Biblical Fundamentalism, Part 1

From Think on These Things, Mar/Apr 2016. Essentially the same article also appears in Voice magazine.

I am a Fundamentalist. There I said it. And yet, although I inherited a few guns I don’t know where the bullets are. I don’t hate anyone, not even my neighbor whose cat keeps my songbird population thinned out. Knowing my own weaknesses and sinfulness I refrain from being particularly judgmental of others. Some might call me a “Bible-thumper” but I have not actually thumped anyone with a Bible since junior high when I was trying to impress the girls (I learned many years later that punching girls did not impress them nearly as much as I originally thought).

I have some strong preferences and opinions about everything from politics to entertainment (just ask me), but I recognize that not everyone shares all my views and I am at peace with that. I believe in separation from sinful practices and compromising associations, but I do not hide out in a wilderness refuge in an effort to stay as far away from “sinners” as I can. And horror of horrors, I will tune into CNN as much as Fox News—which may cause me to lose my Fundamentalist membership card in the eyes of some.

Nevertheless, I, and those like me, are among the most despised, marginalized, suspected, criticized and misunderstood people on the planet. So it is with good reason that few today want to identify with the label Fundamentalist. When asked how we would like to be identified we might say we are evangelicals, but that term lost all its meaning many years ago. Perhaps “conservative evangelicals” might be better. Yet Fundamentalism is a good word, when properly understood and biblically informed. Unfortunately, even among many Christians, Fundamentalism is an unattractive term and much of the blame lies with Fundamentalists. Part of the problem is this—too often biblical Fundamentalism has been highjacked by cultural Fundamentalists, and few know the difference.

But before we look at the important distinctions in more detail we should back up and take an overview of the historical development of Fundamentalism.

Roots of Fundamentalism

The 1800s proved to be years in which evangelicalism was radically changing, especially in English-speaking societies. As the world moved into the nineteenth century, the effects of the Great Awakening under Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield in the 1730s-1740s in America and the Evangelical Revival under the Wesleys in England were largely a memory. Those reading the accounts of these earlier movements of God longed for something similar but many seemed willing to settle for the outward emotionalism of revivalism1 rather than follow the content-oriented approach of their fathers. Thus, when the so-called Second Great Awakening began in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1800, subsequently spreading throughout much of New England and parts of the American south, it had a very different flavor from what Edwards and his peers experienced.

Edwards believed the Great Awakening was a true revival sent by the Lord, but he also knew that intermingled were excesses, pretenders and “false spirits.” What took place in the first half of the nineteenth century flipped the ratio. While there were undoubtedly true conversions and fervor for the Lord, there was much that was little more than fleshly passion.

Nineteenth century believers longed for a spiritual experience that the camp revivals and traveling evangelists seemed to provide. A good motivational speaker, such as Charles Finney, could draw huge crowds to hear his messages which often provided sensational, if temporary, results. Churches would be packed during “revivals,” but sadly, after the evangelists had moved on, life returned to normal and church attendance did as well.

It did not take pastors long to figure out that if they wanted large, enthusiastic meetings they would have to dump their more subdued method of teaching the Bible and offer revival-style services complete with “new means” that were field-tested and handed down by Finney and other lesser-known revivalists. This soon led to a predictable pattern. People would be whipped into emotional frenzies by evangelists and pastors through the use of new and creative techniques which were devoid of solid biblical content. When the emotions subsided, a new round of similar methods was needed to bring back the “revival.” One critic of the Finney-style revivals wrote in 1858, “Singing, shouting, jumping, talking, praying, all at the same time … in a crowded house, filled to suffocations, which led to people having fits and giving their names as converts but, as soon as the excitement was over, falling away.”2

This cycle became so common that certain sections of New England, especially the state of New York, became known as the “Burnt-over District” where the fire of revival meetings had swept so often through some areas that people ultimately had grown resistant to the things of God. To this day, these regions remain perhaps the most spiritually hardened parts of the American landscape. It is interesting, however, that in the mid-1800s many of the major cults that are prominent today emerged from the “Burnt-over District.”

In addition, numerous utopian societies arose at the same time and place, each offering some form of heaven on earth. All of these things appear to be the direct result of revivalism of the early 1800s which heavily promoted emotional excesses while minimizing the study of the Scriptures.

Developing Fundamentalism

All these things dovetailed to create much confusion and division within Christian circles. By the mid-1800s, some were seeing a need to push back and establish criteria by which a true evangelical could be identified. In 1846 “the Evangelical Alliance was formed to bring together the Protestants all over the world who were the heirs of the awakening of the previous [18th] century.”3 The Evangelical Alliance confirmed the standard conservative doctrines of the faith but offered four important hallmarks of an evangelical:

  • Belief in the inspiration, authority and sufficiency of Scripture,
  • Acknowledging the centrality of the cross upon which the sacrifice of Jesus provided the way of salvation for men,
  • Affirming the need for conversion in which by repentance and faith a sinner becomes a new creature in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, and
  • Activism in which the child of God is busy presenting the gospel and ministering to those in need.4

Those who rejected the doctrinal orthodoxy of the World Evangelical Alliance (as it was also called) attempted to infiltrate it with liberal theology, but when that failed they withdrew in 1894 to form their own organization, The Open Church League, which later was renamed the National Federation of Churches and Christian Workers in 1900.

By 1950 the National Federation was reorganized as the National Council of Churches.5 This breaking away by the liberal factions and the forming of their own organization led ultimately to the demise of the World Evangelical Alliance. It is noteworthy, in light of the common misunderstanding that conservative Christians are the source of most ecclesiastical disunity, that it was the liberals “who separated from the evangelicals to found their own organizations to promote church union among those who rejected the authority of Holy Scripture.”6 Liberals, both in the past and today, desire unity, but do so at the expense of doctrinal purity. They are happy to join hands with any except those who insist on certain essential truths remaining foundational to unity.

The Great Divide

By the last decades of the 1800s, liberal theologians (known as modernists in the late 1800s) were bringing German rationalism into English speaking churches, especially in America. Many in these churches, pastors and laymen alike, had long since abandoned the careful study and teaching of Scripture, allowing their churches to become fertile ground for heretical ideas, especially since the liberals often disguised their teachings by using the same words that evangelicals used but giving those words new meanings.

Added to these factors was a move from Enlightenment thinking with its preciseness to Romanticism with its impreciseness and emphasis on feeling and experience over theology and Scripture.7 All of these threads were drawn together during the second half of the nineteenth century to produce a radical makeover in Christianity. The cardinal doctrines held dear by evangelicals since at least the Reformation were now being jettisoned. And with the denial of essential biblical truth came a shift in the focus and purpose of the church. If the incarnation was in doubt and the Scriptures suspect, and theology itself under attack, then that left social action as the mission of the church. And thus was born what would be called the “social gospel.”

By the early 1900s, most theological liberals had made social concerns central to their understanding of the gospel. Historian George Marsden writes,

While not necessarily denying the value of the traditional evangelical approach of starting with evangelism, social gospel spokesmen subordinated such themes, often suggesting that stress on evangelism had made American evangelicalism too other-worldly … and individualistic … . Such themes fit well with the emerging liberal theology of the day.8

“The theology of the day” was increasing acceptance of Darwinian theories, higher critical attacks on the Scriptures and Freudian redefining of human nature. In light of these modern challenges to the Bible and conservative evangelical thought, liberal theologians believed Christianity needed to change to survive. That which was unacceptable to modern man, such as the incarnation, the atonement, creationism, inspiration and authority of Scripture, etc., had to be rejected. That which was acceptable and appreciated by the culture was to be retained and emphasized.

Western societies had little problem with the social agenda, and as time moved forward the church accommodated such thinking. Of course not everyone was in lockstep with the social gospel, but by the turn of the 20th century virtually all the major denominations, schools, seminaries and Christian agencies had been infiltrated by liberal thinking, and by the 1920s they had capitulated almost entirely.

The test of orthodoxy had shifted from what one believed to how one lived. As Marsden states it, “The key test of Christianity was life, not doctrine.”9 Drawing from Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of Christian liberalism, what increasingly mattered was experience and not truth. Renald Showers observes:

Liberal Protestant advocates of the social gospel declared that the church should be concerned primarily with this world. It should divert its efforts from the salvation of individuals to the salvation of society. The church should bring in the kingdom of God on earth instead of teaching about a future, theocratic kingdom to be established in Person by Jesus Christ … . The Church was to save the world, not be saved out of it.10

Conservatives fought against the modernistic drift of Christianity through various means such as booklets entitled The Fundamentals and the writings of such men as Princeton professor J. Gresham Machen. Machen, in his classic book Christianity and Liberalism, called liberalism a different religion altogether. Machen warned during this turbulent period, “What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires.”11

His insight has proven all too sadly to be true. But neither Machen nor other conservatives were able to rescue the denominations and schools, as Princeton itself officially rejected its doctrinal roots and adopted liberalism in 1929. It was left to the conservatives to either stay within their systems and work to redeem them or separate and start new denominations, schools, churches and ministries.

Many took this latter route, with Machen himself starting Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929 and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936. Many others from all denominations would follow suit resulting in the founding of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, the Conservative Baptists, and the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. Mission agencies, seminaries such as Dallas Theological Seminary and numerous parachurch organizations would be started during this era.

According to Marsden, 26 schools tied to Fundamentalism were founded during the Great Depression.12 The conservatives focused on evangelism, theological training and discipleship, while the liberals were increasingly defined by the social gospel accompanied by their view of the kingdom. To the liberals the “kingdom was not future or otherworldly, but ‘here and now.’ It was not external, but an internal, ethical and religious force based on the ideas of Jesus.”13

(Tomorrow: The Second Great Divide, Definitions, and Distinctions.)


1 Revivalism could be defined as an attempt to orchestrate a spiritual awakening through man-made techniques, and manipulation in contrast to revival which is often defined as a genuine movement of God.

2 David W. Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism, the Age of Spurgeon and Moody (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), p.106.

3 Ibid., p.21.

4 See ibid., pp.22-40.

5 Robert Lightner, Church-Union, a Layman’s Guide (Des Plaines, Illinois: Regular Baptist Press, 1971), pp.31-32.

6 Ibid., p.62.

7 See Bebbington, p.166.

8 George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p.29.

9 Ibid., p.34.

10 Renald E. Showers, What on Earth Is God Doing? (Bellmawr, NJ: Friends of Israel, 2005), pp.79-80.

11 George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p.137.

12 Ibid., p.194

13 Ibid., p.50.

Gary Gilley Bio

Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.

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Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that those who would simply use the revivalist techniques of the past ought to carefully consider the "burnt over" nature of the original areas the revivalists trod.  It is like the Bible tells us a different set of methods might be appropriate.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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