The word fundamentalism is somewhat hard to define, and there are many definitions on the Internet with little in common with one another. The word is used both as an adjective (e.g., fundamental Islamist) and as a noun (e.g., the Fundamentalist movement). The adjective is used to describe any religious impulse that adheres to its basic tenets, often in a authoritarian way without making a distinction between church and state. In modern times this adjective is often used in a derogatory sense. This article will deal with the Fundamentalist movement found in Christian Protestantism during the 20th century.
The Fundamentalist movement had its roots at Princeton Theological Seminary by graduates from that institution. The word was first used in association with religion when two wealthy church laymen commissioned ninety-seven conservative church leaders from all over the western world to write 12 volumes on the basic tenets of the Christian faith. They then published these writings and distributed over 300,000 copies free of charge to ministers and others involved in church leadership. The books were entitled The Fundamentals, and they are still in print today in a two-volume set.
Fundamentalism was formalized in the late 19th century and early 20th century by conservative Christians—John Nelson Darby, Dwight L. Moody, B. B. Warfield, Billy Sunday, and others—who were concerned that moral values throughout the world were being eroded by Modernism—a trend of thought that affirms the power of human beings (rather than God) to create, improve, and reshape their environment with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation. Modernism was not only infesting the culture at large, but was gaining ground in government and religion. In addition, religion was being affected by the German higher criticism movement.
Fundamentalism is considered to be built around the five tenets of the Christian faith, although there is much more to the movement then those tenets. The five tenets are:
1) The insistence that the Bible is to be taken as literally true. Along with this is the belief that the Bible is inerrant, i.e., without error and free from all contradictions.
2) The virgin birth and deity of Christ—the belief that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary and conceived by the Holy Spirit and that He was and is the Son of God, fully human and fully divine.
3) The doctrine of substitutionary atonement through God’s grace and human faith—the belief that Christ was crucified for all the sins of man, and because of His perfect sacrifice, all men can find salvation through faith in Him.
4) The bodily resurrection of Jesus—the belief that He was crucified and died and on the third day, He rose from the grave and now sits at the right hand of the Father.
5) The authenticity of the miracles of Christ as found in Scripture and His pre-millennial second coming.
Other things believed by fundamentalists are that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, the church will be raptured prior to the tribulation of the end times, and other doctrines such as dispensationalism.
The Fundamentalist movement has had many characteristics over the years, and to deny that some were negative would be understating the truth. Often, there was a strong militancy for truth, and this led to much infighting with many leaving their churches to form new denominations. One of the defining characteristics of fundamentalism has been that adherents often see themselves as the guardians of the truth, usually to the exclusion of others’ biblical interpretation. But on a positive note one has to consider that at that time the world was embracing liberalism, modernism, Darwinism, and liberal biblical interpretation. These movements were having a destructive influence on our culture, and many in the church were concerned about the loss of influence of biblical teaching, and rightly so.
The movement took a severe credibility hit in 1925 by liberal press coverage of the legendary Scopes trial. Although fundamentalists won the trial, they lost in the court of public opinion. After that time the movement began to splinter and morph into other points of focus. The most prominent and vocal group in the USA has been the Christian Right. This group of self-described fundamentalists has been more involved in political movements than most other religious groups. By the 1990s, groups such as the Christian Coalition and Family Research Council have had a great amount of influence in politics and cultural issues, mostly through the Republican party. Their emphasis has been to control the White House and to have appointed conservative constitutional judges to the Supreme Court and the Federal Circuit courts. Today, the movement has a strong following in church circles through the different evangelical denominations such the Southern Baptist Convention. Together these groups claim to have more than 30 million followers.
Like all movements, Fundamentalism has enjoyed many successes and many failures. The greatest failure has come from allowing the liberal press to define what it means to be a fundamentalist. They have not only defined the term but have been able to identify fundamentalists as radical, snake-handling kooks that want to form a Christian government and force their beliefs on the population at large. This is not only far from the truth but is a total misconception about the intentions of fundamentalists. The charge to fundamentalists everywhere has always been to be guardians of the truth of Scripture and defenders of the Christian faith. In that regard they have attempted to provide a great service for humanity. The church is struggling in the postmodern, secular culture and needs people that are not ashamed to proclaim the gospel of Christ as it was intended by adherence to a conservative doctrine of fundamental principles. These principles are the bedrock upon which Christianity stands, and, as Jesus taught, the house built upon the Rock will weather any storm (Matthew 7:24-25).