The Wisdom of Doubt, Part VIII

It’s time to look at evangelicalism and fundamentalism, and to do that we need to put these religious movements into the context of the rest of Christianity. Those of you who are religious and/or history nerds may know most of this. However, after reading and listening to criticism of religion from the non-religious, I’ve realized many non-religious people assume that all religion is some kind of fundamentalism, and the only difference between religious extremists and religious moderates is that the moderates are more wishy-washy about it.

The truth is that in the 18th and 19th centuries a strong current of liberalism and modern thinking flowed through religion in America. Beginning with Deism — a religious philosophy embraced by a number of the Founding Fathers — and continuing through Transcendentalism and Liberal Christianity, prominent philosophers and theologians developed a way to follow a spiritual path that rejected rigid dogmas and harmonized with science and rational thought. This diverse religious movement enjoyed considerable popularity and influence until after World War I, when it was swamped by a newer movement, an anti-liberal backlash that came to be called “fundamentalism.”

To explain what happened, here’s a quickie, super-streamlined romp through Western Civ 102:

For long centuries a European Christian related to God through the Catholic Church. Then in 1517, Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a church, and the Reformation began. Soon Catholicism had competition.

During this same period the Church was challenged from another side by scientific geniuses like Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo (1564-1642). These guys ushered in the scientific revolution , which changed the way people understood the world they lived in. Most important to our discussion is that knowledge came to be based on empiricism. Scientists stopped attributing causes and effects to angels and demons and instead spoke of natural, physical laws that could be observed and measured.

The Age of Enlightenment paralleled the scientific revolution. The “intellectual upheaval overturned the accepted belief that mysticism and revelation are the primary sources of knowledge and wisdom” says Wikipedia. Through the 18th century great thinkers applied reason to all aspects of human life and civilization, challenging centuries-old assumptions. The ideal of “human rights” as natural entitlements of all human beings took hold. Governments were also challenged, leading to some little political tweaks like the American and French revolutions.

The First Great Awakening swept through the American colonies in the middle of the Enlightenment. Historians tie the Awakening and the origins of evangelicalism in America to George Whitefield, an Anglican itinerant preacher who toured the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. Whitefield was a charismatic Anglican priest whose ministry was taken away after his sermons grew increasingly un-Anglican. So he traveled, and spoke in churchyards and fields, and was wildly popular with the masses.

Whitefield did not propose any radical new doctrine. Instead, he talked about his own conversion experience and stressed reform of the heart and personal salvation. One might say this was the logical conclusion of the Reformation; a Christian could now relate to God directly instead of through the Church. Sacraments and rituals — once thought to be essential to receiving grace — lost much of their importance in the new religious movement. Instead of priests to intercede with God on their behalf, many American Christians turned to preachers to give them spiritual resolve and guidance. But they had to walk that lonesome valley by themselves.

There’s more about the First Great Awakening at

The First Great Awakening was a religious revitalization movement that swept the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s, leaving a permanent impact on American religion. It resulted from powerful preaching that aimed to convince listeners of their personal guilt and of their need of salvation through decisive action that included public repentance. The Great Awakening led people to “experience God in their own way” and that they were responsible for their own actions. Pulling away from ritual and ceremony, the Great Awakening made religion intensely personal to the average person by creating a deep sense of spiritual guilt and redemption, along with introspection and a commitment to a new standard of personal morality. … It brought Christianity to the slaves and was an apocalyptic event in New England that challenged established authority. It incited rancor and division between the old traditionalists who insisted on ritual and doctrine, and the new revivalists.

The evangelical movement in America grew out of the First Great Awakening. On the whole, evangelicals supported the American Revolution and also the disestablishment of churches. You might remember the story of the Danbury Baptists who wrote to President Thomas Jefferson in 1801, complaining about the establishment of Congregationalism as the official state religion of Connecticut. Jefferson famously wrote back in 1802:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

Through the early 19th century evangelicalism became common among more rural and less educated people, while the educated and urban tended to remain loyal to older denominations more based on doctrine than enthusiasm. Certainly there were intelligent and educated evangelicals and stupid, ignorant Congregationalists, but a loose rural-urban, populist-elite dichotomy did emerge.

The 19th century also witnessed the growth of a liberal Christian theology. Enlightenment movements such as Deism and German rationalism took a humanistic and anti-supernatural approach to religion. Then came Unitarians and William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), followed by the Transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Transcendentalists embraced the evangelical zeal for individualism. As Emerson wrote,

We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds…. A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.

Also like the evangelicals, Transcendentalists were not tied to ritual and rigid doctrine. Unlike the evangelicals, the Transcendentalists felt free to push beyond Christianity to find spiritual truth. They encouraged higher biblical criticism, which questioned the origins and authorship of the Bible. They understood that large parts of the Bible were allegorical, not historical. Some even studied translations of Hindu and Buddhist sutras. The name “transcendental” came from their desire to transcend the limitations of concepts and dogmas to reach an intuitive, perceptual understanding of religion that would not conflict with science and reason.

Now I want to go back to the last Wisdom of Doubt post and repeat a quote from Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Vintage Books, 1962).

As evangelicals made increasingly impressive gains from 1795 to 1835, and as Deism lapsed into relative quiescence, the battle between pietism and rationalism fell into the background. There was much more concern among evangelicals with rescuing the vast American interior from the twin evils of Romanism and religious apathy than there was with dispelling the rather faint afterglow of the Enlightenment.

After the Civil War, all this changed and rationalism once more took an important place among the foes of the evangelical mind. The coming of Darwinism, with its widespread and pervasive influence upon every area of thinking, put orthodox Christianity on the defensive, and the impact of Darwinism was heightened by modern scholarly Biblical criticism among the learned ministry and among educated laymen. Finally, toward the end of the century, the problems of industrialism and the urban churches gave rise to a widespread movement for a social gospel, another modernist tendency. Ministers and laymen alike now had to choose between fundamentalism and modernism; between conservative Christianity and the social gospel. [pp. 120-121]

The last post discussed the Social Gospel. Basically, toward the end of the 19th century modernist Christians took up progressive causes, working to help the poor and fight injustice. This paralleled the Progressive Era in U.S. politics and was an outgrowth of the Transcendental movement.

Now we’re in the latter part of the 19th century, and it’s time to return to the evangelicals. In the 150 or so years since George Whitefield came to America to light the candle of evangelical zeal, evangelicals had gone from being the cutting edge of spiritual revolution to the keepers and defenders of Dat Ol’ Time Religion. The Darwinists and the Bible-critizing scholars and the snotty elitist incomprehensible Transcendentalists and the Social Gospel do-gooders set off alarm bells among the generally more rural and less well-educated evangelicals. And from the more conservative ranks of the evangelicals, fundamentalism was born.

In 1910 the Presbyterians drew up a list of five points of faith that they said distinguished true believers from the wannabees. The original five points were: (1) the inerrancy of Scripture, (2) the virgin birth of Jesus, (3) the substantionary atonement, (4) the bodily ressurrection of Jesus, and (5) the authenticity of miracles. In time, point #5 would be replaced by (5) Christ’s Second Coming. From 1910 to 1915 evangelicals published a series of books based on these five points called The Fundamentals. The term fundamentalist was coined about 1920.

As someone with more of an old-church background it’s interesting to me that these “fundamentals” seem disconnected from the Nicene Creed, which used to be the “fundamentals.” I admit I’m not entirely certain what “substantionary atonement” means. It may refer to a doctrine that Christ is substantially present in the Eucharist, but I’m not going to swear to that. I have an essay by Gary Wills in hand that says it just means “Jesus died for our sins.” If anyone can enlighten me on this point, I’d be grateful.

In any event, I doubt very many of today’s “fundamentalists” know what “substantionary atonement” means, either, or can even recite the five points. Today’s Christian fundamentalists have created a fanciful alternative history for themselves, which says that they are the heirs of Christ’s true followers, who were driven underground by the Catholic Church in the 4th century. Twelves centuries later, during the Reformation, they resurfaced. After being knocked around a bit they finally established an enclave of True Faith in America. Their mission now is to convert everyone else on the planet to whatever it is they believe — currently a weird stew of apocalyptic eschatology and American exceptionalism, sometimes with free market dogmatism tossed in.

One of the ironies of fundamentalism is that while it is a backlash against modernity, it is also a creature of modernity. The insistence that the Bible must be read as literal truth comes from the post-Enlightenment, rational understanding that truth is factual. Fundies figure if the Bible is myth and allegory it is not true, and if it is not true it loses its authority as the arbiter of truth. This is, academic theologians say, a peculiarly “modern” way to understand the Bible.

If you cruise around the web you can find no end of definitions of fundamentalism. and as Grahame Thompson points out in this essay, there are a lot of “fundamentalisms,” secular and religious, in the world today. I’d define fundamentalism as “zealous adherence to any rigid, inflexible doctrine.” There’s general agreement among scholars that fundamentalism in all its forms is a backlash to modernity. Religious fundamentalism is not so much religion as it is a social pathology that expresses itself as religion.

Here’s a dialogue with Karen Armstrong, Susannah Heschel, Jim Wallis, and Feisal Abdul Rauf called “Fundamentalism and the Modern World.” Karen Armstrong says,

Typically, fundamentalists have proceeded on a fairly common program. Very often they begin by retreating from mainstream society and creating, as it were, enclaves of pure faith where they try to keep the godless world at bay and where they try to live a pure religious life. Examples would include the ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in New York City or [Christians at] Bob Jones University or Osama bin Laden’s camps.

In these enclaves, fundamentalist communities often plan, as it were, a counteroffensive, where they seek to convert the mainstream society back to a more godly way of life. Some of them may resort to violence. Why? Because every fundamentalist movement that I’ve studied–in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–is rooted in a profound fear. They are convinced, even here in the United States, that modern liberal secular society wants to wipe out religion in some way or is destructive to faith.

In the next post I want to take a closer look at fundamentalism in America, from the post-World War I period to the present. I also want to explain why scriptural literalism is a bugaboo of fundies and not a requirement for Christians or members of any other religion.

11 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Doubt, Part VIII

  1. understanding is that substantionary atonement means that we’re such despicable and vile creatures that God can’t even look upon us, or hear our appeals to approach God because he is a pure God and cannot look upon sin.. We have to get washed in the blood of Jesus so that he( Jesus) can intercede to God the father on our behalf for the forgiveness of our sins. In short, Jesus has to dwell in us before the big guy will even deal with our lowly asses.

  2. Thank you for the effort you put in to this essay.

    I have a younger brother who has become quite a “Christian,” as he approaches 40, oddly so for knowing ONLY six of the Ten Commandments when asked by me, nor any of the beliefs I learned about from which the Nicene Creed was founded over ten years of catechism classes and Catholic school.

    When I asked him what makes someone a “Christian” he said one had to believe in the Bible.

    I nearly vomited.

    Since then I have cursed myself for poking his fontanel with a pencil as a baby.

    As Dr Leon Bronowski said in his episode on “The Ascent of Man,” it all boils down to Knowledge versus Certainty.

    And yes, I have begun to have long, very long discussions with my brother about the history of Christianity, because he knows so little about it.

    Maybe that’s the strength of Fundamentalist religion everywhere, even the ignorant can join.

    My favorite was when he admonished me for saying “God damn” as a blasphemy against the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain and he had no idea that it was actually a proscription for breaking an oath one swears to God he would uphold.

    Trained as a Catholic I mentioned that for Catholics the commandment was defined as the second of ten, where as in his Christianity it was referred to it as the third commandment. Pushing on to the point I asked him, “who is correct?”

    These folks are making up their own Christianity to suit their purpose and worse, they have no historical basis for it.

  3. Fascinating. Don’t forget that the Quakers, the most populous religious group in the British American colonies until about 1750, also had a history of dispensing with clergy and approaching God directly.

  4. While I’ve never heard the term “substationary atonement”, it does sound very much like the notion of the Redemption, that Jesus had to die on the cross to allow the forgiveness of sins, that it is only through this that atonement can come. Part of this is the idea that people can’t be saved by their actions, because without the sacrifice, there is still no atonement.

  5. Another point that is interesting, regarding faith and doubt… the concept of faith has undergone a good bit of shaking up. It comes from the notion of, e.g., “faithful service”. In that sense, it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with one’s state of mind, but instead with one’s actions. One is faithful to the law if one acts in accordance with the law, regardless of how stupid you think the law is.

    I keep thinking that, somewhere in there, there should be a way to point to the difference between being faithful to an ideal, and stubbornly believing that one’s own vision has perfectly captured that ideal. Even without doubts about the ideal itself, one can have doubts about one’s own understanding of it.

  6. I keep thinking that, somewhere in there, there should be a way to point to the difference between being faithful to an ideal, and stubbornly believing that one’s own vision has perfectly captured that ideal. Even without doubts about the ideal itself, one can have doubts about one’s own understanding of it.

    That’s an excellent point, and is sorta where I went in the first Wisdom of Doubt post, but I need to get back to it. This series is turning into my Unified Theory of Spirituality. 🙂

  7. I have often heard the phrase “substitutionary atonement” but never “substantionary atonement”. FWIW, it’s not in either.

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