The entire “Now About Those Differences” series is available here.
Whence Conservative Evangelicals?
Fundamentalism surfaced in about 1900 as a doctrinal and ecclesiastical reaction against the influence of theological liberalism. It did not, however, begin ex nihilo. It grew out of an American evangelical coalition that stretched across the denominations, produced the Bible conference movement, built mission agencies and Bible institutes, and produced The Fundamentals. This coalition has come to be known as proto-fundamentalism.
By 1920, proto-fundamentalism had become less well defined than it had been in the 19th Century. Around the turn of the century, a generation of leadership had died off. New leaders took time to emerge. In 1914, attention was diverted by a war in Europe and, eventually, around the world. The result was that proto-fundamentalist efforts tended to be more sporadic and desultory than they had been before 1900.
If proto-fundamentalism had lost definition by 1920, early fundamentalism had not yet gained definition. The people who took the label fundamentalist clearly aimed to oppose liberalism, not merely doctrinally, but also ecclesiastically. Nevertheless, Laws’s original definition did not specify who actually belonged in the movement and who did not. The result was considerable confusion.
Oliver W. Van Osdel, pioneer separatist and father of the Regular Baptist movement, refused to be called a fundamentalist. He saw fundamentalism as a weak and compromising effort. J. Gresham Machen made the best case for fundamentalist ideas, but he was uncomfortable both with fundamentalism’s doctrinal minimalism and its populism.
On the other hand, William Jennings Bryan was happy to be known as a fundamentalist. He even wrote an article purporting to define the term, in which he included a commitment to world peace and disarmament! W. B. Riley, who thought of himself as the founder of fundamentalism (he had established the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association in 1919), took the term in a different direction. He insisted that premillennialism was indispensible to fundamentalism. In spite of Riley’s insistence, fundamentalist champion T. T. Shields was a committed covenant theologian and amillennialist who delighted to rave against the Scofield Bible.
At times, the term fundamentalist was simply used as a synonym for commitment to faith in the miraculous. Literature of the period occasionally speaks of Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses as fundamentalists. In short, the term was not without its complications.
As the battles within the denominations warmed up, three evangelical groups became identifiable. One was a militant minority that intended to oust the liberals. These were the fundamentalists. Another was a minority that stood with the liberals, though they themselves were evangelical. These were the indifferentists.
These two groups did not exhaust the spectrum, however. A third group was present. It was a larger group than either the fundamentalists or the indifferentists. This group constituted what Richard Nixon would someday call the “silent majority.”
This silent majority was firmly evangelical and was usually willing to be labeled as fundamentalist. For the most part, the members of this majority agreed with the fundamentalist desire to be rid of the liberals. They were, however, squeamish about some of the tactics employed by fundamentalists. They would have rejoiced if the liberals had simply walked away from the denominations, but as a full-scale ecclesiastical conflict loomed, they lacked the lust for battle.
The silent majority within the denominations was complemented by the old, interdenominational network of proto-fundamentalism. Institutions like Wheaton and Moody certainly opposed liberalism from a distance, but they did not actually have to fight liberals. They were outside the denominations and de facto removed from fellowship with liberalism. Their focus was on building a positive network of missions, education, publishing, conferences, and itinerancy. The main opponent against which they defined themselves was evolution.
The denominational silent majority, combined with the interdenominational coalition, represented the continuation of the older proto-fundamentalism. By a process analogous to mitosis, fundamentalism became distinguishable as a coalition of belligerents to the Right of the older movement. Early on, the distance was negligible. It began as a difference in attitude that eventually became a difference in alignment.
Eventually, the fundamentalists either left their denominations or were forced out. As they built new missions, schools, and denominations, they drew help and support from the interdenominational network. For a time, it looked as if fundamentalism and the silent majority might reconverge into a single, self-aware movement.
The thing that kept that from happening was the emergence of the new evangelicalism. While the label neoevangelical was not coined until 1947, the neoevangelical attitudes were apparent on the part of some who participated in the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942. An early struggle took place for the identity of NAE. A fundamentalist minority on the Right wanted it to be a separatist organization, while a vocal minority on the Left explicitly repudiated a separatist requirement. The silent majority made the decision, and it chose to follow the policies of the Left.
Some have inferred that the majority in the NAE repudiated separatism and that the whole membership ought to be labeled neoevangelical. That is a mistake. The silent majority was not particularly interested in rejecting separatism, but they could not bring themselves to withdraw fellowship from admittedly good brethren who, for a variety of reasons, maintained ties to apostate denominations or other organizations.
The whole thing came to a head with Billy Graham’s 1957 crusade in New York City. This was the crusade that solidified a New Evangelical coalition and made Graham its captain. The cooperative evangelism of Billy Graham involved a clear rejection of separation from apostasy. Consequently, it led to a final break between Graham and fundamentalism.
What about the silent majority, the evangelical mainstream, the people who were the most direct heirs of the old proto-fundamentalism? Certainly, they did not approve of Graham’s cooperative evangelism. Unlike fundamentalists, however, they stopped short of breaking with Graham. He was the world’s most successful evangelist, and they felt themselves drawn to him. They had no desire to fellowship with liberals but every desire to support the magnetic young evangelist.
By the early 1960s, neoevangelicals had clearly gained the initiative in missions, evangelism, and scholarship. They welcomed the support of the evangelical mainstream without insisting that other evangelicals break ties with fundamentalists. While neoevangelicals were focused upon positive work, however, fundamentalists were focused upon neoevangelicals. They muttered their disapproval of the evangelical mainstream for not distancing themselves sufficiently from the most prominent neoevangelicals.
The more that moderate evangelicals shied away from the muttering, the more strongly fundamentalists expressed their disapproval. Many fundamentalists refused to acknowledge any middle ground or mediating position between themselves and the new evangelicalism. Moderate evangelicals were forced to choose.
One moderate institution, Dallas Seminary, faced its choice in the early 1970s. Dallas had enjoyed a relatively cordial relationship with fundamentalists and even employed fundamentalist professors. Still, by 1968 George Dollar (at that time a Dallas professor) was chastising the seminary for running “four to one new evangelical.” William Ashbrook, author of Evangelicalism: The New Neutralism, devoted several sections of his 1969 update to exposing the compromises of Dallas Seminary.
A major evangelical event, Explo 72, was going to involve neoevangelicals and (as it eventually turned out) even some non-evangelicals. Dallas Seminary chose to support the event, resulting in a fundamentalist exodus from the faculty. In the eighth edition of Evangelicalism: The New Neutralism, Ashbrook excoriated the seminary. He also went out of his way to attack by name several fundamentalist students who had attended the institution. From that point forward, many fundamentalists followed Ashbrook in treating Dallas as if it were a neoevangelical institution.
By the end of the 1970s, the evangelical majority had staked out a position midway between separatist fundamentalism and neoevangelicalism. Leaders and institutions have wandered into and out of that position, but the position endures to this day. It is the position that we now call conservative evangelicalism. It has, however, been supplemented from a new and unexpected direction.
Before the 1980s, Southern Baptists were not reckoned as a part of the evangelical movement in America. Because they saw themselves as Baptists, they disliked the inter-denominationalism that characterized evangelicalism. Because they saw themselves as Southern Baptists, they disdained an evangelical movement that they viewed as a predominantly northern phenomenon.
That situation has changed. The conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention has brought many Southern Baptists into close contact with northern evangelicals. Conservative leaders like Albert Mohler and Mark Dever have found camaraderie and moral support in the evangelical movement. They have identified with it and they have found themselves welcome. Given the battles that they have fought against liberals and moderates, they have naturally aligned themselves with the conservative evangelicals. The degree of congruence is so high that these Southern Baptist leaders have become a defining force within the renascent conservative evangelical movement.
Many—perhaps most—Southern Baptists still do not consider themselves to be conservative evangelicals. They simply consider themselves to be Southern Baptists. Increasingly, however, many SBC leaders are forging an alliance with other evangelicals, and the alliance is a conservative one.
Consequently, today’s conservative evangelical movement combines ecclesiastical DNA from two kinds of leaders. It gets part of its heritage from the old proto-fundamentalism, traced through the moderate evangelicalism of the 1960s and 1970s. It gets another part of its heritage through the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Unlike neoevangelicals, conservative evangelicals (whether northern or southern) oppose theological apostasy and refuse to fellowship with apostates. Unlike fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals have been reluctant to issue public rebukes or declare public withdrawals from those who share the neoevangelical attitude toward apostates. This is the nub of the most important difference between these groups.
In order to balance this observation, however, certain questions must be answered. These are questions that have troubled both fundamentalists and other evangelicals. Before proceeding, we must turn our attention to those questions.
Where High the Heavenly Temple Stands
Michael Bruce (1746-1767)
Where high the heavenly temple stands,
the house of God not made with hands,
a great High Priest our nature wears,
the Guardian of mankind appears.
He, who for men their surety stood,
and poured on earth his precious blood,
pursues in heaven his mighty plan,
the Savior and the Friend of man.
Though now ascended up on high,
he bends on earth a brother’s eye;
partaker of the human name,
he knows the frailty of our frame.
Our fellow-sufferer yet retains
a fellow feeling of our pains;
and still remembers in the skies
his tears, his agonies and cries.
In every pang that rends the heart
the Man of Sorrows had a part;
he sympathizes with our grief,
and to the sufferer sends relief.
With boldness therefore at the throne
let us make all our sorrows known;
and ask the aid of heavenly power
to help us in the evil hour.