The World of Fundamentalism

by Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow is a Century editor at large and a member of the faculty at Princeton University.

This article appeared in The Christian Century,, April 22, 1992, pp. 426-429. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. Adams.


Wuthnow explores Fundamentalisms Observed, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, to outline a scholarly-acceptable description of American, Christian fundamentalism. Instead of discovering a monolithic movement, he concludes that it is group of diverse yet specific theological movements related to particular times, places, events and figures, clarifying the word “fundamentalisms” in the title.

Hang around mainline churches for a while and sooner or later you’ll hear worried remarks about fundamentalists. Stories of their tactics and foibles frequent the newspapers. Some of their leaders broadcast regularly on radio and television. But what exactly is fundamentalism? Do journalists have it straight? Or have we been receiving misleading information?

Thanks to a major project sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences many of the best minds in religious studies from colleges and universities all over the world have been hard at work trying to answer this question. Directed by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, funded lavishly by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the project is employing a cast of hundreds, holding scores of conferences and symposia, and is expected to produce at least six lengthy volumes of essays over the next several years. The initial volume has already provided many valuable insights into the world of fundamentalism. Some of these insights will be familiar to knowledgeable readers, but because the movement is so misunderstood it is important to set the record straight.

Contrary to the vague, misleading ways in which the term is often deployed in popular journalism, fundamentalism, the present volume reminds us, is a specific theological movement. It can be understood only in relation to particular times, places, events and figures. Christian fundamentalism should not be confused with evangelicalism, the charismatic movement or conservative Christianity in general, although it has had connections with all these. Nor should it be considered a personality style, a mind-set, a form of religious militancy, a world view or even a particular orientation toward the truth. Fundamentalism has always been shaped by its implicit dialogue with the world surrounding it.

Most histories of American fundamentalism (including the valuable section in this volume written by sociologist Nancy T. Ammerman) trace its roots to Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1880s. There, Archibald Alexander Hodge and Benjamin B. Warfield defended biblical authority against the challenges voiced in the name of science and historical criticism. Warfield's successor, J. Gresham Machen, became a prominent figure in the fundamentalist-modernist debates of the 1920s, having moved by that time to Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia following a dispute with Princeton colleagues to his theological left. The work of Hodge, Warfield and Machen built a solid if narrow intellectual foundation for what is still probably the most cherished doctrine of fundamentalism: the inerrancy of Scripture.

This doctrine has been interpreted variously in subsequent decades, but generally it holds that the written text of the Bible was inspired by God, that the Bible is thus a record of the actual, words of God, and that it therefore can be trusted to be infallible in all its details. Inerrantists differ in how they reconcile scientific and historical problems in the text, but most agree that the scribes and those who determined the canon did not (either accidentally or intentionally) introduce errors into Scripture. Portions of the Bible have figurative meanings, inerrantists usually recognize, but they warn against taking liberties with such an interpretive principle. Fundamentalists consider inerrancy to be a common-sense understanding of the Bible. How widely this doctrine is currently held can be gauged by the results of a recent national poll in which 47 percent of active Protestants agreed with the statement that "everything in the Bible should be taken literally, word for word." In the same study, 48 percent of active Protestants disagreed with the statement that "the Bible may contain historical or scientific errors."

A second intellectual strand of American fundamentalism is the doctrine of dispensational premillennialism. Dispensationalism divides history into distinct periods (dispensations), according to clues in the prophetic texts of the Bible. John Nelson Darby, a Plymouth Brethren, propounded this idea during the last quarter of the 19th century in Great Britain; the 1909 publication of the Scofield edition of the King James Version of the Bible popularized the scheme in the U.S. Premillennialism asserts that history as we know it will end with Jesus' literal return to earth, after which he will establish a godly kingdom that will last for a thousand years. Although premillennialism was becoming more prominent in a number of Protestant denominations by the start of the 20th century, it was furthered by the teachings of the dispensationalists.

Another development contributing to the rise of fundamentalism was the emergence at the end of the 19th century of the holiness and Pentecostal movements. Their enthusiastic members gathered for revival meetings in which they confessed their sins, affirmed (or reaffirmed) their faith in Jesus Christ, and experienced a cleansing renewal of their lives that they attributed to the Holy Spirit. After the famous Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles in 1906, speaking in tongues and miraculous hearings became common in Pentecostalism.

Between 1875 and 1914 fundamentalism grew in disparate settings, largely as a scattered set of teachings rather than as an organized movement. Many new immigrants in the cities were ripe for recruiting by itinerant revivalists, because these newcomers had become geographically dislodged from traditional denominations and ethnic communities. Bible institutes, such as the one founded in Chicago in 1886 by Dwight L. Moody, sprung up to give new converts additional training in becoming evangelists and lay leaders. As the nation entered a new century, growing numbers of people flocked to prophecy conferences to learn what the Bible said about the course of history and the second coming of Christ. Fundamentalist leaders relied heavily on the print media, publishing Bibles, tracts and periodicals in increasing numbers. The most notable publishing venture, however, was the project known as The Fundamentals. Launched by Los Angeles oil millionaires Lyman and Milton Stewart, it consisted of 12 paperback volumes published between 1910 and 1915 and contained 90 essays on the Bible and related topics. Some 3 million copies were printed.

Only after 1919 did fundamentalism become an organized movement. That year 6,000 people attended the first World's Christian Fundamentals Association conference in Philadelphia. The following year a coalition of fundamentalists formed in the Northern Baptist Convention, and about the same time a similar coalition emerged among Presbyterian conservatives. Increasing numbers of fundamentalists also began to oppose the teaching of evolution in schools; their struggle culminated in 1925 with the famous trial of John Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee. Paradoxically, it was the opposition in these years of liberals and modernists such as pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick and the American Civil Liberties Union that did more to crystallize the identity of fundamentalism as a single movement than any of the efforts of its own leaders.

After 1925, fundamentalism began to wane. Although millions of Americans continued to believe in such doctrines as biblical inerrancy and the imminent return of Christ, historians generally concede that fundamentalism as an organized movement gradually declined during the next two decades. Some attribute this decline to an apparent assumption by the media and liberal religious leaders that fundamentalists no longer posed a serious threat to modernism. Others point out that the Depression and the rationing of tires and gasoline during World War II made it difficult for fundamentalists to hold national conferences or stage massive unifying rallies. Whatever the reasons, fundamentalism has been from the start sufficiently diverse that its various factions have increasingly gone in their own directions. Fundamentalist Presbyterians, for example, tended to stress biblical inerrancy like their Baptist counterparts, but did not agree with them on the tenets of dispensationalism. Neither group countenanced the more experiential orientations of the Pentecostalists. The result was a proliferation of small sects. Separatist groups of Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostalists emerged in abundance. Indeed, separatism itself came to be a distinguishing feature of fundamentalism.

The emergence of the more moderate "evangelical" movement after World War II did much to unify and revitalize conservative Protestantism. But this development was a mixed blessing for fundamentalists. It preserved some of the basic teachings of fundamentalism, dressing them up in new garb and toning down some of the harshness of the earlier rhetoric. But evangelicals decried the separatism, anti-intellectualism and dogmatism of fundamentalists. And fundamentalist leaders for the most part stayed on the fringe, refusing to participate in evangelicals' new organizations, periodicals, colleges and parachurch groups.

Even a brief recounting of this history helps us understand what a considerable shock it was to most religious leaders and social observers when the media in the 1970s began to report on a resurgence of fundamentalism. Certainly the renewed vitality of the movement was not coming from old-guard fundamentalists such as Presbyterian Carl McIntyre or independents such as Bob Jones, Sr., and John R. Rice. It was not even coming from popular evangelist Billy Graham, who by the 1970s was squarely in the moderate evangelical camp. To some extent the resurgence of fundamentalism was as much a media creation as was its original appearance in the '20s. Journalists who knew virtually nothing about the nuances of American religious history, for example, described presidential candidate Jimmy Carter as a fundamentalist just because he was an active Southern Baptist. But media attention alone does not account for fundamentalists' renewed visibility.

The main reason fundamentalism has seemed to be on the upswing during the past 15 years is that new leaders, resources and rallying causes have emerged. The new leaders are generally pastors of nondenominational, Pentecostal, independent Baptist or Southern Baptist congregations. Their resources have consisted mainly of large suburban churches or television ministries, which provide them with sizable financial bases and either autonomy from, or power within, denominational hierarchies. They are no longer concerned simply about the private beliefs of individual congregants, but with such social issues as abortion and pornography. Some of them founded church schools and feared these were being threatened by unfavorable court rulings. Others amassed funds and mailing lists in an effort to influence American politics directly. In the 1980s, preachers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were only the most prominent of hundreds of new leaders.

Observers label this new wave of conservative Protestantism "fundamentalism" partly because it seems to embody so much of what its counterpart stood for a half-century earlier. The Bible is still an authoritative source for most fundamentalists, although fundamentalist

preachers certainly take interpretive liberties. Inerrancy of the Bible is still a celebrated cause in some circles, most notable among the Southern Baptist Convention's new leadership. Dispensationalism is perhaps less in vogue than it once was, even at seminaries once considered its chief proponents, but interest in prophecy runs high and predictions of Armageddon, wars, stock-market crashes, floods and epidemics continue to attract wide public attention. Millions of Americans claim to be born again, and many of these emphasize the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues and other charismatic gifts. Some are still fighting the old battle against the teaching of Darwinism. And many analysts see the new causes, such as the anti-abortion movement and the effort to return prayer to public schools, as symbolic struggles against the manifestations of "modernity."

Yet those labeled fundamentalist did not all accept the categorization. For a short while, Jerry Falwell called himself a fundamentalist and even launched a journal under that title, but his handlers found it more effective for him to appeal to the public in the name of morality than as a leader of fundamentalists. Pat Robertson sometimes identified himself with the Pentecostalist tradition, but he eschewed being labeled a fundamentalist. Few of the lesser-known figures or their followers adopted the label either. They preferred more generic terms, such as "Christian" or "believer," or talked in the language of denominations and local congregations.

The resurgence of fundamentalism is, it seems to me, largely attributable to the labeling efforts of others. Like their counterparts in the 1920s, liberal religious leaders must share much of the responsibility for making fundamentalism appear to be a strong, unified phenomenon. Some evangelicals, in their efforts to hew to the middle, have followed a similar strategy, calling anyone to their right a fundamentalist. Television and newspapers have been as much to blame. Seldom does the press deal with theological debates; such issues may well be too obscure to be newsworthy. What earns groups the label of fundamentalist is thus largely their simple conviction that they have something to stand for and are willing to fight for it. Those groups that seem "militant"--i.e., willing to organize, demonstrate or lobby for their causes--are likely to be considered fundamentalist. As one religious leader admitted when asked his definition of fundamentalism: "Fundamentalism is a religion you don't like!"

What of the future? I suspect that fundamentalism will continue to be a vital feature of American culture well into the 21st century--if for no other reason than because modernity, progress and liberalism (whatever words are used) have always defined themselves in opposition to something. We have to blame something for continuing opposition to abortion, periodic outbreaks of hate crimes, and reactionary attacks on the film industry, popular music and art. So progressives label these attacks a culture war and find in all of them a common thread that looks remarkably like fundamentalism.

But fundamentalism--at least its vital elements--would endure even if not provoked by its detractors. Protestant fundamentalisms (Marty, Appleby and colleagues are right to use the plural) are well institutionalized. Despite the declining influence of religious television in recent years, local and regional televangelists are still firmly ensconced in many markets. The sophisticated organization of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention has not been lost on either supporters or opponents. Some of the largest independent megachurches in the country preach many of the traditional tenets of fundamentalism. New sects and splinter groups continue to proliferate, many drawing the loyalty of members who, if not actually fundamentalists, are at least quite conservative. There is even some truth to the claim that fundamentalisms attract people whose lives have been torn apart by dysfunctional upbringing, divorce, geographic uprooting and uncertain economic times.

Diversity is another element in fundamentalism that will assure its persistence. To say, as some analysts do, that fundamentalism can be defined in terms of its deep commitment to certain core teachings is simply wrong. If that were true, it should be the case that all fundamentalists who believe in teaching X should also believe in teaching Y and Z. But we know that is not the case. Millions who believe in inerrancy, for example, have no idea what dispensationalism is. And millions who believe in dispensationalism do not practice the charismatic gifts.

Fundamentalism is also more flexible than we generally think. At one time it focused its jeremiads on saloons; today it is deeply opposed to abortion; in the future it may protest something else. This flexibility makes it readily adaptable. Even its uses of the Bible and its understandings of salvation and eschatology exhibit more malleability than we might have supposed.

There is, of course, a certain irony in the fact that something once thought to be in the hog wallow of history is now drawing so much scholarly attention. More than a few commentators on the Fundamentalism Project have noted the similarity between its multi volume structure and philanthropic funding and that of the Fundamentals of 1910-1915. Will the present project write the closing chapter on the story? Or will it serve more to perpetuate the fundamentalist movement? Only time will tell.