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

We recently passed the 100-year anniversary of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Delivered on May 21, 1922, the sermon was a call to arms for progressives among northern Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. The fundamentalist movement had taken off with the publication of the twelve-volume The Fundamentals between 1910 and 1915. Fosdick saw the skirmishes beginning between fundamentalists and modernists and decided it was time to rouse the troops. Castigating fundamentalists for their illiberalism, Fosdick pleaded for “an intellectually hospitable, tolerant, and liberty-loving church.” He wanted a church that fused together modern science with biblical witness in the service of social problems. If the fundamentalists won, then Christians would be driven from Baptist and Presbyterian churches in the name of a literalist approach to Scripture that only tolerated one view on the Second Coming and the virgin birth.

The ensuing fundamentalist-modernist debate tore through northern Protestantism; the modernists ended up dominating northern institutions while the fundamentalists created new ones. 

American Protestantism eventually came to be defined by this debate. Generally, mainline Protestantism became a large tent for the modernists and evangelicalism a large tent for the fundamentalists. Of course, the details are much more complex. One cannot reduce evangelicalism to fundamentalism or mainline Protestantism to modernism. Nevertheless, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy set the tone for American religion through much of the twentieth century.

Or did it? Over the past two months, no less than a dozen essays have appeared reflecting on Fosdick’s question and attempting to answer it. Historians such as Daniel K. Williams, Diana Butler Bass, and Thomas S. Kidd have all written on this, with Bass and Kidd agreeing that the fundamentalists won. What unites all of these pieces is a consensus that the fundamentalist-modernist controversy shaped American religious life. In the words of Bass, the controversy “is a long shadow hanging over the last century and . . . we experience its continued influence every day in our churches and in our politics.”

What if this consensus is wrong? What if this is the wrong historical paradigm with which to view American religion in the twentieth century? This paradigm neglects the rise of the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement in the decade between 1900 and 1910, which brought radical changes to American religion. The history of American religion looks different when we consider the rise of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity rather than seeing American Protestantism in the twentieth century as primarily concerned with a debate for cultural and political power.

A better history might acknowledge the way in which Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity captured the impulses of first-wave feminism and translated those impulses into a holiness rhetoric that gave rise to women leaders such as Bishop Ida B. Robinson, Mother Rosa Horn, Florence Crawford, and Aimee Semple McPherson. Long before most Protestant denominations began to debate the ordination of women, Pentecostals had women as pastors, bishops, and founders of new denominations. 

Second, this new history would explore the way early black Pentecostalism contributed to the development of blues, jazz, and gospel. The efforts of musicians like the blues guitarist Blind Willie Johnson; the pianist Arizona Dranes who played barrelhouse; and the singer Rosetta Tharpe would be examined to determine how they contributed to these new musical forms. Zora Neale Hurston labeled this musical expression as “protest Protestantism,” leading to a rebirth of song-making. Both James Baldwin (Go Tell it On the Mountain) and Langston Hughes (Tambourines to Glory) sought to capture it in literary form. 

A better paradigm would also examine how the early history of rock was influenced by Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity. Many artists like Elvis Presley and Marvin Gaye came out of Pentecostal churches, translating the fast-driving music into a new form. The rock concert and the Pentecostal worship service were both highly participatory affairs with singing, shouting, and dancing.  

Third, it would examine the efforts among some Pentecostals, such as William J. Seymour and Charles H. Mason, to change the social fabric of American life by having meetings with men and women preachers and having different ethnic groups intermingle in the congregation, around the front at the altar, and on the platform. These early efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful at overcoming Jim Crow laws and culture as other Pentecostals capitulated. Nevertheless, they set the tone for healing evangelists such as Oral Roberts and A. A. Allen, who sought to recover and implement this interracial vision in the ’50s. 

They also set the tone for the shockwave that hit black Pentecostalism when Emmett Till was brutally murdered. His mother, Mamie Till-Bradley, was part of Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, where Emmett’s body was brought for the world to see. In 1963, Bishop A. A. Childs opened up Faith Temple Church of God in Christ for the funeral of Malcolm X when no other Harlem congregations would do so. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech occurred at Mason Temple in Memphis. 

Finally, a better history would need to reframe the major events of American Christianity in the twentieth century, beginning with the rise of the Pentecostals and exploring its rapid growth. Evangelicals wanted to bring white Pentecostalism underneath the umbrella of the National Association of Evangelicals just before the onset of World War II. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, saw the Pentecostals as little better than heretics, and tried to work out backroom deals to get them removed from the newly formed NAE.

This new historiography would then examine the emergence of the divine healing movement in the ’50s. Oral Roberts, not Billy Graham, would be the leading evangelist. It would turn to the emergence of the charismatic movement in the ’60s and ’70s as Catholics and mainline Protestants started to experience Pentecostal spirituality. This movement occurred simultaneously with the turn in immigration and influx of Hispanics in the ’70s and ’80s. Since Pentecostalism had taken off in Central and South America, many of these immigrants were either Pentecostal-Charismatic or Catholic. This explains why most Hispanics in the U.S. belong to one of these two forms of Christianity.

What happens if we re-write the history of Protestantism in the twentieth century in terms of the rise of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity rather than the debate between fundamentalists and modernists? The story of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity is not simply a Protestant story. It’s a story about American religion rooted in a spirituality rather than an institution. It’s a story about a spirituality that appeals to both Catholics and Protestants. It’s a story about American musical forms and ongoing efforts at racial integration at the populist level. It’s a story of the demise of white European Christianity (whether fundamentalist or mainline) and the rise of a new multi-ethnic Christianity that celebrates folk culture.   

Dale M. Coulter is professor of historical theology at Pentecostal Theological Seminary. 

Help First Things expand our community of co-laborers by supporting our 2022 Spring Campaign with a tax-deductible gift today.

If you do not already subscribe to First Things, visit to explore our subscription options.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles