General Information

Fundamentalism is a term popularly used to describe strict adherence to Christian doctrines based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. This usage derives from a late 19th and early 20th century transdenominational Protestant movement that opposed the accommodation of Christian doctrine to modern scientific theory and philosophy. With some differences among themselves, fundamentalists insist on belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth and divinity of Jesus Christ, the vicarious and atoning character of his death, his bodily resurrection, and his second coming as the irreducible minimum of authentic Christianity. This minimum was reflected in such early declarations as the 14 point creed of the Niagara Bible Conference of 1878 and the 5 point statement of the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1910.

Two immediate doctrinal sources for fundamentalist thought were Millenarianism and biblical inerrancy. Millenarianism, belief in the physical return of Christ to establish a 1,000 year earthly reign of blessedness, was a doctrine prevalent in English speaking Protestantism by the 1870s. At the same time, powerful conservative forces led by Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield opposed the growing use of literary and historical criticism in biblical studies, defending biblical inspiration and the inerrant authority of the Bible.

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The name fundamentalist was coined in 1920 to designate those "doing battle royal for the Fundamentals." Also figuring in the name was The Fundamentals, a 12 volume collection of essays written in the period 1910 - 15 by 64 British and American scholars and preachers. Three million copies of these volumes and the founding of the World's Christian Fundamentals Association in 1919 gave sharp identity to fundamentalism as it moved into the 1920s. Leadership moved across the years from such men as A T Pierson, A J Gordon, and C I Scofield to A C Dixon and Reuben Torrey, William Jennings Bryan, and J Gresham Machen.

As fundamentalism developed, most Protestant denominations in the United States felt the division between liberalism and fundamentalism. The Baptists, Presbyterians, and Disciples of Christ were more affected than others. Nevertheless, talk of schism was much more common than schism itself. Perhaps the lack of a central organization and a normative creed, certainly the caricature of fundamentalism arising from the Scopes Trial (1925), the popularization of the liberal response by representatives like Harry Emerson Fosdick, well publicized divisions among fundamentalists themselves, and preoccupations with the Depression of the 1930s and World War II curtailed fundamentalism's appeal. By 1950 it was either isolated and muted or had taken on the more moderate tones of Evangelicalism.

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, fundamentalism again became an influential force in the United States. Promoted by popular television evangelists and represented by such groups as the Moral Majority, the new politically oriented "religious right" opposes the influence of liberalism and secularism in American life. The term fundamentalist has also been used to describe members of militant Islamic groups.

Paul Merritt Bassett

L J Averill, Religious Right, Religious Wrong (1989); S G Cole, History of Fundamentalism (1931); N Furniss, The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918 - 1931 (1954); B Lawrence, Defenders of God (1989); G Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980); E R Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism (1970).


Editor's Note

Christian Fundamentalism is an extremely different concept from the Islamic Fundamentalism that motivates some Islamic terrorists. They each carry a great intensity about the specific beliefs, but are otherwise quite different.


Advanced Information

Fundamentalism is a movement that arose in the United States during and immediately after the First World War in order to reaffirm orthodox Protestant Christianity and to defend it militantly against the challenges of liberal theology, German higher criticism, Darwinism, and other isms regarded as harmful to American Christianity. Since then, the focus of the movement, the meaning of the term, and the ranks of those who willingly use the term to identify themselves have changed several times. Fundamentalism has so far gone through four phases of expression while maintaining an essential continuity of spirit, belief, and method.

Phase I - Through the 1920s

The earliest phase involved articulating what was fundamental to Christianity and initiating an urgent battle to expel the enemies of orthodox Protestantism from the ranks of the churches

The series of twelve volumes called The Fundamentals (1910 - 15) provided a wide listing of the enemies, Romanism, socialism, modern philosophy, atheism, Eddyism, Mormonism, spiritualism, and the like, but above all liberal theology, which rested on a naturalistic interpretation of the doctrines of the faith, and German higher criticism and Darwinism, which appeared to undermine the Bible's authority. The writers of the articles were a broad group from English speaking North America and the United Kingdom and from many denominations. The doctrines they defined and defended covered the whole range of traditional Christian teachings. They presented their criticisms fairly, with careful argument, and in appreciation of much that their opponents said.

Almost immediately, however, the list of enemies became narrower and the fundamentals less comprehensive. Defenders of the fundamentals of the faith began to organize outside the churches and within the denominations. The General Assembly of the northern Presbyterian Church in 1910 affirmed five essential doctrines regarded as under attack in the church: the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, Christ's bodily resurrection, and the historicity of the miracles. These were reaffirmed in 1916 and 1923, by which time they had come to be regarded as the fundamental doctrines of Christianity itself. On a parallel track, and in the tradition of Bible prophecy conferences since 1878, premillenarian Baptists and independents founded the World's Christian Fundamentals Association in 1919, with William B Riley as the prime mover. The premillennialists tended to replace the miracles with the resurrection and the second coming of Christ, or even premillenarian doctrine as the fifth fundamental. Another version put the deity of Christ in place of the virgin birth.

The term "fundamentalist" was perhaps first used in 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws in the Baptist Watchman - Examiner, but it seemed to pop up everywhere in the early 1920s as an obvious way to identify someone who believed and actively defended the fundamentals of the faith. The Baptist John Roach Straton called his newspaper The Fundamentalist in the 1920s. The Presbyterian scholar J Gresham Machen disliked the word, and only hesitantingly accepted it to described himself, because, he said, it sounded like a new religion and not the same historic Christianity that the church had always believed.

Through the 1920s the fundamentalists waged the battle in the large northern church denominations as nothing less than a struggle for true Christianity against a new non Christian religion that had crept into the churches themselves. In his book Christianity and Liberalism (1923), Machen called the new naturalistic religion "liberalism," but later followed the more popular fashion of calling it "modernism."

Even though people like Harry Emerson Fosdick professed to be Christian, fundamentalists felt they could not be regarded as such because they denied the traditional formulations of the doctrines of Christianity and created modern, naturalistic statements of the doctrines. The issue was as much a struggle over a view of the identity of Christianity as it was over a method of doing theology and a view of history. Fundamentalists believed that the ways the doctrines were formulated in an earlier era were true and that modern attempts to reformulate them were bound to be false. In other words, the fundamentals were unchanging.

Church struggles occurred in the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Protestant Episcopal Church, and even in the southern Presbyterian Church, but the grand battles were fought in the northern Presbyterian and northern Baptist denominations. Machen was the undisputed leader among Presbyterians, joined by Clarence E Macartney. Baptists created the National Federation of the Fundamentalists of the Northern Baptists (1921), the Fundamentalist Fellowship (1921), and the Baptist Bible Union (1923) to lead the fight. The battles focused upon the seminaries, the mission boards, and the ordination of clergy. In many ways, however, the real strongholds of the fundamentalists were the Southern Baptists and the countless new independent churches spread across the south and midwest, as well as the east and west.

In politics fundamentalists opposed the teaching of Darwinian evolution in public schools, leading up to the famous Scopes trial (1925) in Dayton, Tennessee. William Jennings Bryan, a Presbyterian layman and three times candidate for the American presidency, was acknowledged leader of the antievolution battle.

Phase II - Late 1920s to the Early 1940s

By 1926 or so, those who were militant for the fundamentals had failed to expel the modernists from any denomination. Moreover, they also lost the battle against evolutionism. Orthodox Protestants, who still numerically dominated all the denominations, now began to struggle among themselves. During the Depression of the 1930s the term "fundamentalist" gradually shifted meaning as it came to apply to only one party among those who believed the traditional fundamentals of the faith. Meanwhile, neo orthodoxy associated with Karl Barth's critique of liberalism found adherents in America.

In several cases in the north fundamentalists created new denominations in order to carry on the true faith in purity apart from the larger bodies they regarded as apostate. They formed the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (1932), the Presbyterian Church of America (1936), renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Church (1938), the Conservative Baptist Association of America (1947), the Independent Fundamental Churches of America (1930), and many others. In the south fundamentalists dominated the huge Southern Baptist Convention, the southern Presbyterian Church, and the expanding independent Bible church and Baptist church movements, including the American Baptist Association. Across the United States fundamentalists founded new revival ministries, mission agencies, seminaries, Bible schools, Bible conferences, and newspapers.

During this period the distinctive theological point that the fundamentalists made was that they represented true Christianity based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, and that de facto this truth ought to be expressed organizationally separate from any association with liberals and modernists. They came to connect a separatist practice with the maintenance of the fundamentals of the faith. They also identified themselves with what they believed was pure in personal morality and American culture. Thus, the term "fundamentalist" came to refer largely to orthodox Protestants outside the large northern denominations, whether in the newly established denominations, in the southern churches, or in the many independent churches across the land.

Phase III - Early 1940s to the 1970s

Beginning in the early 1940s the fundamentalists, thus becoming redefined, divided gradually into two camps. There were those who voluntarily continued to use the term to refer to themselves and to equate it with true Bible believing Christianity. There were others who came to regard the term as undesirable, having connotations of divisive, intolerant, anti intellectual, unconcerned with social problems, even foolish. This second group wished to regain fellowship with the orthodox Protestants who still constituted the vast majority of the clergy and people in the large northern denominations, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian. They began during the 1940s to call themselves "evangelicals" and to equate that term with true Christianity. Beginning in 1948 a few called themselves neoevangelical.

Organizationally this spilt among largely northern fundamentalists was expressed on one hand by the American Council of Christian Churches (1941), which was ecclesiastically separatist in principle, and on the other by the National Association of Evangelicals (1942), which sought to embrace orthodox Protestants as individuals in all denominations. The term "fundamentalist" was carried into the 1950s by the ACCC as well as by a vast number of southern churches and independent churches not included in either body. It was proudly used by such schools as Bob Jones University, Moody Bible Institute, and Dallas Theological Seminary, and by hundreds of evangelists and radio preachers. The International Council of Christian Churches (1948) sought to give the term worldwide currency in opposition to the World Council of Churches.

The term "fundamentalist" took on special meaning in contrast with evangelical or neoevangelical, rather than merely in contrast with liberalism, modernism, or neo orthodoxy. Fundamentalists and evangelicals in the 1950s and 1960s shared much; both adhered to the traditional doctrines of Scripture and Christ; both promoted evangelism, revivals, missions, and a personal morality against smoking, drinking, theater, movies, and card playing; both identified American values with Christian values; both believed in creating organizational networks that separated themselves from the rest of society.

However, fundamentalists believed they differed from evangelicals and neoevangelicals by being more faithful to Bible believing Christianity, more militant against church apostasy, communism, and personal evils, less ready to cater to social and intellectual respectability. They tended to oppose evangelist Billy Graham, not to read Christianity Today, and not to support Wheaton College or Fuller Theological Seminary. Instead they favored their own evangelists, radio preachers, newspapers, and schools. Fundamentalists tended to differ greatly among themselves and found it difficult to achieve widespread fundamentalist cooperation.

Meanwhile people in North America and Great Britain who were neither fundamentalist nor evangelical tended to regard both as fundamentalist, noting their underlying similarities.

Phase IV - Late 1970s and the 1980s

By the late 1970s and in particular by the 1980 campaign of Ronald Reagan for the American presidency, fundamentalists entered a new phase. They became nationally prominent as offering an answer for what many regarded as a supreme social, economic, moral, and religious crisis in America. They identified a new and more pervasive enemy, secular humanism, which they believed was responsible for eroding churches, schools, universities, the government, and above all families. They fought all enemies which they considered to be offspring of secular humanism, evolutionism, political and theological liberalism, loose personal morality, sexual perversion, socialism, communism, and any lessening of the absolute, inerrant authority of the Bible. They called Americans to return to the fundamentals of the faith and the fundamental moral values of America.

Leading this phase was a new generation of television and print fundamentalists, notably Jerry Falwell, Tim La Haye, Hal Lindsey, and Pat Robertson. Their base was Baptist and southern, but they reached into all denominations. They benefited from three decades of post World War II fundamentalist and evangelical expansion through evangelism, publishing, church extension, and radio ministry. They tended to blur the distinction between fundamentalist and evangelical. Statistically, they could claim that perhaps one fourth of the American population was fundamentalist - evangelical. However, not all fundamentalists accepted these new leaders, considering them to be neofundamentalists.

The fundamentalists of the early 1980s were in many ways very different people from their predecessors, and they faced many different issues. But they continued important traits common to fundamentalists from the 1920s through the early 1980s. They were certain that they possessed true knowledge of the fundamentals of the faith and that they therefore represented true Christianity based on the authority of a literally interpreted Bible. They believed it was their duty to carry on the great battle of history, the battle of God against Satan, of light against darkness, and to fight against all enemies who undermined Christianity and America. Faced with this titanic struggle they were inclined to consider other Christians who were not fundamentalists as either unfaithful to Christ or not genuinely Christian. They called for a return to an inerrant and infallible Bible, to the traditional statement of the doctrines, and to a traditional morality which they believed once prevailed in America. To do all this, they created a vast number of separate organizations and ministries to propagate the fundamentalist faith and practice.

C T McIntire
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

G W Dollar, A History of Fundamentalism in America; R Lightner, Neo Evangelicalism; L Gasper, The Fundamentalist Movement, 1930 - 1956; J Falwell, E Dobson, and E Hindson, eds., The Fundamentalist Phenomenon; G M Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture; C A Russell, Voices of American Fundamentalism; N F Furniss, The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918 - 1931; E R Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism; J I Packer, "Fundamentalism" and the Word of God; James Barr, Fundamentalism.

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The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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