Fundamentalism from the Ashes of War

Excerpt from Chapter 14 of "The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Funamentalism in an American Family"

The Great War, within a generation to be known as the First World War, gave powerful impetus to the development of modernism, creating a schism that helped move fundamentalists away from the work of social justice.

Modernists saw the Great War as evidence that all the old certainties and traditional assumptions of the Enlightenment were breaking down in the face of a rapidly emerging modern and industrialized society. Cultural modernists were ready to question every axiom of the past‚Äîespecially the idealistic Enlightenment assumption that human civilization was inherently good, and that humankind naturally advanced through history toward freedom, justice, peace, and material abundance. Those who emerged from the war with their senses intact, or who had been too young to be ground up in the machine of European militarism, tended to embrace an opposite set of conclusions. Every previous ‚Äútruth‚Äù was to be held up to the harsh light of the war‚Äôs savagery; every idea that had arisen from the previous Enlightenment optimism was to be examined pitilessly; all comfortable notions about the inherent goodness of governments or religious institutions or the capitalist system of trade and industry were to be challenged.

Religious modernists were also ready to believe that the work of religion was to reform and improve society. Shailer Mathews, a modernist Baptist professor of historical and comparative theology at the University of Chicago and dean of its Divinity School, accepted the scientific method as the most reliable path to truth. He believed all human understanding—including religious understanding and doctrines—was imperfect and required continual re-evaluation and development.

‚ÄúWhat then is Modernism?‚Äù asked Mathews. 

A heresy? An infidelity? A denial of truth? A new religion? So its ecclesiastical opponents have called it. But it is none of these‚ĶIt is the use of the methods of modern science to find, state and use the permanent and central values of inherited orthodoxy in meeting the needs of a modern world...Modernists endeavor to reach beliefs and their application in the same way that chemists or historians reach and apply their conclusions‚ĶThe Dogmatist starts with doctrines, the Modernist with the religion that gave rise to doctrines. The Dogmatist relies on conformity through group authority; the Modernist, upon inductive method and action in accord with group loyalty.[i]

From the point of view of conservatives, however, modernism ultimately led to a rejection of God, to infidelism, perhaps even to perversion and atheism. From the point of view of fundamentalists, Christianity was pitted against the worship of science, logic, and technology. Modernism, believed the fundamentalists, was both morally and politically corrupt, and was especially dangerous in the era immediately following the war, when the evidence of moral decline and depravity seemed to appear on all sides. Conservative Christians were alarmed by all sorts of moral and technological innovations, from jazz to foul language; from skirts that crept ever farther above the ankle toward the knee and beyond to dances that became ever more lewd and bawdy; and by Hollywood movies that dipped ever further into a moral cesspool of lust and adultery, mannish broads and drunken heroes, and the celebration of sinners and sinning.

In addition, the war delivered a great shock to the political sensibilities of conservative evangelicals. Before the war, a belief that the Bible was the inspired word of God was at the heart of the dominant public proclamation of religion in America. The set of beliefs espoused in The Fundamentals united a broad audience of millions of evangelicals in the North and the South, and Christians were generally restrained and diplomatic when they debated other Christians on theological matters.

But the war changed the landscape dramatically, as many conservative Christians began to see the face of the Antichrist in the war‚Äôs massive slaughter. In their view, German rationalism gave rise to a religion of science, of progress and modernity, and then had seeded the development of German militarism itself. German rationalism had helped to birth the ‚Äúhigher criticism‚Äù of the Bible in the 19th century, and was doubtless responsible for the theory of evolution and other attempts to undermine America‚Äôs faith in God. German rationalism was connected at its ideological roots with American liberalism and modernism, which had their roots in the rationalism of Northern science and technology. And German rationalism had inspired the German military machine.  Premillennialist speakers and writers were fond of recounting stories of German war atrocities as evidence of the workings of the Antichrist in the last days before the Second Coming. Howard Kellogg, speaking at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles in the summer of 1918, charged that Germany‚Äôs atrocious behavior was due in part to the modernist theology of its churches: ‚ÄúLoud are the cries against German Kultur‚ĶLet this now be identified with Evolution, and the truth begins to be told. [This philosophy was responsible for] a monster plotting world domination, the wreck of civilization and the destruction of Christianity itself.‚Äù[ii]

Moreover, conservative Christians were afraid that the destruction of the Great War had spawned a generation of youth supremely cynical about the existence of God and the life of the spirit generally. Their fears were not entirely without foundation. The war had seemed the triumph of science, technology, and a terribly fatal and bloodthirsty ‚Äúlogic‚Äù over the romantic, pastoral illusions of the past. Civilization itself was at stake. The Armistice that ended the war in November 1918 signaled the end of the secular struggle fought in the trenches of Europe with guns, tanks, and airplanes. The real war had only begun, however, and the stakes were in the view of some of its participants even higher than the merely physical struggle of the Great War in Europe. It was a struggle for the heart and soul of Christianity in America. It was a fight to claim and define God on behalf of an American democracy. Conservative Christians believed that God was an omnipotent and cosmic consciousness who was personally involved in human history. They believed that God had a plan for America, and that he expected Christians to follow a very specific set of secular doctrines in addition to the theological doctrines that defined fundamentalism.

Christians were invited to accept God’s grace, and God’s loving offer of forgiveness and redemption. However, Christians were also required to have a certain consciousness and set of beliefs about the heavenly and earthly spheres. On the one hand, Christians were to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, that Heaven and Hell were real and literal places, that all humanity is judged and condemned as lost sinners, that Jesus died on the cross to save sinners from a fiery Hell, and that he was resurrected, abides in Heaven, and will return to take Christians home to Heaven while the rest of humanity suffers the torments of the damned. On the other hand, conservative Christians believed that the forces of Satan were active in the secular world and made use of such human tools as bartenders who served liquor, teachers who taught evolutionary science, and liberal theologians who swerved from fundamentalist orthodoxy in teaching naïve young Christians to lose their faith in the God of the fundamentalists.


[i] Shailer Mathews, The Faith of Modernism (New York: Macmillan, 1924), 22-23.

[ii] Quoted in George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 148.