Book Review: THE ROOTS OF FUNDAMENTALISM

This book review was written for a college class– Introduction to Historical Research and Writing.
THE ROOTS OF FUNDAMENTALISM
British and American Millenarianism 1800-1930
by Ernest R. Sandeen, 1970, University of Chicago Press

Sandeen writes a history of modern Fundamental/Evangelicalism, asserting that all previous histories were wrong to say that Fundamentalism was rooted in the controversies of the 1920s, such as evolution versus creation, and the controversies about Modernism and Liberalism.

Sandeen received his B.A. at Wheaton College in 1953, his M.A. at the University of Chicago in 1955, and a double Ph.D. in English and American Religious History in 1959. He has authored several articles and a few books about religion. He spent most of his academic career at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Roots of Fundamentalism was re-issued by Baker Book House in 1978.

It is unclear just what Sandeen’s thesis is, but it appears to be contained in the following passages:

In this book these traditional explanations are challenged and an attempt is made to support a new approach to Fundamentalism. The primary function of this study has been to provide historical evidence for the argument that Fundamentalism existed as a religious movement before, during, and after the controversy of the twenties…. (xiii)

This study is intended, then to lead the reader from the early nineteenth century to 1930, introducing him first to the thought of the millenarian revival and then to the organization of the American millenarian movement after 1870. The nature of that thought and that organization provide support for the hypothesis that Fundamentalism ought to be understood partly if not largely as one aspect of the history of millenarianism. (xix)

Sandeen uses the term “millenarian” though millenarians are now called premillennialists. Millennialists are now called postmillennialists.

Without explaining the Puritan position, Sandeen says that because of the Puritan revolt, millenarianism fell into disfavor. Then the event that triggered the apocalyptic interpretation of Bible prophecy in England, was the French Revolution. The main results of the new millenarianism were: (1) The growth in the study and literal interpretation of Scripture, with many books, periodicals, and prophecy conferences; (2) interest in the Jews being restored as a nation; (3) the premillennial return of Christ.

The first prophecy conference was held in 1826 in England. These conferences, “more than any other event, gave structure to the British millenarian revival, consolidating both the theology and the group of men who were to defend it” (p.18). And a number of societies were formed for the study and publication of prophecy.

Most early participants were of the Anglican church, with little interest by other groups like the Methodists. So this new movement caused some people to split from churches that continued the spiritual interpretation of prophecy.

Sandeen said that by mere coincidence, at the same time that millenarianism was developing in England, it was also developing in the United States with no contact between the two, and that this needs farther explanation than traditional history can provide. And American millenarianism deserves a more complete treatment than what he is able to provide; to explain the American preoccupation with the millennium. He said Americans were “drunk on the millennium” (p.42).

Sandeen points out that the Millerites were not as fanatical as repeated tales have made them out to be. That takes of them “dressing in ascension robes and gathering on hilltops to await the coming of Christ, consequent insanity, murder, and suicide– have been amply refuted”(p. 44). And Miller was not the only one teaching millenarianism. So were the Mormons who published the Millennial Star, and the Disciples of Christ who published the Millennial Harbinger.

Sandeen said that the historicist’s position declined after 1844, while John Nelson Darby’s futurism slowly became the dominant belief in Britain, and especially America. He said Darby’s dispensationalism was the dominant belief in the last half of the nineteenth-century, and influenced the Scofield Reference Bible which is still influencing people today.

Sandeen said John Darby deserves better treatment from the historians than he gets, and devotes an entire chapter to Darby, who left the Anglicans and helped start the Plymouth Brethren. Darby made several trips to the U.S., teaching and influencing many ministers, including Dwight L. Moody. But he wanted more, he wanted the people and ministers to leave their denominations for his Brethren, but few did.

Darby also spread the teaching on grace that became accepted, as well as the literal interpretation of the Bible and inerrant view of the Scriptures.

Sandeen describes the second phase of millenarianism as having gained a large enough number of adherents to bring a large volume of antimillenarian literature. Princeton Theology shared millenarian views and argued firmly for them.

The Bible prophecy conference movement in America developed after 1875. The Niagara Bible Conference being “the Monte Cassino and Port Royal of the movement” (p. 132). Besides prophecy, some of the reasons for the conferences were to counter the spread of perfectionism and annihilationism. The annual conference was interdenominational, and with its fourteen-point creed, helped shape modern Fundamentalism.

Millenarians were still in the minority by the turn of the century, and centered in the large cities of the North East and northern Midwest. The movement gained adherents among Presbyterians and Baptists, but not Methodists.

Sandeen said “Fundamentalism owed its survival to the Bible institutes, and the institutes were the product of the millenarian leadership” (p.183). Millenarians continued to spread their message into the twentieth century through books, magazines, conferences, and Bible institutes. Millenarians also played a role in the Student Volunteer Movement. A larger percentage of the missionaries were millenarians than were not.

Sandeen points out that the five essential doctrines of Fundamentalism were inappropriately attributed to the millenarianism, and to the Niagara Bible Conference of 1895. The five essentials came from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church in 1910, and that body was not Fundamentalist.

Conservative millenarianism had a few controversies about doctrine that weakened the movement. Then from 1910 to 1915, a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals were published by Lyman and Milton Stewart. Over three million copies were distributed, which started the Fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s. Sixty-four writers contributed to the twelve volumes.

The defense of Christian doctrine dominated The Fundamentals, and the defense of the Bible surpassed any other doctrinal issue. The ninety articles published in these volumes divide quite evenly into a group of twenty-nine articles devoted to safeguarding the Bible, another group of thirty-one articles providing an apologetic for doctrines other than the Bible, and a third group of thirty articles devoted to personal testimonies, attacks upon variant forms of belief, discussions of the relationship of science and religion, and appeals for missions and evangelism. (p.203-204)

Sandeen writes a very well researched and documented book, with a twenty-five-page bibliography, an eighteen-page index, and substantial footnotes. His sources are both primary and secondary, but thanks to the large amount of written material produced by the participants, most sources are primary.

For the most part, Sandeen is unbiased because there is little solid historical opinion or analysis expressed. The book is mostly detail after detail of mere facts. It is much more than a history of millenarianism, it is also a history of every person remotely connected with it. For example, Lyman Stewart was an oil investor who “was threatened by Standard Oil interests, which he customarily referred to as ‘the octopus'” (p.190). John Darby is described as “a petty tyrant, for he was most tyrannical about petty things” (p.31). And Edward Irving had a squint and a stilted oratory “owing to the fact that he abhorred the stylists of the eighteenth century and consciously modeled his own rhetoric after the pre-Restoration divines” (p.15). Spare me the minute.

The book would be much better and more readable if he had stuck with presenting the findings rather than the minutia of facts. As interesting as some of the superfluous facts are, they were not necessary for this work.

But the most critical failing of the book are the loose ends, some of which are crucial to the history of Fundamentalism. And there are also a number of seeming contradictions. Both problems appear to arise from the same source– Sandeen’s lack of willingness to make connections and inferences. This could explain why his book reads more like a primary source from which a reader must find the reasons why and how of events. He does a better job of analysis in the introduction and early in the first chapter, but the reader must often hunt for the conclusions and analysis in the remainder of the book.

He is even hesitant to make connections and conclusions. For example, about the Student Volunteer Movement, Sandeen says:

Significantly, the philosophy of missions incorporated in the SVM motto, ‘the evangelization of the world in this generation,’ seems molded after that of the millenarians… This similarity in outlook is not surprising, since the SVM originated in conferences completely dominated by millenarian speakers… Millenarians did not dominate or control the SVM, nor would it be possible to prove that their philosophy of missions was adopted by the SVM. (p.185-186)

At the very end of the book, Sandeen mentions a major new situation which he does not even begin to explain. He established that Methodists were not millenarians, but the controversies of the 1920s involved them as much as Baptists or Presbyterians. Then he mentions a critically important fact with no explanation: “There does not seem to be any way in which a consistent millenarian could have justified the attempt to force ‘creationism’ upon the schools… To do so was to forsake one of the basic ingredients in the millenarian world view” (p.268).

Millenarians were not supposed to be interested in changing the world. So when you consider that involvement in society is a major element in modern Fundamentalism, this was an important change. But how and why did the change occur? No information is even hinted at; the influence of the Social Gospel perhaps?

Though Sandeen does provide a history of the millenarian movement, which finds its way into Fundamentalism, he fails to provide one of the critical elements for the formation of the modern Fundamentalist movement. The last sentence of the probable thesis statement says that rather than millenarianism being a root of Fundamentalism, “Fundamentalism ought to be understood partly if not largely as one aspect of the history of millenarianism.

I thought this book was to be a history of millenarianism, and how millenarianism was only a part of Fundamentalism, not how Fundamentalism is part of millenarian history. The above statement of Sandeen could be the reason he fails to define modern Fundamentalism– his thesis was unclear and the outcome of the book is also unclear.

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