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A conservative theological movement in American Protestantism, which arose to national prominence in the 1920s in opposition to “modernism.”* Most interpretations of the movement try to explain it in socioeconomic or psychological terms, but the movement was rooted in genuine theological concern for apostolic and Reformation doctrine growing out of American revivalism.* Further confusion has arisen from repeated reference to five basic doctrines (or “five points”) of fundamentalism, supposedly springing from the Niagara Bible Conference of 1895.

Fundamentalism should be understood primarily as an attempt to protect the essential doctrines or elements (fundamentals) of the Christian faith from the eroding effects of modern thought. Such doctrines include the Virgin Birth, the resurrection and deity of Christ, His substitutionary atonement, the Second Coming, and the authority and inerrancy of the Bible.

The roots of fundamentalism go back into the nineteenth century when evolution, biblical criticism, and the study of comparative religions began to challenge old assumptions about the authority of the biblical revelation. At the same time new ethical problems accompanied the emerging urban-industrial society in America. Men such as William H. Carwardine and Washington Gladden appealed to the Christian conscience and advocated what came to be called a “social gospel.”* The so- called higher criticism* (historical and literary, in contrast with textual) of the Bible entered the mainstream of American Protestantism following the Civil War. By World War I higher criticism was generally accepted in seminaries and colleges. This success came, however, only after strong resistance. Heated debates took place in scholarly journals. Baptists dismissed professors such as C.H. Toy and E.P. Gould, and Presbyterians held heresy trials of C.A. Briggs and A.C. McGiffert. By the turn of the century, major conflict between progressives and conservatives appeared certain.

A significant offensive against modernism was launched in 1910 with the publication of the first of The Fundamentals.* By 1918 the term “fundamentals” had become common usage, but “fundamentalist” and “fundamentalism” were coined in 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws, Baptist editor of the Watchman-Examiner. Laws proposed that a group within the Northern Baptist Convention adopt the name “fundamentalist.” During a conference in Buffalo, New York, in 1920, Laws and his associates accepted the title. This group, popularly called “The Fundamentalist Fellowship,” were moderate conservatives, who believed that the modernists were surrendering the “fundamentals” of the Gospel, namely, the sinful nature of man, his inability to be saved apart from God's grace, the indispensability of Jesus' death for the regeneration of the individual and the renewal of society, and the authoritative revelation of the Bible. This group, the first to apply the name “fundamentalist” to itself, was identified neither with dispensationalism nor with a crusade against evolutionary teaching. They asserted repeatedly that they were concerned only about the preservation of the central affirmations of the Christian faith.

Historians have often portrayed fundamentalists as “losers.” While it is true that the conservatives were unable to gain the adoption of a confession of faith in any of the northern denominations, Laws and his associates did not consider their cause a lost one. Laws wrote in 1924 that certain schools of his denomination had checked the inroads of liberalism and that the investigation of the mission societies, as advocated by the fundamentalists, resulted in certain changes which made the creation of a new mission unnecessary.

A more militantly conservative voice had been raised in 1923 with the formation of the Baptist Bible Union. Composed of Baptists from the South and Canada, as well as the North, the union broadened the fundamentalist cause to include the struggle against evolutionary teaching.

Among Presbyterians, the conservative position was championed by J.G. Machen* of Princeton Theological Seminary. When he refused to break his ties with the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions, he was tried and found guilty of rebellion against superiors. Thus evolved the Orthodox Presbyterian and Bible Presbyterian churches.

Gradually “fundamentalism” came to be used loosely for all theological conservatism, including militants, moderates of the Laws type, and a scholarly type represented by Machen. Due to the tactics of certain leaders, the fundamentalist image eventually became stereotyped as close-minded, belligerent, and separatistic.

In the 1950s a growing number of conservatives attempted to set aside the fundamentalist label. Harold John Ockenga was one of the first to propose “new evangelical” as an alternative. He called for a conservative Christianity which held to the central beliefs of the Christian faith, but which was also intellectually respectable, socially concerned, and cooperative in spirit. Since the late fifties this perspective has deepened and broadened. Carl F.H. Henry, Edward John Carnell, the periodical Christianity Today, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and other individuals and groups have been identified with the new evangelicalism, which considers itself the heir of the spirit and purpose of the original fundamentalists.

S.G. Cole, A History of Fundamentalism (1931); N.F. Furniss, The Fundamentalist Controversy (1954); J.I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958); E.R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism (1970).

See also

  • Biblical Criticism