Fundamentalism in Perspective
Tried as by Fire: Southern Baptist Religious Controversies in the 1920s
By James J. Thompson Jr.
Publisher: Mercer University Press
Review Author: John E. Phelan Jr.
The emergence of Jerry Falwell and other fundamentalist preachers into national prominence in the 1970s stunned many observers of the religious and cultural scene in America. The fundamentalists seemed to represent an archaic and forgotten stream of American religious thought which these observers assumed was preserved only on the lunatic fringe of Christianity. One heard occasionally of the rantings of southern fundamentalists, but apparently these were only a curious anomaly; amusing, pathetic, but not particularly important. Falwell and his crowd, however, were certainly neither pathetic nor amusing, and as the decade wore on they became increasingly important.
Such observers were caught off guard, however, if only because they are unconscious of the realities of religion in the South. It is difficult for one not raised in the South to understand the enormous difference between the religious climate of that region and that of the North and upper Midwest in particular. When I arrived in Chicago to attend school from my home in Nashville, Tennessee, I was totally unprepared for these extraordinary differences. I was surprised at the strength of the Catholic Church, shocked at the relative insignificance of churches of the fundamentalist persuasion, and amazed at the absence of Churches of Christ (Campbellites). Conflict between the latter group and almost every other religious group in the South is woven into its social fabric.
People raised in such a setting were not surprised by the emergence of Falwell, et al. The theological and social perspectives of the “New Right” are old hat in the South. These perspectives have been developed, challenged, and solidified for the most part within the Baptist culture of the South. This culture is as significant a force in the South as the Catholic Church is in the urban centers of the upper Midwest. All Baptist churches in the South are not, of course, part of the Southern Baptist Convention, nor are all fundamentalist. But the vast majority bear the indelible mark of the Southern Baptist heritage and are either reactive or proactive to it. Many other “conservative” denominations take a similar stance relative to the Baptist traditions. Tried as by Fire is addressed to the development of this tradition in the 1920s, a period which shows marked similarity to our own in some areas.
Thompson’s work, for example, shows the importance of the postwar period in developing fundamentalist Baptist reaction to certain social and religious phenomena. The social posture of Southern Baptists in general was highlighted, he argues, by fundamentalist Dispensationalism, which held that the world was inevitably to go from bad to worse. Social activity to alleviate human misery was not only useless, but contrary to the will of God. Furthermore, such band-aid activity took time away from the real task of the believer — preaching the Gospel, saving souls.
Current fundamentalist political activism was preceded, Thompson demonstrates, by the fundamentalist struggle against the teaching of evolution in public schools and the battle for Prohibition. Their activism had — and has — a curiously negative cast.
The current Southern Baptist controversy over the Bible is also, Thompson shows, nothing new. The nature of the Holy Scriptures, so central to Baptist faith, became a storm center of the fundamentalist-modernist debate that raged in many Protestant denominations in the 1920s. Thompson shows that even the staunchly conservative Southern Baptists heard charges of heresy against many of their seminary professors and college teachers. Most, if not all, of the charges were ill-founded, according to Thompson.
Thompson also argues that millenarianism not only contributed to a social insensitivity on the part of many fundamentalists, but also affected denominational loyalty. Dispensationalist Southern Baptists readily crossed denominational lines when they discovered significant coteries of fellow dispensationalists in other groups. I would point out that there are other possible reasons for this dissipation of loyalty. The Plymouth Brethren, from whom dispensationalism was drawn, had a distinct antipathy to the clergy and denominationalism. They attacked denominational structure as an evil to be avoided and refused to ordain or otherwise elevate ministers in their congregations. This, as well as dispensationalist theology, may have had an impact.
Thompson suggests these major problems within the Baptist family in the 1920s, however, had little to do with theological differences. The problems grew more from differences in style, from differences in the ways in which the various participants in the debate faced the challenges of the 20th century.
Thompson’s book helps the reader put current trends in “conservative” Protestant Christianity in perspective. The focus upon Southern Baptist controversies does not detract from the work’s general usefulness. I found it an immensely interesting, well written work. Thompson, a Catholic, writes with more dispassion than he often does in his column for the New Oxford Review. Nevertheless, it is a work of obvious conviction. Those interested in Southern Christianity and its contribution to modern fundamentalism will find this book a welcome resource.
©1983 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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