A short history of Christian Fundamentalism
By Lenny Flank
Lenny Flank is an American ordained Buddhist Minister. In this long essay he
details the history of religious fundamentalism. Within the USA creationism
is synonymous with fundamentalism.
Christian fundamentalism is almost uniquely an American phenomenon. Although
most of the history of fundamentalist thought occurs in the United States,
however, this phenomenon was itself, originally, a reaction to a series of
intellectual trends that happened in Europe.
When the Documentary Hypothesis entered the United States during the late
19th century and became widely accepted (under the name "Modernism"), it
exploded like a bombshell among the conservative elements of the Protestant
churches. Not only did the German school reject the traditional idea that
the Pentateuch was the work of a single author who had recorded the words
dictated by God, but it concluded that the Bible itself was a collection of
different documents by different authors, each with differing theologies and
motives. The American conservatives flatly rejected the idea of a Bible that
was pieced together years after the events which it describes. William
Jennings Bryan, one of the most prominent Christian conservatives,
thundered, "Give the modernist three words, 'allegorical,' 'poetical,' and
'symbolically,' and he can suck the meaning out of every vital doctrine of
the Christian Church and every passage in the Bible to which he objects."
In response to the Modernist Higher Criticism, conservative Protestants in
the United States met, in the Niagara Bible Conference in 1897, to hammer
out a counter-theology, a process continued at the 1910 General Assembly of
the Presbyterian Church. The conservative traditionalists settled on a set
of five principles which, they argued, defined Christianity. These were (1)
the inerrancy of the Bible, (2) the Virgin Birth and the deity of Jesus, (3)
the belief that Jesus died to redeem mankind's sin and that salvation
resulted through faith in Jesus, (4) the physical resurrection of Jesus, and
(5) the imminent Second Coming of Jesus. Between 1910 and 1915, a series of
twelve booklets were published, titled The Fundamentals; A Testimony to the
Truth, containing 94 articles by 64 authors, setting out and defending these
principles. The introduction to the first volume declared, "In 1909 God
moved two Christian laymen to set aside a large sum of money for issuing
twelve volumes that would set forth the fundamentals of the Christian faith,
and which were to be sent free of charge to ministers of the gospel,
missionaries, Sunday school superintendents, and others engaged in
aggressive Christian work throughout the English speaking world." From these
booklets, the conservative Christians became known as "the fundamentalists".
Financed by the wealthy oil businessmen Milton and Lyman Stewart, some 3
million copies of The Fundamentals were printed. In 1919, the World
Conference on Christian Fundamentals met in Philadelphia. At around the same
time, the Moody Bible Institute was formed to publish fundamentalist
defenses of Biblical inerrancy, and fundamentalist theologian Cyrus Scofield
published an annotated Reference Bible, with margin notes defending
literalist interpretations of Biblical passages. The fundamentalist
conviction that they alone were the True Christians led to a long series of
bitter fights with other Christians, as fundamentalists sought to take over
as many theological institutes as they could in order to purge them of
"modernists" and "liberals".
In addition to the five Biblical "fundamentals", the conservative
Protestants also came to largely accept and embrace a number of other
concepts that had not previously been a tenet of any of the major Christian
denominations. These included (1) exclusivity, the idea that only the
fundamentalists are able to authoritatively interpret the "true meaning" of
the Bible, and thus are the only legitimate "True Christians", and (2)
separation, the idea that not only are any other Christian interpretations
(Catholic, liberal churches) utterly wrong, but it is the duty of
fundamentalists to oppose and overcome them, while remaining apart from
their corrupting influence. These characteristics, indeed, have today come
to be almost the defining characteristics of any "fundamentalist" church.
The majority of the essays included in The Fundamentals were attacks on
Higher Criticism, and defenses of an inerrant Bible that was to be taken as
literal history and revelation. Other essays attacked the idea of the
"Social Gospel", in which many liberal Christians asserted that Christians
should ally with other social groups and become active in political
movements to improve the living conditions for all humans. The
fundamentalists rejected this idea, arguing instead that, since the Second
Coming was imminent, the only task of the church should be to save as many
souls as possible in the short time left before the world came to an end.
The fundamentalists also did not want to associate with what they viewed as
heretical and apostate liberal Christians.
It was the third major target of the fundamentalists, however, which ignited
a conflict that continues to this day and is the direct ancestor of the
creationist/intelligent design movement -- the political campaign targeting
science, and, in particular, evolution.
In America, however, the situation was quite different. The fundamentalists
rejected evolution and the scientific outlook with all the fervor and
vitriol that they had aimed at the German Biblical scholars.
The creationists and the Religious Right thus shared a world-view, a
world-view that revolves around the supposed evils of evolutionary theory.
Both groups see evolution as a major pillar which supports Satanic "secular
humanism", and both are determined to do away with that pillar and
substitute a "Godly" outlook instead--creationism.
In essence, the fundamentalists and their creationist allies want to do for
the United States what the fundamentalist Taliban did for Afghanistan and
the Ayatollahs have done for Iran--they want to run the country in
accordance with their interpretation of "God's will". As they make clear,
they are perfectly willing to dismantle most of American democracy in order
to save us all from Satan. Rev. James Robison put it like this, "Let me tell
you something else about the character of God. If necessary, God would raise
up a tyrant--a man who might not have the best ethics--to protect the
freedom and the interests of the ethical and the godly." (cited in Vetter
1982, p. 6) And there seem to be no dearth of fundamentalists willing to
volunteer to become that "tyrant".
Š Lenny Flank 2005
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