By Taylor Murray
Historians have debated definitions of the term “fundamentalism” practically since it was popularized in the early 1920s. Among the earliest attempts to provide a definition was in The History of Fundamentalism, written by Stewart G. Cole and originally published in 1931. Historian Barry Hankins has observed that Cole’s reason for writing this study at this particular time was because he believed “fundamentalism had ended and could now be analyzed as a historical relic.”1
Of course, now we know that wasn’t the case.
We also know there are various issues with Cole’s study that are clear in retrospect. He obviously favours the liberals and shows an unmistakable lack of scholarly nuance when dealing with his subjects. Moreover, he tends to reduce fundamentalism itself to the controversies of the 1920s, rather than look at the broader evangelical picture.
The first of these issues was bad practice (and poor manners); the second, however, proved to be a little more complicated. Without going into the details, while fundamentalism had suffered defeats in a few public arenas (such as was the case in the “Scopes-Monkey Trial” in 1925) the reality was that many of Cole’s subjects were still active and still held considerable influence, including T. T. Shields, the pastor of Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto.
Recently, I discovered Shields’ review of Cole’s work. Although it is only three brief paragraphs—and he admitted that he didn’t read the whole book—it is true to form for the fundamentalist. “If we could believe in the doctrine of reincarnation,” he wrote “‘we might well suppose’, as the Darwinians are wont to say, that this so-called ‘History of Fundamentalism’, was the result of the collaboration of Ananias and Elymas the sorcerer.”2 This is vintage Shields.
For Shields, Cole’s bias was clear. “[T]he whole book is obviously the work of a man who hates Evangelical Christianity,” he wrote, “It is not a history of Fundamentalism, but a revelation of the animus of Modernism.”3 As already noted, various historians have observed that Cole’s work clearly favoured the modernists over the fundamentalists and was “apologetic in nature.”4 This was not lost on Shields.
Writing during the Great Depression, Shields’ thoughts are well summed in his humorous final assessment: “In these times of depression, our readers may spare themselves further depression—and, incidentally, save a little cash—by not wasting money on its purchase. Nothing of truth will be missed by not reading it.”5
It is not often that we get to see the subject interacting with the source. Given Cole’s “historical relic” perspective, we might read Shields’ review as a cheeky, “Hello—I’m still here!” In any event, it is interesting to see Shields engage with a few problem areas quite early in this book’s lifecycle. Perhaps the real lesson here is that when seeking to explain a historical phenomenon and provide a definition, it’s probably not a good thing when the subjects don’t recognize themselves in the narrative.
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Taylor Murray is Creative Producer of Distributed Learning at Tyndale University and a doctoral candidate at McMaster Divinity College. He holds an MA in Christian History from Acadia Divinity College, Acadia University. He is a Member at Large with the Canadian Baptist Historical Society.
1. Barry Hankins, “Marsden and Modern Fundamentalism,” in American Evangelicalism: George Marsden and the State of American Religious History, eds. Darren Dochuk, Thomas S. Kidd, Kurt W. Peterson (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014), 141.
2. “The History of Fundamentalism,” The Gospel Witness, 1 October 1931, 4.
3. “The History of Fundamentalism,” The Gospel Witness, 1 October 1931, 4.
4. Doug Adams, “War of the Worlds: The Militant Fundamentalism of Dr. Thomas Todhunter Shields and the Paradox of Modernity,” PhD Diss., University of Western Ontario, 2015, 9.
5. “The History of Fundamentalism,” The Gospel Witness, 1 October 1931, 4.
**The views of this Blog represent those of the author, and not necessarily the CBHS.**