When Your Calling and Election is [in Doubt]. III. Fundamentalism (part 1).

So far this intermittent series has wandered from the Jerusalem Bishopric to Intelligent Design, and now to 20th-century Physics™ and Conservative Christianity. Also, it’s Old Testament-ish.

A Kid Gets Lost

In my eighth grade of public school, I had a physical education class, a science class, an English class, some kind of arithmetic class, something called “social studies,” a technical education class (“shop class”), and I don’t recall what else now. In trying to think through that period in my life, I realize there wasn’t much in the way of encouragement to think about hard problems of the day. That applied to social problems and civil rights, scientific issues, or even academic kinds of things. I vaguely remember my English teacher asking us to compose “themes,” the term for short essays in the day. I had no facility with that. I remember trying to puzzle through a paragraph or two on some topic for the class and coming up dead empty. I’m sure she modeled what she wanted us to do, but I was probably more concerned with the social dynamics of the classroom than whatever she said. Being concerned with those dynamics occupied a good portion of my day. Usually by formulating strategies for being invisible, except maybe to Susan Wilcox [not her real last name because I just don’t remember it now] and her very tall, haughty, Greek Orthodox friend, Olive. Olive [also not her real name for the same reason] showed up in a high school science class where she snubbed me as a science fair partner—rightly perceiving me as just wanting to hang on to whatever she was doing so I wouldn’t have to do anything myself.

Casting about for something to spend as little time as possible on, I hit on trying to construct a cloud chamber. I remember this project, not for its incompleteness (I found that it was far more complex and far less likely to please judges than I first calculated) or its difficulties of shallow knowledge—I had to read a lot of stuff on particle physics—totally boring me out my skull at the time. But while I was reading, I came across an article in one of the popular news magazines of the era, might have been Time Magazine, about the arguments between certain kinds of Christians and modern science. Up to that point I saw these as two different worlds, not able to impinge on each other, not affecting each other, not seeing the overlap. I was in for some serious shock that extended over a lengthy period—decades even. And I learned something about Fundamentalism.


There’s something particularly inviting about this topic, especially given the Mormon attraction to Christian Fundamentalism. And there is a parallel theme in Mormon Fundamentalism—eventually. Necessarily there is a little history. First,


One reason that Christian Fundamentalism is on the radar is because of a subtraction narrative. I don’t know the exact statistics, but I recall that some decades ago and longer there was a Movement out of mainline Christianity into what I’m calling Fundamentalist Christianity. Somewhat remarkably, this affected American Catholicism as much as the Mainline Protestants. The subject is full of interesting aspects—political impact of the Christian Right or now alt-right, social issues related to those movements, TV evangelists, and biblical literalism. All these affect Mormonism to one degree or another. I will focus on the last item for the most part here.



Fundamentalism is, at its foundation, anti-modernist. There are several facets of belief that tend to characterize this grouping of related movements: biblical inerrancy is at its heart but also a wide-ranging literalist hermeneutic. Some selection or all of these are involved: six (solar?) day creation, a global flood wiping out all life but that on a real Noahic Arc, Jonah was really swallowed by a WHALE, and more. Evangelicals and Pentecostals share some of this. I’m really interested in literalism, because that also tended to find a home in Mormonism both from an early historic period—Joseph Smith certainly believed in an Adam and Eve that were the first human beings, perhaps even the first intelligent beings, on earth. That the earth was created by the molding of chunks of other worlds (earths?) by acts of a team of gods. Smith was not particularly anti-science. His grasp of the world was similarly formed from fragments of a world-view that seemed cut and formed from equal parts of the pre-modern enchanted cosmos, a deistic-providential view of a material world running by divinely crafted regularizing law (LaW was a very large thing in early Mormon systems) and (as I have already mentioned in the earlier posts) a view of the world that was the result of Intelligent Design—in the sense that only the hardened irreverent skeptic could see the world as anything but one that could only BE by the acts of a great Designer(s). There is a subtle difference between the last two. The second source was a clear lead into forms of immanent humanism—couldn’t the universe just be?—why is an original Designer even necessary (the cosmological argument’s failure mode)? But Joseph Smith borrowed (perhaps unconsciously) from this humanism—there is no divisional line in the Chain of Being–everything is Matter. Although, things are more complicated than this—but I don’t want to get hung up here. Many of Smith’s successors would see the world as simply part of a great spiritual engine whose purpose was the sexual seeding of spirit entities—creation of spirits by old-fashioned analogical biology—and then shepherding these children through successive stages to exaltation to then repeat this endless cycle from one sort of material universe to another and back again—the largest possible biosphere as it were.

I’ll come back to this in the next post. Assuming it squeezes out from the neurons.


  1. I’m not sure I buy that fundamentalism is anti-modernist. To me it seem inexorably tied to modernism – particularly the rise of hermeneutics in the early modern era. Yes it uses a less sophisticated hermeneutic than what we saw arise in the 19th century. Yet in many ways it respects a certain authority of the text and reads out of it using an essentially modernist conception of texts. It’s the skepticism towards the text that it lacks. However some might see that move as at best the end of modernism. (Think Nietzsche or the types of existentialism after him) To the degree it is modernism, it’s a modernism wrapped up in debates about what should be the authoritative text. (Think Hume against the traditionalists with his skepticism) In this case the problem with fundamentalism though isn’t that it is anti-modernist. It’s far from the pre-modern Christianity of medieval eras or late antiquity. Rather it’s just that it’s a type of modernism of a strain society has come to dislike.

  2. I second Clark. At least in my 10-year-old religious studies education, we were taught that “fundamentalism” — this idea that you could find some authoritative, pure, literal gospel and then return society to it — is a fundamentally modern idea. Much of religious history seemed to have been much more tolerant of the idea of a faith that evolves alongside the rest of society than the “fundamental” forces is our “modern” era are.

  3. I’m thinking of a broader class of fundamentalism I guess, Pius’ claims and such. It’s complicated and perhaps resists my tries at simple characterization.

  4. My sense is that in the early 20th century – especially in the 1930’s – that there was an attraction to fundamentalism against that first generation of Mormons coming back from ivy league and related universities. They brought with them such a degree of skepticism to tradition and texts and such an acceptance of the then dogmas of academic views of religion that there was a huge clash. This in turn lead some (particularly Joseph Fielding Smith) to embrace a kind of “enemy of my enemy is my friend” mindset. This unfortunately led to embracing quasi-fundamentalist apologetics. The classic example were anti-evolutionary apologetics from Seventh Day Adventist authors.

    I think where I tend to object to all of this is that to my eyes both sides were flawed in interesting ways. It really was a question of a sort of blind trust and almost an inerrancy. The reality is that the scholarship of the late 19th century and early 20th century was filled with hubris. Some things were of course correct that they discovered, but there was little humility and not enough attention to how much depended upon an argument from silence. On the other side was perhaps too much trust on a certain artificially created authority of the text. This wasn’t the authority of the text, but the authority of a presumed context that itself had no grounding.

    Ultimately (at least it often seems that way to me) the problem is that fundamentalists don’t see the distinction between the text and this hidden context of the text they’ve created. They like to pretend they are giving authority to the text when actually it’s this unexamined context that is given the authority. However both sides in a certain odd way make the exact same move of too much trust on rationality.

  5. Clark, I think the eastern education certainly played a role. The scholarship of the time had its flaws but the reaction did too. Armand Mauss’s work on assimilation and Phil Barlow’s on Mormons and the Bible are great here. I probably won’t say too much about that in any later post. I’m sort of interested in the fear aspects.

  6. Oh, I’m not justifying the reaction. It was, however, perhaps understandable and should be expected. Especially when the people in Utah weren’t really educated and had a hard time grasping the whole perspective that education had brought. Further, I think at least some of the people who went to university in that first generation really did lose their testimony. So such clashes were inevitable. Throw in the larger backlash against higher criticism, liberal theology and even evolution and it was inevitable it’d affect Mormonism.

    The story Nibley purportedly told was that no one believed in historicity until he defended it. That’s almost certainly wrong, although I don’t doubt it was a family tradition. I’m not even sure it was true of McKay. But definitely it wasn’t true of JFS or the related backlash. However I do think that having someone like Nibley who was able to bridge the two worlds with a quasi-literalist approach defused the conflict a great deal. That’s not to deny people like McConkie or Benson still having issues. However there never really was the insecurity there was in the 30’s and 40’s after Nibley. Then with the rise of FARMS I think you have the fusion of the two accounts with a more scientific approach to scriptural hermeneutics.

    In terms of fear though, I think many people of that generation came to really believe education was a threat to people’s testimony. I remember listening to people in small town southern Alberta on that and being shocked anyone would even think that way. However by and large I think both groups had a certain naive romanticism to their default positions that was unfortunate. Neither really tried to understand well and there were odd power dynamics at play.

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