My God and My Neighbor

Jul 3, 2024

The 1920s

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It couldn’t have happened all at once. It isn’t a recent generational change. The radical shift in American morals goes back further than the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. This ethical landslide began in the “Roaring Twenties.” This episode is the first of a ten-part, decade-by-decade look at how and why this country is so different today. It is not just another American history series, however. It is a biblical view of what causes these changes in our or any other nation past or present.


Read about this subject
  • Scriptures: Ecclesiastes 1:9-10, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. Judges 21:25
  • Gospel Advocate 1921
  • Right From the Beginning, Kerry Duke
  • Only Yesterday, Frederick Lewis Allen. Chapter five: “The Revolution in Manners and Morals.”



Kerry Duke: Hi, I’m Kerry Duke, host of My God and My Neighbor podcast from Tennessee Bible College, where we see the Bible as not just another book, but the Book. Join us in a study of the inspired word to strengthen your faith and your life and to share what you’ve learned with others.

Today, we begin a decade-by-decade look at 100 years of American history from 1920 to 2020. And in this segment, we will look at the 1920s in light of the Bible. When we look at the moral condition of our country. We sometimes wonder, “ow did things become so bad?” Why did things change so much? What happened that led us to this point?

And, of course, when we raise those questions, we sometimes say, “It seemed to happen so quickly. It seemed to change almost overnight.” And, of course, the truth is, that didn’t happen. There were precedents and there were patterns that were set long before you and I came on the scene. And that’s why we want to take a hundred year look at how America has changed in its morals, and we will do this decade by decade.

Our starting point is the 1920s. Now, of course, to do this subject justice, we’d have to go back before the 1920s. But if we did that, we’d have to go back before that generation and then before that generation and there would never be a stopping point. So there has to be a stopping point and needs to be a starting point to have a lesson like this.

So we’ll start in the 1920s because that decade marked a substantial change in the attitudes of Americans about morality. And although we won’t go back very far before the 1920s, it is helpful to go back just a few years and remember some of the major events that happened just prior to that decade.

One of these, of course, was World War I. This was the battle that President Woodrow Wilson called “the war to end all wars.” Now obviously the Germans disagreed because they came back with a vengeance 20 years later. It’s also interesting that some religious people thought that this was a sign of the end of time.

Some issued wild speculations, like Judge Rutherford’s book in 1920, “Millions Now Living Will Never Die.” Rutherford was a Jehovah’s Witness. He believed that God had set up a permanent kingdom on earth. And thus he issued that title. But war brings profound changes to a nation. Even if they are the victors, the people are affected.

War affects the economy. It affects the family. It affects marriages and how children are brought up. It affects morality and even the emotional and mental state of people. This has always happened in times of war.

If you want to see an interesting example of a personal testimony to how war changes even local communities, see a Cane Ridge Reader. That’s the autobiography of Barton W. Stone. He talked about the soldiers going off to war and coming back after the Revolutionary War. And it’s interesting to see how that affected those local communities. And during this same time, there was another war of a different kind. And that was the Spanish flu in 1918.

The CDC estimates that at least 50 million people worldwide died in that pandemic. 675,000 people in the United States lost their lives. So this disease on top of the war brought the United States and other countries to their knees. But like Pharaoh in the Old Testament when these troubles ended, many people went right back to what they were doing before.

And the ones who had lived for pleasure became even worse. And that craving for enjoyment led to what is known as the period of the Roaring Twenties. There’s something peculiar about human nature, but it’s very common. When people go through hard times, like World War I and the flu pandemic, there’s something they somehow feel they deserve to have fun and enjoy because it’s all over and they want their lives to get back to normal.

And that oftentimes is where the real trouble begins. They feel entitled. They feel that life has been unfair to them, so they think that life owes them a good time to make up for all the pain that they’ve been through during the years. Does this sound common? Now that was behind, at least in part, the moral rebellion during the 1920s.

When we look back at the things that really changed in America, we oftentimes point to the 1960s, and for good reason. Because that was a time of change and revolution, morally and spiritually speaking. But so was the decade of the 1920s. So, let’s see what we can learn from that period of time. Now, first of all, there were changes that occurred that had an impact on later generations.

For instance, the economy continued to rise after the war. The stock market climbed until that dark Thursday in 1929. We know it’s not wrong to have money, but we also know that most people can’t handle it and at the same time have the right attitude toward God. Jesus warned about that. He said in Matthew 13, verse 22 to beware of the deceitfulness of riches. Riches are deceptive. In Matthew 6:24, Jesus said no man can serve God and money at the same time. No man, he said, can serve two masters. So there was a big change as far as the standard of living was concerned in the 1920s, and sometimes that brings a real challenge to people and many people fail in that test.

Another change. was the passing of the 19th Amendment on August the 18th, 1920. This bill allowed women to vote. Before that time, men represented their wives and their children by casting a single vote.

Now this decade was also the period of Prohibition. The 18th Amendment was passed in 1919. It went into effect in 1920. So this was a time when there was a law against the production, the sale, the transportation, and the importation of liquor. And of course, as we well know, this was also a time of bootlegging and organized crime that included men like Al Capone.

Now one event in the 1920s that showed that the nation was beginning to divide on core beliefs was the trial of the century in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. A bill had been passed somewhat earlier which made the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools illegal. So immediately the ACLU looked for a way to challenge that law. And they found their man in public school teacher John T. Scopes. Scopes made statements as a teacher which supported the doctrine of evolution and was brought to trial.

So this trial became the lightning rod of nationwide debate. Two top attorneys were brought in to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee: William Jennings Bryan, who represented the state, and Clarence Darrow, who defended public school teacher John T. Scopes. Reporters from all over the country came. People on both sides of the debate made signs and sold memorabilia.

It was a media frenzy. But it was no joke, because the issue was not just a law on the state books. It was the most fundamental and far reaching question that could have been asked. Where did we come from? And the very fact that the Scopes Trial, or the Monkey Trial, received this level of publicity indicated that the nation had shifted in its moral and its religious convictions.

If something like that had happened before the 1900s, especially before the Civil War, the majority of people in this country would have been angry and they would have quickly dismissed this controversy as being foolish because the answer, the truth is clear from nature.

Psalm 19 verse one says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork. Day unto day utters speech and night unto night shows knowledge.” Romans 1 verse 20 says, “The invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”

Now, Charles Darwin had written the book The Origin of the Species in 1859. It had little impact at first, but eventually, it became more and more accepted in educational circles. So by 1925, even in this country, this ridiculous theory, this anti-God, anti-Bible doctrine had gained some ground in America.

Now, this is amazing in light of the strong religious convictions of previous generations. And it’s also shocking because of the plain and evident truth of Psalm 14, verse 1. “The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.” But the Scopes trial revealed an increasingly secular side of American culture.

And even worse, churches in America had started to weaken their teaching about the Bible because the scientific community was beginning to accept Darwin’s theory, and as a result, some of these religious leaders tried to blend evolution and Genesis. This can’t be done. Either evolution is true or creation is true, but they both can’t be true.

We know that creation is true, and evolution is false. But some theologians gave in to the pressure with more and more educated people supposedly believing in some type of evolution, They compromised the creation account. Now, this came up in the trial in Dayton.

Clarence Darrow asked William Jennings Bryan if he believed the Bible literally. And Bryan said yes. Darrow then asked him if he believed the account in Genesis which says that God created the earth and the heavens in six days. He asked Bryan if he believed that those were six literal 24 hour days. And Brian hedged, and he floundered, and never answered. That was a huge mistake, because the answer is easy.

In Genesis 1, verse 5, we find the statement several times, repeated after this, “The evening and the morning were the first day.” We also read in Exodus 20, verses 8 11, that just as God worked six days and rested on the seventh, the Jews were to work six days and rest on the seventh. Now, if those six days of creation were six periods of perhaps millions and millions of years, then God is telling the Jewish people to work for millions and millions of years and then to rest for a few million years. That’s just ridiculous.

So what happened at this? Well, Darrow lost the case, and his client, John T. Scopes, was found guilty and he was fined. But Darrow won in another way. He humiliated a supposedly Bible-believing attorney, and he sowed seeds of doubt and unbelief in the minds of millions. So eventually the law against teaching evolution in Tennessee schools was passed.

And as we’ve seen in Romans chapter one, once you take God out of the minds of people, then you remove Him from their lives. How different this was from the days of the old Blueback Speller that had been used for generations in America, or the McGuffey’s readers that taught children about God while they learned to read and write.

If you want to see how dramatically things changed, take a look at these old books that were once used in schools across the country. It’s hard to find a hard copy, but you can read them online. No, the theory of evolution wasn’t all that popular or influential, at least on the surface, in 1925 American culture. But it spread. Educators began to insist that it be taught in public schools. The American public was brainwashed into thinking that they were uneducated if they didn’t believe it.

So Darwin’s theory was appealing for two reasons. First of all, it gave young people an excuse for living a sinful life because if evolution is true, and there’s no God, and we don’t have a soul, and there is no heaven and hell, then there is no right or wrong and they are just animals and can live any way that they want to. That was appealing to some young people then just as it is today.

Secondly, the theory of evolution saved religious people from embarrassment in the scientific community. They could claim, on the surface at least, that they believed in some version of evolution instead of saying outrightly that they rejected it.

But there was something deeper in Darwinism that came out in the open just before the 1920s. You see, evolution says that living things adapt. They change. They evolve.

Now this thinking was actually based on an earlier philosophy of a German philosopher named Hegel. The idea is that everything is in a constant state of development, growth, or evolution. Now, Darwin applied that concept to living things, but the idea is much more far reaching. The philosophy that Darwin was building on said that not only do living things evolve, but ideas evolve.

That is, as people evolve, the thinking is, so do their ideas about society and government and marriage and religion, and even about morality. Now, this means that absolutely nothing is absolute. And the interesting thing is that President Woodrow Wilson said in 1912 that it was time for Americans to start looking at the Constitution like that.

He said we shouldn’t see the Constitution as a fixed, unchanging document, but as an evolving set of ideas. And here’s what he said in a speech in the year 1912. He said, quote, “All that progressives ask or desire is permission in an era when development, evolution, is the scientific word, to interpret the constitution according to the Darwinian principle,” end of quote.

And this is exactly what politicians and educators have been saying in America for years—that the Constitution is an outdated set of ideas, a set of flexible principles. And if they are successful in undermining the Constitution, you can say goodbye to the First Amendment, among other things, which means no freedom of religion.

That’s how serious this kind of thinking is. But the biggest changes in the 1920s were not just in the courtroom or the classroom. People changed their standards in the home and in their personal lives like the people Paul described in 2 Timothy chapter 3, verse 4: they became “lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God.”

Some of those pleasures were sinful in themselves—things like drinking, adultery, using bad language, dirty books and literature. But other pleasures were not wrong in themselves. It’s just that people took them too far and focused on them too much to the exclusion or to the neglect of their spiritual duties because it was a fun loving, partying age.

And the more wealthy people became, the more money they had to enjoy themselves. And the more money they had to enjoy themselves, the less they wanted to pray and read the Bible. So as the economy rose; morals declined. One book that describes this setting of the 1920s is entitled Only Yesterday. It was written by Frederick Lewis Allen.

The section that’s really interesting and enlightening is chapter five. It’s entitled “The Revolution in Manners and Morals.” And here are some of the changes that occurred in Allen’s description of the 1920s. He gets very specific about what happened in people’s personal moral lives. First of all, he mentioned dancing, and he said that dancing between males and females became more and more indecent in this age.

He said, quote, “No longer did even an inch of space separate the people who were dancing.” He said they danced “as if glued together, body to body, cheek to cheek.” This had not been seen like it was in the 1920s in previous generations. He also mentioned dating and said that it became more and more promiscuous.

The automobile began to be called a bedroom on wheels, and young men and young women abused a newfound freedom to go out on dates unchaperoned. The idea of a young man and young woman being left alone for hours was, in generations before, unheard of and reprehensible, but not in the 1920s.

He also talked a lot about dress codes. He said that those dress codes faded. Now, of course, compared to today’s standards, that change was not all that major, but in the 1920s, it was shocking. And that’s the effect that some were looking for. Men and women started to rebel against the customs and the values and the Scriptures that they had been taught.

Dresses got shorter and necklines got lower. In his book, Allen says that “the most conspicuous sign” of what was taking place and what is he referring to? He’s talking about this revolution. He’s talking about this rebellion. He’s talking about younger people in particular casting aside the values of their parents and their grandparents and previous generations.

So the most conspicuous sign of what was taking place, he says, was “the immense change in women’s dress and appearance. Women began to put more and more emphasis on outward beauty and less attention was given to inward grace”—just the opposite of what the Bible teaches us. In first Timothy chapter two, verse nine, the Bible says that women should “adorn themselves in modest apparel with shamefacedness and sobriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly array.”

Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong for a woman to fix or braid her hair, to wear gold or pearls. What it means is that the emphasis, her priority, should not be on the outward appearance. It should be on the heart. It should be on her godliness. Verse 10 says, “But which becomes women professing godliness with good works.

And then, in 1 Peter 3, verses 3 and 4, the apostle Peter says that wives should “adorn themselves, not with an outward adorning of plaiting”—that is, braiding—”the hair, or of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel,” but their emphasis should be “the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.” That’s first Peter chapter three, verses three and four.

Then in Proverbs chapter 31, verse 30, the Bible says, “Favor is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman that fears the Lord, she shall be praised.” Now, that’s how the book of Proverbs ends, but in the 1920s, that wisdom was thrown away. It was shoved aside because women wanted to appear like the world, and it had a far reaching effect.

Allen also mentions that drinking became more and more common in spite of Prohibition. Speakeasies and illegal liquor sales through bootlegging were controlled by organized crime, and men and increasingly even women, drank more and more. And the Roaring Twenties was, especially in bigger cities, but not always, or altogether in bigger cities, an age of partying and nightclubs.

The Bible says in Proverbs chapter 20 verse 1 that “Wine is a mocker and strong drink is raging, and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.” Allen also mentioned the influence and the craze for going to the movies. This changed the way that unmarried couples viewed respect for each other. He talks about that.

And although movies in the 1920s were nothing compared to films today because they were basically silent, still they put ideas into young hearts that had not been there before. The movies didn’t show anything even close to what we would call explicit. But they contained enough suggestion and innuendo to start the slide away from old fashioned respect.

Allen also noted that in the 1920s, bad language became more and more common and more public because morals began to change and people forgot God. Magazines began using curse words in stories. He said that editors prior to 1920 would have deleted these words, but by 1929, they were letting them stay because they were being accepted more and more.

As he said, and here’s the quote, “Times had changed,” that is, in 1929, that even morals and manners and common courtesy began to fade in this era. People began to be more and more disrespectful because they became more and more selfish and self-centered. It was called by some “the decade of bad manners.” Now again, that was nothing compared to today, but still it was disrespectful and it was noted.

And it was very noticeable by people who were righteous, God-fearing people. It’s also no surprise that marriage suffered in the 1920s. When you have this kind of rebellion, this kind of pleasure seeking, this kind of selfish, sinful living, then the home will suffer, marriages will suffer, and children will be neglected.

Women became more independent during this age. Men looked outside of marriage for recreation and that was a recipe for disaster. Divorce rates climbed in the 1920s. Children became more and more rebellious and disrespectful to their parents and to anyone in authority. Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone in this age had that same kind of attitude, but it does mean that these things were on the rise, and public officials sometimes compromised in their morals.

For instance, one judge in this period spoke out about what he called companionate marriage. His name was Judge Ben B. Lindsey. And by companionate marriage, he basically meant a trial marriage. That is, that couples should just try marriage, and if it doesn’t work, then just get a divorce for any reason, at any time, and he qualified it.

He said, unless they do have children. He wasn’t for divorcing for any reason, if they had children. But he did say that couples should be able to divorce for any reason at any time, if they don’t have any children. Now it’s interesting that in Memphis in 1928, G. C. Brewer, a gospel preacher, debated Ben Lindsay on the subject of companion marriage.

It’s an old book, a small pamphlet, but it’s interesting reading. And here’s just one quote from Lindsay on this subject. He said, quote, “I suggest that the proper view for society to take of extramarital sex is to recognize that some persons have an inclination toward varied sex experiences, and that some haven’t, and that it is no function of society to discriminate against those who have such inclinations, provided that they duly respect and consider the genuine rights of other people.”

Well, if they really respected other people, then they wouldn’t do this. That would be one way we would respond, but I’ll continue the quote.

He said, “Their conduct is as much a personal matter to be personally determined as the choice of one’s politics or religion.” And remember that all these things were said or done in the 1920s. So it should come as no surprise that things have gone as far as they have in our present time.

Now, to put all this in perspective, let’s turn to the Scriptures and look at some passages that are especially relevant to what we’ve been talking about.

First of all, in Ecclesiastes chapter 1, verse 9 and 10, the Bible says, “The thing that has been, it is that which shall be. And that which is done, is that which shall be done. And there is no new thing under the sun. Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It has been already of old time, which was before us.”

Then, in Ecclesiastes chapter 3, beginning in verse 1, the Bible says, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven, a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted, a time to kill, and a time to heal, a time to break down, and a time to build up, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to get and a time to lose, a time to keep and a time to cast away, a time to rend and a time to sow, a time to keep silence and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time of war and a time of peace.”

Also, the Bible says in 2 Timothy chapter 3 verse 13, that “evil men and deceivers shall become worse and worse.” Now this is a very important principle. He says that evil men and seducers (the King James says; other translations say deceivers) they will become worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.

In first Corinthians chapter five, verse six, the Bible says that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” A little yeast leavens the whole lump and produces that bread. In Judges chapter 21, verse 25, the Bible says, “Every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” And in Galatians 6, verse 7, the Bible warns, “Be not deceived, God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.”

Next week at this time we will look at the 1930s in light of the Bible. And until that time, may the Lord bless you.

Thank you for listening to My God and My Neighbor. Stay connected with our podcast on our website and on Apple, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever fine podcasts are distributed. Tennessee Bible College, providing Christian education since 1975 in Cookeville, Tennessee, offers undergraduate and graduate programs.

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