Understanding the second “evangelical” part: fundamentalism


* Editor’s note: This is the second in a five-part series. Make sure you read the first installment here.

The term “fundamentalist” or “fundamentalism” was probably first coined by Curtis Lee Laws in the Baptist document The Watchman Examiner in 1920. According to Laws, the fundamentalists were those who were ready to “fight 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 responding 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 (notably the 1878 Conference) dispensational, pre-tribulation, pre-millennial theology spread. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, there was a plethora of prophetic conferences that propagated millennial ideas.

Sandeen’s second catalyst, Princeton Theology, was born at Princeton Theological Seminary under Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge and their students Archibald Alexander Hodge, BB Warfield and J. Gresham Machen. Machen’s Christianity and liberalism continues to be his best introduction. Together they argued for the infallibility of the Scriptures and for a rationalist system of thought, largely based on Thomas Reid and the Scottish school of common sense realism.

C. Allyn Russell explored a different thesis, arguing that the energy behind fundamentalism was Protestant liberalism. Russell’s work is useful in illustrating the theological differences between the rulers of fundamentalism, thereby tempering Sandeen’s contention that there was a theological unanimity that underpinned and stimulated the whole movement.

But George Marsden, author of the definitive book on American Fundamentalism, is the scholar of choice for the most part on the matter.

Marsden defends four main currents that fueled fundamentalism: 1) DL Moody’s revivalist empire (and revivalism in general); 2) the assault on modernity, generating ambivalence towards culture; 3) the holiness movements (in particular the Keswick movement of British origin); and 4) with Sandeen, pre-tribulational, pre-millennial, and dispensationalist theology, although Marsden doubts “pre-millennialism was really the organizing principle.”

Theology of Fundamentalism

Three areas can be examined with respect to determining the theology of fundamentalism. First, the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1910 which produced what has come to be known as the “five points” of fundamentalism: the divinity of Christ; His virgin birth and his miracles; the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture; the penal death of Christ for our sins; and his physical resurrection and personal return. These five areas were considered by fundamentalists to be the object of direct attack from secular society and from within the contemporary Church.

The second source of fundamentalist theology is the Scofield Bible (published in 1909). Sold in excess of 2,000,000 copies, this annotated “Study Bible” is clearly pre-tribulational, pre-millennial, and dispensational. Sandeen called this work “perhaps the most influential publication in millennial, fundamentalist historiography.”

Finally, a series of 12 volumes published between 1910-1915 entitled The fundamentals both represented and shaped fundamentalist theology. Written by an impressive team of American and British scholars, these volumes have been mailed free of charge to pastors, teachers, Sunday School workers, and lay people across the United States. Over a third of the essays defended Scripture, and the vast majority had the theme of God’s authority in Scripture over and against the authority of science.

Confrontation between fundamentalists and modernists

Fundamentalism became increasingly militant in the years surrounding World War II. Three major concerns occupied fundamentalists during this period. The first concern was the influx of immigrants and their different worldviews. After World War I, millions of immigrants flocked to America. Many of them professed Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews, none of whom shared the Puritan and revivalist traditions of America and American evangelism. In three decades, these immigrants changed the face of religion in America.

The second concern that occupied fundamentalists was the radical change in contemporary thought. The Scopes trial characterized such conflicts as “city” versus “country”, progress versus supposed ignorance, and most certainly modernism versus fundamentalism. Although Darwin The origin of species (1859) did not directly challenge Christianity, popular speculation on the book’s doctrine of evolution tended to dismiss 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 the new birth.

The third concern that occupied fundamentalists was higher criticism. Upper criticism is the term used to describe the study of Scripture from the point of view of literature, as opposed to “lower criticism” which deals with the text of Scripture and its transmission. For fundamentalists, it undermined the idea that the Bible was a special revelation, left the Christian minister deprived 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 upheld the common evangelical faith in the infallibility of the Bible should be created” (Sandeen).

Fundamentalist retreat into institutionalization

After the 1920s fundamentalism entered a period that is perhaps best called a ‘retreat to institutionalization’. Rather than engaging in culture, fundamentalists withdrew and sought areas where they could control doctrine, education, and morals. This often involved withdrawing from denominations in order to form their own alliances. Educational institutions such as Dallas Theological Seminary and Bob Jones University were founded as a result of this philosophy (founded in 1924 and 1926 respectively).

The growing unease of many fundamentalists with the sectarian separatism, social and cultural irresponsibility and anti-intellectual stance that permeated the years of controversy with the Modernists that would lead to the bifurcation and eventual formation of the movement known as name of contemporary American evangelism.

And that’s what we turn to next in Part Three of this series.

James Emery White


Curtis Lee Laws, “Convention Side Lights”, The lookout-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, The voices of American fundamentalism.

George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Formation of Twentieth Century Evangelism, 1870-1925.

Bruce L. Shelley in “Evangelism”, Dictionary of Christianity in America, Daniel G. Reid, Robert D. Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, Harry S. Stout, editors.

RK Harrison, “Top Critic,” 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 principal pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant 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 at your favorite bookseller. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can browse past blogs in our archives and read the latest news on church and culture from around the world. Follow Dr White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

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