Church History

A Brief History of Fundamentalism

Republished from Voice, Jan/Feb 2020.

Back in the 1970’s when I was teaching at a Bible college, one of my students asked me, somewhat tongue in cheek, what descriptive terms he should use to describe his ministry views in order for him to be, in his words, “the top dog.” He meant, like “fundamentalist.” So I, also somewhat tongue in cheek, listed “fundamentalist,” “Baptist,” (this was a Baptist college after all), “separatist,” “dispensationalist,” “premillennialist,” and “Republican.” We both chuckled then. But fifty years later I wonder if these descriptive terms are still appropriate. I teach in a nondenominational seminary, but our doctrinal statement is baptistic. I identify myself as a separatist—that it is unbiblical to work together with theological liberals in order to fulfill the Great Commission. I continue to be delighted to call myself a dispensational premillennialist. But what about “fundamentalist”? That seems to be the elephant in the room for some of us.

As a starting place for our brief analysis, let’s define historic fundamentalism as the religious movement within American Protestantism that stresses the literal exposition of the fundamental doctrines of the Bible and the militant exposure of any deviance therefrom. If this definition is acceptable, we can be more specific and investigate three key concepts in the definition.

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