The ’20s Come Roaring Back

Conservative Christians were mocked in the courtroom. Famous preachers were caught in scandal. Did we learn anything?
The ’20s Come Roaring Back
Image: Ben White | Sam Rios | Taylor / Unsplash / Alex Workman / Lightstock / Library of Congress

One of the most famous preachers in America defended a president accused of corruption. He called the investigation—not a witch hunt, but close—a “damnable rot.” The president had engaged in multiple extramarital affairs. He cheated on his mistress with another, younger mistress, with whom he was rumored to have had a child. Some of the president’s closest advisors and cabinet members were convicted and sent to prison.

This was the Roaring Twenties. The president was Warren G. Harding, a Baptist, who died before his scandals came to light and before the famous preacher, Billy Sunday, felt the need to defend him. Comparisons between these events and our own cultural moment may be difficult to set aside, but they are mostly coincidental. As we stand on the cusp of the 2020s, we can observe other religious and cultural comparisons of more substance. They may shed light on how Christians should live in the public square and conduct ministry in the next decade.

Legislating Morality

The term culture war was coined in the 1980s, but the Roaring Twenties had culture war aplenty: controversy over the teaching of evolution in schools, Prohibition, fundamentalist-modernist controversies in two of the largest Protestant denominations, battles over literature deemed by some to be obscene, and a presidential campaign in 1928 that posed the question of whether Catholics, and by extension recent immigrants, could be fully American. In all of these, serious Christians on both the left and the right, as well as a small-but-growing contingent of secularists, seemed to agree that American civilization hung in the balance and only their worldview could save it.

Take Prohibition, for example. Most Protestant Christian leaders and denominations across the spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal supported and defended the outlawing of liquor, albeit with very different tones. Prohibitionists in the mainline denominations stressed not just law enforcement but the need for continued education and moral suasion concerning the dangers of alcohol. The Presbyterian social gospeler Charles Stelzle was among the most ardent and active mainline Protestant prohibitionists. He put it this way: “Prohibition will produce its best results only when the people of our country accept it sincerely, warmheartedly, and enthusiastically.” Some fundamentalist leaders, by contrast, portrayed Prohibition as a matter of law and order. As Seattle pastor Mark Matthews once said, Prohibition “ought to be enforced if every street in America had to run with blood and every cobble stone had to be made of a human skull.” In response to that sort of thinking, Stelzle liked to say, “It is not sufficient merely to insist upon obedience to the law. There should be more of an inclination on the part of the Prohibitionists to rest the claim for observance of the Volstead Act upon its merits as a social measure.”

On evolution, fundamentalists and liberal Protestants were on opposite sides. The anti-evolution movement was led by conservatives, universally called fundamentalists at the time. This was long before anyone made a distinction between a fundamentalist and an evangelical. Presbyterians and Baptists, and to a lesser extent Methodists and Episcopalians, all experienced fundamentalist-modernist controversies. Anyone who defended traditional, conservative Protestantism against liberal innovations was counted as a fundamentalist. The effort to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools culminated in the infamous Scopes trial where the agnostic, secularist attorney Clarence Darrow goaded the evangelical William Jennings Bryan into taking the stand to testify as an expert on the Bible. Bryan was not, and Darrow humiliated him. Fundamentalists won the case, but within a few years of the trial, most agreed they had lost the culture. Still, in the wake of Scopes, several more states with strong evangelical constituencies passed anti-evolution laws, most of which stood until the late 1960s when the Supreme Court struck down all such statutes as unconstitutional.

Late in the decade, the issue of obscenity joined the culture war roster, and here the alignments were even more complex than on Prohibition. Mainline Protestants once again joined fundamentalists and evangelicals, in substance if not tone, in an effort to ban books thought to be obscene. The one that garnered most of the attention was D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, with its graphic, extramarital sex scenes. But much tamer novels like Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy were also subject to book banning. Standing in for Darrow as the leading secularist on this issue was the acerbic journalist H. L. Mencken, who deliberately set out to make war on the censors. Mencken is remembered as perhaps the most anti-fundamentalist public figure of the 20th century. “Heave an egg out of a Pullman [railcar] window,” he allegedly said in the ’20s, “and you will hit a fundamentalist anywhere in the United States today.”

On obscenity, Mencken detested mainline Protestants almost as much as fundamentalists, especially when his American Mercury was challenged in court for an allegedly obscene article. Mencken had himself arrested at Brimstone Corner in Boston for purchasing a copy of his own magazine. The ACLU took up his case. Arthur Garfield Hays, one of the lead attorneys for John Scopes in the Monkey Trial, defended Mencken and the Mercury in court. Hays argued that censoring the magazine was an attack on Mencken’s personal liberty, just as he had argued that outlawing the teaching of evolution was an unconstitutional restriction on Scopes’s academic freedom. “It is getting down to the fundamentals of American society,” Hays told the judge, as he denounced the mainline Protestant Watch and Ward Society. He pilloried the Boston organization for posing as the “custodians of the morals of the majority.” Ironically, leaders of the Watch and Ward Society thought they were the moral majority.

The editor of The Christian Century did too. He fought back, writing, “The personal liberty argument, so long as it is kept in general terms, is either perfectly meaningless or perfectly anarchistic.” In the view of the Century editor, unrestricted personal liberty rested on “the concealed major premise that every person has a right to do anything that he pleases.” While the most public aspects of the obscenity wars were led by mainline Protestants like the Watch and Ward Society and The Christian Century on one side and what one historian calls “cultural liberals”—essentially secularists—on the other, fundamentalist Protestants and traditional Catholics got involved where they could or cheered on the mainline Protestants where they couldn’t.

Fame and Scandal

As if culture wars like the Scopes Trial and the obscenity wars were not enough to skew the image of serious Christians, there were also evangelical scandals. Less than a year after Scopes, two high-profile preachers, J. Frank Norris and Aimee Semple McPherson, were accused of murder and adultery respectively. McPherson and her radio engineer and sound man Kenneth Ormiston disappeared in May 1926. She was missing for six weeks as rumors swirled: She was dead; she had been kidnapped by the mob; she had run off with Ormiston. McPherson resurfaced in June in a small town on the Arizona-Mexico border. After returning to Los Angeles, she told a grand jury a highly implausible kidnapping story. If the tale were untrue, she had committed perjury, which is exactly what the district attorney charged.

Three weeks after McPherson reappeared, Norris shot and killed an adversary named D. E. Chipps, who happened to be Catholic, in the office of the First Baptist Church, Fort Worth, where Norris was pastor. If 1976 was the “Year of the Evangelical,” as Newsweek magazine dubbed it, July 1925 through July 1926 had to be the “Worst Year of the Evangelical.” Norris and McPherson’s legal troubles stayed in the news until January 1927, when a jury decided Norris had acted in self-defense, and the district attorney in LA dropped charges of perjury and conspiracy against McPherson.

Scandals notwithstanding, Norris and McPherson continued as evangelical stars, at least among their own sizeable flocks and network of supporters. The Roaring Twenties marked the beginning of a mass media and consumer culture, where the most famous people were performers in front of large crowds: Babe Ruth in baseball, Jack Dempsey in boxing, and Greta Garbo on the movie screen. As one observer put it, fame shifted from character to personality. In one sense, religion joined right in. Even the liberals had a media star preacher in Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Baptist so famous he pastored New York’s most elite Presbyterian church.

But revivalist, big-tent evangelicalism’s heyday was passing. As Billy Sunday’s crowds grew smaller and smaller, coverage of him moved off the front page of The New York Times and other big-city newspapers. Moreover, average churchgoers were often bewildered by the battles going on between fundamentalists and modernists in their denominations. Whereas delegates were accustomed to attending national denominational meetings for fellowship, worship, and evangelism, they now found those gatherings dominated by theological fights. It was as if Protestants had internalized the culture wars, and the fundamentalists usually lost. While many bemoaned their marginalization, other evangelicals left northern mainline denominations to form their own fellowships where they would keep evangelism alive and defend conservative doctrine.

Inconspicuous Kingdom Work

So that’s what Protestant Christians were doing in the Roaring Twenties. Or, more accurately, those are the types of things that grabbed headlines. While certain elites, both fundamentalist and mainline Protestant, fought culture wars and captured the media’s attention, a quieter and larger contingent worked behind the scenes.

A segment of fundamentalists and evangelicals evangelized tirelessly. Representative of this group was what one historian has called the “Moody Network,” fundamentalists influenced by the late D. L. Moody, many of them trained in the Moody Bible Institute or similar Bible colleges. They hit the streets with the good news of redemption in Christ while also running Sunday schools and vacation Bible schools for children. Yes, they opposed evolution and obscenity, and they were no doubt embarrassed by the scandals of Norris and McPherson. But their main focus was training people to win others to Christ, disciple believers into mature Christian living, and cultivate community in evangelical congregations.

Their worship services centered on evangelistic preaching and traditional hymn singing. Having rejected the Sunday school materials of the mainline denominations as too liberal, they developed their own, which gave rise to new publishing enterprises. And they continued the evangelical tradition of revivals, not in stadiums and arenas, as with Billy Sunday, but in churches and at church camps across the country where Christian families joined together for a week or more of Christian fellowship and training. They quarreled over end-times prophecy and other matters of biblical interpretation, but they were not culture warriors.

And those were just the white evangelicals. African American Christians in the ’20s streamed from the rural South to the urban Northeast and Midwest in search of industrial jobs as part of the Great Migration. As they did, they brought Southern evangelicalism and various holiness traditions, including Pentecostalism, with them. While whites stuck to traditional hymns, African American churches experienced their own worship wars over black gospel music. This began the era of Thomas Dorsey, the father of black gospel, and his young soloist Mahalia Jackson. If anything, black evangelicals were less involved in secular culture wars than whites, both groups working largely behind the scenes to gather souls for the kingdom, leaving cultural dominance to the more liberal mainliners.

The pertinent question for Christians of the 2020s is “What do we want to be known for when the decade is over?” While there may be a time and place to join the culture wars, they can turn attention from witness to winning. That’s partly what happened in the Roaring Twenties, especially to evangelicals. As a result of their defeats, they became much less politically relevant from 1930 until 1980, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Freed from culture wars, they turned their attention away from politics and instead built churches, Christian colleges, and parachurch organizations. Through these institutions, they attempted to be a witness over against a secularizing American culture. Their great temptation became cultural withdrawal more than culture war. Between those two poles, Christians always struggle to find the right balance. It was true in the Roaring Twenties, and it will remain so in the 2020s.

Barry Hankins is professor of history at Baylor University and is the author of Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars (St. Martin’s Press).

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