Critical Book Review of Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism George Marsden, University of Notre Dame Professor of History and noted authority on American Fundamentalism, provides a salient series of essays divided into a historical survey of American Fundamentalism to include key events and personalities on the movement, in particular the years 1830 through the late 1980s as well as interpretative essays of the movement focusing specifically on the themes of “politics and views of science.  The overall strength of this work can be observed in Marsden’s apt historical overview of fundamentalism, its continual critique and battles against modernism and theological liberalism, while its only weakness arguably resides in Marsden’s somewhat untenable comments regarding the modern creation science movement. Marsden unfortunately initiates his historical discussion of Fundamentalism beginning with Post-Civil War era.
While Marsden makes references to the Puritan heritage of the American fundamentalist movement, these references are scattered through the initial section of the book. Given the first section of the book is a historical overview, the inclusion of even a short essay on the importance of the Puritan and Colonial period on Fundamentalism to include the impact and entrenchment of issues such as Common Sense Realism, the Holiness Movement or Baconianism might have served to provide the reader with a more holistic perspective on the roots of the American Fundamentalist ideal.
Marsden does develop more fully the foundational nuances of fundamentalist beliefs in his previous book Fundamentalism and American Culture and to a large degree Marsden sufficiently discusses these foundational issues as needed thus this is not a huge detractor from the value of Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. The strength of Understanding Fundamentalism is present in Marsden’s treatment of fundamentalism from the conclusion of the Civil War to the late 1980s, a time period of significant shifts within the fundamentalist movement, both in its level of popularity in American culture as well as in its overall focus.
Marsden masterfully notes both the issues fundamentalism as a movement engaged in as well as how various fundamentalist leaders chose to confront these issues. Of particular note is Marsden’s emphasis on the dichotomy between modernism and liberalism’s concerted attacks on fundamental Christian beliefs and the Fundamentalist movement’s entrenchment against those attacks. Marsden rightly focuses on he impact of Darwinism on society correctly commenting “Darwinism and higher criticism were challenging the authority of the Bible and the new historical, sociological and Freudian psychological ways were revolutionizing thought at almost every level. ” An additional element of perspicuity by Marsden can be found in his statement “Wars are the catalyst of history…World War I had an especially momentous impact on American life. ” For many Fundamentalists, the ills of society could be traced back to German rationalism.
Marsden rightly notes the “central symbol organizing fears over the demise of American culture became biological evolution” to include its connection with World War I Germany. While other fundamental issues such as those espoused in the Five Fundamentals of 1910 were vitally important for fundamentalist, beliefs which Marsden also makes repeated mention of and rightly so, to a large degree, the confrontation over evolution became one of the more public aspects of the Fundamentalist fight against modernism and theological liberalism.
To that end, Marsden appropriately focuses much of his discussion on the engagement of fundamentalism with evolution and science. Moreover, he reveals the often divisive nature of evolution particularly in regards to noted fundamentalist scholars such as B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge with their affirmations of some aspects of evolution while still maintaining adherence to such fundamental doctrines such as the historicity of scripture, the virgin birth, and the Parousia.
Following the rather disastrous events of the Scopes Trial in 1925 and subsequent controversies, the fundamentalist movement had all the makings of being on the decline or worse, completely dissolving. Conversely, fundamentalism underwent a rather interesting metamorphosis under the moniker of evangelicalism. Marsden brilliantly notes the belief by so-called neo-evangelicals such as Carl Henry that if “fundamentalism could be tempered slightly, evangelical Christianity could win America.  The term evangelical is discussed in great detail by Marsden and rightly so for it was individuals such as Billy Graham who helped shape what appeared during the 1940s and 1950s to be a reconciling of fundamentals and evangelicals into a unified camp. The effort to return to a trans-denominational coalition was undercut by a number of developments which Marsden fastidiously discusses. Two issues of note in more recent decades were specifically addressed by Marsden, namely the influence of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority as well as the rise of the televangelist charismatic movement.
Marsden concludes the historical section by rightly perceiving “the laws of the market invite mixes of the gospel with various popular appeals. ” To some degree the church, modern fundamentalism continues to undergo the same challenges in this regard as during the days of Charles Finney and Billy Sunday or any number of early 20th century sensationalist oriented preachers. Marsden next provides a critical and interpretive analysis of fundamentalism’s interaction and at times dalliance with politics as well as the internal struggles with how to reconcile scripture with biological evolution.
For Marsden, fundamentalist incursions into the political arena are in keeping with the ideas of Colonial America. As such, political expression was a natural outgrowth of religion’s mandate to influence the culture. Such a perspective; however, began to fade as the culture began to become more secularized. Marsden correctly notes that following World War I, it became increasingly difficult for the Fundamentalist movement to overtly assert itself in the political arena especially after the demise of William Jennings Bryan.
A shift was taking place which Marsden correctly identifies, namely conservative minded types faded quickly as an influential political force.  An interesting point made by Marsden is that for the next forty years, the evangelical/fundamental community “remained on the fringes of American politics. ” Liberalism, to include theological liberalism, quickly infiltrated all aspects of society. While the election of President Jimmy Carter in 1976 brought some hope of a return to the influence of fundamentalism, that hope was short-lived.
It was the influence of fundamentalist leaders such as Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority for example that provided the impetus for a return of fundamentalism into the political and social arenas. Marsden attempts to tie the modern creation science movement and its founders such as Henry Morris to the dispensationalist view of scripture. Asserting the beliefs of creation science organizations such as the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), specifically their insistence on a literal interpretive stance of Genesis as simply an offshoot of dispensational doctrines, cultural perspectives, or social influences is argumentative at best.
The modern creation science movement does not take a literal approach to the Genesis text because of dispensationalist leanings but conversely, as noted by Morris, “creationism is the foundational doctrine of genuine biblical Christianity…the work of creation is therefore essential to both the saving work and the reconciling work of Christ. ” Furthermore, Marsden makes a number of comments portraying the creation science movement as strictly an offspring of common sense realism or folk epistemology.
Such comments imply creation scientists view the bible literally because it passes the common sense test. This is simplistic and neglects the multifarious reasons continually presented by creationism for holding to a literal interpretation of creation such as linguistic, hermeneutical, theological, and scientific concerns. While Marsden rightly outlines the reasons for antievolution fervor by fundamentalists against Darwin’s thesis, the connections made between that time period and the modern creation science movement is somewhat tenuous.
He does not provide the reader with a true representation of modern creationist beliefs instead portraying them as offshoot of dispensationalism or just another divisive aspect of Fundamentalism. Overall, Marsden’s work is informative, acute and his interpretations of the Fundamentalist movement are for the most part acute. His expertise in the arena of American Fundamentalist movement is readily apparent. Marsden is at his best when he engages the historical background, characters, and relevance of the movement. Additionally, he is very adept at interpreting impacts on Fundamentalism as well as its impact on American society.
It is only his tenuous assertions regarding the founding and purpose of the modern creation science movement that detract from this valuable and timely work. Thankfully that is only a small detraction from an otherwise important text for the student of American Fundamentalism. -----------------------  George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), viii.  Marsden, 32.  Ibid. , 50.  Ibid. , 59.  Ibid. , 64.  Ibid. , 82.  Ibid. , 94.  Ibid.  Henry Morris, The Long War Against God (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 312-313.