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.
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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