Religion in the 1920s!

In the 1920s there was conflict in determining the place of religion in contemporary American society. Due to this issue, American Protestants divided themselves into two main sects, known as the modernists and the fundamentalists.

Modernists and Fundamentalists

Modernist Protestants

The modernists were mostly urban, middle class people who tried to accept religion and modern science together, realizing that the world was growing more and more secular. They moved toward a more flexible and rational Christianity. Although there was an influx in Modernist Protestants during the 1920s, their movement had started in the late 1800s with the birth of the Social Gospel. The Social Gospel promoted more involvement in the social issues that gripped the era. It argued that Christians must be aware and take control of social forces in order to promote peace and harmony.

Notable Modernists

Shailer Mathews and Harry Emerson Fosdick
A famous modernist preacher was Shailer Mathews, a professor at the Chicago School of Divinity. He argued that liberal values were the true essence of Christianity. He also thought that it was important for Christianity to learn to adapt itself to the modern age, or it would perish. Fosdick argued for many of the same ideas from his pulpit at Riverside Church. Over the next 15 years Fosdick became one of the most noted and oft-quoted preachers of the age. He delivered his famous sermon "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?", in which he defended the modernist position. He argued that the Bible should not be taken word for word and that Christianity should open its doors to science and the advancing age.
Shailer Mathews
Shailer Mathews

Harry Emerson Fosdick
Harry Emerson Fosdick

Fundamentalist Protestants

Then there were the fundamentalists, the "defenders of traditional faith." This group mostly consisted of rural men and women who were trying to keep religion at its traditional level of importance in American life. They called for literal interpretation of the Bible and were furious with the modernists for their "betrayal" of the Gospels. They were vehemently against the scientific argument of evolution put forth by Charles Darwin, which claimed that human beings had not been created by God but instead evolved over time. Fundamentalists traveled around preaching, especially in the South and parts of the West. Although the modernists considered the movement of the fundamentalists weak and rather amusing, their revival meetings were very popular. Soon the fundamentalists were gaining political support. In fact, the fundamentalists had the political leverage to ban the teaching of evolution in some public schools.
fundamentalists against evolution
fundamentalists against evolution

Notable Fundamentalists

Billy Sunday
Billy Sunday used to be professional baseball player. He then converted to evangelical Christianity, and became one of the most celebrated preachers of the 1920s. He preached for the revival of a Christian America and prohibition.

"Conversion is a complete surrender to Jesus. It's a willingness to do what he wants you to do"--Billy Sunday

Billy Sunday Preaching (1929)

Scopes Trial 1925

Background of Case

Clarence Darrow (left) and William Jenning's Bryan posing for photagrapher during the 1925 Scopes Trial
Clarence Darrow (left) and William Jenning's Bryan posing for photagrapher during the 1925 Scopes Trial

As a result of the fundamentalist movement gaining strength and political leverage, they demanded that the theory of evolution be banned from the curriculum of public schools. Their demands were met in Tennessee when the legislature adopted a law, the Butler Act, which made it illegal "to teach any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible." This legal measure sparked a lot of controversy, and shocked many including the American Civil Liberties Union. This ACLU had been founded in 1920 by Jane Addams, Norman Thomas, Helen Keller, and others. The ACLU decided to challenge the law for its violation of freedom of speech and belief. The organization offered free defense to any teacher who would purposefully teach evolution, and as a result 24-year-old John T. Scopes rose to the task.

The Trial

ACLU sent Clarence Darrow to defend Scopes in the trial. The prosecution lawyer was William Jennings Bryan, who had turned into a major spokesman for the fundamentalists. The Scopes Trial attracted attention and media from all over America. Since Scopes had broken the law, most people assumed he would be found guilty. Ultimately Scopes was fined $100, but never had to pay because the case was dismissed as a result of a technicality. However, Darrow had given credence to the modernists by making Bryan's Biblical truths seem ridiculous and tricking him into admitting that the Bible wasn't one-sided. Fundamentalists rarely tried to convey their beliefs through political measures after the trial, but they never gave them up.


Aimee Semple McPherson Scandal

Aimee Semple McPherson was an evangelical Christian. She was exposed to religion at a very young age by her mother, who worked with the Salvation Army. A popular fundamentalist speaker, she toured all over the United States rousing crowds of over 1000 people at her revival meetings. She traveled through the United States in what was known as the "Full Gospel Car" with religious slogans painted on the sides. One of her most effective methods of spreading the Gospel and Christian teachings was through her use of technology and media, especially the radio. But in 1926 a scandal involving her and Kenneth Ormiston stained her name. On May 18th, on vacation Aimee went for a swim, and disappeared. She was thought to be dead but on June 23d she reappeared in Mexico. She claimed to be kidnapped, but because of a lack of evidence, the claim was dropped. Around the same time that Aimee disappeared so did radio operator Kenneth Orminston. Rumors started that the two had a romantic affair during the time. As a result more people became critical of the fundamentalist movement.
Aimee Semple McPherson
Aimee Semple McPherson

The Gospel Car
The Gospel Car


The battle over alcohol was a part of a growing battle of two cultures: "modern and traditional, urban and rural, immigrant and native, Protestant and Catholic".
The amendment legalizing prohibition was passed in 1920 as a result of the efforts of Protestant Americans to end the negative effects of alcohol. The movement sprung from Protestant religious activism, which had an emphasis on behavioral standards for the American people. Before the 1920's the "modernist" or progressive view was also in favor of prohibition, but in the 1920s the modernist view flipped on the idea and began to criticize prohibition as a result of the moral and religious standards changing. The gap between rural, lower- or middle-class farmers and the urban, middle-class working man kept growing. Now Modernist Protestants, urban workers, had more "modern" values, which emphasized self-fulfillment and challenged the traditional principles, and tried to adapt their religion to the realities of the time.

Religion in the 1950s!

The 1950s was a decade in which most Americans did not question their religious upbringings or challenge traditional beliefs. Typical to the conformity of the era, most people followed regional or familial loyalties and included religion in their daily lives. It was not a time of exceptional upheaval; rather, it was one of the last decades in which conservative Christianity had its grip on the majority of the population.

Though there were more religious choices available to Americans in the 1950s, people generally valued fidelity to the church/denomination they had chosen and did not move freely between them. In many areas of the country, religion was an integral part of a child’s education. Ministers, rabbis, priests, and other religious leaders were typically figures of great authority, and the concept of sin remained important.


In the suburban world that was fast emerging, families became involved in religious activities like never before. Children could join more Sunday School classes, youth groups, and benefit from youth ministry services. The model homemaking mother led her "flock," dressed in their Sunday best, to church every week. Though a few religious minority groups, such as Jews, began to expand into the community, Americans were overwhelmingly Christian.

Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize-winning author, told of the Jews' struggles in 1950s America in novels such as Herzog. Where did they fit in in this Christian nation? How would their traditions survive?

"Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious belief--and I don't care what it is." –President Dwight D. Eisenhower

After the Great Depression and World War II, religious fundamentalism lost much of its influence. Fundamentalists split into evangelicals/neoevangelicals and new fundamentalists. Both were extremely moralistic and evangelistic, both preached Scripture as the highest law, and both felt that old-fashioned Christian and American values were synonymous. However, these "new fundamentalists" were generally much more conservative than their "evangelical" counterparts, even while most Americans lumped them into the same category.


Returning soldiers often stopped practicing religion, disillusioned as they were from the war. In most cases their families continued to attend services as these men faced a sort of spiritual crisis and tried to reconcile the horrors they had seen with the messages of their faiths.

The words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. What does this tell us about religion in the 1950s?

Billy GrahamThe most famous evangelist in history, Billy Graham, a Southern Baptist, became famous in the early ‘50s through his “missions,” “crusades,” and T.V. and radio broadcasts. His believes that the Bible is the literal word of God and must be followed accordingly, and he also thinks that people must accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. Despite accusations of anti-Semitism, he has long opposed other evangelists’ efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. Stridently anti-Communist, he was able to connect with a large audience as Americans suffered through the Cold War. He has written numerous books and also co-founded the evangelical periodical "Christianity Today."
Other notable evangelists:
  • Bishop Fulton Sheen: An evangelical Catholic bishop, he had many radio and television broadcasts and was for a time BISHOP OF ROCHESTER! Shows include The Catholic Hour (a radio program), Life isn't Worth Living, and the Fulton Sheen Program (both television shows). He was anti-evolutionist and anti-Communist, appealing to the majority sentiment of conservative American Catholics.
    • Fun Fact: In 1953, Sheen delivered an incensed sermon against Stalin, ending with the words "Stalin must one day meet his judgment." Within a week, Stalin was dead.
  • Oral Roberts: A controversial Pentecostal televangelist, this "faith-healer" had widespread impact on Protestantismin the '50s and afterwards. He often claimed to receive messages from God, but he lived extravagantly and his family life was scandalous at times.
Bishop Sheen

Oral Roberts