The Fundamentals and Fundamentalism

The terms “fundamentalist evangelical”, “conservative evangelical” or most recently just “fundamentalist” are often just used as imprecise pejoratives.  More precisely, the term “The Fundamentals” was a specifically Christian term  (in contrast to people describing radical Moslems as Moslem “fundamentalists”, and similarly for extreme Hindu and Jewish groups), first used academically around 1909 being identified with the issuing of a 12-volume set of essays collated by a committee headed by R.A Torrey between 1909–1912 (reissued in 4-volumes in 1917 and reprinted in 2008) reaffirming basic biblical doctrines in a reaction against the Higher Critical movement and theological liberalism.

It was a newspaper reporter that coined the term “fundamentalist” by which he was referring not to “The Fundamentals” but to a particular style of ‘populist’ gospel preaching captured internally to the movement by Dobson, Hindson & Falwell, The Fundamentalist Phenomenon.  However, as this latter work exemplifies, the Fundamentalists have added to the confusion over the term as they also tend to be overwilling to appropriate members of other, distinct traditions to their cause.

For example, owing to Machen’s stringent defense of the Bible he is sometimes misidentified by critics (e.g., Barr,  Fundamentalism, 165) as a “fundamentalist” or a “conservative evangelical” but contra Machen, early fundamentalists were often obscurantist and advocated withdrawal from mainstream culture and academia.  Some fundamentalists even questioned Machen’s “orthodoxy” because he rejected premillennialism, of which commitment to the dispensational version became a rite of passage for a fundamentalist in opposition to the majority Reformed position of amillennialism, with a minority secondary position of postmillennialism, see Macneil, Dominion, §2.

Fundamentalism influenced evangelicalism during the first half of the 20th century to emphasize only the salvific nature of the gospel, not its social or cultural implications, partly in reaction to Rauschenbusch’s social gospel movement that became progressively associated with liberal Christianity.  This captured the essence of the motivation of the Fundamentalists – to them, “social” action was a distraction and academic culture was apostate – the first generation of fundamentalists were aggressively anti-intellectual and obscurantist.  However, with the next generation from the mid-1930s onwards, and the founding of Fuller Theological seminary and the influence of Reformed thinkers such as Machen, the fundamentalists cross-pollinated and were cross-pollinated by other evangelical groups.

As the 20th century progressed, some modern evangelicals reexamined their rejection of the “social” aspects of the gospel and many have argued for a social dimension to any ongoing Christian witness in a community.  Going further, I would assert that Rauschenbusch’s thought was far more nuanced than the movement which evolved from his position, see Rauschenbusch (1917, 1922); his initial ebullient enthusiasm for radical socialism is greatly tempered in his later work, humbled as many were by the Russian revolution and the oppression that flowed in its wake.  He dedicated his work on a theology of the social gospel to Augustus Strong who was one of the most influential of the Calvinist Baptist theologians of the late 19th and early 20th century, who he considered one of his mentors.  He had a chapter in that work dedicated to the necessity of personal salvation and has an interesting personal reflection on the “shallowness” of what he called modern preaching and conversion in comparison to the response required at a D L Moody meeting 30 years previously.  Subsequently, some evangelicals have re-read his work and incorporated some of those ideas.

Thus, owing to the changes in fundamentalism and its broad influence in other movements, there is very little to identify as shared amongst those that are might be labelled sociologically as “fundamentalist”.  Historically the Christian fundamentalists were concerned with saving souls in an apostate world  to the exclusion of all else and they emphasised a premillennial eschatology with “the rapture” in the centre of their thinking.  This was the last hour and the ark was being loaded.  This would set them apart formally from other evangelicals that might be classed as fundamentalists by modern sociologists but is of limited use to understanding them spiritually.  Traditional fundamentalists might now be identified with conservative, cessationist “Southern Baptists”, but fundamentalism was also influential in Pentecostal and charismatic movements because of its emphasis on biblical inerrancy and infallibility.  The latter would be classed by modern sociologists as “fundamentalists” but they are radically different in most of their theology.

That is, most of the Reformed denominations were amillennial and dominion theologians emerging from the fringes of the Reformed movement, were postmillennial (postmillennialism might be considered a limiting case of amillennialism).  The latter found (and still find) the “Rapture” doctrine offensive and irresponsible.  Though the Rapture doctrine has survived, many of these groups might now be described as “operationally post-millennial”, concerned with the redemption of all spheres society.  Additionally, since the early 1970s, they began exerting a significant influence in both Christian and secular society (if for no other reason than they are an influential voting bloc), particularly in the US.  So, reverting back to our opening assertion, we should be careful to contextualise how we talk about the “fundamentals” and “fundamentalists”; appreciating the Wittgensteinian insight that the meaning of a language is its practical use within a communal context.

For a detailed study, see my  The place of Fundamentalism within the varieties of “evangelical” thought more generally can also be found in my Masters dissertation found at

Further Reading

Dobson, E., Hindson, E., & Falwell, J. (1986). The Fundamentalist Phenomenon – The Resurgence of Conservative Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group.

Marsden, G. (1988 (1987)). Reforming Fundamentalism – Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.

McGrath, A. E. (1996). A Passion For Truth. Leicester: Apollos.

Packer, J. (2006 (1958)). Fundamentalism and the Word of God (William B Eerdmans ed.). Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans.

Rauschenbusch, W. (1916). The Social Principles of Jesus (Public Domain, Kindle ed.). New York: The Woman’s Press.

Rauschenbusch, W. (1922). A Theology for the Social Gospel (Cross Reach Kindle 2017 ebook ed.). New York: Macmillan.

Raushenbush, P., & Rauschenbusch, W. (2007/1907). Christianity and the Social Crisis In The 21st Century (Kindle ed.). New York: HarperCollins.

Torrey, R., & Dixon, A. (Eds.). (2008 (1909)). The Fundamentals – A Testimony to the Truth (Reprint of the 1917 Edition ed., Vol. I/II). Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

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