15 May 2011

Latest Edition of Fides et Historia

The latest edition of Fides et Historia, the journal of the Conference on Faith and History came out last week.  I found it quite interesting that the title of the first article was "The (Worst) Year of the Evangelical: 1926 and the Demise of American Fundamentalism."  The title itself was not so much what interested me, but rather the topic, since I just sent in the first draft of an encyclopedia article on "fundamentalism."  The president of the society, Barry Hankins (history professor at Baylor), pointed out three events that failed to put fundamentalists in a good light in 1926.  The first was the Scopes Monkey Trial, although Hankins pointed out that the outcome of the trial was not originally looked at as a defeat for fundamentalists.

Hankins argued that it was not until the next decade that some began to look at the Scopes Monkey Trial as a contribution to the downfall of fundamentalism--although the movement did not really die out.  The general public understanding of the trial now comes not from the trial itself, but rather from a theatrical presentation very loosely based upon the trial titled Inherit the Wind, which is about as far from true history as one can get.  This movie did not come out until the 1960, but has done much to stigmatize fundamentalism.  In all actuality, the prosecution won the case.  According to Hankins, contemporary accounts tended to point out that the people of Dayton, Tennessee, were quite hospitable (not the country bumpkins as portrayed), and William Jennings Bryan intended to continue his anti-evolution work (rather than being totally defeated as portrayed in the movie).  Even a review for Time believed the movie biased.

The other two events cannot be looked at in the same light however.  The other two events highlighted in this article (taken from the author's presidential address at the society's biannual meeting) were the "abduction" of Amiee Semple McPherson and the murder trial of J. Frank Norris.  The former was a very strange episode that almost led to a trial, and the latter led to a Norris acquittal by means of self defense.  The main argument of the article was that certain events can tend to stigmatize a group in the public opinion.  As examples of stigma, Hankins used Munster, the Salem Witch Trials, and Waco (no further explanation needed on the last one--one word suffices).

In any event, even though many thought fundamentalism was dead in the 1930s, it actually thrived and made a comeback, although some fundamentalists came to call themselves evangelicals.  The comeback was so strong that 1976 was called the "year of the evangelical."  The election of professed born-again Christian Jimmy Carter contributed to this claim.  Far from being dead, the fundamentalists and evangelicals continue to impact American society in spite of some popular misconceptions of the movement.

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