"I don't know any more about theology than a jack-rabbit does about ping-pong, but I'm on the way to glory." Billy Sunday
Evangelical Protestantism was in crisis by the 1920s. One symptom was the effort on the part of self-identified Fundamentalists to purge several mainstream churches of liberals and modernists. Another, closely related, was the debacle in Dayton, Tennessee during the Scopes Trial when Clarence Darrow put William Jennings Bryan on the witness stand as an expert on Scripture. As a joke of the day had it, Darrow "really made a monkey out of him." Bryan was the leading Fundamentalist layman. His widely publicized inability to present a coherent defense of Biblical inerrancy suggested something grave about the intellectual health of the movement. [Image is from the Scopes Trial site at the University of Missouri Law School at Kansas City created by Professor Douglas Linder.] Still another sign of crisis was the appeal of premillenialism among evangelicals. The related appeal of the Ku Klux Klan, which offered its secularized vision of a coming Armageddon, suggested a profound unhappiness among evangelicals about the way in which American society was moving. At the same time, as George Marsden and other historians have shown, membership in evangelical churches continued to grow. Crisis and growth suggest a paradox worth investigating. Perhaps evangelicalism grew because, and not despite, crisis.
Why was evangelism in crisis? It provided one of the basic cultural frames through which millions of Americans, white and black, made sense of their experience. Its division among Fundamentalists, liberals, and modernists, its loss of intellectual coherence, which coincided with this theological fragmentation, its growing preoccupation with chiliastic visions of the final days and the Second Coming, its support for the KKK, all suggest a profound criisis in the ways millions of Americans thought, felt, and acted.
Evangelicalism came into its own during the Second Great Awakening. 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 an "evangelical basis" to the newly emerging national culture. It affected the millions who flocked to revival meetings in the 1830s, '40s, and '50s, many of whom spoke of their "conversion" as the central moment of their lives. 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.
Evangelicalism offered believers 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. In the doctrine of Perfectionism, formulated by the great revivalist Charles Granison Finney, in his Lectures to Professing Christians, 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. [A more extended discussion on this site is here.]
During the Civil War evangelicals served in the Christian Association which ministered to the spiritual needs of Union soldiers and in the Sanitary Commission which ministered to their physical needs. After the war they volunteered to organize schools for the freed slaves. Lincoln turned to the evangelical worldview in his Second Inaugural. All the suffering occasioned by the war, on both sides, was expiation for the sin of slavery.
How had evangelicalism fallen from such heights into such disarray in so short a time? We seek to answer this question from several perspectives. One looks at "The Scopes Trial, Fundamentalism, and the 'Acids of Modernity.'" The focus here is upon the quarrels within the Presbyterian and Baptist churches over the "Fundamentals," on the one hand, and the collapse of intellectual coherence among evangelicals as epitomized by the Scopes Trial on the other.
Another approach examines the "commodification of fantasy" in the 1920s and its import for the shifting moral beliefs of Americans. Beginning with the popularity of musical revues, such as the Ziegfeld Follies, the rise of beauty pageants, the ongoing battles over beach censorship and the one-piece bathing suit, this analysis seeks to document a popular turnign away from evangelical moral values. As the term commodification suggests, this approach stresses the importance of the new ethos of consumption, particularly as reflected in movies and advertising.
Another looks at the Ku Klux Klan. In "The Klan's Fight for Americanism." published in The North American Review (March-April-May 1926), Grand Wizard Hiram Evans described the worldview of KKK members and, in the process, described how closely it paralleled that of disgruntled evangelicals:
There appeared first confusion in thought and opinion, a groping and hesitancy about national affairs and private life alike, in sharp contrast to the clear, straightforward purposes of our earlier years. There was futility in religion, too, which was in many ways even more distressing. Presently we began to find that we were dealing with strange ideas; policies that always sounded well, but somehow always made us still more uncomfortable.
Finally came the moral breakdown that has been going on for two decades. One by one all our traditional moral standards went by the boards, or were so disregarded that they ceased to be binding. The sacredness of our Sabbath, of our homes, of chastity, and finally even of our right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths were torn away from us. Those who maintained the old standards did so only in the face of constant ridicule.
Evangelicalism achieved its great influence in American culture through, in Perry Miller's phrase, the "steady burning of the Revival." Miller followed the revival through the end of the Civil War. What happened thereafter? One can describe the process as "The Declension of American Revivalism." Charles Grandison Finney was the great figure of the Second Great Awakening. Dwight L. Moody became the most famous and influential revival preacher in the 1870s and remained so until the end of the 1890s. His successor was Billy Sunday. His greatest prominence began as Moody cut back on his preaching in the 1890s and continued through the 1920s. "Declension" is a term of art in revivalism. It refers to the "backsliding" of sinners from the pinnacle of holiness of the conversion experience to the sloughs of day-to-day concerns with work and other mundane matters. Our use of it here is intentionally ironic.