Book Review: Revive Us Again

Book Reviews

Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism, by Joel A. Carpenter, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Hardcover, 335 pages.

Reviewed by Sam Tullock

An increasing amount of material has surfaced over the last several years concerning two aspects of the fundamentalist movement in the United States. Historians like Ernest Sandeen and George Marsden have blazed important trails concerning fundamentalism’s developmental years, and Nancy Ammerman, among others, has provided useful studies of more contemporary manifestations of this important conservative religious movement. Unfortunately, a gap existed between the treatments of the early developmental period and studies that focused on contemporary concerns. Joel Carpenter’s Revive Us Again bridges that gap by providing an excellent analysis of the history of fundamentalism from 1930 to 1950. The book traces the development of fundamentalism from the early leaders and the setbacks of the 1920s to the emergence of the new evangelicalism of the 1950s.

Carpenter suggests that competing forces tore at the fundamentalists during the 1930s and 1940s; in particular, they could not decide if they were “alienated outsiders” or “quintessential Americans.” In other words, they wrestled with their own sense of identity. Should they separate themselves from this evil world and prepare for the imminent rapture of the church (almost all fundamentalists espoused dispensational premillenialism), or should they take up arms as defenders and preservers of Protestant America? In his opening chapter Carpenter asserts that fundamentalism remained a vigorous religious force and resolved its “separatist/activist” tension by constructing a theology of revivalism that allowed its adherents to separate themselves from the world while recovering an active role in their culture. They could foster a sectarian mentality, yet remain relevant.

Carpenter devotes three chapters to what he calls “the separatist impulse.” In his second chapter he describes three sources of fundamentalist evolution into “estranged dissenters by the 1930s.” First, fundamentalists alienated themselves, he claims, from the university scholars by aiming their appeal at a grassroots, populist constituency. Second, dispensational predictions concerning the end of the world fostered an “embattled minority” mentality and promoted increasingly hostile exchanges between fundamentalists and their denominational opponents. Last, Carpenter observes that once-respected conservatives like James M. Gray were stung by the loss of respect they had previously received from many academic and denominational sources.

Feeling a sense of alienation, fundamentalists constructed a theological framework that rested, according to Carpenter, on three pillars. They placed primary focus on an evangelism that fundamentalists largely equated with great campaigns, fiery preachers, and altar calls. However, they buttressed their evangelistic appeals with Keswick views on sanctification that they retained from the Bible Conference Movement of an earlier era. Thirdly, they carefully aimed their ministries at rural transplants to urban industrial centers who longed for something warm and familiar in their alien environment. A number of interpretations of fundamentalism, including very early works by Stewart Cole and Richard Niebuhr, have portrayed religious conservatives as social “outsiders” who found themselves lost in the rampant urbanization of post-World War I America.

Chapters Five and Six provide a useful analysis of what Carpenter terms “a window on the world”: dispensational premillenialism. The whole book pivots on the arguments in this section. According to Carpenter, dispensationalism should have produced a dismal outlook concerning the prospect of positive social change, however, fundamentalists ingeniously managed to avoid cultural irrelevancy by forging a theology of revival that allowed them to retain their dispensational views while promoting the fundamentalist cause. They poured their energies and resources into aggressive plans to promote a great world revival that, they believed, would foreshadow the rapture of the church.

The next several chapters masterfully describe the various methods fundamentalists employed to promote their concept of revival: broadcast evangelism, the rise of the “new evangelicals,” and the parachurch organizations. Carpenter’s discussion of the new evangelicals is most intriguing. He asserts that many religious conservatives grew increasingly weary of the combative and separatistic spirit of fundamentalism. New evangelicals like Carl Henry, Harold Ockenga, George Eldon Ladd, Gleason Archer, and John Gerstner, according to Carpenter, retained much of the orthodoxy of fundamentalism while rejecting some of the more unsavory elements of the older movement. While Carpenter undoubtedly has a valid point here, one wonders how John Gerstner might have reacted to his inclusion in a group that this author characterizes as theologians who simply retooled fundamentalism.

Joel Carpenter has filled a considerable historiographical gap in the study of fundamentalism and has done so with meticulous research and analytical insight. Along with the works mentioned earlier, I would recommend Revive Us Again to any student of this important religious movement. However, Carpenter centers his attention on the northern aspects of the movement to the considerable neglect of its southern manifestations. Carpenter has helped bridge the gap between the 1920s and the new evangelicals. Nevertheless, he does not explain the geographical shift of the power base of fundamentalism from the North to the South. Historians of fundamentalism must deal with the movement’s shift to the South before the bridge Carpenter attempts to build can be completed.

Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South 1785-1900, by Gregory A. Wills, Oxford, $39.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Philip R. Taylor

The battles in this century over the life and soul of the Southern Baptist Convention have seen the development of many new and novel theories to support particular positions. One such position is that of soul liberty allowing an individual or a church to believe or do anything and still remain a Baptist or Baptist church in good standing. The real question of whether this is a valid position is partially understood through studying church discipline in Baptist history. Wills has done an outstanding job of opening up this topic in a clear and readable style from the perspective of our 19th-century predecessors.

Baptists of the last century understood the Scripture as supreme and discipline as a necessary tool to maintain fidelity to the gospel. Individuals and churches were subject to discipline for sinful actions and doctrinal error. The keys of the kingdom were held by the congregation, and they were meant to be used to strengthen the kingdom. Democracy was seen in the voting by all members of a fellowship or association. Wills documents how women and African-Americans participated in the process even with the controversy about their status in the church. The chapter on associations points to how individual congregations were kept on the Calvinistic side by the proper use of peer pressure. The section dealing with the decline of discipline as a healing and teaching tool brings up two underlying themes. The first theme is that discipline is one key to real revival. The lack of discipline prevented real revival by corrupting the church with worldly members. The other theme is that the adoption of the world’s standards and programs can sap the strength of the church by compromising fidelity to the Scripture. Discipline is a corporate matter that reflects true democracy in action. This volume is highly recommended to those with an interest in the subject. Pastors wanting to read actual advice from the period given by the Charleston Association should consult Some Southern Documents of the People called Baptists printed by the Society for Biblical and Southern Studies. Wills’ work is worth reading its 183 pages for a true understanding of the subject.