Analysis of Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism

Analysis of Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism


The study of American history is fascinating on many fronts.  Attempting to understand geopolitical functions, the development of Democracy, financial freedom:  all can prove to be rewarding pursuits to the examiner of historical developments.  American history has an inescapable reality that may prove to be the most interesting of all the other angles of history’s hidden jewels.  This is the aspect of the American experience and its reliance upon religious development.  George Marsden attempts to delve into the historical root of the evangelical expression of fundamentalism in: Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism.


Marsden’s purpose in writing this book appears to carry at least two primary functions in this compilation of essays previously published throughout the 1980’s (ix.x).  His first point of focus steers the reader down the path of a historical survey, observing key events and personalities that have collectively led to the development of modern fundamentalism and evangelicalism.  Although Marsden only leads only scant evidence to the Colonial roots of the fundamentalist movement, he does pick up the religious developments with verve following the cessation of the Civil War.  Marsden does develop the earlier roots of the unique American religious experience in an earlier publication: Fundamentalism and American Culture.


The focus upon the span of time encompassing 1870 through the present is appropriate however, as these years typify the most significant developments within the church and society that led to the fundamentalist movement.  One of the more esoteric angles Marsden’s work advances as a historical work is the importance history plays in the developing conflict between Christianity’s liberal and conservative strains, and the developing sciences of politics, natural history and biology.  The analysis of the millennial conflict stands as solitary reason to value this book; although Marsden’s other points are equally valid.  It is interesting to note that the liberal persuasion centers on a more positive outlook of history, accepting a victorious culmination of the historical fides that have influence humanity’s development.  Conversely, the fundamentalist perspective seems to reveal in a more pessimistic outlook, focusing upon the disintegration of humanity’s core values as the social fabric of culture unravels due to the pressures of depravity.


This dichotomy of history’s inevitable outcome isn’t the only expression of differing points of emphasis between the two Christian encampments.  Marsden also points out the differing paradigms concerning the developing sciences between 1865 and 1917.  Marsden states a very important truth, as he addresses the problems of: “Darwinism and higher criticism (which) were challenging the authority of the Bible and the new historical, sociological and Freudian psychological ways… (p. 32)” The struggle of liberalism’s approach to these unique pressures appears to have been forced synthesis of Christianity and the prevailing views of modernism in a futile attempt to save Christianity in the face of modernity’s advancements.  Although he intent may have been proper as to the motivation, the results were disastrous, as many of the posits stripped Christianity of its veracity and historical moorings in reality.  The merger of science and faith left Christianity crippled as a result of the experiment, creating a weak and insipid form of vacuous faith.


Modernism’s attack on the historical reliability of Scripture as a historically accurate document left many people in a state of religious neurosis, as they were forced to choose between their belief systems in the realm of faith and the purported evidences of scientific inquiry.  None of these external factors were more devastating than the internal pressures that came from the critical examination of the faith via the German schools of theological rationalism or criticism which had been formulated by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834).  This particular theological presentation disconnected Scripture from reality, reducing it to a series of moral diatribes that were created to promote advanced ideas of socialization and control.  Although God was acknowledged, the concept of God existed outside of the human influenced boundaries of the Bible.  Truth therefore, could exist in many cultures or religious expressions as: “The basis of religion is the sense of absolute dependence (35).”  The liberal school of interpretation attempted to insulate Scripture from the challenges of human advancement, removing it into an ethereal category of self-existence where the literal and factual gave way to the intuition of the heart (p. 35),”


The counterpoint to this amalgamation was the fundamentalist perspective.  Marsden includes a telling footnote narration by William Riley (p. 166) where this ardent fundamentalist throws down the gauntlet by asserting that: “Fundamentalism insists upon the plain intent of scripture-speech…’  This scientific’ approach he contrasts with the liberal ‘weasel method’ of interpretation!” (See footnote for reference.)  Riley articulated his convictions in a folksy manner.  Benjamin B. Warfield, President of Princeton Theological Seminary shared the same views.  The only difference that can be found is in the actual verbiage.  Marsden points out that Warfield was: “A formidable intellect…an inventor of the term ‘inerrancy’ and a leading proponent of that key fundamentalist doctrine that Scripture did not err in any of its assertions (p. 156).  “This dual framework or source of contributions caused the early fundamentalists to suffer somewhat in identifying the center of power of influence within the fundamentalist movement.  The connecting point between the higher views of Warfield and the guttural position of Riley can be seen in their vitriolic commitment to a common belief system that is founded in the validity of Scripture.  Most fundamentalists share in the traits that identify them as: “An evangelical who is militant in opposition to liberal theology in churches or to changes in cultural values or mores such as those associated with ‘secular humanism (p. 1).’ “This characteristic of militancy is further delineated by a willingness to fight for that which has been deemed to be right.  These conservative Christians have a conviction that compels them to preserve a normative version of Christian theology that finds itself connected to the historic developments of the church.


Marsden follow his initial analysis of fundamentalism’s history in the first two chapter of his book with an interpretive dalliance with evangelicalism, politics, and science in chapters three through seven.  Political underpinnings are examined, as the American practice of mixing religion and politics is thoroughly examined.  It is Marsden’s belief that conservative evangelicalism has enjoyed a long standing political platform albeit the darkened age of 1928-1968, where the liberal forms of Christianity eclipsed the political landscape.  This resurgence in political clout and appeal appears to be gaining momentum in American or, as the two dominant political parties seem to be peppered with conservative or liberal Christians as the dominant forces behind the political screen.  The 2004 Presidential election showcased this distinction rather superbly, as the Roman Catholic Democratic candidate John Kerry was pitted against the conservative evangelical Republican candidate George Bush.  The restoration of religious influences in American politics lends itself to an appealing ability to shape the image of faith in the general public’s eye.


Another compelling aspect of Marsden’s work focuses upon the relationship between evangelicalism and science.  While refuting the notion that a more fundamental view eschews reason, Marsden builds the churches reliance upon a complex acceptance of Baconian Enlightenment principles of reason.  Building upon this scientific embrace, Marsden elucidates the evolutionary appeal of ‘creation science’ as a peculiar position held by many fundamentalists, while conversely being rejected by many evangelicals who could be seen as theistic evolutionists (pp. 154-155).


Marsden views fundamentalism’s rise to prominence from 1870-1925, it’s fall into obscurity until the 1980’s and subsequently rise to a position of credible influence as a positive event.  It is his view that the story of fundamentalism centers on people who found themselves in conflict with external pressures that were threatening the normative version of Christian expressions.  The intellectual crisis of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ created a volatile environment that had to be challenged, least a way of religious life be extinguished.


Understanding Fundamentalism concludes with a thoughtful analysis of one of fundamentalism’s most enigmatic personalities, J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937).  Machen has to be considered one of the more prominent intellectual’s of American evangelicalism.  Marsden forces the reader to evaluate Machen through the lens of the Southern culture that produced him.  The Southern way of viewing culture and historical developments weighed heavily on Machen, molding his keen mind into a militant expositor of traditional views.  One of Machen’s other strengths was found in his unique ability to formally identify the inherent weaknesses within liberalism.  Marsden’s matching of Machen and Karl Barth (p. 201) as critics of liberalism’s deficient position is telling.  This is a must read for those who desire a greater understanding of the roots and development of fundamentalism.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.