Saturday, March 25, 2006


Things I Found En Route To Looking Up Other Things: The Oil-Fundy Connection

The late columnist Sydney Harris would often plan to write about one subject, only to find himself, in the course of his research, writing about others. The columns that resulted were titled "Things I Found En Route To Looking Up Other Things". (And no, Mr. Domenich, this isn't plagiarism, since I'm giving Mr. Harris full credit for the phrase.) I was looking up a MyDD reference on the upcoming 2006 elections -- and why Democrats are in much better shape now than they've been in the past six years -- and found this:

Protestant fundamentalism per se does not go back any further than the early 1900s. It derives from the publication of a pamphlet series, The Fundamentals, which was a response to the higher criticism. This is from an article by Slobodan Dimitrov that Random Lengths News published in March of last year (not available online):

Los Angeles has the reputation of being a liberal city, but in fact it is the birthplace of Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism began through a series of 12 pamphlets, called The Fundamentals, published over a 5-year period, from 1910-15, with financing from two brothers, Lyman and Milton Stewart, co-founders of Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA). Lyman Stewart was BIOLA's first president as well as one of the three founders of the Union Oil Corporation.

The Fundamentals were published as a conservative response to liberal modernist wing of Protestantism during a period of intense struggle that raged between and within various denominations within American Protestantism around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, a period not unlike the turn of 20th to the 21st century. Both eras witnessed a dramatic rise in affluence and wealth, the former being driven by the great Westward expansion and the resulting wealth from oil and railroads; the latter due to the great explosion of technological innovation, from the computer chip to the reaches of Space, with benefits sprinkling across the economic landscape. Both eras magnified the disparity between the have and have-nots, and both have produced their versions of social concern.

Oh, yeah. It also involved oilmen.

And, of course, when it came to the issue of slavery, the Bible was the primary source of pro-slavery arguments, as documented by Larry E. Tise in Pro-Slavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840. The Publishers Weekly review noted:

Tise chronicles a constant stream of books, articles, pamphlets and sermons--his chapter on the growth of proslavery arguments by clergy, usually derived from narrow interpretations of Scripture, is illuminating--and builds to a remarkable and probably controversial exploration of the "proslavery Republicanism," which he sees as the full flowering of the conservative Federalist viewpoint that had only temporarily been defeated by America's founding fathers when they framed our Constitution.

Furthermore, the notion that fundamentalists are preserving a traditional form of religion is utterly specious, as Karen Armstrong makes quite clear in her book, The Battle For God.

by Paul Rosenberg on Mon Mar 20, 2006 at 10:35:20 PM EST

This is one of these things that I'd always suspected but couldn't prove until now. No wonder why the oilmen don't give a fig about global warming. They're using the concept of the End Times to shore up their short-term bottom line.

This is an interesting storyline, and I was definitely interested to learn about Lyman Stewart's role in funding the rise of fundamentalism, but I think the conclusions left the rails a little ahead of the station.

First, most of the early oil discoveries were up north... Standard Oil of Ohio and Indiana, for example. John D. Rockefeller was Mr. Oil in that era. So, while it may be true that fundamentalism got a boost from an oilman, and while it's definitely true that oilmen have sustained it, it would be hard to say that oilmen were the instigators of fundamentalism.

Also, there's a huge difference between fundamentalism, which is more like unreconstructed Judaism than like Christianity, and the Armaggedonitis that drives the far right of today. See this Wikipedia article, which mentions the seminal role of Darby and Moody, but doesn't give the Scofield Bible enough credit for the wackiness to ensue. The Scofield Bible is about as close as one can get to seeing the devil quote scripture. It's a very seductive, self-contained system of thought without which I think a lot of the craziness would have subsided. But *a lot* of southerners were (and still are) raised on Scofield.

As Wikipedia notes, the Presbyterian church launched the conflict between modern Christianity and fundamentalism in 1903 by revising the Westminister Confession. That started the institutional exodus of fundamentalists from the church. But I would say that fundamentalism, if by fundamentalism we mean "inerrancy", actually dates back to Martin Luther's declaration of sola scriptura (from scripture alone). Once the church-- institutional, historical, and human-- is devalued, there is nothing left except the written word. As many a reader of computer manuals will tell you, that ain't enough.

As for the Bible's role in the pro-slavery movement... the Bible was the cultural icon of the day. Just as everyone knows exactly what you mean when you talk about Coke or Pepsi nowadays, everyone knew about the Bible then. So, really every social argument revolved around the Bible. Including the arguments *against* slavery.
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