[A note on the historiography of evangelicalism after the Civil War: Two major works have shaped recent scholarship. 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 forming 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 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 during 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 about the origins of 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 worldview it expressed.]
"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
Introduction: The Evangelical Crisis
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. [The 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 with growth suggests a paradox worth investigating. Perhaps evangelicalism grew because of, and not despite, this crisis.
Evangelicalism provided one of the basic cultural frames through which millions of Americans, white and black, made sense of their experience. 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."
This "steady burning" gave an evangelical basis to the 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 antebellum 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 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 found assurance that they 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 looked 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? Given the millions who sought to make sense of their lives by means of the values it nurtured, its crisis necessarily convulsed the entire society.
The "Monkey Trial"
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 prohibiting the teaching of evolution in Tennessee's public schools was commonly called, as a reducio ad absurdam of the ongoing struggle between Fundamentalist Christians and their adversaries. 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 efforts to persuade state legislatures to adopt laws proscribing the teaching of evolution in public schools and a campaign to promote Florida's 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. A conviction 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 champion of traditional evangelical Christianity and the archtypical village atheist.
Bryan's defeat, and no one doubted the outcome at the time, helped drive Fundamentalists out of the public arena for decades. More importantly, his defeat marked a crucial moment in American history. From the 1830s onward, evangelical Protestantism had provided one of the core frameworks through which Americans made sense of their lives and the issues of the day. For decades, it had spurred them on to reforms. Temperance was one great cause; abolition another. After the Civil War the overall coherence of this way of looking at the world gradually came apart for reasons we will explore below. Darrow's cross-examination of Byran put this incoherence on display.
In order to understand the importance of this, we must grasp what was at stake in the Darrow-Bryan confrontation. And to do this, we must clear away some of the confusion in the historiographical literature. In retrospect, scholars tend to see Bryan as merely a semblance of his former self by the time of the trial. This hindsight is informed by H.L. Mencken's vitriolic reporting and then by "Inherit the Wind," especially the scene in which the Clarence Darrow-based character tells the Mencken-based one that he has been unfair. This had been a great man, a champion of good causes. It was necessary to defeat him but not to belittle him. Bryan, however, was not a shadow of his former self in 1925. He was still the premier orator of the day and a resourceful as well as experienced debater. If Darrow made him look the fool, it was because he chose to defend a cause which was intellectually indefensible.
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 the 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."
At this point, the prosecution team objected. Darrow, they pointed out correctly, was cross-examining his own witness. This objection failed because, as the A.P. reported:
Bryan . . . assured the court that he desired the defense attorney to be given latitude, "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."
Bryan's appeal to the crowd had the desired effect. They cheered on their champion. The A.P. report continued:
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 [of Tennessee], 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."
Bryan's attempt at humor is worth noting. We normally associate any humor with the trial with Darrow's sarcastic comments. But Bryan felt quite in control of the situation, comfortable enough to joke. Darrow insisted upon treating his comment about the fish as if he had meant it seriously. This is because Darrow was about to spring his trap. This, a number of historians have subsequently pointed out, was anything but original. Anyone who had ever questioned the inerrancy of the Bible, or had defended it, was familiar with what Darrow would say next.
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 had sprung the expected trap. And Bryan had given the expected answer. Of course there were those who asserted that archeological evidence proved the continuous existence of civilizations over six thousand years or longer. But scientists often disputed with each other over dates. He would stick with the Bible, especially since the scientists could not agree. Bryan used an old trick here. He switched from the dating of artifacts, about which there was little dispute, to dating the emergence of life about which there was a good deal. Darrow was not about to abandon his main line of questioning over that, however.
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 relating [to] the flood, but I am not an authority on the subject."
With Bryan's response that "I think you would give the preference to anybody who opposed the Bible, and I give the preferences to the Bible," the issue was fairly joined. Bryan's attack was ad hominem. Darrow believed the scientists and scholars because their findings undermined Biblical inerrancy. The problem with this argument is that it missed the main point or, more strictly, conceded it. The main point was that centuries of careful research had generated findings that were incompatible with a literal interpretation of Scripture. Darrow's argument was that Bryan willfully chose ignorance, that neither he nor any other Fundamentalist dared study archeology or geology or a range of other subjects out of fear of what they would discover.
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?"
. . . 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."
Bryan's answers that "I have all the information I want to live by and die by" and "I am not looking for any more religion" and that "I am not so much interested" in the age of the earth all drove home Darrow's argument. Bryan's was literally a "fool religion," one incompatible with serious thought. Instead of meeting this argument, Bryan continued to rely upon rhetorical tricks. According to the A.P., "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.'" This again was a reference to disagreements among scientists. The debate came to a climax with this exchange:
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."
H.L. Mencken, one of the most influential social commentators of the day, summed up the view of many outside of the Fundamentalist camp in an article in The Baltimore Evening Sun, September 14, 1925:
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.
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 though himself a Baptist, answered Bryan in the Times. Fosdick was perhaps the leading voice among the "Modernists." His response drew upon Biblical scholarship as much as upon science.
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 vituperative. 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" 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 and 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. He accepted too that these versions could not transmit the actual words of Jesus. 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 the Gospels did not constitute "an actual record of events" but rather a record of early beliefs. Was that any better than a gospel which was "a symbolic record"?
The Loss of Faith in a "Converted Nation" and the Rise of Premillenialism
Bryan represented the reform tradition within Evangelical Protestantism. He believed in the continuing possibility of a "Converted Nation." That belief had informed his famous "Cross of Gold" speech which won him the Democratic nomination in 1896. Those seeking "to crucify mankind" were sinners. So too those seeking to create an American empire in the Philippines and, later, those seeking to lead the United States into the "Great War." Sin could be conquered. Sinners could repent.
Most evangelical spokesmen did not follow Bryan's lead in this regard. Instead they 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 Revelation, 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 events as signs which they decode by reference to the "Book of Revelation" 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 in the decades following the Civil War but not its appeal. Timothy P. Weber, whose Living In The Shadow Of The Second Coming (1979) is an indispensable guide, does at least discuss this 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 great majority of premillenial believers held. 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 statement that believers believe an explanation; it is 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 social conditions. In the decades surrounding the Second Great Awakening, 1820s-1860s, evangelicals, especially those in the North, believed they could create a "redeemed" society. 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 that 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 soon came to doubt that they could effectively shape American society. Rapid urbanization, industrialization, and the influx of ever-increasing numbers of immigrants, many of them Catholics and Jews, transformed the United States in ways they had not anticipated and of which they did not approve. More problematic still, evangelical Christianity as a framework for understanding everyday experience worked less and less well. Clearly there was a moral issue when steel workers had to work on the Sabbath or when six and seven-year-old children worked in coal mines. But could the Carnegie Steel Company commit a sin? Was it a sin for children to work? to employ children? to allow one's own children to work? did economic necessity expiate sin? Evangelicalism shed no light on such questions.
Photograph by Lewis Hines of young boys, circa 1910. The "1915" is an acquisition number, not a date.
This inadequacy led a number of evangelicals to formulate a "Social Gospel," one which explicitly sought a morality keyed to an urban, industrial, pluralist society. [There is an extended excerpt from Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1908), one of the key texts of the Gospel at the Modern History Sourcebook at Fordham University. There is a useful brief discussion of Rauschenbusch at Georgetown Unversity.] They became known as the "liberals." They called upon the state to undertake a number of welfare projects. The Social Gospellers needed to move beyond scripture to find a basis of their gospel. This alarmed many evangelicals. 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.
Bryan thought it was possible to apply evangelical principles to the reform of modern problems. This could make him seem to be an adherent of the Social Gospel. He was not. Bryan approached the gold standard, imperialism, and other issues of the day very much as an abolitionist attacked slavery. Bryan, unsurprisingly, was a postmillenialist. He did not think he was living in the "last days." And he retained the old optimism that had once characterized Evangelicalism.
Many did not. Dwight Moody and then Billy Sunday did win converts by the million. 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. Carnegie Steel 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 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 in which "modernists" were rapidly gaining ascendancy. 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, thus setting the stage for Darrow. 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 and Bryan's antagonist in the New York Times debate over evolution, 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 had fallen in a century, he claimed; three-fourths of them because of dancing. Where did those numbers come from? Sunday only occasionally cited a source, and then vaguely. 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 reform efforts for conspiracy with capitalists. Others treated Sunday's revivals as mere performances.
Once millions of evangelicals, led by Moody and Sunday and thousands of lesser-known ministers, chose faith over knowledge and the "Rapture" over reform, they inevitably made themselves objects of ridicule. H.L. Mencken put the case against them this way in the "Aftermath" of the Scopes Trial:
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
The "Acids of Modernity" and Evangelicalism: Some Ironies
Revivalism had helped shape American popular culture. But it had nothing to contribute to the ongoing national debates over issues of public policy, Prohibition alone excepted. It became instead a kind of spiritual narcotic, a way of gaining a sense of euphoria by shutting off the challenges of modernity. 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?
What Weber does not note, what Marsden does not discuss at all, is that the preacher was offering a chance to opt out of the modern world. What was going on was the converse of what Walter Lippmann supposed when he argued that the "acids of modernity" would make orthodox belief impossible.The suppositions of orthodox belief about how the world works "have ceased to be consistent with our normal experience in ordinary affairs." Mere consistency, mere logic would force the would-be believer into doubt:
. . .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.
Undoubtedly Lippmann was right about many. What he did not anticipate, despite the evidence all around him, was that so many would reject "daily experience" rather than tradition religion. Evangelicals believed with every fiber of their beings, but not "with the best will in the world." Evangelical churches grew precisely because believers took their lead from Moody, Sunday, and Bryan. They chose not to participate in the scholarly analysis of Scripture. They chose not to engage in scientific research. They chose ignorance. They chose intellectual incoherence. They endured the sneers of the Menckens. Premillenialism made this choice possible for many. How was one to deny the growing chasm between one's faith and the "daily experience of modernity"? How was one to vindicate one's faith in biblical inerrancy in the face of all of the evidence to the contrary? The imminence of the "Last Days" became the answer. What would "modernists" say when the faithful gathered in the air and they found themselves enduring the Tribulation? The fulfillment of prophecy would vindicate one's faith.