The Antecedents of American Fundamentalism 1606-1925

Jun 22 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

John Winthrop

We could say the seeds of American fundamentalism were planted in 1606, the year King James’ Charter for the Virginia Colony spoke of “propagating of Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God, and may in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those parts, to human Civility, and to a settled and quiet Government.”

This is the voice of a British King living in a land with state-sponsored religion. It is the voice of Old Europe, transposing itself onto the template of the New World, as yet mostly undiscovered and where Europeans are a tiny minority of the population.

Stepping forward just a generation, to 1628, we see the great migration of Puritans from England commence. One would have thought from these early beginnings that the colonies were destined to be Christian, and indeed, state-sponsored religion was the norm, as was persecution of religious minorities, including Catholics and Jews. It was this era that gave rise to the idea of the “City upon a hill”:

Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world, wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of god and all professours for Gods sake; wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are going… (John Winthrop, 1630).

In this early example of American exceptionalism, there was no room for idolators and heretics and the godless. Should they be tolerated, all would suffer. We can see that this belief is alive and well today. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis – all are signs of God’s wrath that this city has been tarnished.

But while we might trace the origins of fundamentalist Christianity in America to these humble origins, these proto-fundamentalists quickly lost influence to a more liberal brand of Christianity. The period of religious revival known as the Great Awakening, which extended in duration from about 1734 to 1750, had burned itself out by the time of the Revolution. The Revolution was not, as modern fundamentalists would have it, a religious revolution, but a political and it was guided by liberal ideals against the conservative status quo.

By 1776, as we know, the Declaration of Independence was written without any mention of a god except for the deistic “Nature’s God.”  In 1779, Thomas Jefferson wrote The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, ensuring tolerance for all forms of belief, though it was not passed by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia until 1786.

In 1785, shortly before the passage of Jefferson’s Virginia Act, James Madison penned his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments “in opposition to a bill, introduced into the General Assembly of Virginia, to levy a general assessment for the support of teachers of religions.”[1] More than two centuries later, we again find ourselves in need of such a bill.

And perhaps most significantly of all, in 1787, the Constitution was ratified completely god-, Old and New Testament-, Jesus- and Holy Spirit-free. Thomas Paine wrote one of the most famous – or infamous – polemics against Christianity with The Age of Reason (1794), a deistic manifesto which challenged the legitimacy of the Bible as well as the miraculous and political aspects of Christianity Jefferson and other deists had long opposed. It was a book so inflammatory that the British government, fearing the spread of “revolutionary ideas,” banned its publication, and Teddy Roosevelt, later American president, was to call him “that filthy little atheist.”

He was clear as to his beliefs:

“I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”

Paine was also quite clear in what he did not believe in:

“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My mind is my own church.”

In 1797 the Treat of Tripoli even asserted that the United States was not founded as a Christian nation and it was read aloud on the floor of the Senate, ratified and signed into law without so much as a whimper of protest. At the end of the 18th century, the idea of separation of church and state was alive and well.

When these men said our natural rights come from god, they were not talking about the god the likes of Sarah Pain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and others worship. Their god was a god without scripture, without miracles and stripped of the supernatural, and Jesus was just a good man stripped of his divinity.

In 1800, Jefferson was being attacked as an infidel and to evangelical minds, he was. When he constructed what has come to be known as the Jefferson Bible (1820 though not published in his lifetime), he cut and pasted Jesus’ teachings (“diamonds”), leaving out the miraculous (“dunghill”), excising such things as the virgin birth, the resurrection, and of course, raising Lazarus and walking on water and other miracles. What was left was a book of Jesus’ teachings, the Bible Jefferson thought Jesus would have wanted.

Christianity, and being a good Christian, he felt, had everything to do with Jesus’ teachings and nothing to do with the supernatural. Today’s fundamentalists seem to have reversed this, losing Jesus and his teachings entirely while invoking his name as a talisman.

There was a Second Great Awakening from about 1800 to 1840 and the abolition movement was nurtured by this upswing in religious fervor. The Civil Wars, as wars tend to do, brought many claims about God – God is on our side, etc – and by 1864 American coinage was unconstitutionally bearing the slogan, “In God We Trust.”

Skipping forward again, this time to the late nineteenth century, Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio argues that it is here we find the true “origins of Christian fundamentalism within American evangelical Protestantism and it comes, not surprisingly, “in reaction to modernist tendencies in Christianity.”[2]

Progressive Christianity continued to motivate early fundamentalists. Says Timothy L. Smith:

“Two unpublished studies of the ‘prayer meeting’ revival of 1857 and 1858 have documented Theodore Parker’s charge that businessmen promoted it with the aim of diverting the people’s attention from their moral duty to the slave. Similarly, William McLoughlin stresses the evidence of what he believes was the pressure of business interests upon evangelists Sam Jones and Billy Sunday to reject the ‘godless social service nonsense’ of Christian progressivism and to confine their social message to the questions of prohibition and American nationalism.”[3]

Smith suggests that “All of these support to some degree Karl Marx’s comment that the capitalist class used spiritual religion as an opiate to deaden the people’s outrage at injustice and exploitation.”

Of the decade 1895-1905, Smith writes: “In no other decade between the Civil War and the 1950’s was the public commitment of the American people to ‘Christian’ standards greater. Consider the attacks on the evils of monopoly, corrupt municipal government and slum housing; the concern for the welfare of the immigrant, the Indian, the Negro, and the indigent native-born…”[4]

These Christian standards are unrecognizable in fundamentalist of the 21st century, where concern for the Other has bottomed out, where the religious right weds itself and its cause to that of monopolies and corrupt government.

And imagine if you can the sites beheld by Americans in 1912: The “most liberal wing of the Republicans bolted their party to seek the re-election of Theodore Roosevelt (remember too what Teddy said about Tom Paine). Their convention went delirious singing “Onward Christian Soldiers’ and, to the tune of an old revival hymn, “Follow, follow, we will follow Roosevelt.”[5]

But it’s not until 1920 that the term “fundamentalist” is actually coined, by Curtis Lee Laws, a Baptist editor, “to rally supporters of the movement to preserve the fundamental truths of Christianity, such as the transcendent and inerrant authority of the Scriptures.”[6]

A watershed moment comes in 1925 with the Scopes Trial, The State of Tennessee v. Scopes. High school biology teacher John Scopes was accused of violating the state’s Butler Act that made it unlawful to teach evolution.

During coverage of Scopes trial, H.L. Mencken spoke of the “malignant imbecility” of Christian fundamentalists whom he described as “anthropoid rabble” and assessing – presciently as it turned out – the fundamentalist phenomenon as “a menace to American civilization.”[7]

Smith writes that “By 1925, the fragmentation of the progressive synthesis, pathetically symbolized at the Scopes trial, was complete.” He goes on to note, “Fundamentalist Protestants organized crusades against evolution and joined the Ku Klux Klan.”[8]

This is beginning to sound like the fundamentalism we are used to.


[1] Hensel, Jaye B., Ed., Church, State, and Politics Washington D.C. Final Report of the 1981 Chief Justice Earl Warren Conference on Adovcacy in the United States

[2] Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio, “Religious Outlook, Culture War Politics, and Antipathy Toward Christian Fundamentalists” The Public Opinion Quarterly 63 (Spring, 1999), 30.

[3] Timothy L. Smith, “Historic Waves of Religious Interest in America,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 332, Religion in American Society (Nov., 1960), pp.  9-19, citing McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism, 298-99, 397-99, and passim.

[4] Smith (1960), 15.

[5] Smith 1960:16.

[6] Bolce and Maio 1999:30.

[7] Bolce and Maio, 1999:31.

[8] Smith, 1960:17.

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