The Monkey Trial and the Rise of Fundamentalism: Did You Know? — The Frenzied Twenties

In the 1920s, as conflicts between “fundamentalists” and “modernists” heated up, change in American culture was accelerating. Some Christians celebrated these dramatic changes; others pointed to the following items as proof that things were only getting worse:

ALL THROUGH THE 1920s, with Prohibition in force, criminal gangs battled to control the illegal liquor business—most notoriously in Al Capone’s Chicago. Between 1920 and 1927, 250 people were murdered in Chicago gang warfare.

Women were given the vote in 1922 (conservative Christians were against suffrage ten-to-one, but two notable supporters of women’s suffrage were fundamentalists Billy Sunday and William Jennings Bryan). In 1925, the first woman governor was inaugurated in Wyoming. In 1928, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in a plane.

Optimism about the economy (and greed) produced an era of wild speculation in the stock market. On September 3, 1929, stocks reached an all-time high-only to crash to an all-time low by October 29. President Herbert Hoover still claimed the economy was “on a sound and prosperous basis.”

By the end of 1921, knee-length skirts had become the standard fashion, causing much comment in the secular and religious press. In the 1920s, “flappers” (right) were “thoroughly modern” women who smoked, danced, wore short skirts, drank, and bobbed their hair.

In 1920 radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh broadcast the results of the presidential election, even though few could tune in. By 1922 500 radio stations had sprouted, and Americans were spending $10 million on radio sets and parts—and more and more time entertained by the new medium.

By 1923 15 million cars were registered, and one out of four Americans bought or sold an automobile. In 1924 the price of a Model-T Ford reached an all-time low: $290 (without a self-starter).

Between 1870 and the late 1920s, the number of divorces in the United States increased fivefold, and more than half were initiated by women.

Books were often critical or indifferent to religion. Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry (1927) skewered revivalist religion, while novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, 1925) and Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises, 1926) wallowed in disillusionment with modern life. 

In 1921 the “Black Sox” Scandal came to a close when eight Chicago White Sox players were banned from baseball for life for taking bribes in the 1919 World Series. In 1923 members of President Warren Harding’s executive branch were convicted of selling influence in the famous Teapot Dome Scandal.

Because of the terrorist activities of the Oklahoma Ku Klux Klan, (right) the governor imposed martial law in 1923. In 1925 the KKK held a demonstration in Washington, D.C., at which 40,000 members marched down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Sports became an American obsession (right). The talk of 1920s college football was “Red” Grange (the “Galloping Ghost of the Gridiron"), and Knute Rockne’s “Fighting Irish” of Notre Dame. In professional sports, heroes included boxers Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, baseball slugger Babe Ruth and pitcher Walter Johnson, and golf phenom Bobby Jones.

The nation was mesmerized by the 1924 trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. These two well-educated young men murdered a man just to see what the experience would be like. In 1927 radicals Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed for killing a factory guard; many Americans protested that they had been railroaded for their leftist politics.

On the other hand, conservatives were pleased with such events as these:

In 1922 the U.S. Post Office destroyed 500 copies of Ulysses by James Joyce for obscenity, and in 1927, the mayor of Boston banned Eugene O'Neill’s play Strange Interlude.

Illiteracy reached a new low of 6 percent, a decline of 14 percent from 1870.

In 1925 a bill requiring daily Bible readings in all public schools was passed by the Florida legislature, and in the same year, laws were passed in Tennessee and Texas forbidding the teaching of the theory of evolution in public classrooms.

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #55 in 1997]

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