The Anti-evolution Crusade

Evolutionary science produced a popular backslash in America during the 1920’s. This was known as America’s anti-evolution crusade. Conservative Christians had never liked the Darwinian theory of human evolution, but their concern became a crusade during the 1920’s. Several factors contributed to the timing of America’s anti-evolution crusade. Why so many years after the publication of Origin of Species? Why in the 1920’s and not the 1860’s?

There are several factors that contributed to this. The first of these is that protestant fundamentalism increased within the mainline religious denominations during the years leading up to 1920. The term fundamentalism, which is now so common, was indeed originally coined only around 1920 to characterize a group of religious believers within the mainline protestant denominations.

In the late 1800’s, with the rise of religious liberalism within the different denominations, notions of higher criticism of the Bible appeared. They treated the Bible as a written work by people. While everyone within these denominations considered the Bible a special work, liberals viewed it as a work that reflected the evolution of the Hebrew view of God. You have the early books of the Bible that reflect how early Hebrew people viewed God. Then they developed and you have the prophetic books. Then the New Testament presents a fuller view of God. This was really an evolutionary view of religion.

It was against this that conservatives within the Church fought back. They held a very high view of scripture. They consider the entire scripture to be the word of God. The liberals would say this too, but they meant that it was inspired in a special way. Conservatives saw this evolutionary view of religion as a modern heresy.

It was the conservative-modernist controversy what was tearing apart the mainline religious denominations: the Methodists, Episcopal, Presbyterians and Baptists. It came to the point where the fundamentalists within those different denominations had more in common with each other than they did with the liberals within their own denominations. American Protestantism was splitting open.

Further, there were other factors that influenced the explosion of the crusade. After the eclipse of Darwinism, Darwin’s natural selection was beginning to revive within evolutionary science with the advent of Mendelian genetics. Pure classic Darwinism was more hostile to religious views than Lamarckianism.

Further, compulsory high-school education was just beginning to take effect around the country. This was pushing evolutionary teaching into the face of more parents. Before that, people mostly only went to elementary school, where evolution isn’t taught. Evolution is taught in high-school. With children forced to go to school, more parents who were suspicious of evolution for religious reasons were reacting.

Also, evolutionary thinking at this time was associated in the public mind with German militarism (World War I was just finished), laissez-faire capitalism and eugenics. This gave people a negative view of evolution. Finally, the 1920’s was a period of heightened social stress, as reform competed with reaction for America’s future.

With this background, around 1920, several fundamentalist leaders began targeting the theory of evolution for public condemnation. New anti-evolution fundamentalist institutions that attracted widespread following across denominations were formed.

Mainline protestant denominations became embroiled in bitter disputes over the teaching of evolution within Church Colleges and from the pulpit. Conservatives demanded orthodoxy with respect to the special creation of humans in God’s image. On the other side, the liberals defended modern science and an evolutionary view of religious understanding. In the end, in most of the denominations, the liberals won.

I think these factors help to explain the timing and explosion of the anti-evolution crusade. Next time I’ll talk about the decisive event of this war, the Trial of the Century, the well-known Scopes Trial.

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