Fundamentalism’s Roots: A Review

What does it mean to be a “fundamentalist?”

At his lively blog Leaving Fundamentalism, Jonny Scaramanga has offered a review of my 1920s book that puts this question squarely at the center.

Two Thumbs Up...

Two Thumbs Up…

As Scaramanga points out from his current work and from his personal life history, the term “fundamentalist” is often used as more of a bludgeon than a label.  People accuse each other of being “fundamentalist” about this issue or that.  People dither over whether this or that person is a true “fundamentalist.”

Scaramanga notes that unless and until we get a sense of the formative first decade of American fundamentalism—the 1920s—we’ll never wrap our heads around the contentiousness that has always been at the core of defining the term.  I agree entirely.

Best of all, he gave the book a thumbs-up.  As Scaramanga put it,

I was genuinely surprised how much I liked this book. I’m a longtime reader of Adam’s blog and he’s helped me out with research on numerous occasions, so I knew he’s an engaging writer and a top bloke, but I was still expecting to find this a dry, academic slog. Actually, I was riveted. Everything I’ve studied of fundamentalism makes so much more sense in the historical context this book provides. I’d recommend it to people with a casual interest in fundamentalism just as much as those with an academic interest.

Thanks, Jonny.  I don’t think I’ve ever been called a “top bloke” before.  A “top bloke’s” a good thing…right?

Leave a comment


  1. From

    Fundamentalists relished this chance for open debate, because they were sure that evolution would lose. In the end, however, prosecutor William Jennings Bryan was unable to find any scientific experts willing to testify on the fundamentalist side.

    Dr. Laats, are these two assertions from your book?

    • @ChazIng, Yes, more or less. There are a couple of details we could add. For example, Dr. Howard Kelly of Johns Hopkins volunteered to act as a scientific expert for the prosecution. However, he believed in evolution for plants and animals, just not humans. William Jennings Bryan decided his testimony might be harmful in the end. I believe that the conservative side believed that they could put together an expert panel–both theologians and scientists–that could demonstrate that evolution was not good science and not good theology. In the end, folks such as William Jennings Bryan could not pull together such a group of credentialed experts. Not even flood geologist George McCready Price, the godfather of today’s young-earth creationism, agreed to testify for the prosecution.
      I’m guessing you’ve got a different opinion, but I think that is what the archival record demonstrates.

      • A different opinion? Hardly. However, just who were these fundamentalists who relished this opportunity for an open debate?

      • Folks such as J. Frank Norris, at the time a prominent pastor in Fort Worth. (He later moved to Detroit and continued his career as a well-known evangelist and conservative.) Norris told Bryan he was entirely confident that the Scopes prosecution would enjoy the presence of a group of “real scientists … [who] could meet any hoax or fraud that might be made by the defence.” Bryan told Dr. Kelly, “I am expecting a tremendous reaction as a result of the information which will go out from Dayton.”

      • Price’s wikipedia entry states that: “Bryan had appealed to Price for assistance, but Price was busy teaching in England.” Are you sure Price absolutely refused to testify?

      • His absence in London made it impossible for him to testify. As far as I am aware, he did not absolutely refuse to testify, but he absented himself in spite of Bryan’s earnest appeals for his testimony.

      • The claim that “… Bryan was unable to find any scientific experts willing to testify on the fundamentalist side.” would indicate to me that Bryan asked some scientists who refused because they were unable or afraid to defend their beliefs. So beside Price, were other scientists approached for help and who were they?

        As far as I can tell, Bryan only asked one scientist (Price) and the others were a theologian, pastors and an evangelist (Priest 1999: 64). Why ask them for help if he needed scientists? Also, if Kelly volunteered, then that invalidates the claim that Bryan could not find any scientific expert for the fundamentalist side.

        I am unsure what you mean by “Not even flood geologist George McCready Price …” What does the “not even” mean? That Price was inept, unsure of himself or afraid? How does that mesh with “His absence in London made it impossible for him to testify”?

        Priest, G. 1999. William Jennings Bryan And The Scopes Trial: A Fundamentalist Perspective. Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 4(1): 51-83.

  2. Donna

     /  November 5, 2013

    I’ve read it and give the book a thumbs up too. Jonny is right, everything makes so much more sense. I’d recommend it as well.


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