Presbyterians and Fundamentalism -- By: Darryl G. Hart

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 55:2 (Fall 1993)
Article: Presbyterians and Fundamentalism
Author: Darryl G. Hart


Presbyterians and Fundamentalism*

Darryl G. Hart

* Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists and Moderates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. 333. $34).

For Presbyterian churches that trace either their organizational origins or intellectual roots to the Protestant struggles of the 1920s and 1930s, fundamentalism is something of a problem if not an embarrassment. Presbyterianism has traditionally cultivated learned piety, systematic reflection, simple and dignified worship, cultural engagement, and strict church polity. After World War I mainstream fundamentalism represented almost the opposite of these qualities. Where Presbyterians were regarded as sober, fundamentalists were experiential; where Presbyterians valued scholarly accomplishment, fundamentalists put a premium on pragmatic know-how; and where Presbyterians made decency and order the criteria for church life, fundamentalists built parachurch empires that thrived on America’s religious free market. Yet, for all these differences, fundamentalists and Presbyterians joined hands to combat theological modernism in the churches and the culture.

Until the last two decades, historians and journalists were oblivious to the differences between conservative Presbyterianism and popular fundamentalism. For the most part, any Protestant opposition to theological liberalism was tarred with the broad brush of fundamentalist anti-modernism with a second coating of populist anti-intellectualism added for good measure. H. L. Mencken, for instance, popularized the idea that fundamentalism was “a holy war upon every decency that civilized men cherish.” Fundamentalists, he also wrote, “constituted, perhaps, the most ignorant class of teachers ever set up to lead a civilized people…even more ignorant than the county superintendents of schools.” Mencken’s remarks, though amusing, were not altogether different from H. Richard Niebuhr’s seemingly dispassionate analysis for the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, published in 1937. Fundamentalism, Niebuhr explained, was closely related to the conflict between rural and urban cultures in America and in its more aggressive forms fundamentalism was most prevalent in isolated communities where “the traditions of pioneer society had been most effectively preserved” and were “least subject to the

influence of modern science and industrial civilization.” The image of fundamentalism as rural anti-intellectualism persisted in many texts on American history published during the 1940s and 1950s and culminated with Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which cited reviva...

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