Fundamentalist Christianity

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Fundamentalist Christianity

Fundamentalist Christianity is a form of Protestantism that is reactive to modernity and attempts to make a militant defense of "the fundamentals" of Christian faith. On occasion, observers call some Roman Catholic movements fundamentalist, but Catholicism allows for development in doctrine, something that true fundamentalists reject. Thus Christian fundamentalism is almost always Protestant. (The phenomenon does have its counterparts in Judaism, Islam, and other faiths.)

Christian fundamentalists, according to most proponents and scholars, list at least five fundamental teachings: the inerrancy of the Bible as well as literal understandings of the virgin birth of Jesus, of his sacrificial death, of his physical resurrection, and of his second coming. The stress is on the word "literal." Politician William Jennings Bryan, a pioneer lay fundamentalist, typically insisted on literalism because, he said, Christian liberals sucked the truth out of basic biblical teachings by calling them symbolic or allegorical.

Bryan was a major figure in the first generation of fundamentalism, which took shape early in the twentieth century, acquired its name from 1919 to 1920, and came to its first climax as an agent in disputes within the Presbyterian and Baptist Churches in the northern United States. In the course of time, fundamentalism came to be identified with the South, but most of its origins and many of its members were in the North.

The word "fundamentalism" does not appear in encyclopedias of Christianity before the twentieth century. Of course, there were conservatisms, traditionalisms, and orthodoxies before that. But in 1920, Curtis Lee Laws, the editor of the Baptist Watchman-Observer, and his allies called for a new name for their new movement. They complained that ordinary conservatives would not do "battle royal for the Lord" as some fundamentalists would and did. Between 1910 and 1915 some conservatives published twelve volumes called The Fundamentals, and in 1919 others formed the World's Christian Fundamentals Association, but the new word did not come into common use until after 1920, in Baptist, Presbyterian, and other denominational battles.

Defeated in denominational conflicts over control of seminaries and mission boards, many fundamentalists left their church bodies to form new seminaries and denominations. The most prominent of these individuals was Princeton professor J. Gresham Machen, an intellectual formulator of the movement, who in 1935 helped found the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. That body suffered schism, as fundamentalist churches often do. In 1937, a leader of the split-off faction, Carl McIntire, formed the Bible Presbyterian Synod. Because none of these splintering bodies approached the visibility of the more moderate ones they left behind, most observers relegated fundamentalism to the backwoods of the Bible Belt, and cultural elites dismissed them as hillbillies, Holy Rollers, and rednecks. Meanwhile, the fundamentalists busied themselves fashioning Bible colleges, publishing houses, and radio broadcasting networks.

Fundamentalists regathered initiative by 1941, when under McIntire numbers of parties formed the fundamentalist American Council of Christian Churches. They did so in part to anticipate the formation of a more moderate organization in 1942, the National Association of Evangelicals.

Evangelicals, who insisted on a literal belief in the same fundamentals, declared themselves to be offended by the belligerence of fundamentalists, who, they thought, were driving people away from conservative Christianity. Meanwhile, independent movements of Pentecostals were also emerging. They, too, shared belief in the same fundamentals, but their stress on direct experience of the Holy Spirit made fundamentalists of the Bryan, Machen, and McIntire stripes nervous. How, they asked, could one be sure that there would be no change in fundamentalist doctrine if people claimed to be hearing fresh messages from the Holy Spirit?

After two more decades of relative obscurity, fundamentalism reemerged during and after the cultural crises of the 1960s to become a highly visible and often political force. Some fundamentalists—for example, those led by the Jones family that created and led Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina—sternly rejected political engagement. But beginning in the late 1970s many others did a complete about-face. They had previously seen Christian participation in politics to be distracting and even sinful. Now it was sinful not to be political, said pastor, television evangelist, and university founder Jerry Falwell, a major leader of the new version. His faction argued that the churches and the culture had become so corrupt and tainted that only aggressive efforts by fundamentalists could withstand the evils and reform religion and culture. They organized the Moral Majority and later the Christian Coalition.

The resultant New Christian Right leaders were so effective at organizing that they drew more public notice than had liberal Protestants in their heyday decades at midcentury. The New Right gained credibility among many for its support of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and it became a factor in Republican Party politics through the rest of the century.

Fundamentalism is a reactive, more than a reactionary, movement. If it were reactionary, it would use Protestant tradition simply to keep its distance from anything called modern or representative of modernity. That is not the case. Instead, most scholars see fundamentalism as a modern movement. Its leaders and members, as they react to inimical forces, are at home with many of the instruments and actions of modernity. They have been masters of what to others typify modernization in technology: radio, television, the Internet, efficient distribution of mailed messages, and the like. Rather than run from encounters with modern movements that helped inspire them to be reactive, they have engaged them. Thus theories of evolution, which they perceived as assaults on the faith in the name of science, led many fundamentalists to develop what they called "Scientific Creationism" to counter evolution in the classroom.

If fundamentalists reacted against evolutionary accounts of the origins of the universe and of humanity, they also reacted against evolutionary visions of the goals of history. Among these were European Marxism and progressive American movements in politics, education, and the like. While secular social progressives counted on humans alone to bring in a new order, as in Marxism's "classless society," the Protestant advance guard spoke of "bringing in the kingdom of God."

The unfolding future will not be a kind of utopia produced by humans, said the fundamentalists. Instead, they prophesied imminent global catastrophe when Jesus Christ would return to enjoy a thousand-year reign that would mean bliss for the faithful. These apocalypse-minded fundamentalists favored teachings introduced from the British Isles at about the turn of the twentieth century by evangelist Dwight L. Moody and others. It was this expectation of a catastrophic end to history that helped lead earlier fundamentalists to withdraw from politics and social activism. Believers were to concentrate instead on keeping America strong (fundamentalists tend to favor a strong military and to demonize enemies of the United States as "evil empires") and winning converts quickly before Jesus came again. By the 1970s, however, many of them, without losing faith in the sudden end to ordinary history, saw or sought opportunities to reform the world while advancing the causes of conversion and moral living.

Political fundamentalism in the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition did not and does not concentrate chiefly on economic issues. On its chosen front line, "social issues" predominate. It deals with urgencies that are close to the lives of people besieged by modern change and confused by pluralism or religious diversity and relativism, which find no absolutes as bases on which to live or rule.

Thus the newer political fundamentalism reacted against U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963 that ruled against officially inspired prayer and devotional Bible reading in public schools. The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court, which ruled that a right to abortion was constitutional, then provoked the most galvanizing reaction. Henceforth, issues dealing with sexuality, gender, conception, family life, education, obscenity, and the like formed the agenda for activists. When identifying villains, they pointed to "secular humanists," religious liberals, corrupting elites in big and encroaching government, mass media, and education as Antichrist.

Fundamentalism, being a movement or a characteristic more than a definable church body, is a term rarely used in the names of congregations and denominations. The word does not always appear, for example, in metropolitan telephone book advertisements and listings of churches. Therefore it is difficult to determine how many fundamentalists there are either in the United States or in counterpart movements that rose as products of American missionary efforts around the world. Numbering is also difficult because many heirs of people who had chosen the name "fundamentalist" for themselves saw that it could create a stigma, and they did not like to be thus labeled. The leadership of the nation's largest Protestant group, the Southern Baptist Convention, bears all the marks that friends, enemies, and most scholars call fundamentalist. But most of these Baptists do not like the adjective, and it must be used with care.

If one includes the Southern Baptist Convention majority, the numerous small denominations that originated as break-offs from more moderate denominations, many television and political movements, and individual fundamentalists who stay in more moderate bodies, it is likely that there are twenty million to thirty million in the United States. This very rough estimate depends on definition, but it is a clear indicator that fundamentalism, while smaller than the more moderate evangelicalism, is a major factor and is likely to remain so in times of drastic change.

See alsoBaptist Tradition; Christian Coalition; Creationism; Evangelical Christianity; Falwell, Jerry; Moral Majority; Religious Right.


Ammerman, Nancy. Bible Believers:Fundamentalistsinthe Modern World. 1987.

Carpenter, Joel. Revive Us Again: The Reawakening ofAmerican Fundamentalism. 1997.

Lawrence, Bruce. Defenders of God: The FundamentalistRevolt Against the Modern Age. 1989.

Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and AmericanCulture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870 –1925. 1980.

Marty, Martin E., and R. Scott Appleby. Fundamentalisms Observed. The Fundamentalism Project, vol. 1. 1991.

Sandeen, Ernest. The Roots of Fundamentalism: Britishand American Millenarianism, 1800 –1930. 1970.

Martin E. Marty