Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Understanding Fundmentalism and Evangelicalism
by George M. Marsden
Eerdmans, 206 pages, $12.95

Evangelicalism and fundamentalism continue to represent a vital and flourishing sector of American religion, one often at war with the American cultural elite and latterly much engaged in politics. For many of us, however, the evangelical and fundamentalist world, while it fascinates, is also remote from our lives—and perhaps from our sympathies as well. Thus George Marsden’s Understanding Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, a collection of his elegant essays on the subject, is particularly welcome.

In straightforward and accessible language, Marsden offers a solid introduction to the subject. He explores the histories of the two movements, he examines their politics (past and present), and he pays special attention to the interactions of Protestant evangelicalism with science. As the title promises, Marsden’s range is broad. Nevertheless, the book holds together most satisfactorily as a unit. Moreover, while the tradition of writing history well is somewhat ragged these days, the same cannot be said of Marsden. He writes well and he writes concisely.

Marsden begins with a detailed but lively discussion of what evangelicalism includes in American religion and how fundamentalism fits within the larger evangelical tradition. From there he proceeds to an account of the evangelical “Protestant Crisis” and the emergence of fundamentalism from 1865 to World War I, and provides vivid portraits of some of evangelicalism’s late-nineteenth-century stars, such as Henry Ward Beecher, Dwight Moody, and Phillips Brooks. The significant role played in this period by both women and black evangelical preachers is given its due. And he describes the tremendous energies that were given to revivals and missions and the tension between such activities and the movement’s first tentative steps toward social involvement.

Marsden is much taken up with the issue of how evangelicalism and fundamentalism met the challenge of the new intellectual movements of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century—especially their attempts to cope with scientific/historical approaches to Scripture and the appearance of evolution as popular dogma in American intellectual life. Here one is given a very vivid sense of certain innovative impulses within conservative Protestantism: for example, the appearance in the decades before World War I of the Holiness movement, focused on the transformation of the human heart by the Spirit, and Pentecostalism, with its accent on such manifestations of the Spirit as healing and speaking in tongues.

This phase of Marsden’s story ends with the self-conscious rise of fundamentalism after World War I. He picks it up again at about 1930 and brings it to the present, explaining how modern evangelicalism evolved in recent decades into a major force in our national life. In Marsden’s view, evangelicalism emerges as less separatist than fundamentalism and a much larger expression of conservative Protestantism. And about this latter, he makes very clear how tremendously diverse it has become by today: Billy Graham, he argues, in fact may be its popular unifying symbol, but there is surprisingly little unity by any test. At the same time, Marsden encourages us to wonder if modern evangelicalism will long maintain what boundaries it still has from the pressures of modernity that it supposedly challenges. He is not sure that conservative Protestants will emerge with their own world intact, much less conquer any others.

Later in the book, Marsden moves from history to politics. He argues what is now the conventional wisdom, that evangelicalism has a long tradition of political involvement in the United States: the 1980s were nothing new. Moreover, now as in the past, there are many political strands within evangelicalism and fundamentalism. In Marsden’s view, diversity is the rubric under which one can best understand the contemporary Religious Right, itself only one aspect, after all, of an even more diverse conservative Protestantism. 

In approaching the fundamentalists in particular, Marsden delights in the paradoxes he has found, the swings between anti-intellectualism and determined rationalism, individualism and communalism, militancy and pragmatism. Marsden’s picture of these contradictions is consistently convincing, though at times one begins to wonder if there really is any such thing as fundamentalism.

Marsden is at his very best dealing with what appears to intrigue him most, that is, the history of evangelical interactions with science. He sees the development of “Creation Science,” for example, as an expression of an evangelicalism determined to speak in scientific terms. And he notes that there is a long tradition in the United States of evangelical affinity for a kind of empirical approach to reality. Over and over again, he would caution us against easy generalizations about the complicated world of evangelicals and fundamentalists.

Marsden’s historical account is primarily focused on ideas, that is, doctrines and lines of doctrine, their origins, development, conflicts, and—sometimes—resolution. It is, of course, possible to tell this tale more sociologically or more in terms of the hearts and minds of ordinary believers, or even focused more strictly on realms of the spirit. Especially in the scholarly world, however, where it sometimes seems that conservative Protestantism is to be taken seriously in every way except intellectually, Marsden’s focus is a valuable restorative.

In his final pages, this careful, reflective historian of religion rather unexpectedly delivers something of a sermon. He insists that intellectual disputes matter, that arguments in the academy can affect Christianity and much else, and that struggling over them is important for the Christian. He calls for Christians to craft an intellectual position as independent as possible from the dominant intellectual fads in the university and in intellectual life in general. He castigates postmodernism, its inability to get beyond its dogma of individual feeling and opinion, and its negation of any broader truths—an understanding profoundly incompatible with Christian commitment. And Marsden comments pointedly on the all but total collapse of Christianity in once-Protestant universities that yielded to the winds of fashion in intellectual culture. Evangelicalism could have no more sympathetic, skilled, and persuasive a chronicler.

R. Booth Fowler is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and author of Unconventional Partners: Religion and Liberal Culture in the United States.