In practice, however, the trial was an outward expression of an inner battle for control of American society and American culture. Very loosely speaking it was also about the future of Christianity in America, though this must be seen in the light of the proliferation of Christian and pseudo-Christian organizations in America at the time (see Stephen Prothero's fascinating book American Jesus for a detailed study of this subject.)
In short, it encompassed all of the above issues - and more.
Fundamentalism was basically a restatement of the values and beliefs of traditional Christianity, and the factors which led to the printing of The Fundamentals (see The Petro-Dollars Connection), along with William B. Riley's formation of the World Christian Fundamentals Association in 1919, was as much as anything a response to so-called Higher Literary Criticism which had become popular in some quarters during the previous century.
Higher Literary Criticism
An approach to study of the Christian Bible adopted by a group based in Tubingen (Germany) in the 19th century, lead by Ferdinand Christian Baur. Like the self-styled Jesus Seminar of today, Baur's group held that the supernatural elements described in the Bible such as miracles, the Virgin Birth and the literal physical resurrection of Jesus after the Crucifixion were fictitious and might be explained by natural methods and/or the allegedly mythological nature of much of the Bible.
To a large extent, the group's thinking was based on Hegelian metaphysics (after the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)), which was something of a giveaway, to put it mildly, since Hegel himself was prone to ignore any facts that didn't support his theories. A typical example of Hegel's attitude can be found in the account of a class in which he was explaining his philosophy of history by using a specific series of events as an example.
"But, Herr Professor," one of his students interrupted, "the facts are otherwise."
"So much the worse for the facts," Hegel replied.
Where fundamentalists were opposed higher criticism in every respect, most people who described themselves as Christian modernists eagerly allied themselves with the wider modernist or "progressive" movement, including many of the claims made by advocates of higher criticism.
Modernism as a social movement - which included the arts, religion, social standards, etc. - began shortly before the end of the 19th century.
At the heart of this movement was a profound rejection of the values and attitudes of the Victorian era and a belief that every aspect of existence, from commerce to philosophy, should be re-examined, with the aim of rooting out anything which was holding back the "march of progress", and replacing it with new, and therefore (allegedly) better, ways of achieving the same goals. The philosophy behind modernism/progressivism was heavily influenced by an almost irrational belief in the ability of scientists to guide mankind into a utopian future.
In short, the advocates of modernism adopted the world view that "old" was, almost by definition, "bad", whilst anything "new" was good and beautiful.
(After seeing the kind of hullabaloo, dire predictions and wild expectations which surrounded the dawning of the 21st century, it isn't very difficult to understand how the modernist/progressive movement arose from the upheaval of the first World War - sometimes referred to as "the war to end all wars" - which had been sanctioned by the leaders of a variety of religions, and in favour of both sides of the conflict!)
The main point of contention between fundamentalists and modernists within the Christian community was a difference of opinion over what became known as the five "fundamentals":
- The inerrancy of scripture;
- The divinity of Christ (including a literal interpretation of the "Virgin Birth");
- Christ's death as substitutionary atonement;
- Christ's resurrection as a literal event;
- Christ's return (the "Second Coming") as a literal event.
As you might imagine, fundamentalists were, in America in the 1920s, those Christians who upheld the five fundamentals; the modernists had other ideas.
The Inerrancy of Scripture
Fundamentalists believed that the Bible was to be taken as straight fact, in those places where there was no indication that it should be taken otherwise. Hence Bryan's answer to Darrow's question about whether he took everything in the Bible to be literally true:
"I believe that everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: 'Ye are the salt of the earth.' I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people."
(See The Duel In the Shade for details of Darrow's cross examination of Bryan.)
Commentators often confuse fundamentalist and literalist views on inerrancy. In practice, literalists, so called because they take the entire text of the Bible as being literally true, are also fundamentalists (they also accept the other four Fundamentals). Though having said that, it can sometimes be hard to get a literalist to specify which particular version/translation of The Bible is is that they regard as inerrant.
Fundamentalists who are not also literalists, on the other hand, are distinguished by the fact that they do not insist on an "end to end" literal interpretation of the Bible, but accept that the text contains numerous metaphors, parables, descriptions of visions and so on.
However, it would appear that many fundamentalists do share the belief that the account of the Creation in the Book of Genesis is historically accurate. Though even on this subject it should be noted that opinions differ between "Old Earthers" (who accept that the Earth may be billions of years old), and "Young Earthers," who believe the Earth is only a few thousand years old). This leaves lots of room for a wide variety of belief on specific details.
The modernists/progressives/liberals (I'll call them all "modernists", in future, to save time) adopted what was often referred to as a "demystified" interpretation of the contents of the Bible that was more or less in line with the ideas of the Higher Literary Criticism movement.
The practical gap between these two groups can be seen in this description of Professor Kirtley Mather's interest in the case, by one of his descendents:
When Professor Mather read of the trial, he determined that the testimony of sincerely religious scientists, like himself, should be heard. Mather wrote "I knew that Darrow would easily demolish the case for literal infallibility of the Bible and the kind of religion that Bryan proclaimed, but who would be in Dayton to promote a religion that is respectable in light of modern science?"
Compare this with Arthur Hays' admission that the defense scientists all rejected most if not all of the Fundamentals - which group most certainly included Mather.
The Divinity of Christ
Throughout the history of the Christian church, the orthodox view has been that Jesus was, in a literal sense, "the Son of God"; that he was born to Mary whilst she was literally still a virgin; that he performed various miracles, as described in the Gospels, and so on.
Whilst fundamentalists upheld this view of Jesus, most modernists believed that Jesus was actually either:
- A fictional character who embodied mythical characteristics drawn from earlier religions, or
- Had existed, but was basically no more than a good man who lived out his beliefs so that there was nothing supernatural about him or the things that he did.
In fact many of the so-called discoveries and revelations of the last few decades were already well-known to people in the 1920s. The post-WW2 discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi manuscripts have certainly added fuel to the discussion, but they have presented little, if anything, that is genuinely new.
For example, several books have appeared relatively recently that have claimed to contain amazing discoveries about the similarity of the mythology of Greece and Babylon to the biblical accounts of the life of Christ. In reality, however, as well as the Higher Criticism movement, the late 19th century also saw the appearance of the "History of Religions school", which tried to demonstrate exactly the same point, that the Bible accounts of the life of Jesus were actually just recycled myths from earlier civilizations. Likewise a number of writers have tried to show that a broad category of religious beliefs known as Gnosticism - belief in salvation through knowledge/release from ignorance - included the earliest and most authentic forms of Christianity. This is often presented as yet another supposedly recent, "shock" revelation. Yet in practice Gnosticism didn't begin to make an appearance until about 80-100 years after Jesus died, and in any case there was a major increase in interest in Gnosticism over a century ago, with numerous popular books on the subject appearing, in some cases, as far back as the 1840's.
It is somewhat ironic, in light of the developments of the last few decades, that an incomplete version the much hyped Gospel of Thomas, with its mixture of authentic Biblical quotes and cryptic gnostic sayings, was widely known and read in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Only then it was known simply as "The Sayings of Jesus". (It was only when the materials were discovered at Nag Hammadi that a full version of the "sayings" was found and was revealed to have been attributed, in the introductory verse, to Didymus Judas Thomas.)
The Crucifixion as Substitutionary Atonement
The Fundamentalist view of the significance of Christ's cricifixion was, and is, very simple and straight forward. The Modernist views are a little for difficult to understand.
For Fundamentalists it makes sense that only someone such as the authentic "Son of God" - taken as a literal description of Jesus - could serve as the atonement for the sins of all mankind throughout the history of the world. Whether or not one accepts the underlying theory that God required such a sacrifice in the first place, the internal logic of this claim is entirely consistant. The Christ must be genuinely divine in order for his death to be sufficiently significant to serve its intended purpose. And the crucifixion can be efective only because Jesus is the genuine "Son of God".
The modernist view was/is also consistent in one sense, but is thoroughly inconsistent in another.
Once the modernists had effectively excluded any and all possibility of a supernatural dimension to the crucifixion (yet again, shades of the Jesus Seminar), hanging on to the idea of Jesus literally dying in order to 'overcome death', or surrendering his life in order to give everyone else the opportunity to have eternal life, was clearly nuts. And having arrived at that interpretation, what point would there be to declaring oneself a Christian at all?
Remember Kirtley Mathers' concern to:
... promote a religion that is respectable in light of modern science"
This typifies one widely held modernist attitude that humankind should not look to God (any God or god) for their salvation, but to scientists. Mather clearly shared this view, and yet he boasted of how he had served for several decades as teacher of 'a large adult Sunday School class (known as "the Mather Class"), for the Newton Centre Baptist Church near Boston' ((Science and Religious Fundamentalism in the 1920s, Edward B. Davis. In American Scientist, Vol. 93, Issue 3, May-June 2005 (pages 253-260. This quote is from page 256.)
(Further references to this article, which can be found online at
will simply read "(Davis, page ".)
No wonder, given this background, William Jennings Bryan is said to have told one reporter at Dayton, "I have no complaint against evolutionists. I'm opposed to the people who claim to be Christians but aren't."
The Resurrection as a Literal Event
According to the accounts of the crucifixion and its aftermath in the New Testament, on the third day after the crucifixion Jesus' body was found to have disappeared from the tomb where his body had been placed, and he subsequently appeared to a number of his followers in a sufficiently substantial form to allow "Doubting" Thomas to feel the wounds made by the nails that had been hammered into Jesus' hands.
The "Second Coming" as a Literal Event