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What Was the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy?

The Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy occurred in the 1920s. When I teach it, I typically talk about the social aspects of it, the high points being the Scopes Trial of 1925 and the effort to remove the teaching of evolution from public schools. This wasn’t simply an anti-science movement, though there were clearly aspects of that. Indeed, “science vs. faith” is a recurring theme in the history of Christianity.

But William Jennings Bryan and others were concerned about eugenics, which was a prominent feature of the scientific establishment at this point in time. Eugenics was the idea that you could breed better human beings. It is the fruition of Darwinism in many respects. There were efforts at the time to restrict unfit people from from procreating. Advocates sometimes even included Roman Catholics in this prohibition. Protestants were worried that Roman Catholics were breeding like rabbits. Eugenics was a way to try to control the population. Bryan recognized this, and the textbook that was under review during the Scopes trial did teach eugenics. So this wasn’t simply science versus faith. This was also an issue of public health.

Denominationally, there were controversies in the Baptist world over theological liberalism. There was also a controversy in the Presbyterian world over theological liberalism. Those dates don’t coincide with the Scopes trial. So you have all these controversies coming together—some denominational some political. Some historians, as people tend to do, lumped these different groups together and called them “fundamentalists.” But when you look at the particular aspects of this lump, whether Baptist or Presbyterian, they don’t line up. In some ways you lose a real sense of what was going on in the Presbyterian side of this controversy if you just call it the “Fundamentalist Controversy.”

For instance, I was recently reading a piece by a grad student at Stanford trying to link Machen and his views on inerrancy through McIntire to Schaeffer to the Christian right. This was quite a set of lumping to do. The student didn’t seem to be aware of the particular nuances to the Princeton view of inerrancy and other concerns that Machen had in his critique of liberalism.

If you just use these categories like “fundamentalist,” “evangelical,” or “mainline,” you miss a lot of the detail. For me at least what makes history fun is the variety—it’s the way things don’t line up. It’s the jostling of ideas. There’s a tension there. You can divide historians into two groups: the splitters and the lumpers. People that use “fundamentalism” as a handle are the lumpers; I’m a splitter.

Adapted from a transcript of the video.

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