Review - The Church of the Fundamentalists

Larry Oats prefaces his new book, The Church of the Fundamentalists, by noting “While much has been written on the histories of the fundamentalist and evangelical movement, the theological basis of that division has frequently been overlooked. The purpose of this book is to examine how the ecclesiologies of mid-twentieth century fundamentalists and evangelicals affected their views of ecclesiastical separation and how those views led individuals to establish, abandon, or modify their views of ecclesiastical separation.” In other words, the controversies swirling around the fundamentalist issue center on the question, “What is the church supposed to be?”

The book contains four chapters with an introduction and conclusion in its 176 pages. The first chapter surveys “Varieties of Ecclesiologies,” really a survey of the “primary historical views of the nature of the church.” (25) This background is necessary in order to understand the theology driving the fundamentalist-vs.-evangelical answers to this central question.

The ecclesiological struggle in historical theology is not a new one; it goes back all the way to the second century. “As early as the second century, two contradictory trends had developed which would affect the doctrine of the church in later periods. One trend was toward external unity; the other was toward internal purity.” (25) The push toward unity developed in the battles against early heretics, the collective witness of the true church being seen as the bulwark against heretical innovations. On the other hand, as the centralizing trend elevated the authority of episcopacy, protesting voices rose to insist on independence and purity for local churches. The struggle between these points of view continued through history, with visible church unity having the upper hand (for the most part) until the Reformation. The struggle renewed as the Reformers began wrestling with all kinds of theological questions, not least of which was the question of the nature of the Church. The question was answered differently by the Reformers and the Radicals, which ultimately led to the fight for religious freedom especially promoted by the Baptists in Britain and America.

The Anabaptists on the continent and the Separatists in England argued for the separation of church and state. The Baptists achieved this in the New World in Rhode Island, but eventually the entire nation adopted this principle. The Baptist church, which led the way for religious liberty, was a voluntary gathered assembly of baptized believers exercising internal discipline. While fundamentalism was interdenominational, this view of the church dominated the movement. (64)

Chapter 2 surveys “A Brief History of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism.” The opening paragraph sums up the history rather well:

Historic evangelicalism/fundamentalism is the movement of American individuals and churches that between the late nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century strongly opposed and resisted the progress of modernism within the major denominations of America and thus tried to keep those denominations orthodox. It was this opposition to modernism that initially defined the movement. In the middle of the twentieth century fundamentalism and evangelicalism divided, primarily over the means and methodology of resisting the modernist movement and of responding to the culture around them. (65)

Dr. Oats sees the Puritans, and the eventual separatism that rose from their ranks, as the roots of fundamentalism/evangelicalism through three methodologies: Pietism and its resistance to cultural decline brought on by the Enlightenment, Confessionalism with its emphasis on codified doctrine, and Revivalism and its emphasis on individual conversion. The Christians who shared these roots found themselves confronted by new tides of liberalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This confrontation led to conflict in the 1920s, but not to victory, as the fundamentalists had to withdraw from their denominations and form new approaches to promoting Christianity.  For some, this meant new denominations; for others, it meant networking amongst independent churches. The aftermath of conflict and consolidation brought new challenges, resulting in the breakup of the fundamentalist coalition as some players wanted to gain more influence with the world, rejecting the strict separatism of the more hardline fundamentalists.

“Fundamentalist Views of the Church” is Chapter 3, which surveys the fundamentalist answer to the question, “What is the church supposed to be?” Dr. Oats begins:

The ecclesiology of fundamentalism was characterized by the American emphasis on individualism and volunteerism and by a dispensational hermeneutic. … Most fundamentalists accepted the doctrine of a universal and/or invisible church, although their emphasis was on the local, visible church. They emphasized the purity of the local church (and, in an extension of that, the purity of the denomination or association to which the church belonged). It was their common belief that the purity of the church or denomination took precedence over the unity of that individual church, denomination, or even Christianity as a whole. This adherence to purity was a core distinctive of fundamentalism. (111)

The ecclesiology of the fundamentalists is discussed in this chapter under these heads: “The meaning of ‘Church’,” “When the Church Began,” “The Universal and Local Church,” “The Church and the Scriptures,” “The Membership of the Church,” and “Unity and Purity in the Church.” The chapter concludes:

A more important difference [with New Evangelicals] was a common emphasis on the primacy of the local church that included the belief that the universal or invisible church was distinct from the local or visible churches. Apostasy was the expected result of the visible church, and apostasy requires separation. Fundamentalism, in general, was not eager to separate. It was a costly tactic in the world’s eyes. They gave up buildings, pensions, friends, and position. The belief in the necessity of a pure church, however, left them no options. The previous generation had failed in its attempts to remove modernism from the great denominations. That left the next generation with no choice but separation or compromise. (134)

Chapter 4 is “Evangelical Views of the Church.” It develops the understanding of the evangelical view of the church under the same headers as the previous chapter, contrasting evangelical conclusions with fundamentalist conclusions. The chapter significantly observes:

The debate between fundamentalism and evangelicalism was not waged over whether or not to accept or reject separation. Evangelicals were, at least to some extent, separatists. The NAE separated from the National Council of Churches. Fuller Seminary was separate from the mainline denominations, although its purpose was to send graduates back into those denominations. The real issue was to what extent and on what basis a person, church, or denomination should practice separation.

One reason for Ockenga’s disagreement with fundamentalism was its “shibboleth of having a pure church, both as a congregation and a denomination.” He was critical of their exegesis of 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 and the parable of the tares, which he viewed as the basis of their ecclesiology. “The sad practice called ‘come-outism’ developed.” The evangelical “differentiates his position from theirs in ecclesiology.” Fundamentalist ecclesiology required separation, and the new evangelicals saw this as faulty strategy. (137)

In these chapters, Dr. Oats deals with the views of all the major players on both sides of the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism — a most informative survey.

Looking back at the introduction, an invaluable part of it is an annotative bibliography of previous works on the history of fundamentalism, both from evangelical and fundamentalist perspectives. The bibliography deals with the history and theological framework of the two broad movements, as well as key biographies and histories of institutions. Dr. Oats shows a thorough grasp of the literature and positions his study of ecclesiology as unique among the works cited. I think he is right on this point. I have read most of the books in the bibliography and am familiar with the arguments of the rest. I have not seen anyone address the subject with such a clear theological focus as Dr. Oats has.

In his conclusion, Dr. Oats makes several insightful points. I’d like to highlight the following points at the very end of his remarks:

Theology has often developed out of crisis, when a given situation forces Bible believers to examine more carefully their positions. Such was the case here. No one can deny that part of the rationale for separation on one hand and union on the other was personality and politics. Pragmatic arguments were frequently raised on each side of the debate. There was, however, a theological basis for the division, a basis that cannot be overlooked and that must be studied further for a clearer understanding of the division between the movements.

The intervening years have seen changes take place in both evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Both have become broader movements, with greater internal divisions. Both continue to struggle with the issues of separation and the rationale for or against it. The evangelicals have been unable to reclaim the mainline denominations. … Fundamentalist ecclesiology has remained fairly consistent. While the large fundamentalist organizations have decreased in numbers, local associations have been strengthened. The emphasis on the local church and its purity remains essentially unchanged. …

The edges of both movements have been coalescing, since neither side has been able to carefully craft a position on fellowship or separation that has captured the minds and hearts of its adherents. Much has been and still could be said about the current state of the both movements. Theological critique is always appropriate. (176)

The Church of the Fundamentalists: An Examination of Ecclesiastical Separation in the Twentieth Century is a unique contribution to the study of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Its theological emphasis is much needed. Every student of the subject will want to have this book in his library. I highly recommend it.

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There are 20 Comments

TylerR's picture

Editor

This is an excellent book. I read it this past Summer, and I need to read it again. Your view of ecclesiology will play a large part in determining your philosophy of ministry - hence fundamentalism.

This plays into a concept that has been rolling around in my head in the aftermath of the recent FBFI kerfluffle - you form your doctrine of separation based on what areas of systematic theology are most important to you. For many fundamentalists, it was (and is) ecclesiology.

For some younger men, however, I believe ecclesiology is losing out as the "chief doctrine" to a more Reformed flavor of theology proper and soteriology. This results in the blurring of the more traditional "conservative evangelical" vs. "fundamentalist" battle lines which were drawn in the middle of the 20th century.  

Fundamentalism is a spectrum, just like evangelicalism. There would be call (but, perhaps not the market!) for a book entitled Four Views on the Spectrum of Fundamentalism. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Don Johnson's picture

TylerR wrote:

For some younger men, however, I believe ecclesiology is losing out as the "chief doctrine" to a more Reformed flavor of theology proper and soteriology. This results in the blurring of the more traditional "conservative evangelical" vs. "fundamentalist" battle lines which were drawn in the middle of the 20th century.  

I think this is correct. The conflict between generations is largely summed up with this statement.

For my money, to make soteriology the sine qua non is an error for two reasons: 1) The soteriological debate goes back at least to Augustine and has never been settled (beyond a rejection of Pelagianism). 2) Breaking with one another over soteriological questions is tantamount to saying those with whom you break are either unbelievers or at best grievously in error.

Whereas, on the other hand, the ecclesiological question asks, who is in and who is out of the true church. It seems to me that our energy out to be spent in that area than on the other.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Bert Perry's picture

Don, exactly how does the ecclesiological emphasis differ from the soteriological if indeed the goal of the ecclesiological analysis is to figure out who is, or is not, in the true church?  That's really asking the same thing the soteriological analysis is asking, no?   Either way, you're saying people are likely not saved.

It also strikes me that at least a portion of fundamentalists--specifically Minnesota Baptists--managed to leave the Northern Baptists with their properties in part to the work of R.V. Clearwaters, so they didn't always abandon properties and such, and that a large portion of evangelicals didn't quite leave fundamentalism "to have more influence in the world", but rather because they (rightly or wrongly) didn't believe that some of the requirements for separation were Biblical.  The phrasing used seems "just a touch biased."

 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jay's picture

This plays into a concept that has been rolling around in my head in the aftermath of the recent FBFI kerfluffle - you form your doctrine of separation based on what areas of systematic theology are most important to you. For many fundamentalists, it was (and is) ecclesiology.

For some younger men, however, I believe ecclesiology is losing out as the "chief doctrine" to a more Reformed flavor of theology proper and soteriology.

I don't know if it's as much the 'reformed flavor' as much as a more holistic view of doctrine in general.  Separation flows out of a right understanding of God, then sin, then man, then ecclesiology.  Fundamentalism has been extraordinarily strong on articulating a call for separation based on sin and holiness, but I don't think that they have done a good job tying all of those doctrines I mentioned together as one cohesive unit that results in a Biblically defensible position on separatism.  I think that the fact that there are essentially no Systematic Theologies written by Fundamentalists (Dr. McCune's systematic happily excluded here!) is a sign of our joint theological weakness.  So instead of what we should have, we instead get a lot of '___________ are failing to separate because of _________!  Separate from them!'.

I am also strongly convinced that the incessant calls for 'purity' and 'separation' has badly distorted our views on the unity of the global/universal church.  And of course, when I say that, I'm not referring to false 'jointness' like the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Don Johnson's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

Don, exactly how does the ecclesiological emphasis differ from the soteriological if indeed the goal of the ecclesiological analysis is to figure out who is, or is not, in the true church?  That's really asking the same thing the soteriological analysis is asking, no?   Either way, you're saying people are likely not saved.

The difference is this: in the soteriological debate (which is a major flashpoint in the trend towards Reformed theology), both sides (except perhaps for extremes) hold to justification by faith alone, hold to the cardinal doctrines of the faith, deity of Christ, miracles, virgin birth, verbal plenary inspiration, etc. In the ecclesiology question, like Machen in Christianity and Liberalism, we say that those who are not in the church are those who deny the faith.

To make the soteriological questions matters of separation is tantamount to branding him as an unbeliever (or perhaps a disobedient brother). It is a grievous and divisive approach.

Bert Perry wrote:

It also strikes me that at least a portion of fundamentalists--specifically Minnesota Baptists--managed to leave the Northern Baptists with their properties in part to the work of R.V. Clearwaters, so they didn't always abandon properties and such, and that a large portion of evangelicals didn't quite leave fundamentalism "to have more influence in the world", but rather because they (rightly or wrongly) didn't believe that some of the requirements for separation were Biblical.  The phrasing used seems "just a touch biased."

The Minnesota Baptists were an exception to the general pattern, no doubt. That doesn't make the general pattern an unreality, however. As for the motivation of the evangelicals, you will have to read the books and the sources, its pretty clear what they were after, in my opinion. I think evangelical historians bear this out as well. I once heard Mohler making that very point on a podcast.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

WallyMorris's picture

If Billy Graham and others had not compromised with liberals, etc in their evangelistic work and theology of the church, I suspect that we would be living in a very different country today. Their motivations were varied, of course, and many were sincere in their actions, but the result was the same: a weakening of ecclesiology and, as a result, soteriology.

Wally Morris

Charity Baptist Church

Huntington, IN

amomentofcharity.blogspot.com

TylerR's picture

Editor

I wrote, above:

This plays into a concept that has been rolling around in my head in the aftermath of the recent FBFI kerfluffle - you form your doctrine of separation based on what areas of systematic theology are most important to you. For many fundamentalists, it was (and is) ecclesiology.

For some younger men, however, I believe ecclesiology is losing out as the "chief doctrine" to a more Reformed flavor of theology proper and soteriology. This results in the blurring of the more traditional "conservative evangelical" vs. "fundamentalist" battle lines which were drawn in the middle of the 20th century.  

This is perhaps best illustrated by an example of who you fellowship with. Here is a general observation, and I want some pushback if I am missing the boat here:

You are willing to overlook some doctrinal aberrations from individuals and organizations, as long as they have the same "chief doctrine" you do.

I think this is accurate. This is why, for example:

  • Baptist fundamentalists have all sorts of differences on the finer points of soteriology (e.g. individual single election, effectual calling, etc.) and theology proper (e.g. God's decree, providence, the problem of evil, etc.). But, they are together on ecclesiology, and this "togetherness" allows many to overlook other doctrinal disagreements. This is also why some segments of Baptist fundamentalism continue to struggle to make a clean and decisive break from KJVO-ism.
  • On the other hand, some more Reformed, younger fundamentalists have differences on interpretations about drinking alcohol, music in worship, and ecclesiology (to name a few things). But, they are together on the broader contours of Reformed soteriology and theology proper, and this "togetherness" allows them to overlook other doctrinal disagreements. This is why Steve Lawson (a Baptist) gets along so well with MacArthur (who is . . . something), and they both get along so well with R.C. Sproul (a Presbyterian). They are all clearly Reformed, and their "Reformed-ness" is the driving factor in all their theology. Ecclesiology takes a backseat.

In effect, I don't see an "abandonment" of fundamentalism going on. I see ecclesiology losing out as the "chief doctrine" to other doctrines, and categories of fellowship and separation being shifted accordingly. To wrench this back on topic, however, I suppose we'll have to ask these two questions:

  • Are younger fundamentalists actually ditching ecclesiology as the "chief doctrine?"
  • Should ecclesiology be the "chief doctrine" in a Christian's life?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Jay's picture

I can't speak for all the young fundamentalists / convergents / nontraditional people out there, but...

  • Are younger fundamentalists actually ditching ecclesiology as the "chief doctrine?"

I don't know if it's the doctrine per se as the way it has been taught.  There is a tremendous appeal and desire for unity with other believers - something that T4G, for example, appears to address - and then people contrast that visible unity with the incessant Fundamentalist "turf wars" and rampant factionalism and decide to reorient themselves away from 'Fundamentalism' towards a more healthy and orthodox tradition.

  • Should ecclesiology be the "chief doctrine" in a Christian's life?

No.

As I said before, you have to understand God and His work for us first.  Anything else, however well intentioned, will lead the believer astray.  It's like saying that we are going to built our house around ensuring the fireplace is large enough.  Fireplaces are great, and useful, and necessary in the appropriate climate.  But if you built your home around it, you're likely to end up making choices and decisions that will hurt you in the long term.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

WallyMorris's picture

I wonder if the new unifying factor among many is Reformed theology in its many flavors, a way of "understanding God and His work". As far as factionalism, I grew up SBC and have family in the SBC - turf wars and factionalism are not unique to Fundamentalists. One of my nephews pastors an SBC church, and he is about fed up with turf wars, in the denomination and in individual churches.

Questions: Was Billy Graham right or wrong to include liberal and neo-orthodox people in his crusade commmittees?

Were Evangelicials right or wrong to stay silent and even to cooperate with him?

Why did it take some Evangelicals so long to say or do anything (such as Mohler with the Louisville crusade)?

Graham's beliefs about ecclesiology and soteriology were key in his decisions, as was his desire to "unify Christians". Those beliefs "led him astray".

 

Wally Morris

Charity Baptist Church

Huntington, IN

amomentofcharity.blogspot.com

Bert Perry's picture

It's worth noting that while I know people who came to Christ in Billy Graham events, statistics say these are like hen's teeth among a wave of false professions and professions that do not bear fruit.  So I would argue that any fundagelical has a great reason, soteriologically speaking, not to cooperate with a Billy Graham style crusade or revival; they don't bear Biblical fruit, even in the lives of their children--look at all the divorces of Billy Graham's children, and all the debauchery of those of Billy Sunday.  "Evangelism" without discipleship is simply not the model of Matthew 28 specifically or the New Testament in general.

And, if I may presume to speak for Wally, I would agree that part of the problem is that those who "pray the prayer" are directed towards churches that do in fact deny the Gospel.  I personally spent years either trying to get saved, or trying to understand my place in God, as I was stuck in a mainline church where the Gospel was not preached or generally believed--there were exceptions, but by and large it wasn't their deal.  (as John Wesley spins in his grave, if that were possible)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ron Bean's picture

Wally asked:

Why did it take some Evangelicals so long to say or do anything (such as Mohler with the Louisville crusade)?

That questions used to bother me until I realized that many of the fundamentalist/separatist actions of groups and individuals that we know took years. No one left the Northern Baptist Convention immediately. Bob Jones Sr. stayed in the Methodist Church for years. 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Mike Harding's picture

Disagreements between a Calvinistic approach to soteriology and an Arminian approach to soteriology exist in fundamentalist quarters.  They also exist in the SBC and in the evangelical world at large.  Dr. McCune did the Fundamentalists a huge favor by writing his three-volume systematic theology which propagates a Baptist, Calvinistic, Dispensational, Separatist position that Fundamentalists can adhere to.  We have taught those volumes to our church and will continue to do so.  McCune also teaches in his systematic a strong ecclesiology and conservative approach to worship.  His decades of hard work, standing on the shoulders of many others who have gone before him, enables men such as myself to be a Fundamentalist in good conscience with a healthy soteriology and ecclesiology.  I also thank Dr. Oats for this excellent work.

Pastor Mike Harding

WallyMorris's picture

I'm not referring to why people didn't leave the denominations. I'm referring to why people chose to be involved in the Graham crusades knowing that he was sending people back into liberal churches and even Catholic churches. People don't need decades to figure that one out.

Wally Morris

Charity Baptist Church

Huntington, IN

amomentofcharity.blogspot.com

Ron Bean's picture

Thank you for the clarification. I had relatives who were strong Graham supporters. They didn't know Graham was sending people to bad churches. When they found out, they were still loathe to cease support for Graham because of pragmatism (people are hearing the Gospel and no one else is doing this kind of work to this scale) and the fact they loved Graham. 

 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

WallyMorris's picture

Yes, many people didn't know the details of how the crusades were organized, partly because the BGEA was often not clear about their methods. In the late 70s, when a college student, I wrote BGEA and asked about certain people's involvement. The letter I received was a masterful example of avoiding direct answers to my questions.

On another topic: McCune's Theology is an excellent resource. I suspect that the tendency of some Christians to accept certain musical forms, alcoholic beverages, etc has less to do with theology and more to do with the influence of our culture.

 

Wally Morris

Charity Baptist Church

Huntington, IN

amomentofcharity.blogspot.com

TylerR's picture

Editor

I agree that McCune's systematic is an invaluable resource. When I first started at Seminary and knew nothing about theology at all (not much has changed!), I remember asking Dr. Fred Moritz what systematic theology text I should read for a trustworthy reference which best expresses "our" perspective. He said, "You can't do better than McCune's systematic." It is still my first choice for general reference. His volume on Christology and Pneumatology, in particular, is important to me.

Wally wrote:

I suspect that the tendency of some Christians to accept certain musical forms, alcoholic beverages, etc has less to do with theology and more to do with the influence of our culture.

Yes, yes and yes.  

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

pvawter's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

"Evangelism" without discipleship is simply not the model of Matthew 28 specifically or the New Testament in general.


This is exactly why the ecclesiology issue is such an important distinctive when it comes to understanding the fundamentalist-new evangelical split, and a key element of Oats' book. Fundamentalists realized that you can't separate your soteriology from your ecclesiology, and the new evangelicals were determined to do so.
To suggest that we can maximize soteriology and minimize ecclesiology is to court disaster. My recommendation to Dr. Oats when I read his book was that it needed another chapter detailing a fundamentalist ecclesiology. He agreed and I believe he plans to work on exactly that in the future.

Bert Perry's picture

WallyMorris wrote:

<snip> I suspect that the tendency of some Christians to accept certain musical forms, alcoholic beverages, etc has less to do with theology and more to do with the influence of our culture.

Interestingly, those who would allow modern music and beverage alcohol and the like would make the same accusation of cultural fundamentalists, especially since Prohibitionism and rejection of modern music, etc.,  are pretty much centered among cultural fundamentalists in the U.S.   If that's not culturally isolated, I don't know what is.

Not that there aren't people who ignore Scripture to say "it's OK because I want to listen to Free Bird over a six pack", that's not my experience at all, nor do I believe it's a majority experience among evangelicals as a whole.

Rather, my experience is to come to Christ among many other unchurched and mainline church students, whereupon we mostly attended South Baptist of Lansing, MI, a conservative evangelical/leaning into fundamental church near MSU.  When the question of wine or modern music/dancing came up (just in time for the H.C. Ball), we more or less consulted Psalms 149-150, John 2:1-11, and some references on Hebrew culture and said "Ok, that settles it."  Nobody ever got drunk, nobody acted out a song by Madonna or AC/DC after the ball, and most of us are still walking with Christ a quarter century later.  It was a great little revival in Bryan Hall, really. 

Which is a long way of saying that I wholeheartedly endorse separation based on the actual theological fundamentals (plus the Solas and the Trinity), and I've done so a few times, but I cringe at the suggestion that two millennia of Bible translation are wrong and believers are, in effect, required to rip up their invitations to the wedding at Cana because there would be wine, music with an offbeat rhythm (works well with Hebrew), and dancing.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Rob Fall's picture

Finished the book a week or two ago. I found it to be descriptive (describing the state of the matter and how it came about) rather than prescriptive (prescribing the proper state of the matter).

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

TylerR's picture

Editor

I felt the same way after reading both Dr. Oats' book and Bauder's first volume of Northern Baptist history. I wanted a direct analysis for our contemporary situation! I know Bauder has the second volume in the works. I also know Dr. Oats has a lot of free time on his hands, and I'm sure he has a second volume of his own ready to go to press . . . Smile

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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