Founding of the World Christian Fundamentals Association Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

William Bell Riley founded the World Christian Fundamentals Association because of increasing concern among conservative Christians that American culture was moving away from the central tenets of a biblically based Christianity.

Summary of Event

The founding of the World Christian Fundamentals Association by William Bell Riley was a watershed moment in the development of the evangelical movement, which would be a major force in twentieth century American religion and politics. Conservative Christians had long been frustrated by the trends in American culture. In particular, they objected to the widespread influence of Charles Darwin’s Darwin, Charles theory of evolution. Evolution;theory Set forth in his groundbreaking 1859 book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (Darwin) Darwin’s theory cast doubt on the biblical account of creation and thereby undermined Americans’ trust in the factual accuracy of the Bible. Orator and political leader William Jennings Bryan called Darwin’s theory “the only thing that has seriously menaced religion since the birth of Christ.” World Christian Fundamentals Association Conservative Christian organizations Christian organizations Fundamentalist Christians [kw]Founding of the World Christian Fundamentals Association (1919) [kw]World Christian Fundamentals Association, Founding of the (1919) [kw]Christian Fundamentals Association, Founding of the World (1919) [kw]Fundamentals Association, Founding of the World Christian (1919) World Christian Fundamentals Association Conservative Christian organizations Christian organizations Fundamentalist Christians [g]United States;1919: Founding of the World Christian Fundamentals Association[04590] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;1919: Founding of the World Christian Fundamentals Association[04590] [c]Organizations and institutions;1919: Founding of the World Christian Fundamentals Association[04590] Riley, William Bell Bryan, William Jennings Laws, Curtis Lee

The growing acceptance of what conservative Christians began to call Darwinism was only one of the issues that galvanized the conservative Christian movement, however. World War I and its aftermath created chaos in American culture. U.S. participation in the war was not universally supported by Americans. Many citizens were not accustomed to viewing their country as a world power, and they held to the position that the United States should not concern itself with matters outside its own shores. American participation in the war was not initially supported by all conservative Christians. Bryan had resigned from Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet in 1915 rather than become part of a process that might lead the nation to enter the war. When the United States declared war in 1917, he supported the war effort, but without the zeal he brought to many other issues. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];support among American conservative Christians

Curtis Lee Laws, editor of the Baptist newspaper the Watchman Examiner, defended peace activists, but he did write that Wilson’s decision to go to war was justified. (Laws is credited with being the first to use the word “fundamentalist” to describe those willing “to do battle royal for the fundamentals.”) Other conservative Christians supported the U.S. war effort with fervor. Fiery evangelist Billy Sunday Sunday, Billy said in 1917 that “Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms and hell and traitors are synonymous.” By the end of the war, almost all conservative Christians had become zealots for the cause.

To understand this shift in positions, one must understand the mind-set of the conservative Christian movement. A central component of the perspective of many conservative Christians sprang from their interpretation of chapter 20 of the Bible’s Book of Revelation. This passage describes a future time when an angel shall bind “the Devil” and cast him into a pit for one thousand years. During this thousand-year period, Christ shall rule upon the earth, bringing harmony and prosperity. All of those who were witnesses for Christ or who were persecuted for Christ will thrive and prosper with Christ during this period. At the end of this thousand-year rule, Satan will be released and all men will be judged from the “book of life.” Those who worked and lived for Christ will live forever with God. Those who did not will be damned to “the lake of fire.”

Most conservative Christians thought that the thousand-year period was yet to come. Some even thought that the return of Christ was imminent. They called themselves “premillennialist,” meaning that they believed the millennial period of Christ’s rule was yet to come. Other Christians believed that the thousand-year reign was the period of time since the death and resurrection of Christ, during which the world was becoming more and more Christlike. They were “postmillennialist”—that is, they believed that the millennium had begun with the death and resurrection of Christ. Christians who did not believe that there would be a millennium were called “amillennialist.”

One reason American conservative Christians were slow to support U.S. participation in World War I was their premillennialist convictions. If the only true ruler would be Christ, and if his coming might be at any moment, Christians should not recognize earthly rulers. However, as Germany began to be identified with evolution and modernism—forces that Christians saw as threats to the Christian worldview—conservative Christians suddenly became ardent patriots. In this turn to patriotism, there is, of course, a contradiction. If Christ were to return to rule the world, the United States would cease to exist. Nonetheless, conservative Christians connected Germany, evolution, and modernism with all that they perceived to be destroying the Christian perspective. They became fervent defenders of traditional American culture, something that they associated with a Christian perspective.

The aftermath of the war only intensified this thinking, creating the climate that gave birth to the World Christian Fundamentals Association. Thousands of soldiers came home from war, creating economic upheaval. Furthermore, the early part of the 1920’s was a time of rampant unrest in American industry, as labor unions embarked on strikes to better the position of workers and industries successfully resisted their demands. Large numbers of immigrants sought better lives in the United States, and many Americans believed the newcomers were taking jobs that should be reserved for citizens.

Meanwhile, a generation of young people who came of age during the war adopted points of view and lifestyles that were far from traditional. F. Scott Fitzgerald Fitzgerald, F. Scott summarized their plight in his widely read postwar novel This Side of Paradise (1920). This Side of Paradise (Fitzgerald, F. S.) Describing them as a generation who grew up “to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken,” Fitzgerald became one of the most important novelists of what came to be called the Jazz Age. Author Gertrude Stein described this generation in starker terms: She called them the “lost generation,” Lost generation in a phrase that Ernest Hemingway would use in an epigraph to his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. In short, loss of tradition, restlessness, and a sense of ultimate doom pervaded American culture in the postwar years. Conservative American Christians saw in these characteristics of their culture not only the signs of an end time but also a turning away from the religious traditions that had sustained their faith.

Complicating matters even more was the so-called Red Scare of 1919-1920. Red Scare (1919-1920) The successful communist revolution in Russia had disquieted many in the world community. Because Karl Marx (in 1848) had defined capitalism as a stage of economic development that would lead the way to communist revolt, many American artists and leftists began predicting a revolution in the United States. Echoing Darwin’s theory of evolution, Marx’s theory was based on a materialistic view of human economic history, a point of view that contained no role for Christianity or any other religion.

Amid all these signs of impending doom, Riley fanned the fires of discontent among the faithful, and in 1919 he created the World Christian Fundamentals Association, an organization that was intended to hold the line against change in American culture.

Significance

Although Riley’s organization was short-lived and failed to accomplish much of what it set out to do, its founding created a precedent. It was the first of many attempts on the part of conservative Christians to reform American society, to fight back or at least hold the line against what they considered to be decadence. Premillennialist Christians moved from being observers of a world that would be repudiated and judged by Christ to being actors in the spiritual drama of trying to save their portion of that world. World Christian Fundamentals Association Conservative Christian organizations Christian organizations Fundamentalist Christians

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God. New York: Ballantine, 2001. Presents an examination of the global phenomenon of fundamentalism and the irony of fundamentalism in a materialistic culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brasher, Brenda, ed. The Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism. New York: Routledge, 2001. A thorough guide to people and concepts in the fundamentalist movement. Focuses not only on Christian fundamentalism but also on fundamentalism in other religions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carpenter, Joel A. Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A study of American fundamentalism from the Scopes trial through 1950.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. An excellent study of the historical, economic, and cultural forces that brought fundamentalism into prominence in American culture.

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