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Christian fundamentalism

Christian fundamentalism, also known as Fundamentalist Christianity, or Fundamentalism,[1] arose out of British and American Protestantism in the late 19th century and early 20th century among evangelical Christians.[2] The founders reacted against liberal theology and militantly asserted that the inerrancy of the Bible was essential for true Christianity and was being violated by the modernists. As an organized movement, it began in the 1920s within Protestant churches especially Baptist and Presbyterian in the United States in the early 20th century. Fundementalist Christianty is often intertwined with Biblical literalism.

Many such churches adopted a "fighting style" and certain theological elements, such as Dispensationalism.[3] The broader term "evangelical" includes fundamentalists as well as people with similar or identical religious beliefs who do not engage the outside challenge to the Bible as actively.[4] Fundamentalism is a movement, rather than a denomination or a systematic theology, which gained ascendance after the release of a ten-volume set of essays, apologetic and polemic, written by many well-known conservative Protestant theologians to defend what was seen as Protestant orthodoxy—covering a wide range of topics, from defenses of the Divinity of Jesus Christ, his Virgin Birth, of the historicity of Biblical narratives, Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and of Biblical inerrancy against the prevalent higher-critical theories of the day, to the falsity of theological systems such as Christian Science, "Millennial Dawnism", Mormonism, to the errors of "Romanism"—over the course of 1910-1915, called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, from which the movement receives its eponymous name. Since 1930, Fundamentalism has not been an organized movement, and has not had a national body or official statement of beliefs. Evangelicals, however, have a national organization, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).



The term fundamentalism was coined by Baptist editor Curtis Lee Laws in 1920 to designate Christians who were ready "to do battle royal for the Fundamentals". The term was quickly adopted by all sides. Laws borrowed the term from the title of a series of essays published between 1910 and 1915 called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. The term "Fundamentalism" entered the English language in 1922, and is often capitalized when referring to the religious movement.[1]

The term fundamentalist is controversial in the 21st century and is often used to attack or ridicule an adherent (labelled "fundy" or "fundie"), even though it was coined by movement leaders. Some who hold these beliefs reject the label of "fundamentalism", seeing it as too pejorative[5] while to others it has become a banner of pride. Such Christians prefer to use the term fundamental, as opposed to fundamentalist (e.g., Independent Fundamental Baptist and Independent Fundamental Churches of America).[6] The term is sometimes confused with Christian legalism.[7][8]

Fundamentalist movement in the United States

Fundamentalism had multiple roots in British and American theology of the 19th century.[9] One root was Dispensationalism, a new interpretation of the Bible developed in the 1830s in England. It was a millenarian theory that divided all of time into seven different stages, called "dispensations," which were seen as stages of God's revelation. At the end of each stage, according to this theory, God punished humanity for having been found wanting in God's testing. Secularism, liberalism, and immorality in the 1920s were believed to be signs that humanity had again failed God's testing. This means that the world is on the verge of the last stage, where a final battle will take place at Armageddon, followed by Christ's return and 1,000 year reign.[10] One important sign is the rebirth of Israel, support for which became the centerpiece of Fundamentalist foreign policy.[11]

A second stream came from Princeton Theology in the mid-19th century, which developed the doctrine of inerrancy in response to higher criticism of the Bible.[12][13] The work of Charles Hodge influenced fundamental insistence that the Bible was inerrant because it had been dictated by God and written by men who took that dictation. This meant that the Bible should be read differently from any other historical document, and also that modernism and liberalism were believed to lead people to hell just like non-Christian religions.[14]

A third strand and the name itself came from a 12-volume study The Fundamentals, published 1910-1915.[15] Sponsors subsidized the free distribution of over three million individual volumes to clergy, laymen and libraries. This version[16] stressed several core beliefs, including:

  • The inerrancy of the Bible
  • The literal nature of the Biblical accounts, especially regarding Christ's miracles and the Creation account in Genesis.
  • The Virgin Birth of Christ
  • The bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ
  • The substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross

By the late 1920s the first two points had become central to Fundamentalism. A fourth strand was the growing concern among many evangelical Christians with modernism and the higher criticism of the Bible. This strand concentrated on opposition to Darwinism. A fifth strand was the strong sense of the need for public revivals, a common theme among many Evangelicals who did not become Fundamentalists. Numerous efforts to form coordinating bodies failed, and the most influential treatise came much later, in Systematic Theology (1947) by Lewis S. Chafer, who founded the Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924.

Much of the enthusiasm for mobilizing Fundamentalism came from "Bible Colleges", especially those modeled after the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Dwight Moody was influential in preaching the imminence of the Kingdom of God that was so important to dispensationalism.[17] The Bible colleges prepared ministers who lacked college or seminary experience with intense study of the Bible, often using the Scofield Reference Bible of 1909, which was the King James version with detailed notes explaining how to interpret Dispensationalist passages.


Fundamentalist movements were found in most North American Protestant denominations by 1919, with the attack on modernism in theology launched by the Fundamentalists in the Presbyterian and Baptist churches. Fundamentalism was especially controversial among Presbyterians. Although it began in the North its greatest popular strength was in the South, especially among Southern Baptists. By the late 1920s the national media had identified it with the South, largely ignoring manifestations elsewhere.[18]

The leading organizer of the Fundamentalist campaign against modernism was William Bell Riley, a Northern Baptist based in Minneapolis, where his Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School (1902), Northwestern Evangelical Seminary (1935), and Northwestern College (1944) produced thousands of graduates. Riley created, at a large conference in Philadelphia in 1919, the World's Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA). It became the chief interdenominational fundamentalist organization in the 1920s. Although the fundamentalist drive of the 1920s to take control of the major Protestant denominations failed at the national level, the network of churches and missions fostered by Riley shows the movement was growing in strength, especially in The South. Both rural and urban in character, the flourishing movement acted as a denominational surrogate and aimed at a militant orthodoxy of evangelical Christianity. Riley was president until 1929, after which the WFCA faded in importance and was never replaced.[19]

Biblical literalism

A Biblical literalist is someone who literally interprets the words of the bible. A literal Biblical interpretation is associated with the fundamentalist and evangelical hermeneutical approach to Scripture, and is used almost exclusively by conservative Christians[20] such as Baptist, Conservative Mennonites and other similar groups.


Fundamentalists in the 1920s devoted themselves to fighting the teaching of evolution in the nation's schools and colleges, especially by passing state laws that affected public schools. Riley took the initiative in the Scopes Trial in Tennessee in 1925 to bring in famed politician William Jennings Bryan as an assistant to the local prosecutor. Liberals saw a division between educated, tolerant Christians and narrow-minded, tribal, obscurantist Christians.[21] In the half century after the Scopes Trial the Fundamentalists had little success in shaping government policy, and generally were defeated in their efforts to reshape the mainline denominations. The Mainline Protestant denominations refused to join the attacks on evolution and welcomed modern ideas.[22]

However Edwards (2000) challenges the consensus among scholars view that in the wake of the Scopes trial a humiliated fundamentalism retreated into the political and cultural background, a viewpoint evidenced in the movie "Inherit the Wind" and the majority of contemporary historical accounts. Rather, he argues, the cause of fundamentalism's retreat was the death of its leader, Bryan. Most fundamentalists saw the trial as a victory and not a defeat, but Bryan's death soon after created a leadership void that no other fundamentalist leader could fill. Bryan, unlike the other leaders, brought name recognition, respectability, and the ability to forge a broad-based coalition of fundamentalist religious groups to argue for the anti-evolutionist position.[23]

Gatewood (1969) analyzes the transition from the anti-evolution crusade of the 1920s to the creation science movement of the 1960s. Despite some similarities between these two causes, the creation science movement represented a shift from religious to scientific objections to Darwin's theory. Creation science also differed in terms of popular leadership, rhetorical tone, and sectional focus. It lacked a prestigious leader like Bryan, utilized scientific rather than religious rhetoric, and was a product of California and Michigan instead of the South.[24]

Other states

Webb (1991) traces the political and legal struggles between strict creationists and Darwinists to influence the extent to which evolution would be taught as science in Arizona and California schools. After Scopes was convicted, creationists throughout the United States sought similar antievolution laws for their states. These included Reverends R. S. Beal and Aubrey L. Moore in Arizona and members of the Creation Research Society in California, all supported by distinguished laymen. They sought to ban evolution as a topic for study, or at least relegate it to the status of unproven theory perhaps taught alongside the biblical version of creation. Educators, scientists, and other distinguished laymen favored evolution. This struggle occurred later in the Southwest than in other US areas and persisted through the Sputnik era, which inspired increased faith in evolutionism.[25]

Militancy and evangelicals

Fundamentalism is defined by historian George M. Marsden in his seminal work Fundamentalism and American Culture as "militant anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism." Marsden explains that Christian fundamentalists were American evangelical Christians who in the 20th century opposed "both modernism in theology and the cultural changes that modernism endorsed. Militant opposition to modernism was what most clearly set off fundamentalism."[26] Other historians agree that militancy is a core characteristic of the movement.[27]

The Fundamentalists from the 1920s insisted on "militant" action to counteract modernism and historians emphasize that theme too. "Militant does not mean "violent", it means "aggressively active in a cause."[28] Recent scholars differentiate "fundamentalists" from "evangelicals" by arguing the former were more militant and less willing to collaborate with groups considered "modernist" in theology. McKim and Wright (1992) argue,"in the 1920s, militant conservatives (fundamentalists) united to mount a conservative counter-offensive. Fundamentalists sought to rescue their denominations from the growth of modernism at home."[29] In the 1940s the more moderate faction of fundamentalists (or "postfundamentalists") maintained the same theology but began calling themselves "evangelicals" to stress their less militant position. Olson (2007) points out, "Most postfundamentalist evangelicals do not wish to be called fundamentalists, even though their basic theological orientation is not very different." A key event, Olson says, was the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942. [30] As Hankins (2008) notes, "Beginning in the 1940s....militant and separatist evangelicals came to be called fundamentalists, while culturally engaged and non-militant evangelicals were supposed to be called evangelicals."[31]

For example, American evangelist Billy Graham came from a fundamentalist background, but parted company with that movement because of his choice, early in his ministry (1950s), to cooperate with other Christians.[32] Graham represents a movement that arose within fundamentalism, but has increasingly become distinct from it, known as neo-evangelicalism or New Evangelicalism (a term coined by Harold J. Ockenga, the "Father of New Evangelicalism").

The original Fundamentalist Movement divided along clearly defined lines within conservative Evangelical Protestantism as issues progressed. Many groupings, large and small, were produced by this schism. Neo-evangelicalism, Reformed and Lutheran Confessionalism, the Heritage movement, and Paleo-Orthodoxy have all developed distinct identities, but none of them acknowledge any more than an historical overlap with the Fundamentalist Movement, and the term is seldom used of them.

Christian right

The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed a surge interest in politics by organized fundamentalists in the U.S. The sparks that ignited their interest were decisions by the United States Supreme Court in 1962 to prohibit state-sanctioned prayer in public schools in the case of Engel v. Vitale and in 1963 to prohibit mandatory Bible reading in public schools in the case of Abington School District v. Schempp.[33] By the time Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency in 1980, fundamentalist preachers, like the prohibitionist ministers of the early 20th century, were organizing their congregations to vote for supportive candidates.[34]

Leaders of the political force included Rob Grant and Jerry Falwell. Beginning with Grant's American Christian Cause in 1974, Christian Voice throughout the 1970s and Falwell's Moral Majority in the 1980s, the Christian Right began to have a major impact on American politics. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Christian Right was influencing elections and policy with groups such as the Family Research Council (founded 1981 by James Dobson) and the Christian Coalition (formed in 1989 by Pat Robertson) helping conservative politicians, especially Republicans to win state and national elections.[35]


In Canada, Fundamentalism was less of a force,[36] but it had an aggressive leader in Englishman Thomas Todhunter Shields (1873 1955), who led 80 churches out of the Baptist federation in Ontario in 1927 and formed the Union of regular Baptist churches of Ontario and Quebec. He was affiliated with the "Baptist Bible Union", based in the United States. His newspaper, The Gospel Witness, reached 30,000 subscribers in 16 countries, giving him an international reputation. He was one of the founders of the international Council of Christian Churches.[37]

Oswald J. Smith (1889 1986), reared in rural Ontario and educated at Moody Church in Chicago, set up his own church in Toronto in 1921. A dynamic preacher and leader in Canadian fundamentalism, Smith wrote 35 books and engaged in missionary work worldwide. The reverend Billy Graham called him, "the greatest combination pastor, hymn writer, missionary statesman, an evangelist of our time".[38]

See also

  • Bible believer
  • Biblical inerrancy
  • Biblical literalism
  • British Conservative Evangelicalism
  • Christian eschatological differences
  • Christian radicalism
  • Christian Reconstructionism
  • Christian right
  • Christian Zionism
  • Dominionism
  • Evangelicalism
  • Higher criticism
  • Liberal Christianity
  • Reformed Fundamentalism


  • Almond, Gabriel A., R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan, eds. (2003). Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World and text search
  • Armstrong, Karen (2001). The Battle for God. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-39169-1.
  • Ballmer, Randall (2nd ed 2004). Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism
  • Ballmer, Randall (2010). The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond, 120pp
  • Ballmer, Randall (2000). Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America
  • Beale, David O. (1986). In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850. Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University (Unusual Publications). ISBN 0-89084-350-3.
  • Bebbington, David W. (1990). "Baptists and Fundamentalists in Inter-War Britain." In Keith Robbins, ed. Protestant Evangelicalism: Britain, Ireland, Germany and America c.1750-c.1950. Studies in Church History subsidia 7, 297 326. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, ISBN 0-631-17818-X.
  • Bebbington, David W. (1993). "Martyrs for the Truth: Fundamentalists in Britain." In Diana Wood, ed. Martyrs and Martyrologies, Studies in Church History Vol. 30, 417 451. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, ISBN 0-631-18868-1.
  • Barr, James (1977). Fundamentalism. London: SCM Press. ISBN 0-334-00503-5.
  • Caplan, Lionel (1987). Studies in Religious Fundamentalism. London: The MacMillan Press, ISBN 0-88706-518-X.
  • Carpenter, Joel A. (1999). Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism. Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-512907-5.
  • Cole, Stewart Grant (1931). The History of Fundamentalism, Greenwood Press ISBN 0-8371-5683-1.
  • Elliott, David R. (1993). "Knowing No Borders: Canadian Contributions to Fundamentalism." In George A. Rawlyk and Mark A. Noll, eds. Amazing Grace: Evangelicalism in Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States. Grand Rapids: Baker. 349 374, ISBN 0-7735-1214-4.
  • Dollar, George W. (1973). A History of Fundamentalism in America. Greenville: Bob Jones University Press.
  • Hankins, Barry. (2008). American Evangelicals: A Contemporary History of A Mainstream Religious Movement, scholarly history excerpt and text seach
  • Harris, Harriet A. (1998). Fundamentalism and Evangelicals. Oxford University. ISBN 0-19-826960-9.
  • Hart, D. G. (1998). "The Tie that Divides: Presbyterian Ecumenism, Fundamentalism and the History of Twentieth-Century American Protestantism." Westminster Theological Journal 60, 85 107.
  • Hughes, Richard Thomas (1988). The American quest for the primitive church 257pp excerpt and text search
  • Laats, Adam (Feb. 2010). "Forging a Fundamentalist 'One Best System': Struggles over Curriculum and Educational Philosophy for Christian Day Schools, 1970 1989," History of Education Quarterly, 50 (Feb. 2010), 55 83.
  • Longfield, Bradley J. (1991). The Presbyterian Controversy. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-508674-0.
  • Marsden, George M. (1995). "Fundamentalism as an American Phenomenon." In D. G. Hart, ed. Reckoning with the Past, 303 321. Grand Rapids: Baker.
  • Marsden; George M. (1980). Fundamentalism and American Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-502758-2; the standard scholarly history (by a fundamentalist); excerpt and text search
  • Marsden, George M. (1991). Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism excerpt and text search
  • McCune, Rolland D. (1998). "The Formation of New Evangelicalism (Part One): Historical and Theological Antecedents." Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, 3, 3 34.
  • McLachlan, Douglas R. (1993). Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism. Independence, Mo.: American Association of Christian Schools. ISBN 0-918407-02-8.
  • Noll, Mark (1992). A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada.. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 311 389. ISBN 0-8028-0651-1.
  • Noll, Mark A., David W. Bebbington and George A. Rawlyk eds. (1994). Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles and Beyond, 1700 1990.
  • Rawlyk, George A., and Mark A. Noll, eds. (1993). Amazing Grace: Evangelicalism in Australia, Britain, Canada, and the United States.
  • Rennie, Ian S. (1994). "Fundamentalism and the Varieties of North Atlantic Evangelicalism." in Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington and George A. Rawlyk eds. Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles and Beyond, 1700 1990. New York: Oxford University Press. 333 364, ISBN 0-19-508362-8.
  • Ruthven, Malise (2007). Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction excerpt and text search
  • Sandeen, Ernest Robert (1970). The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800 1930, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-73467-6
  • Seat, Leroy (2007). Fed Up with Fundamentalism: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Fundamentalism. Liberty, MO: 4-L Publications. ISBN 978-1-59526-859-4
  • Stackhouse, John G. (1993). Canadian Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century
  • Trollinger, William V. (1991). God's Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism excerpts and text search
  • Utzinger, J. Michael (2006). Yet Saints Their Watch Are Keeping: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and the Development of Evangelical Ecclesiology, 1887-1937, Macon: Mercer University Press, ISBN 0-86554-902-8
  • Witherup, Ronald D. S.S. (2001). Biblical Fundamentalism: What Every Catholic Should Know, 101pp excerpt and text search
  • Young, F. Lionel, III, (2005). "To the Right of Billy Graham: John R. Rice's 1957 Crusade Against New Evangelicalism and the End of the Fundamentalist-Evangelical Coalition." Th. M. Thesis, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Primary sources

  • Hankins, Barr, ed. (2008). Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism: A Documentary Reader excerpt and text search
  • Torrey, R. A., Dixon, A. C., et al. (eds.) (1917). ''The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth'' partial version at Accessed 2011-07-26.
  • Trollinger, William Vance, Jr., ed. (1995). The Antievolution Pamphlets of William Bell Riley. (Creationism in Twentieth-Century America: A Ten-Volume Anthology of Documents, 1903-1961. Vol. 4.) New York: Garland, 221 pp. excerpt and text search


External links

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