Saturday, February 24, 2007


In the comments to my posting last week on "Defining 'evangelical,'" Ed Darrell wrote:

One of the defining characteristics of people who call themselves "evangelical" to me is that they tend to accept unquestioningly the theological interpretations of John Nelson Darby -- though they don't know him by name, nor do they seem to appreciate that his views are substantially different from traditional Christianity, even traditional American Christianity. I would be quite interested in your view of Darby, the Darby Bible, and its effects on the 21st century evangelical movement in the U.S. Do you cover Darby in the class?

Indeed we do.

As a historian--and this is probably especially true in this class--I’m less interested in “debunking” or criticizing attitudes and actions than I am in asking such questions as Why was this particular view attractive to many Americans at this time? How does it fit into American history? That is, what is its social and cultural context? That's the way I approach these topics.

As America moved from the late 19th to the early 20th century, the times were a-changin’, to coin a phrase. Specifically, I put dispensationalism (and fundamentalism in general) in the context of the rising “culture of modernism.” (The link that Ed provided, above, is a good quick intro to the subject; if you’re interested, click on “dispensationalism” in the second sentence.)

This was in many ways an age of uncertainty, as the old absolute truths crumbled. We often think of Darwin, but he was just part of the scientific assault on old ways of thinking. In physics, Albert Einstein showed that perception depended on where you stood: “truth” was relative. Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle went a step further, showing that “truth” is not only relative, it’s essentially unknowable. (This of course is not what Einstein and Heisenberg said, but this is how people understood their work.)

This loss of absolute truths spread to the social sciences. For example, Margaret Mead and other anthropologists argued that we should study other cultures without comparing them to our own--a sort of cultural relativity. There was Freud and his writings on the mind, and Marx on economics.

The arts and literature saw similar changes. We used to know music, but barbershop quartets and Stephen Foster gave way to atonal music, with Arnold Schoenberg and later John Cage and others. We used to know literature; now we had “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” We used to know what a woman descending a staircase looked like, but Picasso and Marcel Duchamp and other cubists said that there were other ways of seeing her.

Scholars began applying the new “higher criticism” to the scriptures, subjecting the Bible to the same sort of critical analysis that one might apply to any literary text. The 1893 Parliament of World Religions treated exotic religions as if they were worth the same respect as Christianity. (There’s that relativism again.)

Add to that the New Woman, jazz, movies.....

In short, old values and ways of seeing the world were fast disappearing. Given all this, it’s easy to imagine a defensive reaction to all this change--people wanting to hold on to the old traditions and in fact fighting for them. And there was a religious aspect to this defensive reaction: the rise of fundamentalism and the spread of dispensationalist thinking.

Fundamentalists were not simply more religious; rather, they held to a different set of religious beliefs. Where mainstream Protestants felt comfortable adapting their theology to the new science and social mores, fundamentalists said that--no matter what scientists theorized, no matter how Picasso painted a woman sitting in an armchair--there were certain religious principles that, by god, would never change. (The inerrancy of the scriptures is the best known of these “fundamental” truths.)

Dispensationalists, who I would characterize as a subset of fundamentalists (who in turn are a subset of evangelicals), read the Bible as a guide to both history past and history to come, ending with the Rapture, Tribulation, Armageddon, etc. Darby and others offered charts, footnotes, cross-references--in a sense, this was not an anti-intellectual exercise. And by adopting a certain flexibility, at least to the extent that they were able to fit modern events into their story, they were able to “prove” that they were right, and that the Bible is right, over and over.

A great book on this is Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture.

As to the effect of this on modern evangelicalism: I think historians a century from now will see our age as similar to that described above--a general unsettling, loss of traditional ideas, growing “disorganization” of society--and so perhaps it should be no surprise that dispensationalism, and fundamentalism in general, are having a surge of popularity. Witness the sales of Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth and the more recent Left Behind series. I think we might have a dispensationalist in the White House. In his first inaugural address, President Bush said, “Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?” He said it was from a letter from John Page to Thomas Jefferson after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but the imagery is Biblical--that sentence could have been lifted right off one of those fold-out charts that show the progression to the end times--and that was eight months before September 11, 2001.

As a historian, I say that this is not surprising. As a citizen, I see it as a disturbing trend, and even scary.

When he was running for president in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt exhorted a crowd by saying, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” This was a campaign speech, not a theological argument, and everyone accepted Roosevelt’s statement in that sense. With President Bush, we’re not so sure, and the possibility that he sees the United States as playing out a role in a predestined drama, a battle between good and evil that was scripted at the beginning of time, is a bit unsettling.

Anyway, Ed, that’s a longer answer than I intended to your question.