In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, The Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement

Review of In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, The Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement, by Michael Lienesch (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2007)

In the first five years of the present decade, forty-three states witnessed political battles over the teaching of Darwinian evolution in public schools (231). How is it that a movement that many assume was killed in Dayton, Tennessee eighty years ago continues to be so influential? How did the anti-evolution movement originate and how has it developed into the "intelligent design" movement of today? These are the questions that Michael Lienesch attempts to answer in his book In the Beginning.

Lienesch begins with a brief but solid history of the development of American fundamentalism. Starting with the 1909 decision of Lyman Stewart to publish the series The Fundamentals, Lienesch traces the growth of fundamentalism in the United States and the almost simultaneous rise of a coherent anti-evolution movement. Disturbed by all the forces of the modern world, both in society at large and in the Protestant churches of the day, early fundamentalists sought to refocus their churches upon what they considered to be the fundamentals of their faith.

In addition to laying out five precepts of Christianity, early fundamentalist leaders created an identity and a new discourse for like-minded Christians. They argued that philosophers, "higher critics," and religious liberals were corrupting the Christian faith by insinuating that the Bible was nothing more than a collection of myths. Fundamentalists began to unite across denominational boundaries in order to defend their faith and their nation from the challenges of liberalism and modernism.

Although the early volumes of The Fundamentals focused on issues such as materialism, leaders of the movement soon came to direct their anger at Darwinism. Fundamentalist preachers used the issue to mobilize their flocks and launch a crusade to reform Christian America. They argued that teachers in the universities were undermining the faith and ridiculing the beliefs of impressionable students. Unable to project their influence into the universities, fundamentalist preachers soon began to focus on public schools. Lienesch traces the development of this anti-evolution rhetoric into a full-fledged movement, the movement's political successes in the 1920s, and its continuance up to today.

As well as providing a detailed history of the movement, Lienesch, a political scientist, uses this story to explain social movement theory. Lienesch outlines how anti-evolutionists created a collective identity, mobilized activists and built institutions, framed the issue in a way best designed to win over converts, utilized allies in the political realm, and performed strategic retreats in the years after the Scopes trial. Lienesch's introduction to social movement theory will be interesting and informative for those unfamiliar with such theory.

Lienesch's comparisons of the antievolution movement to other social movements, such as the southern civil rights movement and American women's movement, are also thought provoking, if debatable. In the Beginning is certainly at its finest when providing the nitty-gritty details of movement strategy and organizational politics and showing how they fit into a theoretical framework.

Although Lienesch's book broadens our understanding of the anti-evolution movement, fundamentalism, and social movements, it is not without its flaws. Most obviously, Lienesch fails to reach his own ambitious goals. Lienesch states in the introduction that he intends to provide "the story of the anti-evolution movement…from beginning to end, top to bottom, inside and out" (6). Such would be a daunting task for any historian who is attempting to tackle a century-old movement and the establishment of a new religious philosophy, all in just two hundred and thirty pages. In the end, Lienesch, as most undoubtedly would, does not fulfill this promise entirely.

Lienesch also asserts in the introduction that he is trying to refocus the story from the Scopes trial which, as he laments, usually receives far more attention than the anti-evolution movement's "early development or later manifestations" (3). Yet, Lienesch spends more time discussing the Scopes trials than the past seventy-five years combined. Given the plethora of books on Scopes, including Edward Larson's excellent Summer for the Gods, one is left wishing Lienesch had lived up to his original goal of providing the rest of the story. Instead, the last chapter, briefly dealing with the years from 1932 to the present, glosses over the question of how the movement has evolved in the past seventy-five years, providing less here than in his analysis of the 1920s.

Whereas In the Beginning is reserved and cautious when detailing the movement in the 1920s, the final chapter is sweeping and theoretical when describing the years since. Lienesch argues in Chapter 8 that the anti-evolution movement survived over time by adapting its strategies and techniques to the changing political and social climates while retaining the same core beliefs. What he describes, however, is far more than a shift in tactics; the movement has seemingly changed its goals completely in recent decades.

Early anti-evolutionists, according to Lienesch, were trying to snuff out liberal, modern Protestantism as well as Catholicism and Judaism. Modern proponents of "intelligent design" – the new name given to the old creationism - by contrast, find themselves allied not only with Catholics, Jews and Muslims, but even with those who believe that life on earth originated from Extraterrestrials! Furthermore, advocates of "intelligent design," when referencing the Scopes trial, often overtly align themselves with Clarence Darrow (the man once depicted as Satan incarnate!) while arguing, like Darrow once did, that "multiple viewpoints" should be discussed in the classroom. Lienesch argues this is simply a shift in tactics and an attempt to use the popular conception of the Scopes trial to their advantage. "Multiple viewpoints," however, is exactly the opposite of what early anti-evolutionists, who Lienesch argues believed in one fundamental truth, were seeking. Such transformations seem far greater, at a social if not an ideological level, than the mere changes in tactics that Lienesch argues they are. And, of course, at a scientific level, there is no debate over Darwinian evolution.

In the Beginning lives up to the title and provides a rich and detailed study of the early days of the anti-evolution movement, from 1909 to 1932. Historians and general readers interested in American fundamentalism, the Scopes trial, and the origin of the anti-evolution movement should find it informative and readable. Those interested in the modern debates about "intelligent design," meanwhile, should find a good starting point for their research in his last chapter and its footnotes.