Review: Fundamentalists in the Public Square: Did Fundamentalists Retreat After the 1925 Scopes Trial? By Madison Trammel

As someone who spends a lot of time in the online world, reading a work with a clearly defined goal and supported by real research the author did themselves is unusually refreshing. For that reason alone, I would give this book five stars, even if the subject matter were horrendous and I found the views of the author quite objectionable. Fortunately for me, the subject matter is scintillating, and the views of the author (to the extent I know what they are) are well-demonstrated by his research.

This book challenges the common narrative articulated by some twentieth-century historians that anti-evolution fundamentalist Christians of the 1920s and 30s suffered a massive blow to their collective reputations after the 1925 Scopes Trial and subsequently retreated from public life. In Trammel’s work, we discover that this perception is not borne out by the evidence. Rather, it is likely this narrative came from hindsight and was not evident immediately after 1925. Moreover, as Trammel says, “Any interpretation of the Scopes Trial that sees fundamentalist retreat in its wake must be viewed as inaccurate, which casts doubt on the larger, accompanying narrative about fundamentalism’s peculiarity within evangelical history” (129). Trammel’s goal is to show a more continuous pattern in the habits of evangelicals to ‘enforce the ethics of the gospel,’ helping the reader fit fundamentalists during and after the Scopes Trial into the grander narrative of evangelical history. This book will be valuable for any reader seeking clarity on evangelical behavior throughout history, and how “social action” became so prominent in the fundamentalist worldview. As someone who is not intimately acquainted with twentieth-century history, I found this book very helpful, laden with firsthand accounts of the anti-evolution and pro-Prohibition conflicts, and informative in its summary of the history.

The approach Trammel takes to dethroning the reigning opinion of historians on early twentieth-century fundamentalism is refreshing. He seeks to clarify history with concrete evidence instead of merely speculating about why other historiographers took the position that fundamentalism was critically embarrassed by the Scopes Trial. Instead of assuming pathologies of his opponents on the issue, Trammel works to understand what occurred in the years leading up to and directly after the trial by looking at news coverage about fundamentalists. He is clear about his goal to disprove the standard historical view on this, but he lets the research speak for itself. At risk of sounding like a broken record, I cannot emphasize enough how much I appreciated this scholarship. Much warring of opinion these days is based more on the individual’s perception of their opponents rather than seeking a concrete understanding of the events.

The only thing I think Trammel’s research might be missing is the broader perspective that could be gained by sampling newspapers in more than the four major cities he constrained his research to. It is quite possible that the coverage about fundamentalists and their popularity might have differed widely in a more rural area. Thus, data from outside the cities would give historians insight into what rural communities perceived about the trial and its aftermath. The author does, however, distinguish between positively, negatively, and neutrally-framed articles mentioning fundamentalists, evolution, and Prohibition. The benefit of a wider sampling size is undoubtedly something that has crossed Trammel’s mind, and it is the only potential weakness in his research that I can detect (from a non-scholar’s perspective). Despite this potential weakness, however, simply demonstrating that the fundamentalist movement did not lose steam after the trial—if only in these four cities—is enough to disprove the idea that fundamentalists massively retreated in embarrassment after the Scopes Trial.

While I had a cursory understanding of what occurred during the Scopes Trial, reading this volume was hugely informative. Trammel does his due diligence to define his terms, even going so far as to explore the word evangelical in the introduction. It is impossible to read this book without understanding exactly what the author intends to communicate by words like evangelical and fundamentalist. Most modern conversation about “evangelicals” (defined as a large group of Christians who are an influential demographic in US politics) generally seeks to demonize them as ignorant or make them the scapegoat for whatever commonly held religious belief offends whoever happens to be talking about them. Most attempts to discuss fundamentalism lack this aspect of good scholarship as well—it has generally become a byword for ignorance and has even become a negative descriptor in inter-denominational conflicts. Trammel’s care in defining his terms is an important reminder for us that descriptive terms are limited in meaning, and that using a term you believe has a negative connotation only goes as far as it is actually accurate. Trammel avoids the common pitfalls of assigning his own personal meaning to the term evangelical by precisely explaining what the term has meant throughout history, including a look at their tendency towards “social action” (the desire to make culture more moral). Thus, this book serves as a good refresher for those of us who commonly hear the word evangelical and wonder whether it can possibly mean anything concrete at this point.

It bears mentioning that confessional Presbyterians are notably absent from this history. One of the most interesting questions this raised for me as a confessional Presbyterian is where the Presbyterian churches fit into the conflict with anti-evolution and pro-Prohibition fundamentalism. As a J. Gresham Machen appreciator, I somewhat understand the conflict he faced in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) between fundamentalism and modernism. William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), the lawyer representing the anti-evolutionists in the Scopes Trial, was also a PCUSA minister, even unsuccessfully running for moderator one year. I learned in D. G. Hart’s biography of Machen that Bryan actually invited Machen to participate in the trial as an expert witness.1 Though Machen had no issue being identified with fundamentalists with regard to biblical inerrancy, it is interesting that he did not share all the social and political views of fundamentalists (he declined Bryan’s invitation on the grounds that “evolution was beyond his expertise”).2

As I think of the Presbyterian Church in America choosing to participate—or not participate—in modern political issues by way of declarations (like that which we issued about transgender procedures on minor children), I see a very broad range of Christian thinking when it comes to social action. Trammel covers this breadth within the church very well. It is common to see all the theologically conservative Christians in this nation lumped together as one monolithic voting bloc, despite the fact that all conservative Christians are usually forced into voting for one candidate during presidential elections. Thus, it is not fair to assume that all of us conceive of the church’s role in politics in the same way. The Presbyterians, aside from some key political players like Bryan during the 1920s and 30s, are notably absent as a group from the evolution and Prohibition news coverage we find in this book. It could be argued that this is because of their internal debates at the time over fundamentalism and theological liberalism, or because the “spirituality of the church” view was pervasive enough to prevent most Presbyterians from entering the public square in the same way other denominations did. Either way, the views of Presbyterian social action throughout history have not been as monolithically in favor of or opposed to it as we might be tempted to think. I believe their absence from this particular account of history demonstrates this point.

It bears keeping in mind that the fervor with which the anti-evolution, pro-Prohibition denominations fought politically was no indication of future theological orthodoxy. In other words, a denomination’s decision to involve itself in important social and political issues of the day does not necessarily speak to its ability to remain intact in the wake of theological problems. For example, Trammel’s research mentions that the most involved denomination in the fundamentalist effort for Prohibition and against evolution was the United Methodist Church. I would have to do more research to determine what the theological state of the denomination was during this time period, but in hindsight, it appears that the UMC’s commitment to social causes did not prevent it from liberalizing theologically. Even within the last two years, 25% of its churches have left due to disagreements about human sexuality issues.3 This is not an observation necessarily prescriptive for all denominations today, but the fact bears consideration that social issues and culture wars have been around during the whole history of the nation.

It makes me wonder how Presbyterian participation—or lack thereof—in the culture wars will be perceived by the historians of the future. While it is incumbent upon Christians to be good and faithful citizens, and while Christian values will shape our beliefs about a good society and its ethics, Presbyterians tend to have a certain measure of caution towards overt political action, at least insofar as ecclesiastical bodies are concerned. This seems to have been present even in the Prohibition era. The “spirituality of the church” mentality is often criticized for being a wooden, naive, and defeatist way to look at the church-state relationship. The lasting legacy for any ecclesial body, however, is its ecclesial practices—not necessarily its outward posture towards society (though society’s sins often pit the church’s teachings against itself). There is not a one-to-one correlation between social action and heterodoxy—heavy involvement in Prohibition did not prevent the eventual apostasy of the mainline Methodist church.4 The precise workings-out of what social action is and is not permissible for a church is something far beyond my skill level to address; nonetheless, there is a measure of discretion we should exercise when the church is pressured into political action that we would not assign to mere Christian participation in civil society.

Trammel dives into the theological views of the fundamentalists in the public square, looking most closely at the premillennial eschatology and theological views of Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952). Many of the principles Chafer discussed about sin, salvation, and Christian living are not directly theologically objectionable at first glance. There is a notion within his teaching, however, of salvation being more than something that occurs on the individual level. Indeed, Chafer sees salvation as something holistic that can occur for entire nations. As Trammel discusses, dispensationalists “wrote of earthly and cosmic aspects of Christ’s redemption” (108). This can be seen of dispensationalists throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, who have continued to assign some level of biblical meaning to politics and world events today.

This book is informative in a secondary way, in that it helps the reader better understand the theological history behind this group of evangelicals. It is not difficult to see the connection between the premillennial eschatology of Chafer and C. I. Scofield (1843–1921) and the modern approach of the broader evangelical world to international politics concerning Israel. Trammel’s dive into dispensational theology, however, challenged my own perception that dispensationalism is a theology that necessarily lends itself to social action. While the dispensationalists of today are some of the most active politically, his book illustrates the fact that this is driven more by their desire to shape culture than by their doctrinal principles. It seems that fundamentalists (at least those who were dispensational) were not inspired to social action from their dispensational theology, which, as Trammel writes in chapter four, “offered the church no role in world transformation and included no conception of the church and society mutually benefiting each other, such as that which a twentieth-century Reformed thinker like Abraham Kuyper could propose” (125).

Though it was not essential to his argument, I would be interested to see this differentiation between dispensational theology proper and cultural theology fleshed out more, especially because (as discussed above) the dispensationalist view of social action during this period was not technically a product of dispensational theology (128) and because evangelical social action has continued through history in that same fashion. In my view, the idea of a cultural theology that pragmatically argues for social restraints on evil (despite acknowledging that true transformation comes from the gospel alone) is a concept traceable throughout the rest of evangelical history in the twenty-first century and even perhaps today. Either way, this supports Trammel’s ultimate answer to the question at hand: fundamentalists did not retreat in the interwar period after the Scopes Trial, despite being in conflict with some aspects of their own theology, as their opponents throughout history have pointed out.

Rather than simply disprove the theory, Trammel seeks in his conclusion to understand why the perception of a fundamentalist retreat after the Scopes Trial exists. An important distinction the author draws us to is the difference between historical figures who generated headlines about a particular movement and popular support for that movement. As a reason why the theory of fundamentalist withdrawal exists, he points us to the deaths of fundamentalist leaders (William Jennings Bryan [1860–1925] and John Roach Straton [1875–1929]), who in life had an unparalleled ability to bring the issues of fundamentalism to national attention (128). Without them, news coverage on issues like Prohibition and evolution simply dropped off in the later years.

In my view, Trammel accomplishes his aims well without psychoanalyzing or attributing bias to the historians whose conclusions he is questioning. He even goes so far as to try to understand why the historian Carl F. Henry had a different view of fundamentalist withdrawal, an exercise in sincerely seeking to understand someone else’s point of view I have rarely seen even among academic papers.

In conclusion, this book answered its central question—“whether interwar fundamentalists reflected evangelicalism’s activist impulse . . . or whether they abandoned cultural engagement” (127)—quite well, in my opinion. Trammel humbly admits the limitations of his project and tells us in his conclusion that the theory of evangelical withdrawal may possibly be true if one were to study the years 1934–40. But one conclusion I can confidently accept from his book is that “the Scopes Trial did nothing to dissuade fundamentalists from seeking to legislate against the social ills of evolutionism and alcohol” (129). I leave you with Trammel’s final meditation: “For better and worse, evangelicals have always been marked by a desire to ‘enforce the ethics of the gospel’ in the world. Interwar fundamentalists before and after the Scopes Trial were no different” (130).

Notes

  1. D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Phillipsburg PA: P&R Publishing, 2000), 84–85.
  2. Hart, Defending the Faith, 97.
  3. Disaffiliations approved by annual conferences,” United Methodist News.
  4. Mark Tooley, “What’s United Methodist General Conference Impact?,” Juicy Ecumenicism (blog), April 29, 2024.

©Zoe Miller. All Rights Reserved.

Madison Trammel, Fundamentalists in the Public Square: Evolution, Alcohol, and Culture Wars after the Scopes Trial, Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2023).

Editorial Note

Until his trial and departure for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Machen was a minister in the Presbyterian Church in the USA, not the PCUS as originally stated.


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  • Zoe Miller
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    Zoe is a missionary kid, pastor’s wife, and enthusiastically Presbyterian lady. Zoe and her husband Seth live in Couer d’Alene, ID, where he is the planting pastor at Immanuel Presbyterian Church (PCA). A freelance journalist and writer, Zoe occasionally appears in World Magazine, Presbyterian Polity, and other publications. In her spare time, she enjoys cohosting the Presbygirls podcast with her friend Sarah Morris, enjoying beautiful Northern Idaho outdoors, and haranguing her friends on the website formerly known as Twitter.

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4 comments

  1. I deeply appreciate the excellent book reviews posted here at the Heidelblog. I have another book to add to my list. 🙂

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