Christian Fundamentalism

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With fears of an increasingly "secular" society and the rise of 19th century liberal/modernist interpretations of the Bible, Christian fundamentalism became a prominent movement starting in the 1920s. Many attribute the rise of the movement with the publication of The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (1910-1915), a 12-volume set of essays written by conservative Protestant theologians promoting traditional biblical views (e.g., the literal word of God without error). Along with resisting "secular" behavior (e.g., dancing) and non-biblical theories of human origins (see Scopes Trial), Christian fundamentalism became a militant alternative force against a changing society.

Christian fundamentalism spread across various Protestant denomination and created new denominations through schisms, including Baptist Bible Union (1923) and the Bible Presbyterian Church (1937). Non-denominational fundamentalist churches, organizations, and colleges also began emerging.

While still in existence, many conservative Christians turned to Neo-Evangelicalism in the mid-20th century as a means to embrace conservative Christianity without the militancy and secular disengagement found among fundamentalists.
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Fundamentalism is an approach visible within the Christian tradition that seeks to distance itself from both anti-Christian secularizing tendencies and Christian attempts at liberal expression or accommodations at modernization by emphasizing rigorous adherence to what are held to be central features of the traditional religion.

As the nation grew more diverse early in the 20th century, some believers found it important to define orthodoxy and defend it from various forms of heresy as well as modernism and secularism. The churches were now divided into those who espoused liberalism and the new emerging theology against historical orthodoxy, now termed Fundamentalism. Their list of doctrinal beliefs were those of historic Christianity, but fundamentalism, as Marsden (1990) has recounted, held views, along with those beliefs that were culturally driven. He described fundamentalists as evangelicals that were angry about something. Similarly, E. J. Carnell claimed fundamentalism was orthodoxy "gone cultic."

Some might argue (in an oversimplified account) that from countervailing emphases of the same nationalistic phenomenon both Fundamentalism ("manifest destiny") and Liberalism ("civil religion") in the United States have been spawned and that evangelicalism in the United States is an attempt at a remedial reaction to both.

Leading fundamentalist thinkers a century ago drew from older forms of Protestant orthodoxy an emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture, reinforced by biblical literalism and patternism (according to which the Bible provided a blueprint for all times and places), and such central ideas as the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Often, though with notable exceptions (such as J. Gresham Machen), fundamentalists opposed the Darwinian theory of biological evolution and political ideas allegedly deriving from it. Some fundamentalists withdrew, or were expelled, from established denominations, often forming new ones that were exclusivist to some degree.

While the rise of a more modern American evangelicalism in the mid-20th century tempered the more extreme versions of earlier fundamentalism, particularly with regards to relationships with other Christians, the basic intellectual tenets enunciated in the early 20th century remain alive. For example, fundamentalist Protestants often lobby textbook selection committees and state and local governments with a view toward influencing school curricula regarding theories of origin (often advocating intelligent design as an alternative approach to evolution) and toward favorable presentation of religion in history textbooks. They often also join activists from other traditions in opposing abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. Since the rise of the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, American fundamentalists have joined conservative evangelicals and others in supporting political candidates (primarily in the Republican Party) who support their views on the construction of the larger society. This political commitment is, however, waning among younger persons and perhaps in Christian circles in general.

Fundamentalist churches often employ the educational strategies used in other Christian traditions, from Sunday schools and small group studies to seminaries and divinity schools. Publishing houses and websites disseminate scholarly material often at odds with (or simply ignoring) the work of mainstream scholarship. Fundamentalist education thus takes the external shape embraced by other parts of the church, though with markedly different content and emphases.

Works Cited

Marsden, G. M. 1990. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Falwell, Jerry
McIntire, Carl
Machen, John Gresham
Robertson, Marion "Pat"
Baptist Bible Union
Christianity and Liberalism Published
Scopes Trial
Jerry Falwell Helps Found the Moral Majority
Bible Presbyterian Church

Anti-Evolution League at the Scopes Trial, from Literary Digest, July 25, 1925- Flickr- Mike Licht (CC BY 2.0)

The Fundamentals; A Testimony to the Truth, title page - Internet Archive

World Conference on Christian Fundamentals teachers- Hathi Trust- from God Hath Spoken

J Gresham Machen portrait- Internet Archive- from A Brief History of the Bible Presbyterian Church and its Agencies by Margaret G. Harden
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
Mark A. Lamport

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