The Hidden History of the Historic Fundamentalists 1933-1948: Reconsidering the Historic Fundamentalists' Response to the Upheavals, Hardships, and Horrors of the 1930s and 1940s

By Jim Owen
Lanham, Md. : University Press of America (2004). xli + 383 Pages.

Reviewed by Jonathan Moorhead
16.1 (Spring 2005) : 173-175

Contemporary historians are largely unanimous in their assessment of the historic fundamentalists as being a cadre of cobelligerents who were indifferent to the plight of humanity. As “theologically ‘challenged,’ politically indifferent, socially uncaring, and economically only one small step above a Social Darwinian Neanderthal,” fundamentalists are often portrayed as a bucolic people deserving of our pity (xv). Jim Owen challenges this calcified interpretation with meticulous attention to the words and deed s of the historic fundamentalists during the era of the Great Depression and Holocaust (sorely missing is a bibliography to catalogue his massive research). Confessing an apologetic agenda, Owen seeks to “set the record ‘straighter’ because it has been bent scandalously beyond recognition,” while recognizing “I may be playing Don Quixote to the nearest postmodern windmill” (365).

The negative caricatures of fundamentalists are challenged on several fronts. Academically, Owen belies the charge that all fundamentalists were devoid of a “life of the mind” by documenting their love for literature, language, politics, education, and culture. Politically, generous attention is given to the running political commentary found in fundamentalist journals where tremendous insight was brought to bear on current events such as the New Deal, Zionism, labor disputes, communism, prohibition, fascism, minimum wage, capitalism, anti-Semitism, civil liberties, segregation, socialism, and so on. Confronted with the question of political involvement, there was an understanding that “politics is an intoxicatingly perfumed whore,” but, as Keith Brooks wrote, “certainly the act that one has the ‘blessed hope’ will not lessen his loyalty as a citizen of the United States of America. May every reader . . . daily seek divine guidance as to how he can most effectively serve his country. Now is the time to prove that Premillennialists are something more than dreamers” (12, 35). Socially, Owen cites (almost to a fault), how fundamentalists impacted the social welfare of humanity around the world, even during the worst depression in American history. During WWII, fundamentalist organizations raised millions of dollars (in today’s standard) to provide food, medical care, shelter, clothing, and even visas for those suffering from the ravages of war.

Owen’s chapters chronicling fundamentalism’s response to the Jews, anti- Semitism, and the Holocaust are invaluable. Though historians have charged fundamentalists with being ambivalent toward the Jews, passive toward their suffering, and even anti-Semitic, Owen’s research provides ample evidence to the contrary. As early as 1931, fundamentalist journals began reporting the treatment of the Jews in Europe, and Germany in particular. As the war began and the horrors of the Holocaust became known, the popular journals incessantly ran stories of the atrocities, many of them graphic in their details in order to convey the solemnity of the ontological event. Additionally, many prominent leaders visited these countries to report atrocities first-hand, numerous journal articles and books were published on the issue of anti-Semitism, and various relief organizations were formed to provide aid to suffering Jews (believing and unbelieving). One cannot help but agree with Owen when he concludes, “The evidence of the historic fundamentalists’ concern for the Jews of Europe is so abundant that ignorance of it, or the deliberate ignoring of it, or an unwillingness to investigate it, is inexcusable” (197).

Acceptance of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a point of contention in fundamentalist history. Conceding the blatant anti-Semitism of Gerald Winrod, Owen does not satisfy the reader with his statement on William Bell Riley: “I simply am not familiar enough with him and his work to have an opinion” (268). Evidence supplied by Timothy Weber and others suggests that Riley was anti-Semitic, just as the FBI file on him that Owen perused suggested (320). While Owen successfully defends James Gray and Arno Gaebelein against anti-Semitic charges (and in refuting several other accusations made by Weber), he omits a few of the statements made by these men that drew such heat, and does not go far enough in his criticism of them for their caricatures of apostate Jews, right or wrong. For example, omitting the fact that Gaebelein praised the Russian publisher of the Protocols, Serge Nilus, as “a believer in the Word of God, in prophecy, and [therefore] must have been a true Christian” bolsters the claims of Gaebelein’s detractors (Conflict of the Ages [1933], 99).

In his final chapter, “Historic Fundamentalism and the Supernatural: A Non-Conformist Historiography” with Addendum, “The Unseemly Death of Providentialism at the Hands of Evangelical Historians,” Jim Owen seeks to answer why historians have ignored the evidence that vindicates many charges against fundamentalism. By attacking the historical method of modern evangelicals, his answer is certain to raise the ire of his peers. Specifically, Owen charges that “historical agnosticism” is advocated so as to secure the respect and a place at the table with non-evangelical academia, typifying the words of Marchant King that scholarship is “a fine servant, but a bad master” (39 ). Throughout his oeuvre, Owen challenges the conclusions of notable historians such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, Joel Carpenter, and Timothy Weber. Such an attack on the establishment is not likely to win him favor, but his research has justified the questions he is asking.

In the opinion of this reviewer, Owen has effectively challenged the “hoary cliché that the historic fundamentalists withdrew into the closet of personal piety and ignored the world during the 1930s” (109). While Owen’s history is not altogether uncritical of fundamentalism, often admitting to “serious, serious failings” on various issues, this work is understood to be an apologetic for their actions during critical points in the 20th century (126). Hence, the reader should expect a positive presentation of their contributions, not a balanced show of successes and failures. Admitting in the Preface, “History should not always have to be written in polite academic monotones,” Owen passionately and unabashedly defends his heritage in a flavorful style that gives this history a personality that is lacking in many of today’s more sterile versions (xvi). Unfortunately, Owen’s style may confirm the militant fundamentalist stereotype by those who oppose it. Regardless of the reader’s understanding of Owen’s civility, the depth of his research is no doubt a contribution to knowledge of the field, a corrective to many misrepresentations of fundamentalist behavior, and is thus deserving of a wide readership.