The Crack-Up: 1919 & the Birth of Fundamentalism, with Matthew Avery Sutton

Jun 28, 2019

Washington State's Matthew Avery Sutton tells the story of a Minneapolis pastor named William Belly Riley and the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the post-World War I years. From concerns about FDR and the New Deal to the Trump administration's anti-Obamacare rhetoric--and a consistently "apocalyptic worldview"--Sutton and historian Ted Widmer trace the influence of this movement over the past century.

TED WIDMER: This is Ted Widmer. You're listening to The Crack-Up, an occasional series of podcasts about the year 1919 and its ongoing relevance to our lives.

We're really lucky today to have Professor Matthew Avery Sutton. He's the Edward R. Meyer Professor of History at Washington State University.

Welcome to the show, Matt.

MATTHEW SUTTON: Thanks for having me, Ted.

TED WIDMER: Matt, you wrote a brilliant essay in The New York Times about a gathering in Philadelphia in late May of 1919. Can you tell us a little more about it?

MATTHEW SUTTON: Sure. This was one of those events that marked the rise of what we now call Christian fundamentalism.

A group of leaders came together, they were led by a Minneapolis pastor named William Bell Riley. What he wanted to do was to bring together people of like-minded faith to think about how to reform Christianity. He thought there was a problem, so he was trying to solve it by holding a series of meetings to focus on what World War I had meant and what cultural changes that were happening around them all signified as they were thinking about their Christian faith and how to apply it to the world. It was very much about thinking about applying their faith to real issues, to modern-day concerns.

TED WIDMER: And it's a very big meeting. How many people were there?

MATTHEW SUTTON: I think there were 5,000 or 6,000 people. Many of them were ministers, but some of course brought their families, others were evangelists and Bible teachers. And it represented people from all kinds of denominations; it wasn't one particular group. There were Baptists and Methodists and Congregationalists and Episcopalians and Presbyterians and independents.

TED WIDMER: Were they using words like "fundamentalism" yet?

MATTHEW SUTTON: Not yet. There was a series of books called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, which had been published between 1910 and 1915. So they had begun to talk about returning to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, but they hadn't yet decided to call themselves fundamentalists. They hadn't yet formed a distinctive movement.

This meeting was one of the ones that launched it. They called the meeting the World Christian Fundamentals Association. At that point it was fundamentals they were trying to go back to, the fundamentals of the faith. Then, within a year or two, they were beginning to call themselves fundamentalists.

TED WIDMER: Got it. It's so interesting for those of us who teach history because the message we often teach in surveys is that the world is getting very modern in 1919. There are new kinds of music, motion pictures, cars, radio is about to be invented. And yet, your story is very different.

MATTHEW SUTTON: Yes. They really thought of themselves as very modern as well. They were taking the Bible and applying it in ways that hadn't been really done before. They essentially were resurrecting an old form of the Christian faith, so in that sense it was backward-looking, conservative.

But the way they actually did it was really forward-looking, in that they saw the Bible as having basically a series of small truths hidden throughout it and their job was to pull out these pieces, assemble them together, basically putting together a puzzle, and once they put together the puzzle, they could see where the world was heading, what was going on, what was going to happen next. It gave them a new sense of confidence and that willingness to engage in the world.

TED WIDMER: They think they can read secret messages or coded messages and predict the future. Is that too simplistic?

MATTHEW SUTTON: No, that's exactly right. They thought that the Old Testament prophets and Jesus in the New Testament and the Book of Revelation had all laid out these prophecies. The question for them was: When are these prophecies going to be fulfilled, especially the ones about the Second Coming of Jesus; when Jesus is going to come back to Earth?

They believed that things like World War I, the rise of the women's rights movement, women's suffrage, racial issues happening at the time, new forms of mass media, the shrinking of the globe, new forms of communication, that all of these things were signs that they thought had been prophesied in the Bible. As they saw them happening around them, that convinced them that perhaps they were living in the end times, that perhaps they were moving toward the end of the world as we know it.

TED WIDMER: As you say, also events in the Middle East were very interesting to them.

MATTHEW SUTTON: Yes, that was a key for them. William Bell Riley and the folks who gathered in 1919, their predecessors or the generation or two before that beginning in the 1870s and 1880s, they looked at some of Jesus's statements in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 25, and they interpreted that as the return of Jews to Palestine would mark the beginning of the end; that this would help begin the culmination of the end times, the rise of the Antichrist, the battle of Armageddon, and all these kind of horrific events.

With the capture of Jerusalem by the British during World War I and British declaring Palestine a homeland for the Jews—or at least opening Palestine as a homeland for the Jews—this encouraged the people who would call themselves fundamentalists, and they really believed that the return of Jews to Palestine was one of the most powerful signs that they had been reading their Bibles correctly, that they were living in the end times.

TED WIDMER: There's a paradox, at least it feels like a paradox to me, that they're getting really excited about something terrible that's coming, is that accurate?

MATTHEW SUTTON: Right. You have to understand their worldview. They felt at that point—and it's similar to today's evangelicals—like they were on the outside, that this had been their country, that for much of the 19th century conservative Protestants ruled the nation, and by the 1910s and 1920s they believed that the country was becoming more secular, it was becoming more religiously diverse, there were a lot more Catholics and Jews, and there were a lot more people who just weren't believing in faith at all.

For them, there was a sense of loss. It was a paradox that they were eager and excited for the apocalypse, but it's because that's what was going to guarantee them victory in the end, that they're the ones who were going to come out of that ahead and they were going to have the last laugh.


MATTHEW SUTTON: Everybody else was going to be destroyed, leaving all these fundamentalists to enjoy the new heavens and the new Earth that God is going to create after he destroys the world again.

TED WIDMER: It's kind of like a really good Super Bowl, that there'll be a lot of mayhem but then they'll come out winning on the other end.

MATTHEW SUTTON: Exactly. The Super Bowl is a perfect metaphor because it's also that there's a clock that's ticking, so they really had very little time left, that this was going to happen, and when Jesus returns he's going to judge them, so they're going to want to demonstrate that they've been doing everything in their power to do good, to do righteousness, to do what they believe Jesus has called them to do.

The old understanding of these folks was that they were politically indifferent or culturally inactive. In fact, just the opposite is the case: because they had so little time, they were more active, they were more engaged in culture, they were more interested in changing politics, because Jesus was going to judge them and they wanted to show that they were worthy of his support and his praise.

TED WIDMER: One way in which you point out that they're active is they're really great network builders. They're not just rural folk who aren't connected to each other. They're building colleges and summer camps and newsletters. Can you talk about how they got so many people to Philadelphia?

MATTHEW SUTTON: Yes. They were excellent at using the newest tools of mass media. In the late 19th century they were using cheap newspapers and magazines, and those were spreading.

Then they begin opening Bible colleges in the late 19th and early 20th century. Riley had his own Bible college in Minneapolis. There was a college in Los Angeles. There was one in Chicago. There was a small one in New York. Notice these are all urban Northern and Western cities. This is where the movement was really born. It wasn't rural or Southern, as we often think.

What happens is that they create these colleges, and then they begin holding conferences, and the conferences are an opportunity for them to come together to talk about the latest issues, the latest events, and to think about how those line up with what they're reading in their Bibles.

Then they would be within just a couple years pioneers at using radio as well. Of course, in the 1950s they would use television. In the 1970s and 1980s they would begin using satellite technology and cable television. They've really been at the cutting edge at every moment in major media transformation in the 20th century, which is another thing that belies that stereotype of them as anti-moderns. They didn't believe in modernist ideas, but they very much believed in the tools of modernity and using those tools as effectively as possible.

TED WIDMER: Why is science so threatening to these pretty modern religious people? You mentioned evolution especially. After the war, I would think a lot of people would be grateful to science for helping the Allies win with superior weaponry in some ways, and also preventing the spread of disease, which is on a lot of people's minds, but not with these guys.

MATTHEW SUTTON: They would say that they were pro-science, but the big problem for them was Darwinian evolution. It wasn't just evolution, per se, but it was the idea of survival of the fittest and natural selection. It was the idea that instead of seeing humans as distinctively made in God's image, different than any other animal, that what Darwin was teaching was that humans were just like the rest of the animals and that they were just the product of random chance or natural selection. That really challenged their understanding of the Bible.

They also were being threatened by literary critics who were also questioning the veracity of the Bible and raising issues about who might've written different books of the Bible and when those things were written.

All these things combined to make them very suspicious of mainstream science, and especially evolutionary biology. Some of them began to organize crusades against the teaching of evolution in the public schools, and that became one of the distinctive features of the movement because journalists spent so much time focusing on that.

TED WIDMER: Even serious scholarship into the books of the Bible and dating of scrolls, that was very offensive to them.

MATTHEW SUTTON: It wasn't the scholarship on it, it was the results, it was the conclusions. They began to recognize that Moses probably didn't write the first five books of the Old Testament, and that Isaiah might've actually been two authors, not just Isaiah, and that some books that they had dated before certain events happened, literary scholars came back later and said that, no, actually those were probably written much later. Those were the kinds of things.

The reason it was a challenge was because they had a view that the Bible was not quite dictated by God but essentially that it was without error and that it was what it said it was.

Once it was subjected to this literary criticism and once critics came up with these different ways of understanding the biblical text as literature, as something that was edited, that changed over time, then this challenged what they thought the Bible was saying, because in their minds if you could knock down one thing that they saw as true in an obscure part of the Bible, then why can't you knock down the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who's to say that that's true?

TED WIDMER: Right. You mentioned race and also tensions over women having more to do in the workplace and getting the vote. Does the Bible support what they were trying to say, which is the old-fashioned view that we don't want either African Americans or women in our political universe, or was it just that they were twisting the evidence to suit what they wanted it to say?

MATTHEW SUTTON: I wouldn't say they were twisting. I think people always read texts, whether it's a biblical text or another text, in the context of their life and times. They wouldn't have been aware that they were twisting it, but they certainly were reading it through a series of presuppositions based on their race and their class and their gender and their nationality. Americans read the Bible very different than somebody in the developing world, and they were no different. What that did do to them was blinded them to racial inequalities and racial injustices, or perhaps they chose not to see those things.

There could've been an opportunity for fundamentalists to join with some African American church who had similar theologies, but they didn't do it. They just refused. For them, color was more important than theology, and I think that's one of the telling problems in the movement and one of the things that I think more recently they're still wrestling to address.

TED WIDMER: Right. Were there fundamentalists who were colorblind, who were different? I mean, is this a herd-like movement where everyone has to be the same or are there progressive fundamentalists pushing back a little bit?

MATTHEW SUTTON: There were a handful, but it was within the context of the 1910s and 1920s. So we wouldn't call them progressive by today's standards, but there were some who recognized that African Americas or Latinos, mostly Mexican Americans, were equal in that in God's eyes that they were all God's children.

They did make some efforts to reach out to them, to include them, but they were very similar to other white progressives, that it was often still condescending and hierarchical. Nevertheless, there were some that were just blatant racists. There were others who were trying to do the right thing, but they were limited by their own contexts.

TED WIDMER: Are there female leaders of this movement? I mean, if 5,000 or 6,000 people are in Philadelphia, there must be a lot of women there, but they are accepting this theology that doesn't do very well by them?

MATTHEW SUTTON: Yes. That's one of the fun controversies of this movement. They believe they're living in the end times, and one of the things that the Apostle Peter also says in the Book of Acts, Chapter 2, is that in the last days sons and daughters will prophesy. They interpret the word "prophesying" as preaching. And so there were actually women leaders, women preachers. Aimee Semple McPherson from Los Angeles was the most famous, who believed that God had called her to preach because these were the last days and this was a special dispensation in which women should be preachers.

The vast majority disagreed with that view. They were threatened by it, they were troubled, and they believed that women needed to be essentially in the house, to be seen and not heard, that their job was to raise kids.

People like William Bell Riley were extremely sexist. He was very, very troubled by women leaders. But there were others who were more comfortable with it, more accommodating of women leaders.

TED WIDMER: What do these end times look like to them? Is it fire? Is it earthquakes? Do they ever get that specific?

MATTHEW SUTTON: They do. They believe that all true Christians are going to be raptured off the face of the Earth. The term "rapture" doesn't actually appear in the Bible. This was an innovation in the 19th century, the idea that all true believers will disappear and then the Earth will go through a period of time—probably about seven years—of chaos and death and destruction. And ultimately the person who will take power and bring stability and order to the Earth is a figure that's working for the devil—it's the Antichrist—and he will deceive the world into following him, with the exception of a few people who will convert and be saved in that period.

Then, at the end of that time, there's going to be a war. Jesus is going to return to Earth with the saints that had been raptured and is going to wage war again the Antichrist in literally the Valley of Armageddon in Palestine. They believe there's going to be this huge, cataclysmic war in what is today Israel, and then at the end of that the Antichrist is going to be destroyed, his army is going to be destroyed. The Earth is essentially going to be destroyed, but then Jesus is going to restore it, rebuild it, create a new heaven and a new Earth for His saints, for the true believers, the followers of Him.

TED WIDMER: Are there variations within that scenario or does everyone really believe something pretty much like that?

MATTHEW SUTTON: There are minor variations. They'll debate whether or not the rapture is going to happen before the Antichrist or after the Antichrist, there are variations about how long the Antichrist is going to rule, but within the fundamentalist and evangelical movement this has been the dominant theology.

Most fundamentalists you would have heard of or evangelicals would subscribe to this. So from Billy Sunday in the 1910s, to Billy Graham in the 1950s, to Jerry Falwell in the 1980s, to many of today's megachurch preachers, they would all adopt this apocalyptic worldview that things were moving toward the Second Coming of Christ and the end times.

TED WIDMER: It's so interesting that they identify the League of Nations possibly as Antichrist, you say that in your piece. Why is this innocent attempt to stop war from happening so threatening to them?

MATTHEW SUTTON: There are two problems with that. One, they believe you can't stop war from happening. Again, they go back to Jesus. Jesus, when his disciplines asked him what would be the signs of his Second Coming, he said wars and rumors of wars. So they believed that wars were inevitable. That was one thing.

The other thing was that they believed when the Antichrist did take power, he was going to do it through some kind of international political organization, so anything that seemed like it was an effort to take away national sovereignty or national independence and to consolidate power into an international organization made them very suspicious. So they were staunch opponents of the League of Nations.

Part of what had galvanized the movement in the first place was they had been saying "there's going to be war, war, war," when so many other people didn't believe there was going to be a war. Then, when World War I does begin, they're the ones who are able to say, "See, we told you. This is what we expected to happen. We are the ones who understand what's happening. Nobody else does."

TED WIDMER: That's fascinating.

It's so surprising, too, because Wilson is a deeply religious man, he's the son of a Presbyterian minister, he's the one behind the League of Nations, but these other religious Americans think he's in league with the Antichrist.

MATTHEW SUTTON: Exactly. What happens is the fundamentalist movement is a relatively small movement at this point. It's growing, it's moving, it's—like we've talked about, by 1919 you could get 5,000 or 6,000 people at a conference—but it's still a minority movement within the churches.

What ends up happening over the course of the 1920s and 1930s is they end up tearing mainstream Protestantism apart. Most of the major denominations—the Presbyterians, which is where Wilson was, as well as the Baptists, as well as the Methodists—ended up having these huge splits. There are fundamentalist groups that break off and then form their own Presbyterian, Baptist, or Methodist denominations. It was really an ugly fight among Christians at this point in terms of how to understand the Bible and how to understand the Bible's relevance for what was happening in the contemporary world.

TED WIDMER: Would you say the current skepticism toward the United Nations, which is so prevalent on the right, is traceable to this old fear of the League of Nations?

MATTHEW SUTTON: It is, and it's also skepticism of the welfare state. I got into this project trying to understand why fundamentalists and evangelicals were critical of internationalism and why they were critical of the federal government—like why couldn't the federal government provide health care, if they could do it effectively, what's the biblical argument for rejecting that?


MATTHEW SUTTON: What I discovered is that they have this deep-seated worldview that says in the end times there's going to be consolidation of power in federal governments and then ultimately in international organizations. We really can trace this all the way back to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, when they did become very concerned about the rise of the welfare state as a way in which Christians are ultimately going to lose their liberty.

So, when we hear people today talking about the fact that Christians are an oppressed minority and that the Trump administration needs to do more to protect evangelical rights, it comes out of this rhetoric. It comes out of this fear and this idea that ultimately the devil is running the world, and soon it's going to be the Antichrist running the world, and that he is going to clamp down on Christians' rights and freedoms. So they want to do what they can to prevent that for as long as possible, with the goal of getting as many people saved as possible.

TED WIDMER: Even though FDR is the great champion of the South and the West, where a lot of future evangelicals will be from, they still distrust his New Deal that much?

MATTHEW SUTTON: One of my early articles on this research was titled "Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age" because they had so much concern and so much fear over what FDR was doing.

They didn't think he was consciously a tool of the Antichrist but unconsciously a tool of the Antichrist, that he was setting the stage, so they hated the Works Progress Administration (WPA), they hated the National Recovery Administration (NRA), they hated the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), they hated Social Security—all of these things. You can see them make the same arguments against Truman when Truman starts to talk about a national health care system, and this takes us straight forward to Obamacare.

There's no biblical or theological reason to be opposed to a welfare state, they haven't even tried to make one out of the Bible. The only argument is that the state itself is the problem, that you just don't want to give any power to the state.

TED WIDMER: If future Democrats want a new kind of health care system, they might want to bring a huge group of liberal ministers to get out there and explain it in biblical language. It might actually help a little bit.

MATTHEW SUTTON: I think so. I think that one thing that Barack Obama was really good at was adopting the language of faith and using it effectively. That was one of the things that I wished Hillary Clinton would've done more of in 2016.

In some ways, I don't like to see—I don't know if it's good for our nation to see religion become a tool of politicians for the explicit purpose of just winning votes.


MATTHEW SUTTON: Nevertheless, I think had she done a more effective job of explaining her Methodist faith and her deep religious convictions and how her interest in social justice was rooted in her understanding of the Bible, I think all of that would have been more effective. It would have resonated with at least those who were in the middle, those who were on the border, those who aren't as steeped in this fundamentalist theology but still may worship in evangelical churches.

TED WIDMER: Have you heard that kind of intelligent religious justification of social justice from any of the current candidates?

MATTHEW SUTTON: Buttigieg is doing that brilliantly. It doesn't get a ton of national attention, but the religious press picks it up every time he does it, every time he says something about Mike Pence sacrificing real Christianity. It's just genius. I think he's doing it really effectively.

TED WIDMER: It's nice to see the two different strains right from the same state, from Indiana. It shows how deeply historic these arguments are.

MATTHEW SUTTON: Exactly. We really could do a 150-year history of how we got Buttigieg and Pence together in Indiana.


Matt, thank you so much. What an interesting conversation. I'm really grateful to you for your time today.

MATTHEW SUTTON: Thank you, Ted. It was really a lot of fun.

You may also like

JUN 14, 2024 Article

A Conversation with Carnegie Ethics Fellow Sophie Flint

This interview series profiles members of the inaugural Carnegie Ethics Fellows cohort. This discussion features Sophie Flint, a a project manager for Strategic Resource Group.

Left to Right: Nikolas Gvosdev, Tatiana Serafin, Peter Goodman. CREDIT: Noha Mahmoud.

JUN 13, 2024 Podcast

How the World Ran Out of Everything, with Peter S. Goodman

In the final "Doorstep" podcast, "New York Times" reporter Peter Goodman discusses how geopolitics is connected to the goods that end up on our doorstep.

JUN 4, 2024 Article

Space-Based Data Risks to Refugee Populations

Space-based data is quite useful for observing environmental conditions, but Zhanna Malekos Smith writes that it also raises privacy concerns for vulnerable populations.