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Time, History, and Tradition in the Fundamentalist Imagination

  • Margaret Bendroth


Fundamentalists—those ministers, theologians, and laymen who joined forces against theological liberalism in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries—cared deeply about history. In this sense they were no different from other protestants of their age, confronted with a historicized Bible and a world falling into the strict sequential order required by modernity. But fundamentalists were different. They viewed time in categories inherited from American protestant thought, as a logical unfolding of a single beginning rather than as open-ended development. This principle of “first things” lay behind their objections to evolution and biblical criticism, but also their stand on social issues, their insistence that the role of women could and should not progress and change over time. Among evangelicals today, the fundamentalist sense of time as the extension of full and complete beginnings still resonates, in opposition to abortion and homosexuality and in their continuing reverence for the American founding fathers. History can be powerfully immediate. For evangelicals, the Bible is not an ancient text about long-dead people but fully contemporary, and thus read not “literally,” as if every word were true, but as if time did not exist. Ultimately, however, history has no depth or traction, or any theological meaning, a parenthesis between the God-ordained beginning and end of time.



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1 Note that this essay is taking some liberties with the term “fundamentalist.” The term itself did not come into common use until the 1920s, and is attributed to a declaration by Baptist editor Curtis Lee Laws. See “Convention Side-Lights,” Watchman-Examiner (July 1, 1920): 834. Before that, the most precise term would be “proto-fundamentalist” or a lengthy description like “dispensational premillennialist” and/or “biblical inerrantist.” On fundamentalist nomenclature see David Harrington Watt, “Fundamentalists of the 1920s and 1930s,” in Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History, ed Simon A. Wood and David Harrington Watt (Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2014), 18–35; George Marsden, “Fundamentalism and American Evangelicalism,” in The Variety of American Evangelicalism, ed. Donald W. Dayton and Robert K. Johnston (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1991), 22–35.

2 God's Word Not Poetry,” Truth 3 (December 1876): 16, 17; Grant Stroh, “Practical and Perplexing Questions,” Moody Monthly (April 1921): 365. Also Hyperbolical Language,” Truth 6 (July 1880): 346349. On Brookes, see Carl E. Sanders II, The Premillennial Faith of James Brookes: Reexamining the Roots of American Dispensationalism (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2001).

3 I.M. Haldeman, Friday Night Papers: Second Coming, and Other Expositions (New York: Theodore Audel and Co., 1901), 140. On fundamentalist apocalypticism see Matthew Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University 2014); Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1992); Timothy Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism, 1875–1982 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1983).

4 Gordon, , “Till He Come,” Watchword 8 (January 1887): 244.

5 The best source for illustrations is Clarence Larkin, Dispensational Truth: or, God's Plan and Purpose in the Ages (Philadelphia: Clarence Larkin, 1920).

6 Brown, J.W., “Baptists and Rationalism,” Watchman-Examiner 18 (May 1922): 624; From Baptist to Unitarian,” Watchman-Examiner 22 (January 1920): 101.

7 Intolerant Liberalism,” Watchman-Examiner 15 (June 1922): 741742; Ashamed of Being Baptists,” Watchman-Examiner 18 (January 1922), 581582; Baptists and Fundamentalists,” Watchman-Examiner 22 (July 1920), 925926.

8 Brock, Charles R., “The Present-Day Liberal a Reactionary in Fact,” Watchman-Examiner 14 (June 1923): 749750; Are Modernists Traditionalists?Bible Champion 31 (January 1925): 12.

9 On Barton, et al., See Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson, The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 2011), 61–96. On evangelical understanding and use of history, Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University, 2014); George Marsden and Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994), and insider critique Stafford, Tim, “Whatever Happened to Evangelical History?Christianity Today 2 (April 2001): 4249.

10 Cohn, Robert L., “ISIS’ War Against the Past,” Sightings 17 (September 2015),

11 On this general topic of fundamentalism and history, see also Appleby, R. Scott, “History in the Fundamentalist Imagination,” Journal of American History 89 (September 2002): 498511, and analyses in Robbins, Joel, “Secrecy and the Sense of an Ending: Narrative, Time, and Everyday Millennialism in Papua New Guinea and in Christian Fundamentalism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 43 (July 2001): 525551; Guyer, Jane I., “Prophecy and the Near Future: Thoughts on Macroeconomic, Evangelical, and Punctuated Time,” American Ethnologist 34 (August 2007): 409421.

12 Pope, H.W., “My First Visit to the Institute,” Institute Tie 1 (September 1900): 74; Evans, William, ““Studies in Personal Soul-Winning,” Institute Tie and Christian Workers’ Magazine 10 (September 1909): 60. On fundamentalist work ethic, Bendroth Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 1993), 70. On Moody and business ethic, see Timothy Gloege, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2015.

13 Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 2003), 13, 14. David Gross, Lost Time: On Remembering and Forgetting in Late Modern Culture (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2000); Peter Fritsche, Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 2004); Zachary Sayre Schiffman, The Birth of the Past (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University, 2011).

14 H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (London: William Heinemann, 1895); Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, London, 1889.

15 Described in Kern, Culture of Time and Space, 65–67.

16 Brendan Pietsch Dispensational Modernism (New York: Oxford University, 2015), 146. On Dispensationalism see Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970); George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (New York: Oxford University, 1980), 48–62. Not all fundamentalists accepted dispensationalism, however. See, for example, the discussion in John D. Hannah, An Uncommon Union: Dallas Theological Seminary and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009), 118–128.

17 Brookes, , “Coming and Appearing,” Truth 5 (February 1879): 100101.

18 The Revelation. Chapter II. The Seven Churches,” Truth 10 (Mar. 1884): 169173; Dr. Bullinger, , “The Times of the Gentiles Almost Run Out,” Christian Alliance and Foreign Missionary Weekly 13 (April 1894): 397399.

19 To Jewish Christians,” Our Hope 1 (September 1894): 5864.

20 The Victorious Christ: Messages from Conferences held by the Victorious Life Testimony in 1922 (Philadelphia: Sunday School Times, 1923), 15–16.

21 Winthrop Hudson, The Lively Experiment (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 111.

22 On time and modernity, Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 2007), 56–59f. Jacques LeGoff, History and Memory, trans. Steven Rendall and Elizabeth Claman (New York: Columbia University, 1977); Carlos Eire, A Very Brief History of Eternity (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 2010).

23 Lovejoy, Arthur O., “The Entangling Alliance of Religion and History,” Hibbert Journal 5 (January 1907): 258, 259, 270.

24 Ernst Troeltsch, Religion in History (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1991), 16; Adolf Harnack, Thoughts on the Present Position of Protestantism, trans. Thomas Bailey Saunders (London, 1899), 24. On historical Jesus and religion and historicism, Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 1985); Alister E. McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology, 1750–1990, second edition (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2005); Thomas Howard, Religion and the Rise of Historicism: W.M. L. DeWette, Jacob Burckhardt, and the Theological Origins of Nineteenth-Century Historical Consciousness (New York: Cambridge University, 2000); Grant Wacker, Augustus H. Strong and the Dilemma of Historical Consciousness (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University, 1985).

25 Cited in Bendroth, Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2015), 129, 130. See also Lofton, Kathryn, “The Methodology of the Modernists: Process in American Protestantism,” Church History 75, no. 2 (June 2006): 374402.

26 The Book of the Pilgrimage: A Record of the Congregationalists’ Pilgrimage to England and Holland (Boston: Office of the Congregationalist, 1896).

27 Mark Noll, Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994), 127; Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 62–66.

28 Use of the Hebrew Conjunction,” Truth 3 (June 1877): 302.

29 Dixon quoted in Barras, Henry Watson, “Conference on Christian Fundamentals,” Watchman-Examiner 2 (March 1922): 227228.

30 Michael J. Lee, The Erosion of Biblical Certainty: Battles over Authority and Interpretation in America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 183, 184.

31 Blanchard, Visions and Voices, or Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Christian Alliance Publishing Co., 1917), 146–147.

32 Goodenow, Smith B., “The Inspired Truthfulness of the Original Scriptures,” Truth 20 (1894): 50.

33 God as a Fact and God as a Dream,” Bible Student 1 (Mar. 1900): 125.

34 James M. Gray, “The Static and the Dynamic,” Moody Monthly (May 1922): 1007–1010. This was the same month in which Fosdick Preached his famous sermon at New York's Riverside Church, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” For Fosdick's account, Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days: An Autobiography (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), 144–176.

35 Blackstone, Jesus is Coming (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell, 1878), 224.

36 Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 88.

37 Farr, F.W., “Some Objections to Pre-Millennial Truth Considered,” Christian Alliance and Foreign Missionary Weekly 12 (January 5, 1894): 15. See Joel Carpenter, “Contending for the Faith Once Delivered: Primitivist Impulses in American Fundamentalism,” in The American Quest for the Primitive Church, ed. Richard Hughes (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois, 1988), 99–120; and response by Mark Noll, 121–122; George Marsden, “By Primitivism Possessed: How Useful is the Concept ‘Primitivism’ for Understanding American Fundamentalism?” in The Primitive Church in the Modern, ed. Richard T. Hughes (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois, 1995), 34–48.

38 Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University 2001), 71. Also Wacker, “Playing for Keeps: The Primitivist Impulse in Early Pentecostalism,” in American Quest for the Primitive Church, 196–219.

39 William G.T. Shedd, Lectures Upon the Philosophy of History (Andover: W.F. Draper, 1856), 15, 23. The larger story is told in Elizabeth Clark, Founding the Fathers: Early Church History and Protestant Professors in Nineteenth-Century America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2011).

40 Townsend, L.T., “Similarities of Organic Structures and Other Similarities Wrongly Employed in Support of Evolution,” Bible Champion 22 (September 1916): 6872. Also Prof. Clark, Harold W., “The Gradual Variations Theory,” Bible Champion 28 (April 1922): 248250. On development, Jon Roberts, Darwinism and the Divine in America: Protestant Intellectuals and Organic Evolution, 1859–1900 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 1988), 7–20.

41 Guy Fitch Phelps, The Absurdities of Evolution (Chicago: Bible Institute Colportage Association, 1917), 113; Bates, William H., “Man-Woman: A Study in Creative Method,” Bible Champion 22 (September 1916), 79.

42 Allen, J. C., “A Glance at Darwinism,” Bible Champion 23 (July and Aug. 1917), 231232.

43 Riley, The Finality of the Higher Criticism: or The Theory of Evolution and False Theology (Minneapolis, 1909; reprint Garland 1988), 117. On providence and the decline of mystery, Peter Thuesen, Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine (New York: Oxford University, 2009), 209–218.

44 Prayer for the Sick,” Truth 7 (October 1881), 488489.

45 W.E. Boardman, Who Shall Publish the Glad Tidings? (Boston, Mass.: Henry Hoyt, 1875), 39.

46 Quoted in Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender, 45.

47 Tanya Luhrman, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 12, 86–95.

48 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University), 16.

This presidential address was delivered to the American Society of Church History on January 9, 2016. The author is indebted to several colleagues, including James Bratt, Matthew Sutton, Patricia Appelbaum, Jon Roberts, and Charles Hambrick-Stowe.

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Church History
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