Understanding “Evangelical” Part Two: Fundamentalism
Dr. James Emery White
- 2021 Oct 14
*Editor’s Note: This is the second of a five-part series. Be sure to read the first installment here.
The term “Fundamentalist” or “Fundamentalism” was probably first coined by Curtis Lee Laws in the Baptist paper The Watchman Examiner in 1920. According to Laws, Fundamentalists were those who were ready “to do battle for the Fundamentals.”
Origins of Fundamentalism
The origins of Fundamentalism have been filled with as much diversity and disagreement as Fundamentalism itself. Stewart Cole and Norman Furniss explored the origins of Fundamentalism in terms of a reaction to modernity. Ernest Sandeen explored a more theological basis for understanding Fundamentalism. For Sandeen, millennialism and Princeton Theology were the catalysts of Fundamentalism. Under individuals such as J. Nelson Darby and events like the Niagara Bible Conferences (most notably the 1878 Conference), dispensational, pre-tribulation, pre-millennial theology was spread. Throughout the second half of the 19th century there was a plethora of prophetic conferences that spread millennialist ideas.
Sandeen’s second catalyst, Princeton Theology, was born in Princeton Theological Seminary under Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge and their students Archibald Alexander Hodge, B.B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen. Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism continues to serve as its best introduction. Together they argued for the infallibility of Scripture and a rationalistic system of thought, largely based on Thomas Reid and the philosophical school of Scottish Common Sense Realism.
C. Allyn Russell explored a different thesis, arguing that the energy behind Fundamentalism was Protestant Liberalism. Russell’s work is helpful in regard to exemplifying the theological differences between the leaders of Fundamentalism, thus tempering Sandeen’s contention that there was a theological unanimity which undergirded and energized the entire movement.
But George Marsden, author of the definitive work on American Fundamentalism, is the scholar of choice for most on the matter.
Marsden argues for four main streams that fed into Fundamentalism: 1) the revivalist empire of D.L. Moody (and revivalism in general); 2) the onslaught of modernity, breeding an ambivalence toward culture; 3) the holiness movements (especially the British-born Keswick movement); and 4) with Sandeen, pre-tribulational, pre-millennial, dispensationalist theology, although Marsden doubts that “pre-millennialism was really the organizing principle.”
Theology of Fundamentalism
Three areas can be examined in regard to determining the theology of Fundamentalism. First, the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1910 that produced what has become known as the “Five Points” of Fundamentalism: the deity of Christ; His virgin birth and miracles; the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture; Christ’s penal death for our sins; and His physical resurrection and personal return. These five areas were considered by the Fundamentalists to be under direct attack from the secular society and from within the contemporary Church.
The second source for Fundamentalist theology is the Scofield Bible (published in 1909). Selling more than 2,000,000 copies, this annotated “study Bible” is blatantly pre-tribulational, pre-millennial and dispensational. Sandeen has called this work “perhaps the most influential single publication in millennial and fundamentalist historiography.”
Finally, a series of 12 volumes published between 1910-1915 called The Fundamentals both represented and shaped Fundamentalist theology. Written by an impressive team of American and British scholars, these volumes were mailed free of charge to pastors, teachers, Sunday School workers and laypersons across the United States. More than one-third of the essays defended Scripture, and the vast majority had the theme of the authority of God in Scripture over and against the authority of science.
Fundamentalist Clash with Modernists
Fundamentalism became increasingly militant in the years surrounding World War II. Three major concerns occupied the Fundamentalists during this time. The first concern was the influx of immigrants and their various worldviews. After World War I, millions of immigrants streamed into America. Many of them were professing Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Jews, none of whom shared the Puritan and revivalist traditions of America and American Evangelicalism. In three decades, these immigrants changed the face of religion in America.
The second concern that occupied Fundamentalists was the radical shift in contemporary thought. The Scopes Trial typified such conflicts as the “city” versus the “country,” progress versus supposed ignorance, and most certainly Modernism versus Fundamentalism. Although Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) did not directly challenge Christianity, popular speculation about the book’s doctrine of evolution tended to discount the traditional explanation of the origin of life and the personal God behind the universe. Men and women began to think in terms of process, progress and evolution as opposed to creation, miracles and new birth.
The third concern that occupied the Fundamentalists was higher criticism. Higher criticism is the term used to describe the study of Scripture from the standpoint of literature, as opposed to “lower criticism” that deals with the text of Scripture and its transmission. For Fundamentalists, this undermined the idea that the Bible was special revelation, left the Christian minister bereft of a supernatural gospel, and provided little basis for the Evangelical experience of the new birth. It has therefore been suggested that a “systematic theology of biblical authority which defended the common evangelical faith in the infallibility of the Bible had to be created” (Sandeen).
Fundamentalist Retreat into Institutionalization
After the 1920s, Fundamentalism entered into a period that is perhaps best termed a “retreat into institutionalization.” Rather than engage culture, Fundamentalists retreated and sought areas where they could control doctrine, education and morals. This often involved withdrawing from denominations in order to form their own alliances. Such educational institutions as Dallas Theological Seminary and Bob Jones University were founded as a result of this philosophy (founded in 1924 and 1926, respectively).
The growing uneasiness of many Fundamentalists with the denominational separatism, social and cultural irresponsibility, and anti-intellectual stance that pervaded the years of controversy with the Modernists that would lead to the branching off and eventual formation of the movement known as contemporary American Evangelicalism.
And it is to that we turn next in part three of this series.
James Emery White
Curtis Lee Laws, “Convention Side Lights,” The Watchman-Examiner, July 1, 1920.
Stewart Cole, The History of Fundamentalism.
Norman Furniss, The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-1931.
Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism.
C. Allyn Russell, Voices of American Fundamentalism.
George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925.
Bruce L. Shelley in “Evangelicalism,” Dictionary of Christianity in America, Daniel G. Reid, Robert D. Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, Harry S. Stout, editors.
R.K. Harrison, “Higher Criticism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology.
Joel A. Carpenter, “Fundamentalist Institutions and the Rise of Evangelical Protestantism, 1929-1942,” Church History 49.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president.
His latest book, After “I Believe,” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast.
Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.