Fundamentalism was a movement among Christians in the United States that began in the late 19th century. It was a backlash against Modernism, which the fundamentalists accused of denying such Christian doctrines such as virgin birth and the inerrancy of Scripture. The name comes from a series of pamphlets entitled The Fundamentals that were published between 1910 and 1915. The movement is associated with the 1925 Scopes Trial, which concerned the issue of evolution. It suffered a decline in the 1930s, but revived in the late 1940s. At this time, the words "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" were used interchangeably.
In the late 1950s, the movement split between evangelicals such as Billy Graham (b. 1918) and fundamentalists led by John R. Rice (1895-1980). In the 1920s, fundamentalism was inclusive and involved a diverse set of denominations. In contrast, Rice was a separatist and an Independent Baptist. Although anti-Catholicism had been a core fundamentalist principle, Jerry Falwell (1933–2007), a protégé of Rice, united conservative Protestants and Catholics as the Religious Right. Since the retirement of Bob Jones III in 2005, the fundamentalist movement has lacked notable leadership.
Merriam Webster defines fundamentalism as "a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching."
Author George M. Marsden defines it this way:
A fundamentalist is an American evangelical who is angry about something. That seems simple and it is fairly accurate. Jerry Falwell has even adopted it as a quick definition of fundamentalism that reporter are likely to quote. A more precise statement of the same point is that an American fundamentalist is an evangelical who is militant in opposition to liberal theology in the churches or to changes in cultural values or mores, such as those associated with "secular humanism."
The term is derived from The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. This was a series of twelve pamphlets published between 1910 and 1915 that critiqued Modernist interpretations of Scripture. The movement was generally called "evangelism" until 1919, when the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association was formed.
Birth of the Fundamentalist Movement
The roots of the movement are usually traced to the Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1880s. Principal Archibald Alexander Hodge and Professor Benjamin B. Warfield defended biblical authority against the claims of "higher criticism," a liberal reinterpretion of Scripture. They also developed the doctrine of inerrancy. This later became the central doctrine of fundamentalism.
The Fundamentals stressed several core beliefs, including:
- The inerrancy of the Bible
- The literal nature of the Biblical accounts of Christ's miracles, the Creation account in Genesis, and so on
- The Virgin Birth of Christ
- The bodily resurrection of Christ
- The substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross
By the late 1920s, the first two points had become central to Fundamentalism. Thanks to sponsorship, over three million volumes were distributed free to clergy, laymen, missionaries, and libraries. The leaders of the movement founded the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association in 1919. 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."
Much of the enthusiasm for mobilizing Fundamentalism came from Bible colleges, especially those modeled after the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. 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 had detailed notes explaining how to interpret Dispensationalist passages.
Eric Kaufmanm on the rise of religious fundamentalism in the 21st century
At a conference Eric Kaufmann said of religious demographic projections concerning the 21st century:
|“|| Part of the reason I think demography is very important, at least if we are going to speak about the future, is that it is the most predictable of the social sciences.
...if you look at a population and its age structure now. You can tell a lot about the future. ...So by looking at the relative age structure of different populations you can already say a lot about the future...
...Religious fundamentalism is going to be on the increase in the future and not just out there in the developing world..., but in the developed world as well.
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Organizing the Fundamentalists
The most important leader in organizing a movement 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 became the leading organizer of the movement for Fundamentalism. He 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, and Riley was president until 1929, after which the WFCA faded in importance.
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 developed and controlled by Riley indicates that fundamentalism 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.
Fundamentalists in the 1920s devoted themselves to fighting the teaching of evolution in the nation's schools and colleges, both public and private.
Riley took the initiative in the Scopes Trial of 1925 to bring in famed orator William Jennings Bryan as an assistant to the local prosecutor. The trial revealed a growing chasm in American Christianity and two ways of finding truth, one "biblical" and one "scientific." Liberals saw a division between educated, tolerant Christians and narrow-minded, tribal, obscurantist Christians.
Gatewood (1969) analyzes the transition from the antievolution 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.
Edwards (2000) contradicts the conventional 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, 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 and mainline religious groups to argue for the antievolutionist position.
The American Civil Liberties Union at first had no objection to a general Christian outlook in the public schools, as long as it was that of no particular sect. By the time of the Scopes Trial, however, the ACLU and other advocates of secular humanism insisted that public education must not assume any religious outlook, laying the groundwork, as Bryan feared, for the triumph of materialism.
While other denominations rebranded as "evangelical," the Independent Baptists continued to describe themselves as "fundamentalist." Their foremost leader, John R. Rice, founded a fundamentalist paper The Sword of the Lord in 1934 and served as its editor till his death in 1980. Its masthead states, "An Independent Christian Publication, Standing for the Verbal Inspiration of the Bible, the Deity of Christ, His Blood Atonement, Salvation by Faith, New Testament Soul Winning and the Premillennial Return of Christ; Opposing Modernism, Worldliness and Formalism." Noted fundamentalists in that group included H.A. Ironside, Bob Jones, Sr., Bob Shuler, William Culbertson, Harry Hager, R.G. Lee, Hyman Appelman, V. Raymond Edman, Scotchie McCall, E.J. Daniels, W.A. Criswell, Joe Henry Hankins. However, in one illustration of different manifestations of fundamentalism, after the death of John R. Rice some took issue with the direction the new editor of "The Sword" had taken in separating brethren over details about which Godly Bible believers may have differing convictions. Primary among these was defining a true fundamentalist as only an independent Baptist who stood with him. In a letter by Rice's daughter, she noted that her father even considered some evangelical non-Baptists (including Pentecostals) to be fundamentalists, if they also held to and earnestly contended for the fundamentals of the faith. She pointed to his note on Romans 14:l in the Rice Reference Bible which stated, "We then are to receive and have fellowship with all saved people who may differ on minor matters but agree on the great fundamentals of the Christian faith."
Further descriptions of fundamentalism are offered by other writers, such as Joel Carpenter in his book, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism who writes about "the complexity and contributions of fundamentalism as a faith system whose purposes and beliefs have all too frequently been reduced to caricature." Reviewer William Martin, notes how author Joel Carpenter acknowledges the value of "fundamentalism" as a generic label for militant religious and cultural conservatism. But he focuses on that particular, identifiable strain of evangelical Christianity that is persistently revivalistic, emphasizes dispensationalist premillennialism and biblical inerrancy, militantly opposes theological modernism and cultural secularity and feels a strong sense of "trusteeship" for American culture.
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.
Fundamentalism in various religions
The term slowly came to mean all movements within religions that reject modernizing/liberalizing influences and attempt to stay true to the word of that religion's scriptures. The term has been applied to Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. Christian fundamentalism differs from Orthodoxy in its sole reliance on the Bible and disregard for previously established tradition. Similarly, within Islam, the "fundamentalist" movements (such as Wahhabism) seek to remove perceived impurities in Islam and return it to the believed roots. Unlike Christianity, however, these uncovered roots have spawned incredible amounts of violence. "Fundamentalist" Hinduism is, in a way, a contradiction in terms. Hinduism has no one sacred holy book, and thus no original scriptures to return to, and so the term is instead used to describe those Hindus who are intolerant of the existence of other religions (and occasionally non-Indians) in their communities.
The term "fundamentalist" is also self-applied by a breakaway movement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, calling itself the "Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints." This group, which practices polygamy and whose leader was convicted on charges relating to child rape, claims to continue the original revelations of Joseph Smith who was a polygamist. It is considered to be an apostate group by the older church and cannot truly be called fundamentalist, in the Mormon context, because it ignores the doctrine of continuous revelation to the leaders of the church. It was one such revelation that caused the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to renounce polygamy approximately sixty years after the church's founding.
There are no fundamentalist Jews, as all movements to return to the basic tenets of Judaism simply result in increased orthodoxy. Judaism may be unique in this regard. Though according to scholars such as Samuel C. Heilman, Menachem Friedman, and Werner Backeberg, there are "truly fundamentalist Jews" who are "a minority of a minority of a minority (that is, approximately 30 percent of Orthodox Jewry, which itself is only about 15 percent of the approximately twelve million members of world Jewry)."
In recent times, the media has taken to describing any conservative non-denominational church or conservative evangelical church as fundamentalist. Indeed, these churches do strive to return to the basics of Christianity—its fundamentals.
Israel and Christian fundamentalism
Historically speaking, the majority of American Fundamentalists have been and remain zionists. Fundamentalist-evangelicals rejoiced when part of Jerusalem was annexed after the 1967 six day war, whereas the National Council of Churches denounced Israel. Liberal Christianity called for the "internationalization" of Jerusalem throughout the 1960s, while Fundamentalists expressed their hope for Biblical prophecy: God promised Jerusalem to Israel.
Differences between liberal and fundamentalist Christians
- Fundamentalism's literal interpretation of prophecy versus Liberalism's spiritual interpretation.
- Fundamentalism's equal weighting of the Old and New Testaments versus Liberalism privileging the New, especially the liberal tendency to interpret critical remarks against Judaism.
- Fundamentalism's belief in unconverted Israel over against Liberalism's conversion requirement (i.e., so-called replacement theology).
- Almond, Gabriel A., R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan, eds. Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World (2003) excerpt and text search
- Hankins, Barry. God's Rascal: J. Frank Norris and the Beginnings of Southern Fundamentalism (1996)
- Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture (2nd ed 2006), the standard scholarly history (by a fundamentalist) excerpt and text search
- Marsden, George M. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (1991) excerpt and text search
- Ruthven, Malise. Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction (2007) excerpt and text search
- Sandeen, Ernest R. The Roots of Fundamentalism (1970)
- Trollinger, William V. God's Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism (1991) excerpts and text search
- Witherup, Ronald D. S.S. Biblical Fundamentalism: What Every Catholic Should Know (2001), 101pp excerpt and text search
- Richard Thomas Hughes, The American quest for the primitive church (1988) 257 pp excerpt and text search
- Trollinger, William Vance, Jr., ed. 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, 1995. 221 pp. excerpt and text search
- "Fundamentalism”, Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals
- Marsden, George M., Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (1991), p. 1
- The Fundamentals A Testimony to the Truth (1910-1915)
- Eric Kaufmann - Religion, Demography and Politics in the 21st Century
- William Vance Trollinger, Jr. "Riley's Empire: Northwestern Bible School and Fundamentalism in the Upper Midwest". Church History 1988 57(2): 197-212. 0009-6407
- David Goetz, "The Monkey Trial". Christian History 1997 16(3): 10-18. 0891-9666; Burton W. Folsom, , Jr. "The Scopes Trial Reconsidered." Continuity 1988 (12): 103-127. 0277-1446, by a leading conservative scholar
- Willard B. Gatewood, Jr., ed. Controversy in the Twenties: Fundamentalism, Modernism, & Evolution (1969)
- Mark Edwards, "Rethinking the Failure of Fundamentalist Political Antievolutionism after 1925". Fides Et Historia 2000 32(2): 89-106. 0884-5379
- Also cited were two chapters in Rice's book, I AM A FUNDAMENTALIST (1975), that of Be a Fundamentalist, But Not a Nut, and Fundamentalists Should Love All Christ's Other Sheep.
- From Library Journal review
- "How the Fundamentalists Learned to Thrive", by Rice University professor of sociology, William Martin in The Christian Century, September, 23-30, 1998, pp. 872-875
- George E. Webb, "The Evolution Controversy in Arizona and California: From the 1920s to the 1980s." Journal of the Southwest 1991 33(2): 133-150. 0894-8410. See also Christopher K. Curtis, "Mississippi's Anti-Evolution Law of 1926." Journal Of Mississippi History 1986 48(1): 15-29.
- Fundamentalism, Werner Backeberg (Faculty of Theology) Institute for Missiological and Ecumenical Research (IMER), University of Pretoria, p. 19
- Fundamentalism Observed, p. 198
- Zionism Within Early American Fundamentalism 1878-1918: A Convergence of Two Traditions, David A. Rausch, Edwin Mellen Press, 1979, ISBN 9-88946-875-3, ISBN 0-88946-976-8, p.4