The entire “Now About Those Differences” series is available here.
SEPARATION! A History
No study of the relationship between fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism would be complete without a discussion of separation. Since 1947 at the latest, the doctrine and practice of separation has been the single factor that has most distinguished fundamentalists from other evangelicals. For that reason alone, we need to ask whether separation is also a difference between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals.
How we answer this question is going to depend upon how we define both fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism. Solidifying those definitions is a more complicated business than an outsider might assume. From a secular or theologically liberal point of view, anyone who treats Scripture as normative and authoritative is a fundamentalist—up to and often including the Evangelical Left. At the opposite extreme is the following resolution, passed by the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship in 1979:
The Fundamental Baptist Fellowship recognizes the danger of the movement known as pseudo-fundamentalism, sees it as new evangelicalism in embryonic form, and calls upon all local Bible-believing churches to reject pseudo-fundamental activities as those of the Jerry Falwell ministries.
Strengthened versions of this statement were adopted by the FBF for several years. Other fundamentalists have made even more extreme pronouncements. The result is an odd situation. Liberals often see evangelicals as fundamentalists, while some fundamentalists have accused other fundamentalists of being incipient or actual neo-evangelicals.
Of course, Falwell and his sympathizers objected to being called “pseudo” anything. They insisted that they represented true, “historic” fundamentalism, tracing their pedigree to the authors of The Fundamentals. They took the position that one became a fundamentalist simply by affirming the fundamentals. According to this revision, historic fundamentalists believed in separation from unbelievers and apostates, but rarely or never from other believers.
The word “revision” is deliberate. On the one hand, Falwell’s reading of fundamentalist history was flawed. On the other hand, those who opposed Falwell were sometimes guilty of misreading that history themselves.
Omitting the last twenty years, the history of fundamentalism can be organized in three stages. The first stage begins with the emergence of fundamentalism as a self-identified movement in 1920. In the wake of the First World War, orthodox Christians became suddenly and acutely aware that theological liberals had gained positions of power within their denominations. Many attempted to thwart the influence of liberalism by organizing a protest movement. Their goal was to see liberals leave the mainstream denominations.
Some organizations, like the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association (1919), capitalized on the extra-denominational network that had been erected during the preceding fifty years. Others tried to work within the denominations—the Fundamentalist Fellowship of the Northern Baptist Convention (founded 1920) is an example. Whether denominational or not, however, the spirit of the first fundamentalists was captured in the original definition, given by Curtis Lee Laws when he coined the term: “We suggest that those who still cling to the great fundamentals, and who mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals, shall be called ‘Fundamentalists.’”
In other words, fundamentalism was always about more than belief in the fundamentals. It was about doing battle for the fundamentals, an attitude that came to be called militancy. The battle that the original fundamentalists envisioned was doctrinal and intellectual, but it was more than that. It was ecclesiastical. The original fundamentalists were determined to end their ecclesiastical connection (which they saw as a form of fellowship) with theological liberals. In other words, from the very beginning, fundamentalism was about separation.
At first, the fundamentalists hoped that the liberals would leave the Christian denominations peacefully and quietly (a hope that, in retrospect, seems astonishingly naïve). Later, the fundamentalists attempted to purge liberal influences from their denominations by expelling the liberals. Failing in that, the fundamentalists themselves severed contact with the liberals by leaving the denominations. In all three forms, however, fundamentalism was about separation, i.e., ecclesiastical non-cooperation with apostasy.
One of the greatest errors that these early fundamentalists made was to assume that everyone who was orthodox (i.e., everyone who believed the fundamentals) shared the fundamentalist agenda. This mistake proved fatal. Liberals, who were never in the majority, managed to control the denominations by forging friendships and alliances with some who were orthodox. The orthodox comprised Bible believers who, for whatever reason, found more to fear in the fundamentalists than they did in the liberals. They were willing to make peace with liberalism and to extend Christian fellowship to liberals. Their indifference to the fundamentals and, indeed, to the gospel itself (a fundamental is only fundamental because of its connection to the gospel) led J. Gresham Machen to label this party the “Indifferentists.”
When the fundamentalists walked out of their denominations during the 1930s and 1940s, the Indifferentists either stayed in or left reluctantly. They resented the fact that the fundamentalists were forcing them to choose between orthodoxy and successful ecclesiastical careers. They yearned for the respect and recognition of the ecclesiastical and scholarly mainstream.
Indifferentism erupted into a new movement in 1947. Coincidentally, it opened the second chapter in fundamentalist history. This movement called itself the “new evangelicalism.”
While initially strict in its orthodoxy, the new evangelicalism deliberately repudiated separatism. Led by a constellation of evangelical luminaries, the neo-evangelicals adopted the policy of tolerating liberals wherever they already existed, cooperating with liberals in ecclesiastical endeavors, and infiltrating organizations that had been given up to liberal control. This policy was formally articulated by such notables as Harold John Ockenga and Edward John Carnell.
The new evangelicalism came to dominate the National Association of Evangelicals (founded in 1942). Its flagship institution was Fuller Theological Seminary (founded in 1947). For a decade, fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals lived in considerable tension. That tension erupted into open hostility during the preparations for Billy Graham’s New York City crusade (1957).
From the late 1950s onward, Graham became the popular leader of the new evangelicalism. He sought liberal sponsorship for his crusades. He put liberal churchmen on his platforms and asked them to pray. He sent converts into liberal churches. He did these things deliberately and defended them publicly.
Continued Next Week
A Hymn upon St. John’s Day
Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667)
The friend of our eternal King,
Who in his bosome lay,
And kept the Keys
Of his profound and glorious Mysteries:
Which to the world dispensed by his hand,
Made it stand
Fix’d in amazement to behold that light
From the Throne of the Lamb,
Our wretched eyes (which nothing else could see
But fire, and sword, hunger and miserie)
To anticipate by their ravish’d sight
The beauty of Celestial delight.
Mysterious God, regard me when I pray:
And when this load of clay
Shall fall away,
O let thy gracious hand conduct me up,
Where on the Lambs rich viands I may sup:
And in this last Supper I
May with thy friend in thy sweet bosome lie
For ever in Eternity.