The Social History of American Fundamentalism

To what extent were the leaders of the fundamentalist movement representative of the rank and file evangelicals in the pew?  Did the King’s Business and similar journals reflect the thinking and practice of ordinary fundamentalists?  How many theologically conservative church-goers saw the need to separate from mainline denominations during the so-called Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in the 1920s?

The students in my “History of American Evangelicalism” course keep raising questions like this as we work our way through George Marsden’s magisterial Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925.  They are good questions.  (For more about our reading of this book see my last three virtual office hours.  You can watch them here and here and here).

I think it goes without saying that Marsden has provided us with an intellectual history of the fundamentalist movement.  His narrative is focused heavily on ideas–common sense realism, Baconianism, premillenialism, dispensationalism, Keswick holiness, modernism, inerrancy, etc…

As I have been teaching this book, and my students ask questions about fundamentalism in the pews, I wonder if it is actually possible to write a history of fundamentalism from the bottom-up.  Where would the historian find sources?

I am sure there have been efforts to write the fundamentalist story, or at least part of it, from the perspective of social history or the history of everyday life.  Does anyone know of any authors who have made this attempt?  My work in early America has prevented me from keeping up with the most recent work on the history of American fundamentalism.

9 thoughts on “The Social History of American Fundamentalism

  1. Paul: I have read through a lot of those letters when the collection first arrived at PTS from Collingswood. I am glad someone is using them. It kind of reminds me of Michael Kazin's biography of WJ Bryan in which he tapped into all of his fan mail housed at the Library of Congress.

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  2. Paul: I have read through a lot of those letters when the collection first arrived at PTS from Collingswood. I am glad someone is using them. It kind of reminds me of Michael Kazin's biography of WJ Bryan in which he tapped into all of his fan mail housed at the Library of Congress.

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  3. Mary Beth: I am really looking forward to reading your book. Indeed, I think issues of race and the experience of conservative evangelicalism in the South are what is largely missing from Marsden's otherwise outstanding book. I think that historians since Marsden have filled in the gaps on the South, but your book will fill in the gaps on race.

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  4. Doug: Yes, I thoroughly agree with everything you wrote about Keswick, but Marsden covers it as a movement of ideas–another part of the intellectual genealogy informing fundamentalism. There is nothing wrong with this, but I do think the narrative might look differently if the social world of Keswick would be explored more fully.

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  5. There will be a chapter of my dissertation that uses letters from those who listened to Carl McIntire's 20th Century Reformation Hour to try and get at some of those questions. I got the idea from Orsi's “Thank You, St. Jude” and the content is surprisingly similar; disproportionately middle-aged women pouring out their hearts about their wayward children, illnesses, and political worries.

    Unfortunately, McIntire's papers are exceptional; most broadcasters simply did not keep listener letters in bulk.

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  6. John, Keswick and the Higher Life movement is much more than “top-down” intellectual history. It probably owes just as much to holiness campgrounds and was a precursor to some forms of Pentecostalism. See especially David Bundy's “Keswick and the Experience of Evangelical Piety” in _Modern Christian Revivals_, edited by Edith Blumhofer and Randall Balmer. It was an experience — not just an intellectual understanding.

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  7. This is awesome, Barb. I knew you were working on MoodyChurch, but was unaware of your approach–both in terms of social history and comparative history. I am very eager to read that book someday.

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  8. Barbara Dobschuetz –I have been working for quite some time on the history of the Moody Church and have been trying to address just the questions you have raised. Even though the Moody Church papers collection at the Billy Graham center has a lot of documents– getting at the voice of the folks in the pews is a real challenge. I have spent quite a bit of time looking at the great collection of their church news letters which for the early part of their history were quite detailed. I have been successful in finding stories here and there of individuals, leaders, missionaries, and the pastors of the church to put together a social history. Another source that I have found helpful is the Chicago Tribune not only has information about the church but also what other groups were doing at the same time as a source of comparison and context. The intellectual history like Marsden is so good at writing I think provides a framework to inform my research as I try and document a dialogue between the leaders of the church and the folks in the pews. My work with the Hull House Urban Experience web site has provided a basis for comparison. Both groups were trying to address similar problems and had similar audiences. I can't say that I have a found a smoking gun that provides a radical different picture than what Marsden has written but I think my work will hopefully provide more texture and complexity to the history of fundamentalism especially as it is located in a particular urban setting.

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