Modernism - American EducationAn educational term of the 1920s that referred to the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution and other “modern” elements of science, social science and history that apparently contradicted Scriptural doctrine. Led by William Jennings Bryan, opponents of modernism contended that the Bible was the most dependable and, indeed, infallible source of scientific knowledge. Scores of educators, including university presidents, responded, none more eloquently than Shailer Mathews, dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, in his tract The Faith of Modernism (1924). Modernism, he said, was neither a denomination nor a theology, but “the use of scientific, historical, and social method in understanding and applying evangelical Christianity to the needs of living persons.” Modernists, he wrote, were Christians who accepted the results of scientific inquiry and adopted the methods of historical and literary science in studying and understanding the Bible. Such study, he added, in no way diminished their belief that Christian attitudes and faith met the spiritual and moral needs of people.
The battle between Christian fundamentalists and modernists reached a climax in 1925 with the famed SCOPES MONKEY TRIAL, in which the American Civil Liberties Union challenged a state law that banned the teaching in public schools of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Although William Jennings Bryan defended the state and won the case, he and the state drew worldwide ridicule, and his sudden death a week later left the fundamentalists leaderless and the modernists in full control of 20th-century public education in the United States.