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Clinging to the Bible

23 May 2014

David Martin looks at 'hot religion' that was not simply US-led

Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom during the Twentieth Century
David Bebbington and David Ceri Jones, editors
OUP £75
Church Times Bookshop £67.50

THIS book provides the definitive account of fundamentalism and Evangelicalism in Britain. It assesses the British contribution to a fundamentalism that had its early-20th-century epicentre in the United States, notably in Princeton Theological Seminary, and provides a review of fundamentalism in the Church of England, and among the Baptists, the Methodists, and the Brethren.

It examines the ambiguities associated with Billy Graham and John Stott, offers overviews of fundamentalism in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and reflects on the relation of fundamentalism to gender, to new and largely Charismatic churches in York, to Pentecostalism, and to faith and theology.

It takes off from key texts on Evangelicalism by David Bebbington and on fundamentalism by George Marsden, as well as sociologists such as Nancy Ammerman and Steve Bruce, and theological critics of fundamentalism such as James Barr and Harriet Harris.

My own experience of Martin Marty's conceptually incoherent Fundamentalism Project underlined the difficulties of making decisions about the entity under scrutiny, especially in a munificently funded research project. Most of the essays in this book obsessively revisit scholarly discussions about what fundamentalism really is, and specifically the 20th-century variety. As I see it, there is a continuing tradition that reaches at least as far back as the 1830s (here treated as proto-fundamentalism), and continues to the present day. That tradition focuses on the authority of the Bible. Many other elements cited in this book as part of the "fundamentalism" cluster may be more or less associated, but, in my view, which differs methodologically from that of the contributors to this book, the Bible is, throughout, the key.

The other elements are: militancy, separatism, patriarchy, revivalism, a Providential view of history (of which pre-millennialism, with its links to the Brethren, was a variant), substitutionary atonement, anti-intellectualism, and even British Israelism. There have also been objections to "Romanism" (and Lord Halifax, Ritualism, and Prayer Book revision) and to modernism (and evolution), as jointly imperilling the biblical foundations of the Reformation. To these add jazz, cubism, drink, cinema, Germans, and the Church Times. The editors emphasise that all these vary greatly over time, so that anti-Romanism, anti-intellectualism, and dispensationalism are not now important, and rejections of evolution never were.

Then there is the social solidarity of "sound Christians", and the boundaries that they raised against those who, by the 20th century, took over command and key teaching posts in Evangelical denominations. Yet, even in Northern Ireland, with its strong American connections, Ian Paisley's resonant political populism failed to translate into a large fundamentalist denomination.

Trials of scholars such as the Baptist T. R. Glover generally collapsed, while, in Methodism, A. S. Peake was so obviously sound on the gospel that "folk Methodists" mostly swallowed his scholarship. The editors conclude that fundamentalists and separatists were mostly marginal, and that British Evangelicals, though they sometimes quacked like fundamentalists, eschewed the acrimony of the Americans, and (Jim Packer apart) defended scriptural authority rather than inerrancy.

Analytically, I suggest that the dynamics of experiential religion can work independently of anxieties about the Bible. As an eight-year-old in 1937, I pored over The Fundamentalist, with its picture of John Wesley, the great icon of experiential Evangelical faith, and (later) publications supported by the irrelevant prestige of eminent lawyers, physicians, generals, and the keeper of the London Zoo. My father sought out the gospel with Campbell Morgan and Martyn Lloyd-Jones (a prominent figure recommending separation), Dinsdale Young, William Sangster, and (unmentioned) Alan Redpath at Duke Street Baptist, Richmond.

Defending the Bible in Britain had little to do with any intellectual tradition based on Scottish "common-sense" philosophy as identified by George Marsden in the States (and the absurdity of treating the Bible as a source of information), especially for forceful and intelligent people denied serious education, but a great deal to do with an experiential religion for which the "authority" of the Bible acted as a synecdoche.

The issue was hot religion Spurgeon-style, and the "groanings of the Spirit". That is why William Kay's essay on Pentecostalism rightly distances it from fundamentalism. Critical blasts from Michael Ramsey or James Barr only firmed up identities. Conservative Evangelical Christianity in the universities flourished while the SCM destroyed itself in the 1960s by an anti-institutional "secular theology", as argued now by Sam Brewitt-Taylor - and, at the time, by me. We are dealing with experiential "spiritual" religion linked to the Bible, especially its problematic Providential history, as brilliantly excavated by Alec Ryrie for early modernity and (say) Tanya Luhrmann for contemporary Evangelicalism.

The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

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