Interpreting the History of American Evangelicalism: 2 Lenses (Part 2: Revolutionary Religion and Creationism)

In this brief series of posts I would like to examine the history of American Christianity through two lenses: 1-the lens of democratization and 2-the lens of doctrinal disputes. In today’s post, which is the second post in this series we will take a look at two movements in American Evangelicalism which can be interpreted in light of the pattern of “democratization.”

(Note: I am not using the term fundamentalist in a derogatory way. The term fundamentalist is a technical term referring to those who were opposed to liberalism and signed on to the “Fundamentals of the Faith.” Nor do I advocate for a particular understanding of the Genesis narrative.)

The first movement occurs during the initial rise of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism prior to the Revolutionary war displayed many of the populist patterns described by Hatch. Early evangelicalism had plenty of charismatic populist leaders, including the Wesley brothers, George Whitefield, and William Seward. Also, the church hierarchies in the colonies were quite weak, ordinary lay people began to distrust and criticize their pastors and even organized movements to have some of them removed from their positions. Thus the traditional hierarchy of clergy over the laity began to slowly dissolve. Finally there was also an emphasis on the personal religious experience of conversion, or being born again. Often these experiences occurred outside of the established church, in revival meetings or in home groups similar to that of the Methodists. However, even for early evangelicalism we see a trajectory towards becoming more middle class and staid. Certain groups became the establishment: Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. But more importantly there were groups that moved from being against the establishment towards working alongside the establishment: Methodists and Baptists. These two groups were greatly influenced by Whitefield’s methods of doing ministry, however they eventually became middle class. As religion prior to the Revolution became more middle class, the shape of evangelicalism began to change. Churchgoers began to value education from elite institutions such as Harvard and Yale. Christians began to form well-organized voluntary societies with leaders who were well respected by the society. Finally they began to stress the notion that it was one’s duty as a Christian to move up in society, both as an individual in the marketplace and as a religious institution among a multitude of churches. Evangelicals had accepted the principles of business that were revolutionizing the burgeoning industrial world.

The major difference between pre-revolutionary war evangelicalism’s movement towards the middle class and pre-civil war evangelicalism’s movement towards the middle class is that the key leaders within early evangelicalism were not trying to be upwardly mobile, while key leaders within later evangelicalism like Charles Finney and Nathan Bang were very conscious of their move towards respectability.

Another movement in which we see a shift from being populist towards becoming more middle class and staid is within the fundamentalist creationism movement. There are various reasons why fundamentalists disagreed with evolutionary theory, however there are two which are especially relevant to understanding how it was a populist movement. The first is that for most fundamentalists, it was impossible to reconcile evolution with a literal interpretation of Genesis. Fundamentalists had a democratic hermeneutic, they believed that the Bible was best interpreted by the naïve readings that common people would give it. Another reason why fundamentalists distrusted evolution is that it strained common sense. Among fundamentalists, Scottish commonsense realism was one of the most influential philosophies. Thus that which makes most sense to the common man was most likely to be true. For fundamentalists it did not make sense to say that the complex universe in which we live in arose spontaneously with out God’s help.

The fundamentalist creationism movement had populist tendencies, especially when it came to its epistemology, but also when it came to organizing movements against those who advocated for evolution. As creationists and evolutionists clashed in the public square, in cases like the Scopes Trial, it became clear that fundamentalists were losing their position in society. Thus they interpreted these battles as an assault upon Christianity. They tried to win this battle, but eventually they failed. As a result fundamentalists were exiled from academia. But fundamentalists would not accept this as a complete loss. If they would lose their position and prominence in mainstream culture, they would form a new one. They would form new schools and have different ways of doing science. Thus fundamentalist began to open numerous bible colleges. Also, creationists would advocate for different ways of doing science, ways that were founded upon Baconian principles and Scottish commonsense realism.

The case of the fundamentalist battle over creation is another instance in which a populist movement shifts towards becoming the establishment. However this case is a bit different from the others. Fundamentalists wanted to become the establishment, however they were eventually pushed out from prominence and were even pushed out from mainstream culture. Thus it was impossible for them to become the middle class establishment. However that desire to for prominence and respect played out in different ways. They would create their own culture with their own educational institutions and scientific principles. In essence they took what mainstream culture saw as respectable and imitated it. To sum things up we might say that those in the fundamentalist creation science movement desired to become the establishment but couldn’t so they settled for imitating the establishment.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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