Things I’ve learned from Fundamentalism and American Culture

book cover

George Marsden Fundamentalism and American Culture New ed. (Oxford: OUP, 2006).

This book’s been a page turner for me, partly because of my morbid fascination with fundamentalism and partly because it is well researched and smoothly written.

It’s a historical study of the origins of fundamentalism in late 19th and early 20th century USA. I’ll share some things which have stood out for me so far:

  • The significance of revivalism as the mindset out of which fundamentalism emerged. Yet Marsden paints revivalists favourably, as a group with a positive agenda for individual piety and lacking the strong emnity toward the academy, liberalism and modernism which was to escalate in the 1920s.
  • The significance of ‘Scottish Common Sense Realism’ as the philosophical mindset of fundamentalism. I encountered this a lot growing up – the idea that the Bible (and the world) made ‘plain sense’ to any common person with the willingness to read it correctly. It was easy to hold this kind of approach in the early 19th century when there was what Marsden calls a ‘broad evangelical consensus’; everyone a believer knew probably did read the Bible and the world in the same way. But the increasing splintering of Protestant Christianity and non-Protestant immigrants made the consensus harder to hold up. You could walk into many churches in Perth today and find this mindset, though. No need for an understanding of culture, genre and context – just believe what it says.
  • The phrase ‘let go and let God’, which was surely on my fridge as a child at some stage, has been kicking around for over 100 years. One of the revivalists Marsden discusses may have coined it.
  • In the USA during WWI, within Christian circles the loudest opposition to the war came from premillennialists; while the loudest support came from liberal postmillennialists who felt that victory could move the world one step closer to lasting peace. Those premillennialists may not have embraced the Left Behind series.
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4 thoughts on “Things I’ve learned from Fundamentalism and American Culture

  1. Much appreciated Nathan. I confess to using Fundamentalism as the ‘f’ word all too often. Fundamentalism is a prison, but I think it is a jail with an unexpected back door. ‘Let go and let God’ is as much mysticism as revivalism. I’m so grateful that one of my early Christian influences was A.W.Tozer. I still like reading him. A holy man with a thirst for God. He also had an eclectic reading list. ‘Dr Tozer’s Recommended Books’ is as good a collection of mystical writers as I’ve seen in one place. Here’s the list (http://www.jadewriting.com/Downloads/TozerRecommendedBooks.pdf). It was tacked on as an appendix at the back of David Fant’s biography.

  2. Thanks Phil. More complicated origins than the worst examples suggest. I was fascinated to read Yoder’s discussion of William Jennings Bryan’s pacificism in Christian Attitudes.

  3. Marsden helps locate fundamentalism in its historical and theological context. It is an American contextualisation of Christianity and that I think is really important to understand.

    Too much use of the term fundamentalism is in “essentialist” terms as though it was a form of thinking that had been with us from the beginning of Christianity – both critics and adherents tend to make this assumption.

  4. Hi Nathan,

    I would concur with you that ‘The Scottish Common Sense Realism’ is alive in many churches in Perth today. It is very disappointing to be told to take the ‘bible as it is’. These people assume that the mindset of their churches is the same as those in the first century and we do not have to wrestle with historico-ctitical techniques to gain a better undertanding of the text in its original context.

    I blame many of the pastors for this for hiding their biblical knowledge from the people. Then again, I do not fully blame them because some of them would lose their job if they did so, because they would be unfairly labelled ‘liberal’. I have a friend in Victoria who teaches his congregation ‘historico-critical’ techniques. He’s an evangelical and feels free to do this because he is in the Uniting Church rather than in the Churches of Christ where he was previously.

    Its an interesting point that Marsden makes about some of the pre-millennialists and the first world war. I am led to believe that many early Assembly of God folk were pacifists. They’re such a long way from that stance now, in terms of pacifism.

    Thanks for your review of this interesting book.

    Shalom,
    John Arthur

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