What is a Christian Fundamentalist?

Many people use the terms evangelicals and fundamentalists interchangeably, but the terms are not the same—though some evangelicals are, in fact, fundamentalist. As we discussed before, 19th century evangelicalism coalesced from a number of developments in the last half of the century and by 1900 was a thriving and exciting movement.

Fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan

Fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan

Christian Counter Currents in the Late 19th Century

However, alongside 19th century evangelicalism, other Christian movements were developing.

The first issue that disturbed evangelicals, who considered the Bible the inspired word of God, was German higher criticism which asked literary and historical questions about the Bible. Many evangelicals found comfort in Darby’s dispensational ‘plain reading of the Bible’ and in the ‘inerrancy’ of Princeton Theological Seminary.

A second aspect of concern was Darwinism—evolution. Darwinism flew in the face of the Bible’s story of creation in the first chapters of Genesis and of related doctrines.

Finally, the social gospel focused on the tremendous need to address poverty and other social injustice. Many evangelicals promoted similar efforts, but social gospel advocates, often connected with postmillennialism, sought to transform the world and bring about the kingdom of God on earth; and they promoted the social gospel instead of the good news of Jesus. The person most identified with this movement was Walter Rauschenbusch.

The Birth of Fundamentalism

By the turn of the century, the conflict between theological modernism and some evangelicals reached a crisis point. The debate was hot and heavy. In 1910 evangelicals began to publish a series of books, called The Fundamentals, that circulated widely. That same year the Presbyterian Church in the USA adopted the five fundamentals essential to Christian belief:

  • The inspiration of the Bible by the Holy Spirit and the inerrancy of Scripture as a result of this.
  • The virgin birth of Christ.
  • The belief that Christ’s death was an atonement for sin.
  • The bodily resurrection of Christ.
  • The historical reality of Christ’s miracles.

Soon, many evangelicals rallied to some variation of the five fundamentals, though some substituted a statement about the second coming of Christ for #5.

This was the birth of fundamentalism as an identity. Over the next fifteen years the battle raged as fundamentalists sought to defeat modernism in the denominations and schools. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the ‘modernist’ Baptist pastor of a large Presbyterian church in New York, became their public whipping boy.

Populist politician William Jennings Bryan’s enthusiastic promotion of fundamentalism drew much attention across the country, which culminated in the 1925 Scopes Trial in Tennessee where Bryan was the attorney against evolution being taught in schools.

However, Bryan’s statements in court were so ridiculed in the national press that it severely damaged the fundamentalist image. Bryan died soon after, and fundamentalism lost its most valuable public supporter.

Battle for the Denominations

The controversy affected most American denominations, and a number of breakaway denominations appeared, but not all fundamentalists joined these new groups. The controversy was most intense in the Presbyterian Church in the USA and the Northern Baptist Convention.

Two leading Presbyterian fundamentalists were J. Gresham Machen, of Princeton Seminary, and William Jennings Bryan, the well-known three-time presidential nominee and recent USA Secretary of State (1913-1915). In addition to his participation in the Scopes Trial, Bryan spoke on fundamentalist topics such as prohibition, smoking, and evolution. He was also involved in the Presbyterian Church controversy and even ran for General Moderator but lost by a small margin.

After Machen failed to stop modernism in his denomination or Princeton Seminary, he led a group from Princeton to establish Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. Then he established the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936. Unlike most fundamentalists, Machen was not a dispensationalist, so Carl McIntire soon left the OPC to found the Bible Presbyterian Church.

Baptist leaders included John Roach Straton and William Bell Riley, but they also failed to defeat modernism in their denomination. Finally, William Bell Riley led the entire Minnesota Baptist State Convention out of the Northern Baptist Convention. In addition, those unwilling to continue in the Northern Convention created two new denominations: the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches in 1932 and the Conservative Baptist Association of America in 1943.

Among Southern Baptists, who were already quite conservative, Frank Norris became upset that evolution was taught at Baylor University and began a campaign against modernism in the Southern Baptist Convention. But, instead of trying to recapture the denomination for fundamentalism, he encouraged churches to sever relations with the association; this resulted in the movement now known as Independent Fundamental Baptist Churches.

The Fundamentalist Attitude

A peculiar attitude infected many of the new fundamentalists; they refused to cooperate at all with those they considered tinged with modernism. During the controversy they became ‘fighting fundamentalists’, and the legacy of separation, isolation, and harsh attack continues to this day.

But there were some among them who disavowed these attitudes. We will talk next time about how these dissenters became the 20th century evangelicals.

Image via Wikimedia Commons
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21 Responses to What is a Christian Fundamentalist?

  1. Lana says:

    Oh, I haven’t thought of Williams Jenning Byran in a long time. He used to be in all our books! Fundamentalism was definitely a reaction to 19th centuy liberalism, which as you said was basically a synthesis between naturalism and Christianity. I really undersand because change is scary, and when we see change, we want to gound ourselves in something secure.


    • Lana, I was not involved in homeschooling, so I didn’t know Bryan was prominent there. But it makes sense; he certainly was a champion against evolution and was far better known than the leading fundamentalist preachers.


      • Lana says:

        Oooooooooooh yes. Keep in mind that that textbooks were written by a lot of people in the IFB church. ACE is big on him. I’m sure the others were too.


        • fiddlrts says:

          Bryan definitely gets a mention, even in more mainstream fundamentalist curricula, beyond the Scopes trial.
          One of the most interesting books I read (more recently) in which he appears is They Also Ran, by Irving Stone, which tells the tales of all the candidates that lost presidential elections. Bryan ran and lost three times…
          Stone opines that Bryan would have made a poor president – and the case is entirely based on his policies, not his religious beliefs. Quite interesting.


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  3. michaeleeast says:

    Thanks Tim for the history lesson.
    It definitely looks like change and reaction to change.
    I believe that fundamentalism has run its race.
    In Australia their Churches are also in decline.
    Progressive Christianity is gaining momentum.
    This is because it makes sense and doesn’t impose its beliefs.
    It is a rainbow of diversity.
    But as yet we have not reached the young.
    They still have an aversion to Church of any kind.
    This is because they fear old church practices.
    The Church is not changing quickly enough.
    Can it survive?
    Or will there be something new?
    The future will tell.


    • Michael, I agree that progressive Christianity is gaining momentum, but in America I do not see that fundamentalism has run its course, instead in the past few decades it has changed in several ways that make it more isolated from general Christianity and culture than it was before. I am glad to hear that it is in decline in Australia; perhaps someday it will happen here as well.


  4. Chuck Gatlin says:

    It is interesting to me that the Five Fundamentals are all things that anyone who said that the Creeds (Nicene, Apostles’, and Athanasian) contained a summary of “essential” Christianity could assent to, except maybe Biblical inerrancy. This gives you “fundamentalist” Anglicans, for example, except that there are additional things in the Creeds beyond the Five Fundamentals. So that means some Anglicans are more “rigorous” than the Fundamentalists.


    • You are right Chuck; the five fundamentals do not sound so radical on their own, and we will see in the next post that 20th evangelicals did not abandon the fundamentals. The fundamentals gave fundamentalists them a name, but other aspects of fundamentalism are what actually defined the movement.

      I hope to get into that a little bit in the next post.


  5. Most excellent write up here Tim! As you brush on, I think Darwinism has been a major force agaisnt fundamentalism (because if humans evolved from slime in a brutal process of natural selection, the view of Yahweh sure changes!).

    After the monkey trial, the fundamentalists took a new tack, which was to say “I just believe” in the face of all evidence and discussion. Billy Graham, one of their modern day champions has a famous story about this, he was faced with faith vs. fact and he chose to simply fall to his knees and profess that he would believe and not think about it. That is the battle cry of fundamentalism for sure.


    • Thanks CE. I agree that Darwinism had a tremendous impact on the development of the fundamentalist expression of faith, because for the first time science was developing hard evidence that was inconsistent with a creationist interpretation of Genesis.

      However, many do not admit to ‘faith in the face of evidence’. Just last week I had a creationist in my home who argued that creationism absolutely had a solid scientific basis. I wondered if he would have clung to that argument if he wasn’t already committed to a Genesis-based creationism, but I didn’t press him on that point.

      But the Genesis story is not the only issue; other doctrinal commitments are involved as I point out in https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2013/06/17/why-is-creation-so-important-to-creationists/.


  6. sheila0405 says:

    Well, it’s late but I finally got to read your post. Interestingly, I am occasionally counseling with my parish priest, lamenting about how difficult it is trying to have conversations with my fundamentalist family members. He is the one who told me the origins of fundamentalism, how it was a reaction against perceived modernism in the church. You’ll also find it interesting that, in our conversion classes (which I help teach), he said that Jesus came to grips with his mission during the temptation in the desert. Aside from your blog, I had never heard it before. Looks like you are really onto something about the baggage we sometimes carry about Jesus! It just demonstrated to me personally, that Providence is guiding me as I seek to learn more about Jesus and just what that means in my life.


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  8. Mere Dreamer says:

    Hmmm … interesting how these beliefs can come without the identifying labels, sometimes. I grew up “missionary” and they were very into “what the Bible says, only”… but then it turns out that it’s all interpretive, too, and they get just as annoyed by the people who interpret it differently as the rest of the denominations.

    Was it you who recommended reading Rob Bell’s current series on the Bible? If so, I can’t thank you enough. I needed a “from the beginning” alternate view to think over, because so often I find only this article or that on various topics. I was thoroughly trained to read the Bible from a certain viewpoint “from the beginning” and need more comprehensive overviews to compare with that massive construct.


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  10. As a 21st Century pastor in the rural “fly over” part of America, I often consider doing further study into the late 19th through late 20th centuries- focusing on the history of thought inside of American conservative Christianity. So much of our theology is reactionary. You hit the nail on the head with your post about how the fundamentalism of today is different than that of the ’60’s. It is sad to see pendulum swings.

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