Christian fundamentalism began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries among British and American Protestants as a reaction to theological liberalism and cultural modernism. Fundamentalists argued that 19th-century modernist theologians had misinterpreted or rejected certain doctrines, especially biblical inerrancy, that they viewed as the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Fundamentalists are almost always described as having a literal interpretation of the Bible. A few scholars regard Catholics who reject modern theology in favor of more traditional doctrines as fundamentalists. Scholars debate how much the terms "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" are synonymous. In keeping with traditional Christian doctrines concerning biblical interpretation, the role Jesus Christ plays in the Bible, and the role of the church in society, fundamentalists usually believe in a core of Christian beliefs that include the historical accuracy of the Bible and all its events as well as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
- Princeton Theology (biblical inerrancy)
- The Fundamentals and modernism
- Changing interpretations
- In North America
- In the United States
- Christian right
- In Canada
- Catholic fundamentalism
Interpretations of Christian fundamentalism have changed over time. Fundamentalism is a movement manifested in various denominations such as Pentecostalism or Roman Catholicism with various theologies, rather than a single denomination or systematic theology. It became active in the 1910s after the release of The Fundamentals, a twelve-volume set of essays, apologetic and polemic, written by conservative Protestant theologians to defend what they saw as Protestant orthodoxy. The movement became more organized in the 1920s within U.S. Protestant churches, especially Baptist and Presbyterian.
Many such churches adopted a "fighting style" and combined Princeton theology with Dispensationalism. Since 1930, many fundamentalist churches have been represented by the Independent Fundamental Churches of America (renamed IFCA International in 1996), which holds to biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth of Jesus, substitutionary atonement, the literal resurrection of Christ, and the Second Coming of Christ, among other doctrines.
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 it 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.
The term fundamentalist is controversial in the 21st century, as it can carry the connotation of religious extremism, even though it was coined by movement leaders. Some who hold these beliefs reject the label of "fundamentalism", seeing it as too pejorative, 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). The term is sometimes confused with Christian legalism.
Fundamentalism came from multiple streams in British and American theology of the 19th century. According to authors Robert D. Woodberry and Christian S. Smith,
Following the Civil War, tensions developed between Northern evangelical leaders over Darwinism and higher biblical criticism; Southerners remained unified in opposition to both (Marsden 1980, 1991). Modernists attempted to update Christianity to match their view of science. They denied biblical miracles and argued that God manifests himself through the social evolution of society. Conservatives resisted these changes. These latent tensions erupted to the surface after World War I in what came to be called the fundamentalist/modernist split.
However, the split does not mean there are just two groups, modernists and fundamentalists. There are also people who considered themselves to be neo-evangelicals, separating themselves from the extreme components of fundamentalism. These neo-evangelicals also wanted to separate themselves from the fundamentalist movement and mainstream evangelical movement due to its often anti-intellectual approach.
The first important stream was Evangelicalism as it emerged in the revivals of the First Great Awakening and Second Great Awakening in America and the Methodism movement in England in the period 1730–1840. They in turn had been influenced by the Pietism movement in Germany. Church historian Randall Balmer explains that:
Evangelicalism itself, I believe, is a quintessentially North American phenomenon, deriving as it did from the confluence of Pietism, Presbyterianism, and the vestiges of Puritanism. Evangelicalism picked up the peculiar characteristics from each strain – warmhearted spirituality from the Pietists (for instance), doctrinal precisionism from the Presbyterians, and individualistic introspection from the Puritans – even as the North American context itself has profoundly shaped the various manifestations of evangelicalism: fundamentalism, neo-evangelicalism, the holiness movement, Pentecostalism, the charismatic movement, and various forms of African-American and Hispanic evangelicalism.
A second stream was Dispensationalism, a new interpretation of the Bible developed in the 1830s in England. John Nelson Darby's ideas were disseminated by the notes and commentaries in the widely used Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909. Dispensationalism 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. Dispensationalists held to a form of eschatology that believed that the world was 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.
Princeton Theology (biblical inerrancy)
A third stream was Princeton Theology, which responded to higher criticism of the Bible by developing from the 1840s to 1920 the doctrine of inerrancy. This doctrine, also called biblical inerrancy, stated that the Bible was divinely inspired, religiously authoritative, and without error. The Princeton Seminary professor of Theology Charles Hodge insisted that the Bible was inerrant because God inspired or "breathed" his exact thoughts into the biblical writers (2 Timothy 3:16). Princeton theologians believed that the Bible should be read differently from any other historical document, and also that Christian modernism and liberalism led people to hell just like non-Christian religions.
Biblical inerrancy was a particularly significant rallying point for fundamentalists. This approach to the Bible is associated with conservative evangelical hermeneutical approaches to Scripture ranging from the historical-grammatical method to biblical literalism.
The Fundamentals and modernism
A fourth stream—the immediate spark—was the 12-volume study The Fundamentals, published 1910–15. Sponsors subsidized the free distribution of over three million individual volumes to clergy, laymen and libraries. It stressed several core beliefs, including:
Like Princeton Theology, The Fundamentals reflected growing opposition among many evangelical Christians towards higher criticism of the Bible and modernism.
The interpretations given the fundamentalist movement have changed over time, with most older interpretations being based on the concepts of social displacement or cultural lag. Some in the 1930s, including H. Richard Niebuhr, understood the conflict between fundamentalism and modernism to be part of a broader social conflict between the cities and the country. In this view the fundamentalists were country and small-town dwellers who were reacting against the progressivism of city dwellers. Fundamentalism was seen as a form of anti-intellectualism during the 1950s; in the early 1960s American intellectual and historian Richard Hofstadter interpreted it in terms of status anxiety.
Beginning in the late 1960s the movement began to be seen as "a bona fide religious, theological and even intellectual movement in its own right." Instead of interpreting fundamentalism as a simple anti-intellectualism, Paul Carter argued that "fundamentalists were simply intellectual in a way different than their opponents." Moving into the 1970s, Earnest R. Sandeen saw fundamentalism as arising from the confluence of Princeton Theology and millennialism.
George Marsden defined fundamentalism as "militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism" in his 1980 work Fundamentalism and American Culture. "Militant" in this sense does not mean "violent", it means "aggressively active in a cause". Marsden saw fundamentalism arising from a number of preexisting evangelical movements that responded to various perceived threats by joining forces. He argued 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." Others viewing militancy as a core characteristic of the fundamentalist movement include Philip Melling, Ung Kyu Pak and Ronald Witherup. Donald McKim and David Wright (1992) argue that "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."
According to Marsden, recent scholars differentiate "fundamentalists" from "evangelicals" by arguing the former were more militant and less willing to collaborate with groups considered "modernist" in theology. In the 1940s the more moderate faction of fundamentalists maintained the same theology but began calling themselves "evangelicals" to stress their less militant position. Roger Olson (2007) identifies a more moderate faction of fundamentalists, which he calls "postfundamentalist", and says "most postfundamentalist evangelicals do not wish to be called fundamentalists, even though their basic theological orientation is not very different." According to Olson, a key event was the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942. Barry Hankins (2008) has a similar view, saying "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."
Timothy Weber views fundamentalism as "a rather distinctive modern reaction to religious, social and intellectual changes of the late 1800s and early 1900s, a reaction that eventually took on a life of its own and changed significantly over time."
In North America
Fundamentalist movements existed in most North American Protestant denominations by 1919 following attacks on modernist theology in Presbyterian and Baptist denominations. Fundamentalism was especially controversial among Presbyterians.
In the United States
A leading organizer of the fundamentalist campaign against modernism in the United States 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. At a large conference in Philadelphia in 1919, Riley created the World Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA), which 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 U.S. South. Both rural and urban in character, the flourishing movement acted as a denominational surrogate and fostered a militant evangelical Christian orthodoxy. Riley was president of WCFA until 1929, after which the WFCA faded in importance. The Independent Fundamental Churches of America became a leading association of U.S. fundamentalist churches upon its founding in 1930.
Much of the enthusiasm for mobilizing fundamentalism came from Protestant seminaries and Protestant "Bible colleges" in the United States. Two leading fundamentalist seminaries were the Dispensationalist Dallas Theological Seminary, founded in 1924 by Lewis Sperry Chafer, and the Reformed Westminster Theological Seminary, formed in 1929 under the leadership and funding of former Princeton Theological Seminary professor J. Gresham Machen. Many Bible colleges were 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. Bible colleges prepared ministers who lacked college or seminary experience with intense study of the Bible, often using the Scofield Reference Bible of 1909, a King James Version Bible with detailed notes interpreting passages from a Dispensational perspective.
Although U.S. fundamentalism began in the North, the movement's greatest popular strength was in the South, especially among Southern Baptists, where individuals (and sometimes entire churches) left the convention to join other Baptist denominations perceived as "more conservative" or to join the Independent Baptist movement. By the late 1920s the national media had identified it with the South, largely ignoring manifestations elsewhere. By the 1970s Protestant fundamentalism was deeply entrenched and concentrated in the U.S. South. In 1972–1980 General Social Surveys, 65 percent of respondents from the "East South Central" region (comprising Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Alabama) self-identified as fundamentalist. The share of fundamentalists was at or near 50 percent in "West South Central" (Texas to Arkansas) and "South Atlantic" (Florida to Maryland), and at 25 percent or below elsewhere in the country, with the low of nine percent in New England. The pattern persisted into the 21st century; in 2006–2010 surveys, the average share of fundamentalists in the East South Central Region stood at 58 percent, while, in New England, it climbed slightly to 13 percent.
Many 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. William Bell Riley took the initiative in the 1925 Scopes Trial to bring in famed politician William Jennings Bryan as an assistant to the local prosecutor, who helped attract national media attention to the trial. In the half century after the Scopes Trial, fundamentalists had little success in shaping government policy, and generally were defeated in their efforts to reshape the mainline denominations, which refused to join fundamentalist attacks on evolution. Particularly after the Scopes Trial, liberals saw a division between Christians in favor of the teaching of evolution, whom they viewed as educated and tolerant, and Christians against evolution, whom they viewed as narrow-minded, tribal, obscurantist.
However Edwards (2000) challenges the consensus view among scholars that in the wake of the Scopes trial, 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.
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.
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.
In recent times, the courts have heard cases on whether or not the Book of Genesis's creation account should be taught in science classrooms alongside evolution, most notably in the 2005 federal court case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. Creationism was presented under the banner of intelligent design, with the book Of Pandas and People being its textbook. The trial ended with the judge deciding that teaching intelligent design in a science class was unconstitutional as it was a religious belief and not science.
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. 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.
The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed a surge of interest in organized political activism by U.S. fundamentalists. Dispensational fundamentalists viewed the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel as an important sign of the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and support for Israel became the centerpiece of their approach to U.S. foreign policy. United States Supreme Court decisions also ignited fundamentalists' interest in organized politics, particularly Engel v. Vitale in 1962, which prohibited state-sanctioned prayer in public schools, and Abington School District v. Schempp in 1963, which prohibited mandatory Bible reading in public schools. 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.
Leaders of the newly political fundamentalism 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.
In Canada, fundamentalism was less prominent, but it had an aggressive leader in English-born 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.
Oswald J. Smith (1889–1986), reared in rural Ontario and educated at Moody Church in Chicago, set up The Peoples Church in Toronto in 1928. A dynamic preacher and leader in Canadian fundamentalism, Smith wrote 35 books and engaged in missionary work worldwide. Billy Graham called him "the greatest combination pastor, hymn writer, missionary statesman, an evangelist of our time".
Some scholars describe certain Catholics as fundamentalists. Such Catholics believe in a literal interpretation of both doctrines and Vatican declarations, particularly those pronounced by the Pope, and believe that individuals who do not agree with the magisterium are condemned by God. Lutheran scholar Martin E. Marty described Catholic fundamentalists as advocating mass in Latin and mandatory clerical celibacy while opposing ordination of women priests and rejecting artificial birth control. The Society of St. Pius X, a product of Marcel Lefebvre, is cited as a stronghold of Catholic fundamentalism. Catholic theologian Ronald L. Conte Jr. has described Catholic fundamentalism on the basis of three main features: (1) over-simplification of beliefs, (2) dogmatization of those beliefs, (3) villainization of everyone outside the group. He applied the term to Catholics both on the right and on the left.
Fundamentalists' literal interpretation of the Bible has been accused by practitioners of Biblical criticism for failing to take into account the circumstances with which the Christian Bible was written. Critics claim that this "literal interpretation" is not keeping with the message the scripture intended to convey when it was written.
Additionally, they have been accused of "weaponizing the Bible" for political purposes by presenting God "more as a God of judgement and punishment than as a God of love and mercy".
Fundamentalists have attempted and continue to attempt to teach intelligent design, a hypothesis with creationism as its base, in lieu of evolution in public schools, as in the federal court case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. This case resulted in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruling the teaching of intelligent design as unconstitutional due to intelligent design's religious roots.
In the 1930s fundamentalism was viewed by many as a "last gasp" vestige of something in the past. More recent scholarship has shifted away from that view.
Confessional Lutheran churches reject the fundamentalist position and believe that all biblical teachings are essential:
Are there some "non-essential" or "non-fundamental" teachings about which we can safely disagree? If they believe the answer is "yes," that in itself is already reason for alarm. The Bible teaches that no teachings of the Bible can safely be set aside. "Agreeing to disagree" is really not God-pleasing agreement.
As, according to Lutheran apologists, Martin Luther said:
The doctrine is not ours, but God's, and we are called to be his servants. Therefore we cannot waver or change the smallest point of doctrine.