Digital History

The Jazz Age: The American 1920s

Fundamentalism and Pentecostalism Previous Next
Digital History ID 3389



Religion was a pivotal cultural battleground during the 1920s. The roots of this religious conflict were planted in the late 19th century. Before the Civil War, the Protestant denominations were united in a belief that the findings of science confirmed the teachings of religion. But during the 1870s, a lasting division had occurred in American Protestantism over Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Religious modernists argued that religion had to be accommodated to the teachings of science, while religious traditionalists sought to preserve the basic tenets of their religious faith.

As an organized movement, Fundamentalism is said to have started with a set of twelve pamphlets, The Fundamentals: A Testimony, published between 1909 and 1912. Financed by two wealthy laymen, the pamphlets were to be sent free to "every pastor, evangelist, missionary, theological student, Sunday School superintendent, Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. secretary in the English speaking world." Eventually, some three million copies were distributed. The five fundamentals in these volumes testified to the infallibility of the literal interpretation of the Bible and the actuality of the virgin birth, the atonement, the resurrection, and the second coming of Christ.

Pentecostalism, another current in Protestant revivalism, began on New Year's Day in 1901. A female student at Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas, began speaking in tongues, unintelligible speech that accompanies religious excitation. To many evangelicals, speaking in tongues was evidence of the descent of the Holy Spirit into a believer.

Pentecostals rejected the idea that the age of miracles had ended. During the 1920s, many Americans became aware of Pentecostalism as charismatic faith healers claimed to be able to cure the sick and to allow the crippled to throw away their crutches. Pentecostalism spread particularly rapidly among lower middle-class and poorer Protestants who sought a more spontaneous and emotional religious experience than that offered by the mainstream religious denominations. The most prominent of the early Pentecostal revivalists was Aimee Semple McPherson.

The Fundamentalist and Pentecostal movements arose in the early 20th century as a backlash against modernism, secularism, and scientific teachings that contradicted their religious beliefs. Early fundamentalist doctrine attacked competing religions--especially Catholicism, which it portrayed as an agent of the Antichrist--and insisted on the literal truth of the Bible, a strict return to fundamental principles, and a thoroughgoing rejection of modernity.

Between 1921 and 1929, Fundamentalists introduced 37 anti-evolution bills into 20 state legislatures. The first law to pass was in Tennessee.

During the summer of 1925, John Scopes, a high school teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was tried for violating the prohibition on the teaching of evolution in tax-supported schools. The statute forbade the teaching in public schools of any scientific theory that denied the literalness of the Biblical account of creation. The Scopes case raised the legal issue of the validity of a law that seemed to violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

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