L. Mencken, who covered the trial, and sealed in the popular imagination by "Inherit the Wind." Bryan did not personally espouse some of the literal interpretations of Scripture he defended that day, they argue. Further, his ojections to evolution rested, to a considerable extent, upon his opposition to Social Darwinism, imperialism, and eugenics. That is as may be. But Byran did not stake his public case against Darwinism on these grounds. He posed the issue in terms of the theory of evolution's incompatibility with Christianity, and not just in Dayton in 1925. For example, in an article published in the New York Times in 1922, he wrote:
The objection to Darwinism is that it is harmful, as well as groundless. It entirely changes one's view of life and undermines faith in the Bible. Evolution has no place for the miracle or the supernatural. It flatters the egotist to be told that there is nothing that his mind cannot understand. Evolution proposes to bring all the processes of nature within the comprehension of man by making it the explanation of everything that is known. Creation implies a Creator, and the finite mind cannot comprehend the infinite. We can understand some things, but we run across mystery at every point. Evolution attempts to solve the mystery of life by suggesting a process of development commencing "in the dawn of time" and continuing uninterrupted up until now. Evolution does not explain creation: it simply diverts attention from it by hiding it behind eons of time. If a man accepts Darwinism, or evolution applied to man, and is consistent, he rejects the miracle and the supernatural as impossible. He commences with the first chapter of Genesis and blots out the Bible story of man's creation, not because the evidence is insufficient, but because the miracle is inconsistent with evolution. If he is consistent, he will go through the Old Testament step by step and cut out all the miracles and get rid all the supernatural. He will then take up the New Testament and cut out all the supernatural—the virgin birth of Christ, His miracles and His resurrection, leaving the Bible a story book without binding authority upon the conscience of man. Of course, not all evolutionists are consistent; some fail to apply their hypothesis to the end just as some Christians fail to apply their Christianity to life.
Bryan's efforts to demonstrate that the theory of evolution was a mere "hypothesis," unsupported by any scientific evidence, were, as many noted at the time, intellectually feeble if not actually dishonest. His argument that evolution "has no place for the miracle or the supernatural," however, was perfectly cogent. Anyone who did accept the theory of evolution as applied to humans would, if consistent, have to dismiss the first chapter of Genesis. Such a person then would go on to dismiss much of the rest of Scripture, "leaving the Bible a story book without binding authority upon the conscience of man." Bryan and Darrow were in full accord about this. Of course, not everyone is consistent, Bryan added. Many who held evolution to be correct, nonetheless held on to traditional Christian beliefs or, at least, to some of them. They cultivated what historian Jacques Barzun would label "split-level minds." Or this was at the heart of the Modernist controversy of the 1920s they attempted to find ways of reconciling faith and science. Bryan's view, that the two are NOT reconcilable, is entirely defensible.
At the heart of Bryan's position was his perception that Darwinism, because it explains change as taking place at random over vast stretches of time, credits whatever apparent order or system we observe to the principle of "the survival of the fittest." Species compete for scarce resources. Slight, random variations provide some members of some species with an advantage. These fortunate creatures have more progeny which inherit the variation. Order, in a Darwinian universe, is the result of the operation of the mathematical law of large numbers. As Bryan put it in the 1922 New York Times essay, "The Bible not only describes man's creation, but gives a reason for it; man is a part of God's plan and is placed on earth for a purpose." If the theory of evolution were correct, Bryan argued, human life would have no purpose beyond that which humans might think up for themselves.
Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, answered Bryan in the Times. Fosdick was perhaps the leading voice among the "Modernists." His response drew upon Biblical scholarship as much as upon scientific thought.
Indeed, as everybody knows who has seriously studied the Bible, that book represents in its cosmology and its cosmogony the view of the physical universe which everywhere obtained in the ancient Semitic world. The earth was flat and was founded on an underlying sea (Psalm 136:6; Psalm 24:1-2; Genesis 7:11); it was stationary; the heavens, like an upturned bowl, "strong as a molten mirror" (Job 37:18; Genesis 1:6-8; Isaiah 40:22; Psalm 104:2), rested on the earth beneath (Amos 9:6; Job 26:11); the sun, moon and stars moved within the firmament of special purpose to illumine man (Genesis 1:14-19); there was a sea above the sky, "the waters which were above the firmament" (Genesis 1:7; Psalm 148:4) and through "the windows of heaven" the rain came down (Genesis 7:11; Psalm 78:23); beneath the earth was mysterious Sheol where dwelt the shadowy dead (Isaiah 14:9-11); and all this had been made in six days, each of which had had a morning and an evening, a short and measurable time before (Genesis 1).
. . . One who is a teacher and preacher of religion raises his protest against all this [Bryan's defense of literal interpretations] just because it does such gross injustice to the Bible. There is no book to compare with it. The world never needed more its fundamental principles of life, its fully developed views of God and man, its finest faiths and hopes and loves.
Bryan and his followers, Fosdick noted, hated evolution because they feared "that it will depreciate the dignity of man. Just what do they mean? Even in the Book of Genesis God made man out of the dust of the earth. Surely, that is low enough to start and evolution starts no lower." This is a fine rheorical sleight of hand but evades the issue of purpose. On this, Fosdick wrote:
So long as God is the creative power, what difference does it make whether out of the dust by sudden fiat or out of the dust by gradual process God brought man into being? Here man is and what he is he is. Were it decided that God had dropped him from the sky, he still would be the man he is. If it is decided that God brought him up by slow gradations out of lower forms of life, he still is the man he is.
Fosdick assumed that "God is the creative power." Bryan saw no basis in Darwinism for such an assumption. Nor could he see how one could hold that the Bible could provide "fundamental principles of life" or "fully developed views of God and man" or the "finest faiths and hopes and loves," unless one believed it was the revealed Word. And how could one believe that, if one had to admit that its "cosmology" and its "view of the physical universe" were simply and utterly wrong? On what basis could one believe its "fully developed views of God and men" if its account of human creation was false?
Non-believers had no use for Bryan. He was, Darrow claimed towards the end of the cross-examination, an ignoramus, a bigot. Mencken was equally harsh. Darrow lured Bryan into "almost incredible folly."
I allude to his astounding argument against the notion that man is a mammal. I am glad I heard it, for otherwise I'd never believe it. There stood the man who had been thrice a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic -- and once, I believe, elected -- there he stood in the glare of the world, uttering stuff that a boy of eight would laugh at! The artful Darrow led him on: he repeated it, ranted for it, bellowed it in his cracked voice. A tragedy, indeed! He came into life a hero, a Galahad, in bright and shining armor. Now he was passing out a pathetic fool. Baltimore Evening Sun, July 27, 1925
Yet, non-believers found more cogency in the Bryan position than in Fosdick's. This did not lead to any kind words for Bryan. But it did lead to a number of glowing reviews for a Fundamentalist work, CHRISTIANITY AND LIBERALISM (1923), by J Gresham Machen who taught at Princeton Theological Seminary. (The Seminary had no connection with Princeton University.) Walter Lippmann, in A Preface to Morals (1929) described it as "an admirable book."
For its acumen, for its saliency, for its wit this cool and stringent defense of orthodox Protestantism is, I think, the best popular argument produced by either side in the current [Fundamentalist] controversy. We shall do well to listen to Dr. Machen.
Mencken was another admirer. In an obituary notice, he wrote:
The Rev. J. Gresham Machen, D. D., who died out in North Dakota on New Year's Day, got, on the whole, a bad press while he lived, and even his obituaries did much less than justice to him. To newspaper reporters, as to other antinomians, a combat between Christians over a matter of dogma is essentially a comic affair, and in consequence Dr. Machen's heroic struggles to save Calvinism in the Republic were usually depicted in ribald, or, at all events, in somewhat skeptical terms. The generality of readers, I suppose, gathered thereby the notion that he was simply another Fundamentalist on the order of William Jennings Bryan and the simian faithful of Appalachia. But he was actually a man of great learning, and, what is more, of sharp intelligence.
. . . The fantastic William Jennings Bryan, in his day the country's most distinguished Presbyterian layman, was . . . with him on the issue of Modernism. But Bryan's support, of course, was of little value or consolation to so intelligent a man. Bryan was a Fundamentalist of the Tennessee or barnyard school. His theological ideas were those of a somewhat backward child of 8, and his defense of Holy Writ at Dayton during the Scopes trial was so ignorant and stupid that it must have given Dr. Machen a great deal of pain. Dr. Machen himself was to Bryan as the Matterhorn is to a wart. His Biblical studies had been wide and deep, and he was familiar with the almost interminable literature of the subject. Moreover, he was an adept theologian, and had a wealth of professional knowledge to support his ideas. Bryan could only bawl. Baltimore Evening Sun, January 18, 1937
Present-day scholars agree. Paul K. Conkin, perhaps the leading American intellectual historian, described CHRISTIANITY AND LIBERALISM as a "brilliant polemic" and Machen as "the last distinguished defender of the Princeton theology, the roots of which went back to Paul and Augustine as well as to John Calvin and other Geneva theologians." (When All the Gods Trembled: Darwinism, Scopes, and American Intellectuals (1998), p. 112) Marsden decribed him as "a brilliant New Testament scholar" who became the "chief intellectual spokesman for conservative Presbyterians." [Fundamentalism and American Culture, p.137] Bryan, Marsden pointed out, had no interest in developing a coherent theology. For Machen, on the other hand, this was a life-long goal.
Machen, as Mencken wrote, "fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works."
Claiming to be Christians as he was, and of the Calvinish persuasion, they endeavored fatuously to get rid of all the inescapable implications of their position. On the one hand they sought to retain membership in the fellowship of the faithful, but on the other hand they presumed to repeal and reenact with amendments the body of doctrine on which that fellowship rested. In particular, they essayed to overhaul the scriptural authority which lay at the bottom of the whole matter, retaining what coincided with their private notions and rejecting whatever upset them.
Upon this contumacy Dr. Machen fell with loud shouts of alarm. He denied absolutely that anyone had a right to revise and sophisticate Holy Writ. Either it was the Word of God or it was not the Word of God, and if it was, then it was equally authoritative in all its details, and had to be accepted or rejected as a whole. Anyone was free to reject it, but no one was free to mutilate it or to read things into it that were not there. Thus the issue with the Modernists was clearly joined, and Dr. Machen argued them quite out of court, and sent them scurrying back to their literary and sociological Kaffeeklatsche. His operations, to be sure, did not prove that Holy Writ was infallible either as history or as theology, but they at least disposed of those who proposed to read it as they might read a newspaper, believing what they chose and rejecting what they chose.
Machen saw the debate as arising out of a question of fundamental importance.
Christianity during many centuries has consistently appealed for the truth of its claims, not merely and not even primarily to current experience, but to certain ancient books the most recent of which was written some nineteen hundred years ago. It is no wonder that that appeal is being criticised today; for the writers of the books in question were no doubt men of their own age, whose outlook upon the material world, judged by modern standards, must have been of the crudest and most elementary kind. Inevitably the question arises whether the opinions of such men can ever be normative for men of the present day; in other words, whether first-century religion can ever stand in company with twentieth-century science.
Liberalism, according to Machen, was a sincere, if misguided effort to cope with this problem.
Admitting that scientific objections may arise against the particularities of the Christian religion, against the Christian doctrines of the person of Christ, and of redemption through His death and resurrection, the liberal theologian seeks to rescue certain of the general principles of religion, of which these particularities are thought to be mere temporary symbols. And these general principles he regards as constituting "the essence of Christianity."
The difficulty with this approach was that "in trying to remove from Christianity everything that could possibly be objected to in the name of science, in trying to bribe off the enemy by those concessions which the enemy most desires, the apologist has really abandoned what he started out to defend." The modernist's "essence of Christianity" was not Christianity at all. Christianity was not a "way of life" merely but a set of truths, divinely revealed. So Christians believed. Anyone who did not believe that was not a Christian.
Machen was a specialist in the Pauline Epistles. In CHRISTIANITY AND LIBERALISM he defined the debate as one requiring sustained historical research:
Christianity is an historical phenomenon, like the Roman Empire, or the United States of America. And as an historical phenomenon it must be investigated on the basis of historical evidence.
. . . The beginnings of Christianity constitute a fairly definite historical phenomenon. The Christian movement originated a few days after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. It is doubtful whether anything that preceded the death of Jesus can be called Christianity. At any rate, if Christianity existed before that event, it was Christianity only in a preliminary stage. The name originated after the death of Jesus, and the thing itself was also something new. Evidently there was an important new beginning among the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem after the crucifixion. At that time is to be placed the beginning of the remarkable movement which spread out from Jerusalem into the Gentile world the movement which is called Christianity.
About the early stages of this movement definite historical information has been preserved in the Epistles of Paul, which are regarded by all serious historians as genuine products of the first Christian generation. The writer of the Epistles had been in direct communication with those intimate friends of Jesus who had begun the Christian movement in Jerusalem, and in the Epistles he makes it abundantly plain what the fundamental character of the movement was.
Machen then went on to demonstrate that, as a matter of historical fact, the early Christians regarded Jesus as the Messiah, that they accepted His claim to be the Son of God, that they regarded his Resurrection as a fact, and that they believed that by His death He had redeemed mankind from sin. They believed, that is, in the "Fundamentals." It was perfectly possibly to reject them, Machen pointed out, and still be a decent, even a devoutly religious person. But the religion such a person espoused was not Christianity.
As a scholar, Machen had no serious rivals among the Modernists and Liberals and no equals among the Fundamentalists. His "brilliant polemic" did indeed demonstrate how far from traditional Christianity the Liberals and Modernists had moved. Yet, his attempt to deal with the issue underlying the debate, to answer in the affirmative the question "whether first-century religion can ever stand in company with twentieth-century science" fell short.
His failure in this regard sprang from the same source as his success in routing the modernists, his scholarship. As a careful, conscientious scholar of the New Testament, Machen pointed out that the gospel accounts of Jesus' life were written two generations or so after his death. One could not take those accounts as verbatim transcriptions of what Jesus said or literal description of what he did. They represented rather what early Christians believed he had said and done. Proving that they believed in his Resurrection, for example, was a straightforward matter. One started with the Pauline Epistles, as the earliest documents, written within several years of Jesus' death by someone (not all, necessarily, by the historical Paul) who knew a number of the original apostles. Historical research, however, could not demonstrate that the beliefs revealed in the New Testament were true. For this, Machen had to employ a series of rhetorical questions on the order of "Shall we imagine that the people who created this vast movement were deluded on this central question?"
There was a further intellectual difficulty. Evangelicalism rested upon belief in the Word. Yet, as a conscientious scholar, Machen accepted the historical evidence which showed that the gospels contained not the actual words of Jesus but versions current among Christian communities forty to seventy years after his death. They were, at best, translations into Greek and Hebrew of words spoken in Aramaic and then passed from mouth to mouth for several generations.
Machen's appeal to non-believers like Lippmann and Mencken lay as much in his failure as in his success. He demonstrated that Modernism was more an exercise in wishful thinking than in theology. Machen, wrote Lippman, "goes to the very heart of the matter . . . when he insists that you have destroyed the popular foundations of religion if you make your gospel a symbolic record of experience, and reject it as an actual record of events." Machen himself, however, had to admit that his gospel was not "an actual record of events" but a record of early beliefs. Was that any better than a gospel which was "a symbolic record"? Further, as Lippmann argued, the suppositions of that record about how the world works "have ceased to be consistent with our normal experience in ordinary affairs."
. . .when daily experience for one reason or another provides no credible analogy by which men can imagine that the universe is governed by a supernatural king and father, then the disposition to believe, however strong it may be at the roots, is like a vine that reaches out and can find nothing solid upon which to grow. It cannot support itself. If faith is to flourish, there must be a conception of how the universe is governed to support it.
It is these supporting conceptionsthe unconscous assumption that we are related to God as creatures to creator, as vassals to a king, as children to a fatherthat the acids of modernity have eaten away. The modern man's daily experience of modernity makes instinctively incredible to him these unconscious ideas which are at the core of the great traditional and popular religions. He does not wantonly reject belief, as so many churchmen assert. His predicament is much more serious. With the best will in the world, he finds himself not quite believing.
Machen warned in CHRISTIANITY AND LIBERALISM of what would happen should the liberals gain control of the evangelical churches. They would retain the name and some of the trappings of genuine Christianity but the substance would be lost. Were this to happen, he could only imagine that real Christians would have to withdraw into congregations of their own. He could not imagine liberals, modernists, and conservatives remaining inside the same denomination. Lippmann, for his part, assumed that the "modern man," finding "himself not quite believing," would turn away from religion. Hence his Preface to Morals. Theirs was the virtue of logical consistency. It was, Machen wrote, the "great dynamic." Sooner or later, the logical implications of something would work themselves out in history.
Logical consistency is not a popular virtue. Fundamentalists did not drive liberals and modernists out of the Presbyterian Church. Nor did they, unlike Machen himself, withdraw from it. Instead all three groups stayed. They used the traditional language of the Creed but meant different things or, in some cases, nothing whatever. Presbyterian ceased to have any coherent theological meaning and became simply a form of church governance. Church members would pick and choose among various teachings, upholding some, ignoring others.
If fundamentalism failed to banish liberals and modernists from the Presbyterian Church, as a broader movement within evangelical Protestantism, as a refusal to abandon core doctrines like biblical inerrancy, it defined a major tendency which continues to influence American culture. Fundamentalists would not follow J. Greshman Machen, however. They would abandon serious historical research into scripture. They would not face clearly the challenge posed by modern science. Instead of Machen, they would follow Bryan. They chose the "wart" instead of the "Matterhorn," in Mencken's hostile phrasing.
They would continue Bryan's crusade against the teaching of evolution, laterly under the rubric of "Creation Science." Many would continue to scour the "Book of Revelation" for signs of the approaching "Last Days." Their opponents, inside and outside of the churches, would follow Darrow's lead and see them as "bigots" and "ignoramuses" who posed a threat to education and to the separation of church and state. Fundamentalism remained a force to be reckoned with, then, despite its failure to purge the liberals and modernists and despite Darrow's public humiliation of Bryan.
The most important outcome, however, was the progressive loss of coherence of evangelicalism as a frame for making sense of the world. Its "supporting conceptions," to use Lippmann's phrases, were dissolving in "the acids of modernity." Those conceptions and "the modern man's daily experience" ceased to be congruent. If fundamentalists often turned to premillenialism, to a view of modern life as a series of "signs" of the coming battle between Good and Evil, they were clutching at the only way they could imagine of preserving "Old Time Religion." They no longer shared the vision of the Second Great Awakening that America would become a "Converted Nation." Their best efforts led only to failure. Prohibition was only the latest example to the evangelicals of the 1920s. Education was another nightmare. Learning only undermined faith. Nor was there any reason to believe that any of this might change. Only the Second Coming offered hope.
Other evangelicals became "cafeteria Christians." They hung on to those aspects of the old faith which still fit their experience and abandoned the rest. But religion no longer played so central a role either in their lives or in the life of the culture. It no longer provided a way of making sense of one's life. Instead it offered a way of coping with an important but limited set of experiences. Such people, as Barzun has it, learned to think and feel in split-level minds. Millions would continue to find spiritual solace in the revival. They would continue to battle sin. And they would come to feel more and more as aliens in their own land as the popular culture became more and more secular and more and more hedonistic. Millions more would hold on to segments of the evangelical faith. They would pick and choose as though at a cafeteria. They would abandon the prohibition on dancing, card-playing, going to the theatre, and then on premarital sex and birth control and divorce. But they would continue to go to church, to send their children to Bible School, and to believe in Heaven (but less so in Hell). Theirs would be an unsatisfying faith, to a degree, because it necessarily lacked the certitude Sunday's "Old Time Religion" promised. But they would judge it better than nothing. Only a minority would take the path urged by Mencken and completely discard evangelical ideas.
Billy Sunday on repeal of Prohibition. There is a collection of Sunday's sermons online at a Premillenarian site.