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People & Events: Fundamentalism and the Social Gospel

William Jennings Bryan on campaignAmerican fundamentalism and the social gospel are two distinct religious movements. Both began in the early part of the 20th century. Both sprang from Christianity's attempt to deal with modern problems. Yet they had radically different goals. As politician and religious leader, William Jennings Bryan played a prominent role in both movements.

The social gospel grew out of the abuses of industrialism. By the turn of the twentieth century American cities had become magnets for cheap labor. Poverty bred a new kind of hopelessness. Wealthy captains of industry, like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, were seen as indifferent to the sufferings of the poor. Some of the rich were philanthropists, but others justified their cruelty with a philosophy called Social Darwinism. If evolution favors the survival of the fittest, they argued, why should the strong help the weak to survive?

The social gospel arose to combat this bleak landscape. Historian Paul Boyer says, "many Christians came to believe that through reform efforts, through reform legislation dealing with child labor, with slums and tenement houses and unsafe working conditions, human beings really could build the Kingdom of God on earth." This belief informed the early progressive movement. William Jennings Bryan carried this idea into his three presidential campaigns.

William Jennings BryanTo counter the argument of the Social Darwinists, Bryan compared society to a garden. In a garden, said Bryan, you don't let the weeds triumph over the roses simply because the weeds are stronger. You protect the roses from the weeds. And if you want a society where you have good people, kindness, charity, and equality, you have to do some weeding.

Fundamentalism arose from a radically different impulse than the social gospel. Early in the 20th century certain prominent Christians began to see the Bible as a historical text rather than a revealed truth. The Bible, according to these so-called "higher critics," had evolved over time and simply reflected the views of the men who wrote it.

Fundamentalism rose within the church to combat this modern view of the Bible. The name comes from a series of pamphlets called "The Fundamentals," published in 1912. "The Fundamentals" outlined the bedrock truths that all Christians should believe. Fundamentalists believed in a "back to basics" American theology: The Bible was not a text to be interpreted, but the revealed word of God.

In the beginning, fundamentalism did not attempt to reach out and change society as a whole. It was the anti-evolution crusade of William Jennings Bryan that turned fundamentalism into a political movement. Beginning in 1922 Bryan campaigned across America for laws against the teaching of Darwin's theory. His crusade lit a fire in the state of Tennessee, which passed a law outlawing the teaching of evolution early in 1925.

John ScopesWhen John Scopes was arrested for violating the law, The World's Christian Fundamentals Organization invited William Jennings Bryan to go to Dayton, Tennessee, to prosecute Scopes. Bryan jumped at the chance.

The Scopes trial forever changed fundamentalism in America. The national media, led by H. L. Mencken, mocked Bryan and his "Bible belt" followers. Mencken called Bryan a charlatan with a particular genius for manipulating the "yokels" who worshipped him. Mencken's reports from Dayton influenced historian's depictions of Bryan, the Scopes trial, and fundamentalism itself for years afterwards.

Clarence Darrow"One of the false lessons of the Scopes trial," says historian Ronald Numbers, "was that the American Civil Liberties Union coming down with a very smart lawyer from Chicago, Clarence Darrow, could through verbal embarrassment of the leader of the fundamentalists, discredit an entire movement. And historians writing in the late 50s and early 60s think that fundamentalism has disappeared from American culture."

But the fundamentalist movement had only gone underground. Its leaders had learned valuable lessons from the Scopes trial. Fundamentalism would emerge later in the 20th century as a far more radical and sophisticated movement. As for the social gospel, the phrase is no longer in currency, but the impulse continues in the charitable works of religious people throughout America.

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