There’s a popular narrative about the birth of neo-evangelicalism that goes something like this: after fundamentalists lost the Scopes trial in 1925, the movement became very inward looking. In the 1940s, there was a schism, when neo-evangelicals broke with the separatism and anti-intellectualism of the fundamentalists.
I question the accuracy of that narrative. I have my own theory.
Admittedly, the fundamentalism of that era was separatistic. I think that much is accurate.
However, was the Scopes trial really a defining moment or pivotal event in the history of fundamentalism? Why would the ruling of a state court be that influential? It’s not even a Supreme Court ruling. I’m guessing this version of events is an urban legend, popularized by H. L. Menken, and Stanley Kramer (a la Inherit the Wind).
Also, is it true that fundamentalism was anti-intellectual? No doubt the movement had a lot of backwoods preachers who were, to some extent, the public of the movement. I’d also grant that in the 1940-50s, the intellectual talent pool for fundamentalism was pretty shallow.
However, consider fundamentalists like Merrill Unger, S. Lewis Johnson, Gleason Archer, and Charles Lee Feinberg. They were contemporaries of the neo-evangelical founders or leaders. But they weren’t anti-intellectual. They were just as scholarly as anyone on the neo-evangelical side.
Now, there was a different orientation. Scholars like Unger and Archer were writing for the church. Writing to edify the faithful. They weren’t interested in opening a dialogue with British or continental scholarship, unlike, say, George Eldon Ladd.
I have my own theory. I think the fundamentalist/Neoevangelical divide split along essentially regional lines. Fundamentalism started out as more international, interdenominational, ecumenical affair, with Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Calvinists, &c. For instance, you can see that from the contributors to The Fundamentals (1910-15), which included contributions from James Or, B. B. Warfield, G. Campbell Morgan, R. A. Torrey, Bishop Moule, Griffith Thomas, &c.
The fundamentalist center of gravity later shifted to the South. Became predominantly Baptist. Moreover, fundamentalism became almost synonymous with dispensationalism.
Now, consider the background of the founders and leaders of neo-evangelicalism. Ockenga was a Congregationalist, born in Chicago, to Methodist parents, and educated at northeastern institutions.
Ladd was a Northern Baptist, born in Canada, raised in New England, and educated at northeastern institutions.
Carl Henry was a Northern Baptist, born in New York, educated in the Midwest and northeast.
Edward Carnell was born in the Midwest, and educated in the northeast.
Charles Fuller was a Californian. Francis Schaeffer was born, raised, and educated in the northeast.
Bernard Ramm was born in the Midwest, educated on the west coast, northeast, and Continent. Kenneth Kantzer was born in the Midwest to Lutheran parents, then educated in the Midwest, northeast, and Continent.
So I think an obvious reason for the break with fundamentalism is the geographical and autobiographical fact that most neo-evangelicals didn’t identify with Southern culture and piety. That wasn’t their world. Their formative influences took place outside the Southern milieu. Southern religiosity wasn’t their defining experience. Their social identity and intellectual inspiration lay closer to home.
Let’s consider some potential exceptions to my theory. Billy Graham is the most conspicuous prima facie exception. However, that’s easy to account for. Once Graham’s ministry went national and international, he was bound to break with fundamentalism, for his mass evangelistic methodology, and follow-up ministry (i.e. discipleship) required coordination with local churches on site. That was antithetical to fundamentalist separatism. Had Graham remained a regional figure, preaching revivals below the Mason-Dixon line, he might have stayed within the fundamentalist fold
Fundamentalist flagships like Biola and Moody Bible Institute might also seem to present an exception to my theory. (Of course, Biola is now very ecumenical.) However, these were founded long before fundamentalism became so Baptist and Southern.
Of course, men can adopt a theological tradition very different from their upbringing. I don’t deny that. But there does seem to be an overwhelming demographic pattern to the founders and leaders of the early neo-evangelical movement.