Volume 13, Issue 1: Eschaton
Eschatological Decline 1865-1925 - Part 1
Jack Van Deventer
The sixty-year period following the War Between the States was a noteworthy period of doctrinal decline. This segment of American history witnessed a cultural and doctrinal shift from Calvinism to pietism, from the church to the parachurch, from optimism to pessimism, and saw biblical worship erode into a free-for-all of sentimentalism, retreatism, and anti-intellectualism. The next several "Eschaton" articles will address the subject of how Christianity changed from 1865-1925, why Christianity changed, and how that doctrinal shift affects the Church today. They will seek to explain the events that led to the development of the modern and unbiblical phenomena of a pessimistic worldview.
Until the 1860s, American evangelicalism was so influential it was essentially a religious establishment. Almost all Protestants thought of America as a Christian nation whose faith was part of a normative creed. Northerners, in particular, believed their victory to have been an expansion of God's kingdom among men. The worldwide acceptance of the gospel was more than a hope, it was an expectation. Professor Samuel Harris of Yale in 1870 declared, "The sublime idea of the conversion of the world to Christ has become so common as to cease to awaken wonder."
Less than 60 years later, the decline of Christianity seemed to have hit rock bottom. Christianity went from being highly respected to being openly ridiculed. The cynical agnostic, Clarence Darrow, was the media darling of the 1925 "Monkey Trial." Darrow used ridicule as a powerful weapon and spared nothing in his battle against religious "bigots and ignoramuses." The elite New England newspapers sent crack reporters to tiny Dayton, Tennessee, hoping for a fundamentalist feeding frenzy. They expected a kill and were not disappointed as they made William Jennings Bryan, defender of creation, a symbolic whipping boy. Bryan, who died the Sunday after the trial, was in their view the personification of what they detested about Christianity. In deriding Bryan, the press caricatured creationists as religious crackpots and backwoods dimwits. The "Monkey Trial" was not the cause of disdain for Christianity, merely an anticipated excuse for delivering the blow. Popular writers like Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken were quick to exploit the opportunity. Mencken's venomous attacks on Bryan continued even after Bryan's death. Bryan was one who loved "gaping primates of the upland valleys," "greasy victuals of the farmhouse kitchen," and "cocks crowing on the dunghill." Mencken saw Bryan's demise as an opportunity to mock Christendom at large. "Heave an egg out of a Pullman window," he said, "and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today."
Clearly, a major shift in attitude toward Christianity had taken place in the period from 1865 to 1925. The change was rapid and seemed to have caught the church by surprise. What were the causes of the decline in Christianity? Why did the church go from being a forward-moving force for cultural transformation to being in full-scale retreat? One contributing factor to the decline was that science was held in high regard during the 1800s. New scientific discoveries generated enthusiasm in the culture at large as advancements helped explain the nature of the universe and produced technical and industrial innovations. Until the time of Darwin, science had in every way confirmed Christianity. Indeed, if science was the analysis of God's creation, why shouldn't it?
Christianity, however, had strayed from the historic Reformed doctrines that the human mind was blinded by depravity. Rather, a more man-pleasing view of human nature, called Common Sense philosophy, had begun to influence Christian thinking. This increasingly popular philosophy affirmed the sinfulness of man but held that all humans were endowed with the potential to know God's truth. Men, it was held, were moral agents capable of free choice. The Common Sense view of reality was believed to provide a rational and scientific confirmation of the Bible and the Christian faith. One historian noted, "In an age that reverenced science, it was essential that this confidence in Scripture not be based on blind faith alone. God's truth was unified, so it was inevitable that science would confirm Scripture."1 In essence, perceptions became a more sure proof, more authoritative than the truth of God's Word. This humanistic confidence was a recipe for disaster.
The departure from historic Reformed Christianity to self-assured, self-centered thinking caused a crisis that rattled the weakened faith of many Christians. They were unprepared for the idea that "science" might be at odds with the Bible. Darwin's theory of evolution was an attack on the Bible which blind-sided a church that had drifted into Common Sense thinking.
In summary, the theory of evolution brackets the sixty-year time period. From the beginning of evolutionary thinking in the mid-1800s to its formal acceptance in the government school system in 1925, the church declined rapidly. In the course of this descent the historic postmillennial hope of the church became secularized and liberalized. Optimism was abandoned as unrealistic. Pessimism fit the despair of the day. Because of this mental and doctrinal slump, premillennial and amillennial theories of the future were developed or modified in attempts to explain the seemingly permanent erosion of Christian influence. Intimidated by ridicule and pseudoscience, a pessimistic worldview within the church took root that remains with us. This brief overview sets the stage for further discussions on the recovery of a biblical worldview and its implications for the church today.