A sketch of the history of American fundamentalism

Last June, Justin Taylor posted a 1994 article by John Fea that gives an historical overview of American fundamentalism. I finally read it and it was quite good.

Taylor’s introduction:

The primary and secondary reading on this movement is quite extensive, but Fea’s piece may be the most helpful and concise orientation to the different phases of fundamentalism in the 20th century. He’s aware of the dangers in setting strict dates for each phase (“Restricting open-ended social and intellectual movements to neatly prepared historical packages confined by set dates is the historian’s greatest sin”) but he helpfully identifies four phases of development:

  1. an irenic phase (1893–1919), a harbinger to fundamentalism “proper”;
  2. a militant phase (1920–1936), encompassing the “fundamentalist-modernist controversies”;
  3. a divisive phase (1941–1960), when fundamentalism split into “evangelical” and “separatist” factions;
  4. a separatist phase (1960 to the present), where the self-designation of fundamentalism is restricted to Protestants who remove themselves from mainstream American culture and religion.

The original article is Understanding the Changing Facade of Twentieth-Century American Protestant Fundamentalism: Toward a Historical Definition,” Trinity Journal 5NS (Fall 1994): 181–99.

Sacred Scripture, Sacred War

Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American RevolutionSacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution by James P. Byrd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Byrd tries to broaden and deepen the scholarly work on clergy in support of the American Revolution. He looks at the major Biblical passages that informed their sermons relating to the war, and argues that “civil millennialism” (the belief in the close relationship between the patriots’ cause and the millennial reign of Christ) has been given undue attention by previous historians. Byrd argues that sermons were more often intended to inspire men to fight with courage and without shame. His concluding sentences are provocative: “In the American Revolution, when it came to making the case for war and ushering citizens to the battlefield, the Bible was a persuasive ally. The ramifications of this relationship would cascade throughout American history as the United States came to define itself and its destiny largely through the justice and sacredness of its wars” (168).

Byrd offers a lot of insight into revolutionary preaching, but it seemed to me that he understated the continuity of Revolution-era sermons with colonial-era sermons. He offers many examples of pre-Revolutionary sermons that strike the same themes, though of course they supported fighting for Britain. It seems to me that the sermons studied show that the patriotic preachers used an inherited approach that assumed a close relationship between church, society, and the subject/citizen that all ought to be committed to righteousness and unalterably opposed to the forces of Antichrist (the Roman Catholic Church, in their view). They applied this inherited approach to the American Revolution, with Britain sometimes portrayed as being aligned with Antichrist. If you’ve read the book and I am missing something here, please set me straight!

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American saints and relics, revisited

Several years ago, I passed on a post from Peter Leithart about the American use of relics from the Revolutionary era.

I was reminded of it when thinking about this passage from James Byrd’s analysis of patriotic sermons during the American Revolution, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War:

Whitefield’s patriotic reputation did not rest completely on political preaching. His sermons certainly had political ramifications, but he rarely addressed politics directly. Typically, he preached on the spiritual “New Birth” of salvation. Still, Whitefield became a source of patriotic authority. In September of 1775, five months into the Revolutionary War and five years after Whitefield’s death, a group of Continental Army officers visited Whitefield’s tomb in Newburyport, Massachusetts. They were looking for inspiration for battle, but in an unusual way. They asked that Whitefield’s coffin be opened. When the sexton complied, the officers removed the famous evangelist’s collar and his wristbands and took the relics with them. The army officers may not have known much about Whitefield’s political preaching, or the relative lack thereof, but they knew Whitefield as an evangelist who appealed to the people and resisted traditional authority. (17)

A guide to American evangelicalism and fundamentalism

Understanding Fundamentalism and EvangelicalismUnderstanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism by George M. Marsden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture while I was in graduate school, and it was a pleasure to return to his work again. He gives a clear summary of the main trends in American evangelical and fundamentalist history from the 19th century to the present, showing both his understanding of the movements on their own terms and his willingness to critique them. His two chapters on the American evangelical and fundamentalist relationship with science are especially helpful.

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Roger Williams and the tumultuous 17th century

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of LibertyRoger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Barry writes an incredibly detailed and readable history of England and New England during the time of Roger Williams. The book is really well-crafted for a non-academic audience, explaining the major issues roiling the churches and states of 17th-century England and New England with appropriate (but not overdone) drama. He clearly admires Williams’ stance, but makes a substantial effort to get beyond the stereotypes of the Puritans and portray them in a three-dimensional way, which does not seem to be easy for modern writers.

Like many writers, he has some trouble portraying Calvinist theology in an accurate way. He does better than I usually see (in my limited reading), but he sometimes falls into the trap of being so focused on predestination that he doesn’t see how Calvinism fits into the larger Christian theological tradition. It’s understandable (after all, Calvinists themselves sometimes can treat predestination in isolation from other doctrines), but think that he could have done better in this area.

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The future of the right

Ross Douthat made some points in his latest column that have been rattling around less eloquently in my head.

Why Christians might still choose to support Trump over Clinton (though I will not vote for either):

Asking Christian conservatives to accept a Clinton presidency is asking them to cooperate not only with pro-abortion policy-making, but also their own legal-cultural isolation. If you can’t see why some people in that situation might persuade themselves that Trump would be the lesser evil, you need to work harder to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes.

On the Trumpian right:

America needs a religious right. Maybe not the religious right it has; certainly not the religious right of Carson and Falwell Jr. But the Trump era has revealed what you get when you leach the Christianity out of conservatism: A right-of-center politics that cares less about marriage and abortion, just as some liberals would wish, but one that’s ultimately farmore divisive than the evangelical politics of George W. Bush.

When religious conservatives were ascendant, the G.O.P. actually tried minority outreach, it sent billions to fight AIDS in Africa, it pursued criminal justice reform in the states. That ascendance crumbled because of the religious right’s own faults (which certain of Trump’s Christian supporters amply display), and because of trends toward secularization and individualism that no politics can master; it cannot and should not be restored.

But some kind of religious conservatism must be rebuilt, because without the pull of transcendence, the future of the right promises to be tribal, cruel, and very dark indeed.

How the Vatican views canon law

An interesting interpretation of Amoris Laetitia by John Allen at Crux:

For Americans, and perhaps Anglo-Saxons generally, law is a lowest common denominator of civic morality. It’s what we expect everyone to do all the time, and if a law is being widely disobeyed, for us that’s a crisis – we either want to repeal the law or launch a crackdown, but we can’t have people making exceptions on the fly.

For Mediterranean cultures, which still shape the thought-world of the Vatican to a significant degree, law is instead more akin to an ideal. It describes a moral aspiration, but realistically it’s understood that many people much of the time will fall short. (If you don’t believe it, come to Italy sometime and watch how the locals approach traffic laws!)…

The “money quote” on this score comes in one of Francis’ footnotes (number 336, to be exact), in which the pontiff says, “This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline.”

In effect, what he’s saying is that there may be cases in which a given divorced and remarried Catholic, after talking things out with a priest, could be justified in reaching the decision that they don’t carry the guilt that should exclude them from the sacraments, including Holy Communion….

In other words, what Pope Francis has done is let the rest of the world in on one of the best-kept secrets about the Catholic Church: Yes, the Church has laws, and it takes them very seriously. But even more than law it has flesh-and-blood people, and it takes their circumstances and struggles seriously too.

At one stage, Francis writes that the divorced and remarried can find themselves in situations “which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications, leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment.”

Hat tip: Albert Mohler, The Briefing