As I indicated last month (here), this year I am planning to update my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism (2007) and to re-publish it at year’s end. In that connection, here are highlights from the (slightly) updated first chapter.
Beginnings of Christian Fundamentalism
In the first main section of the chapter, I explain that fundamentalism was originally “a sincere movement to preserve or to restore the true faith.” That is, it was not militant—and it certainly was not political as the Christian Right has been in recent years.
Even though there were some precursors, the actual beginning of what came to be called fundamentalism was the publishing of twelve small books between 1910 and 1915. The overarching title of the twelve volumes was The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth.
In June 1920, the Northern Baptist Convention held a conference on “The Fundamentals of Our Baptist Faith” in Buffalo, New York. Writing about that conference in the Baptist publication The Watchman-Examiner, C.L. Laws, the editor, proposed that those “who mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals shall be called ‘Fundamentalists.’”
Laws’s proposed term seems to be the first public use of the word “fundamentalist.”
Changes in Christian Fundamentalism
During its first 25 years, from 1915 to 1940, there was a considerable shift from being the kind of “mainstream” movement it was in the beginning to being a separatist and a more militant movement.
The Scopes Trial of 1925 marked a definitive change in attitudes toward fundamentalism—thanks mainly to the daily newspaper reports written by reporter H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun. By the end of that “trial of the century,” for most in the general public, and for many even in the churches, fundamentalism was largely discredited.
|The picture is a scene from "Inherit the Wind," a movie about the Scopes Trial.|
For the next several decades, then, fundamentalism was “alive and well” only among the militant “biblical separatists.” Four of the most influential proponents of this new type of fundamentalism were J. Frank Norris, J. Gresham Machen (to whom I referred in a recent blog article), Bob Jones, and John R. Rice.
Of these four, Norris (1877~1952) was the most colorful—and the best example of militant fundamentalism. Barry Hankins of Baylor University published his biography of Norris under the title God’s Rascal.
Hankins writes, “While some became militant because they were fundamentalists, Norris became a fundamentalist, in part at least, because he was militant by nature” (p. 176).
Earlier in his book, Hankins states: “Militancy was the indispensable characteristic of fundamentalism—the one that distinguished fundamentalists from other conservative evangelicals” (p. 44).
In this regard, it is important to remember the words spoken before 1925 by the early anti-fundamentalist leader Harry Emerson Fosdick: “All Fundamentalists are conservatives, but not all conservatives are Fundamentalists.”
Shifts in Terms for Fundamentalism
Because of the negative connotations of the term fundamentalism, in the 1940s under the leadership of Carl F.H. Henry, among others, a group of “moderate fundamentalists” formed the National Association of Evangelicals and the movement came to be known by the name “neo-evangelicalism” instead of fundamentalism.
Gradually, the “neo-“ part of the new term was dropped, and conservative Christianity came to be known as just evangelicalism. Still, there were differences in their ranks: there were those who were more progressive, such as people like Jimmy Carter. Time magazine declared 1976, the year Carter was elected President, as the “year of the evangelical.”
Unlike the more progressive evangelicals such as Carter, there were still many conservatives who formed a large part of that wing of the church—and so it remains today. Accordingly, “conservative evangelical” is now largely a synonym for “fundamentalist.”