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Fundamentalist Christianity

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Fundamentalist Christianity is a fundamentalist movement, prominent especially within American Protestantism.

The term, Fundamentalist, tends to have a variable meaning. Historically, and for those who use the name to describe themselves, a Fundamentalist Christian is one who holds to all of the five Fundamentals of the Faith as a bare-minimum definition of Christian faith (see the Brief History of Christian fundamentalism below).

Derivatively, a fundamentalist Christian is a Christian who holds the Bible as infallible, historically accurate, and decisive in all issues of controversy that the Bible is believed to directly address; which is the central issue for which the Christian Fundamentalist movement has contended.


A label

Indeed, the Fundamentalist movement has adherents in many denominations. As the movement has developed, the term has evolved. Today's Fundamentalist typically has pessimistic expectations for the future of the world (see dispensationalism), and a commitment to separation from theological, scientific and moral error. Fundamentalists often see secular humanism as a mortal enemy and as the work of Satan to deceive society from the true path. Militancy, not of a martial kind but rather political stridency in prosecuting the fundamentalist war against unbelief among Christians, has featured in Christian Fundamentalism throughout the history of the movement.

Besides self-described Fundamentalists, many self-labelled Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Mennonites; and The Confessing Movement in the Mainline denominations -- all otherwise diverse groups -- hold to the Five Fundamentals. On the other hand, the plasticity of the label appears when one of these groups condemns another as a "fundamentalist".

Although the modern movement formed within many of the established denominations, the fundamentalist tendency toward separation has swelled the ranks of peripheral, spinoff denominations, has produced a multitude of new groups, and often has made the choice of congregational independence appear to be the more faithful choice. For this reason, Fundamentalist can have the connotation of divisiveness or separatism.

Christian fundamentalism also features a more strict moral code compared to mainstream Protestantism, by which the fundamentalist believer seeks to distinguish himself from the world and identify himself with the community of the faithful. Thus, the label has connotations of puritanical attitudes, and intolerance.

Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Fundamentalists share a high view of the authority of the Bible. They place a supremely high value on the individual -- much higher than popular stereotypes can account for -- and commonly hold a radically individualistic understanding of sola fide, and sola scriptura. For this reason, the term Fundamentalist sometimes negatively conveys implications of a backward approach to modernity, a low view of the Christian Church, or a minimalist conception of the Christian faith. In reverse, Fundamentalist Christians refer to their more liberal opponents as Modernists or Liberals with rough equivalence.

Fundamental subtleties

Fundamentalists differ from Pentecostals in their strong insistence upon "correct" doctrine and separatism (which often also divides fundamentalists from each other) as opposed to the experiential emphasis of Pentecostals. Fundamentalists also criticize Evangelicals' lack of concern for doctrinal purity, for working co-operatively with other Christians, and for women in the ministry. Evangelist Billy Graham came from a Fundamentalist background, but many Christian Fundamentalists repudiate him today because of his choice, early in his ministry, to co-operate with other Christians. He represents a movement that arose within Fundamentalism, but has increasingly become distinct from it, which Fundamentalists refer to, derisively, as Neo-evangelicalism.

Note that outside of the United States, lines of demarcation between Fundamentalists and other Christians who similarly hold to Biblical inerrancy sometimes seem less clear-cut, and people styling themselves as fundamentalists do not always mean exactly the same as do their American counterparts. In New Zealand, for example, Ken Harrison , General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, a major Pentecostal denomination, has publicly described himself as a fundamentalist. American Pentecostals and Fundamentalists generally regard each other as separate movements, despite considerable cross-pollination, but New Zealanders blur the line much more, to the extent of sometimes using the terms Pentecostal and Fundamentalist interchangeably. (In a parallel case, New Zealanders lack any clear line of demarcation between the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, a line which seems very clear in much of American Christianity.)

Today, the self-described Fundamentalist Christian differs markedly from the popular conception. While the common idea of a fundamentalist strongly implies political activism, the self-described Fundamentalist is rarely involved directly in politics (Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye are notable exceptions). Such persons hold to traditional conceptions of morality and sin, and believe that the truth and authority of Scripture are completely sufficient to furnish them with a perfect guide through life. They look for the return of Christ, not the reform of the world.

The popular conception easily applies the term, Fundamentalism, to conservative Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholics, and other non-Protestant or Nontrinitarian groups. A self-described fundamentalist rejects the application of this term to himself, in any sense that can be applied to such groups - his use is antithetical. In addition, Fundamentalism has also been used to describe similarity in beliefs across different religions such as with Islamists. Both groups that have been described as Fundamentalist Christian and Muslim strongly object to this usage, as they strongly deny any connection or similarity with each other.

Brief History of Christian fundamentalism ("five fundamentals")

Within the United States, fundamentalism was originally a movement beginning in the late 19th century of Christian evangelical conservatives, who, in a reaction to modernism, insisted on adhering to a set of core beliefs. Fundamentalists, in this sense, have engaged in criticism of more liberal movements. The original formulation of American fundamentalist beliefs can be traced to the Niagara Bible Conference in 1878. In 1910, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church distilled these into what became known as the "five fundamentals", which were:

The term "fundamentalist" itself probably derives from a series of twelve anti-modernist booklets titled The Fundamentals [2] written by conservative Protestant theologians between 1910 and 1913. Thanks to a $250,000 grant from Lyman Stewart , the head of the Union Oil Company of California, about three million copies were distributed to ministers across the United States.

Important early Christian fundamentalists included William Jennings Bryan, John Nelson Darby, Cyrus I. Scofield, Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, B. B. Warfield, Carl McIntyre , and J. Gresham Machen. Modern Christian fundamentalists include Hal Lindsey, Jerry Falwell, Jack Chick, Bob Jones, Sr., J. Vernon McGee , John R. Rice, and the Van Natten family. [3]

As the movement developed, and became more pessimistic in the face of its eroding social importance, dispensationalism and separatism began to overwhelmingly characterize the most influential leaders, which has also had an effect on the way that Evangelicals as a whole are perceived by outside observers. Dispensationalism became so successful for a time, that the Fundamentalist movement has practically become identified with its teachings, even though many of the first and most influential Fundamentalists, like B. B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen, were strongly opposed to dispensationalism. Perhaps the modern dispensationalist theologian with the greatest name-familiarity, is Tim LaHaye, co-author of the popular Left Behind series, and author of several non-fiction books about apocalyptic prophecy.

Christian Fundamentalists argued that the Bible must be accepted as the literal word of God, correct not only in its religious or moral teachings, but also in its scientific and historical claims. A typical fundamentalist approach to the Bible, is a "literal where possible" framework of interpretation. That is, the interpretation is to be preferred which proposes the simplest possible meaning of the words: for example, God literally created the world in 6 days; God created Eve from Adam's rib; the Garden of Eden was a real place; Noah was a man who actually lived, built an ark and survived a great flood, and so on. Many other fundamentalists, however, insist on a "literal where intended" approach. The Bible should instead be interpreted as the original readers would have interpreted it - literally where the context shows the intention of a non-figurative meaning, as in the gospel narratives and other chronicles; but figuratively where the context shows an intended figurative sense, as in the Book of Revelation.

Fundamentalist attitudes toward science and scholarship

Almost all fundamentalists believe that macroevolution does not occur, since it contradicts a literal interpretation of the Bible. Thus, for example, William Jennings Bryan became an icon of fundamentalism for his part in prosecuting a teacher for teaching evolution in the Scopes Monkey Trial. Though the trial was viewed as publicity stunt by the people of Dayton, Tennessee, Bryan came to represent an emerging, new and politically disparate incarnation of Evangelical religious, political and educational activism. The trial signalled that a dramatic shift of status had already taken place for Evangelicalism, from the Establishment to the Basement of American politics and academia.

Belief in Young earth creationism and Flood geology (which they say accounts for nearly all major geological features by reference to the Flood, described in Genesis), increasingly swept away the earlier Evangelical latitude on these issues, and became tests of orthodoxy in an unprecedented way, in the Fundamentalist movement. This remains predominantly true of broader conservative Evangelicalism, as well; but not nearly as uniformly as among self-described Fundamentalists.

Many Fundamentalists tend to oppose the conclusions of modern scholarship that call into question traditional beliefs about the Bible. For example, they accept the traditional ascriptions of Biblical authorship, which presuppose that individual books had a single author (with notable exceptions, including Psalms and Proverbs). They may also believe that to suggest that a given book of the Bible was a compilation or the result of an editorial effort would compromise fundamentalist assertions about biblical inerrancy and divine inspiration. They are generally hostile towards higher criticism, a form of literary analysis that attempts to discover the origins and sources of Biblical material. In particular, Fundamentalists reject the documentary hypothesis -- the theory held by an increasing number of theologians that the Pentateuch was composed and shaped by many people over centuries. Fundamentalists continue to assert that Moses was the primary author of the first five books of the Old Testament. Some fundamentalists, on the other hand, may be willing to consider alternative authorship only where the Biblical text does not specify an author, insisting that books in which the author is identified must have been written by that author.

King-James-Only fundamentalism

A subset of self-described Fundamentalists also reject all recent translations of the Bible in favor of the King James Version, and is known among Evangelicals as the King-James-Only Movement. This movement sprang from the fact that most modern translations of the New Testament come from texts based on Alexandrian manuscripts, and there is some doubt among certain Evangelical scholars as to the veracity of this text. Alexandrian manuscripts have come into wide use because they are among the oldest New Testament texts available. Critics counter that this is because the climate in Egypt lent itself to the preservation of papyri (as opposed to the climate of Turkey and Syria) and also because immediately before the oldest Byzantine manuscripts we have found there was major persecution by the Romans in the region in question which included the burning of many churches and Bibles. At any rate, these fundamentalists prefer the Byzantine manuscripts (called the "Majority Text" tradition or the "Received Text" tradition although these are not strictly identical) over the Alexandrian ones (called the "Critical Text") and so favor the King James Version over other popular translations such as the New International Version (NIV) and New Living Translation (NLT).

Christian fundamentalism within Christianity

In Protestant Christian denominations modern Fundamentalism was born in controversy, and militantly perpetuates controversy. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has had persistent conflicts instigated by fundamentalist factions who deny the denomination's long-held belief in the Priesthood of the Believer in favor of a more authoritarian, dispensationalist, conservative, worldview. Some critics of SBC's growing radicalism point out that the Bible clearly states that "women will prophesy in the last days." Though most fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention believe that the last days are upon us, they deny women access to the pulpit. Their view is that according to scripture, prophecy (speaking the word of God) is open to anyone, while preaching is only acceptable by a (male) pastor.

Roman Catholicism also has those members who could be considered fundamentalists, but they most often are called Traditional Catholics or Catholic traditionalists. Well known traditional Catholics include the actor Mel Gibson and his father Hutton Gibson. This group of members rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. In some cases they have broken away from the mainstream church and reject those Popes who they see as heretics - which usually they consider to be every Pope from John XXIII on.

Christian fundamentalism and US public schools

In some American school districts there is still controversy over whether public school students should be taught evolution, creationism, or some mixture of the two. There has been ongoing opposition to the legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade. Arguably, an even wider array of issues than these are deeply informed by Fundamentalist religious views in the U.S. From late 2004 until early 2005, biology textbooks in Georgia were labelled with stickers stating that "This textbook contains material on evolution, a scientific theory, or explanation, for the nature and diversity of living things. Evolution is accepted by a majority of scientists, but questioned by some. All scientific theories should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered." (actual text)

Many fundamentalists believe that the public schools have become hopelessly corrupted, and rather than attempting to change the curriculum they have withdrawn from the public school system. As a consequence, fundamentalists are also often very active in the homeschooling movement and in advocacy of private schools.

Christian fundamentalism and US politics

An important part of the political discourse of the United States (and some other countries) is the notion, often touted by political liberals in the U.S., that Fundamentalist political activity in some cases contradicts the doctrine of the separation of church and state. The Foundation for Freedom from Religion as well as many other groups believe that the Religious Right are founded on Dominionism or Christian Reconstructionism, philosophies that dictate the government should be an arm of the Church and should 'do God's will'.

The so-called Fundamentalists in view here are not the apolitical sort, but a relatively new breed which began to appear in American politics with the "Born-again" presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter, but came into its own with the rise of the Moral Majority under the leadership of the Fundamentalist preacher and lawyer, Jerry Falwell. The Moral Majority became one of the leading groups, which combined efforts with a broad consortium of conservative, Protestant Christians, which includes not only Fundamentalists, but also Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and conservative (Confessing Movement) members from mainline churches, some Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, and others. Together, these very widely diverse groups constitute what has since come to be known as the religious right. It should probably be considered an abuse of the term, to label the religious right a fundamentalist movement in any sense.

Dr. Carl F. H. Henry, an Evangelical scholar, in a major definitive work in 1947, criticized Fundamentalists for their tendency to withdraw from society in his book Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, which earned their scorn, but wrought little change among Fundamentalists. Many younger Fundamentalists have set up their own home churches, sometimes with strictly defined gender roles, home schooling, a simpler lifestyle, or other distinctions by which they might set themselves apart from broader society.

See also


  • Armstrong, Karen ‘The Battle for God’ Ballantine Books; 1 Ballanti edition (January 30, 2001).
  • Bebbington, David W. ‘Baptists and Fundamentalists in Inter-War Britain.’ In Keith Robbins, ed. Protestant Evangelicalism: Britain, Ireland, Germany and America c.1750-c.1950. Studies in Church History subsidia 7, 297-326. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. 1990.
  • Bebbington, David W. ‘Martyrs for the Truth: Fundamentalists in Britain.’ In Diana Wood, ed. Martyrs and Martyrologies, Studies in Church History Vol. 30, 417-451. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. 1993.
  • Barr, James. Fundamentalism. London: SCM Press, 1977.
  • Carpenter, Joel A. Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195129075, 1999.
  • Elliott, David R. ‘Knowing No Borders: Canadian Contributions to Fundamentalism.’ In George A. Rawlyk and Mark A. Noll, eds. Amazing Grace: Evangelicalism in Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States, 349-374. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.
  • Dollar, George W. A History of Fundamentalism in America. Greenville: Bob Jones University Press, 1973.
  • Harris, Harriet A. Fundamentalism and Evangelicals. Oxford: Oxford University, 1998.
  • Hart, D. G. ‘The Tie that Divides: Presbyterian Ecumenism, Fundamentalism and the History of Twentieth-Century American Protestantism,’ Westminster Theological Journal 60 (1998): 85-107.
  • Longfield, Bradley J. The Presbyterian Controversy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Marsden, George M. ‘Fundamentalism as an American Phenomenon.’ In D. G. Hart, ed. Reckoning with the Past, 303-321. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995
  • Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980
  • Marsden, George M. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; ISBN 0802805396, 1991
  • Noll, Mark. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Eerdmans, 1992. (pages 311-389)
  • Russell, C. Allyn. Voices of American Fundamentalism: Seven Biographical Studies. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976. Subscription access for this at
  • Rennie, Ian S. ‘Fundamentalism and the Varieties of North Atlantic Evangelicalism.’ In Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington and George A. Rawlyk eds. Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles and Beyond, 1700-1990, 333-364. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture by Harper San Francisco; ISBN 0060675187, 1992

External links

Last updated: 08-28-2005 12:37:46
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