Sunday, April 12, 2009

Shall the Fundamentalists Win?

Stained glass window depicting the empty tomb the Church of Angels in L.A. - Inscription says - "He is not here, he is risen!"
Copyright (c) 2006 Wendee Holtcamp


I just stumbled on this 1922 sermon, later published as a booklet, written by Presbyterian Minister Harry Emerson Fosdick, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?: Defending Liberal Protestantism in the 1920s," while researching my book (on making peace between evolution and Christianity, which by the way is due very soon - agghhhh!!!) All I have to say is wow, wow, wow!! What a powerful and profound message, and also very interesting given that this took place nearly a century ago. It outlines some of the same controversies of fundamentalism vs progressive/liberal thought, and science versus religion.

Fosdick was investigated and later resigned from the Presbyterian Church after publishing this, but soon became a minister at a Baptist church, and then founded Manhattan's Riverside church. This was just three years before the Scopes Monkey Trial, and one of the Presbyterians promoting the opposing view of fundamentalism was the attorney in that trial – William Jennings Bryan.

Here are some quotes from the sermon that resonated with me:


"Science treats a young man’s mind as though it were really important. A scientist says to a young man, “Here is the universe challenging our investigation. Here are the truths which we have seen, so far. Come, study with us! See what we already have seen and then look further to see more, for science is an intellectual adventure for the truth.” Can you imagine any man who is worthwhile turning from that call to the church if the church seems to him to say, “Come, and we will feed you opinions from a spoon. No thinking is allowed here except such as brings you to certain specified, predetermined conclusions. These prescribed opinions we will give you in advance of your thinking; now think, but only so as to reach these results."

"...the Fundamentalists are giving us one of the worst exhibitions of bitter intolerance that the churches of this country have ever seen."

"...there is one thing I am sure of: courtesy and kindliness and tolerance and humility and fairness are right. Opinions may be mistaken; love never is."

"...there are multitudes of reverent Christians who have been unable to keep this new knowledge in one compartment of their minds and the Christian faith in another. They have been sure that all truth comes from the one God and is His revelation"

"...for the sake of intellectual and spiritual integrity, that they might really love the Lord their God, not only with all their heart and soul and strength but with all their mind, they have been trying to see this new knowledge in terms of the Christian faith and to see the Christian faith in terms of this new knowledge."

This was written just 3 years before the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial and during a time at which there existed a huge controversy between "modernists" and "fundamentalists" within the Presbyterian Church, which made up around 25% of Christians at that time. The split affected many other denominations as well, and led to the decline of Presbyterianism in the U.S. I was actually researching the history of the term fundamentalist, which is when I learned about this whole history - fascinating!! Fundamentalism arose at the Niagara Bible Conferences which were held annually from 1876-1897 where a fourteen-point creed was developed, and later distilled at the 1910 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to 5 fundamentals of the Christian faith:


  • Inerrancy of the Scriptures
  • The virgin birth and the deity of Jesus (Isaiah 7:14)
  • The doctrine of substitutionary atonement by God's grace and through human faith (Hebrews 9)
  • The bodily resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28)
  • The authenticity of Christ's miracles (or, alternatively, his pre-millennial second coming)

I actually hold to a fairly conservative ("fundamental") belief in all of these things other than the pre-millennial second coming (I believe that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod which I attend does not hold that belief either and they're a fairly conservative church). I don't necessarily agree with inerrancy of Scripture. Well, that all depends on how you define it, as there's a whole history around the use of that term, and it didn't even arise until this conference in 1910!!! Yet so many churches use that as "fundamental" to faith. I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and is useful for teaching... and so much more. Its history in coming together is very interesting. I think that some things will always remain holy mysteries this side of heaven. It's also pretty ironic that the Presbyterian Church today is definitely not fundamentalist!

Regardless, the fact that the controversy between science and religion, and conservative/fundamental versus progressive/liberal thought has occurred for so long is just fascinating....Now besides merely defining the fundamentals of the faith, the fundamentalists of that era did more, as they do today. They mixed in political and anti-science thought with the religious ideals. They opposed evolution, and (in effect) opposed educational learning about things like Biblical scholarship as they believed it led people away from the faith. Just think, demanding and requesting people not learn so their faith would not be weakened or lost. What kind of religion or faith can be lost by learning? That is a weak faith indeed, not much worthy of following. I believe Christianity holds up to scrutiny and I say to education of all manner - whether Biblical history, science, or any such thing -bring it on! We need Christians to be more educated about their own religion. We need society more educated about this faith that has so influenced America, Europe, and the world.

I leave with the question: have the fundamentalists win? Shall we let them?

Cross-posted at The Fish Wars blog

PS Hope you had a blessed Easter!!

2 comments:

Sus said...

Wonderful post Wendee. I'd never heard of some of this stuff...very enlightening.

WENDEE HOLTCAMP said...

I know, right? It's opened up a whole new world reading about this stuff, and sad that it's not just part of our history classes. No wonder the world is where it's at - we never learn the lessons of history!! Thank God for the internet - lol. It really has put so much info at our fingertips. Yes it's essential to fact check and not take everything at face value but it also gives us so much info that we may never see in out of print books, etc etc.