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Was Jerry Falwell, Jr. the Last Great Fundamentalist Emperor? | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Black and white picture if William Bell Riley in a suit and tie facing the camera.
William Bell Riley. Photo courtesy of Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

I will get to Jerry Falwell, Jr. in a moment. But first, a look at the first great fundamentalist emperor.

I fell in love with the “new social history” at the University of Wisconsin, with its emphasis on the fact that everyone has a history – not just presidents and generals, not just white elite males, but everyone. Workers, farmers, African Americans, women, more: everyone has a history.

It was intoxicating. That said, I was also struck by the fact that most of the social history I was reading did not attend to grass-roots movements on the Right. Now, my immediate family was the quintessential evangelical Republican family – anti-civil rights, anti-women’s movement, pro-Vietnam War, pro-Richard Nixon – and as an adolescent I assumed I was trapped in the most conservative family on the planet. But then I got to know folks in my extended family who made my immediate family look like raging Marxists. These folks were extreme religious fundamentalists whose politics were equally extreme. It was not surprising that they detested me and my politics. But from being around them, I knew that there were fundamentalist churches and fundamentalist parachurch organizations and the like that were not just surviving, but thriving.

So at Wisconsin I decided that I would see if I could write on fundamentalism as a right-wing social movement. At the time (oh, how the scholarly world has changed!) there was very little substantive work on Protestant fundamentalism, the consensus being that – in the wake of the 1925 Scopes Trial – it had been relegated to the outer reaches of Appalachia and the Ozarks, soon to disappear from America altogether. But there were two exceptions: Ernest Sandeen’s wonderful The Roots of Fundamentalism (1970), and then a book that appeared as I was in the early years of my Ph.D. work, George Marsden’s magisterial Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980).

While Sandeen and Marsden did not write social history, reading their books told me that examining fundamentalism as a social movement had real promise. I was encouraged in this task by my dissertation director (Carl Kaestle) as well as committee members Paul Boyer and Ron Numbers. And the long story short is that my dissertation focused on William Bell Riley, who was instrumental in the creation of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association (1919) – the first fundamentalist organization – and who spearheaded the 1920s crusade against liberal theology in the major Protestant denominations and the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

But as a social historian, I was less interested in Riley on the national stage and more intrigued by the ways in which Riley successfully created a grass-roots fundamentalist movement centered around his Northwestern Bible School (Minnesota). As I discovered in my repeated trips from Madison to Minneapolis, Northwestern served as the hub in what I came to call “Riley’s empire,” the ever-growing number of fundamentalist churches in the upper Midwest in the first half of the twentieth century that were tightly tethered to Riley and his Bible School. 

Actually, Riley’s empire was the model for what was to come in American fundamentalism. As I wrote in the book that grew out of my dissertation,

In the years since Riley, numerous conservative Protestant leaders have constructed local or regional (or, on occasion, national) religious empires around themselves. Because it is the prototypical fundamentalist fiefdom, Riley’s empire provides valuable insights into this phenomenon. As his midwestern network makes clear, personality-based religious empires have certain organizational advantages. For instance, a charismatic leader is able to arouse intense loyalty in his or her followers. Riley inspired such devotion that decades after his death many Northwesterners still rhapsodized about his virtues and talked proudly about having followed him into battles against the modernist enemy . . . Moreover, like all autocratic social structures, personality-based empires have the potential to be remarkably efficient. For example, when a fundamentalist church in the upper Midwest needed a minister or an evangelist or a Vacation Bible School worker, all it had to do was place a call or write a letter to Riley, and the need would be filled. (156-157)

In a recent blog post, “The last fundamentalist empire died yesterday in Lynchburg, Virginia,” the indefatigable John Fea (do you sleep, John?) writes about the resignation of Jerry Falwell, Jr. as president of Liberty University. And he makes the very smart argument that – in contrast with Riley and Bob Jones and John R. Rice and his own father – Falwell could not live up to what is required of the successful fundamentalist emperor. In particular, he was not that interested in “defend[ing] doctrinal orthodoxy” [he was much more interested in making money, and in stepping down from Liberty he made 10.5m more] nor did he “cultivate a culture of personal holiness bordering on legalism” [unzipping his pants for the camera is but one example]. 

At the end of his post Fea suggests that “perhaps Jerry Falwell Jr. was the last fundamentalist emperor.” And he could be right, if one thinks of fundamentalism as essentially a religious movement. 

But another way to read this is that Jerry Falwell, Jr. is a prime example of the ways in which fundamentalism has simply shed or de-emphasized its moral and doctrinal convictions in behalf of commitments that were always near and dear to the movement, particularly right-wing politics, patriarchy, and white nationalism. The first great fundamentalist emperor, William Bell Riley, made clear these commitments with his full-throated anti-Semitism, his unabashed racism, his over-the-top attacks on the New Deal, and so forth.

Of course, it is indeed the case that Riley was also devoted to defending a very detailed list of theological doctrines as well as enforcing a legalistic moral code on those residing in his empire.

Maybe the question is this: Is fundamentalism in thrall to Donald Trump still fundamentalism?