“Fundamentalist” is a term that is frequently bandied about in the news media these days. Casually invoked to describe anyone who seems to hold some sort of vaguely-perceived traditional religious belief—be they a Bible Baptist TV preacher, a Hasidic rabbi, a Mormon housewife, or a soldier of the Islamic Jihad—the word has become so overused as to be nearly useless.
When used within the North American historical context, however, there are precedents for the use of this term which restores a sense of descriptive cohesion. Fundamentalism was a movement that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries within American Protestantism reacting against “modernist” theology and biblical criticism as well as changes in the nation’s cultural and social scene. Taking its name from The Fundamentals (1910-1915), a twelve-volume set of essays designed to combat Liberal theology, the movement grew by leaps and bounds after World War I.
During the 1920s, fundamentalists waged a war against modernism in three ways: by (unsuccessfully) attempting to regain control of Protestant denominations, mission boards, and seminaries; by supporting (with mixed success) Prohibition, Sunday “blue laws,” and other measures defending traditional Protestant morality and sensibilities; and (fairly successfully) by attempting to stop the teaching of evolution in the public schools, a doctrine which they saw as inextricably linked to the development of “German” higher criticism and the source of the Great War.
This last strategy resulted in the infamous Scopes Trial fiasco of 1925 (later fictionalized in the highly inaccurate play and film Inherit the Wind), in which a substitute biology teacher in Dayton, TN was charged with illegally teaching evolution to his class. The circus atmosphere of the resultant trial–pitting Presbyterian layman, former Secretary of State, and three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution against the famed Chicago criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow–discredited the movement in the eyes of America’s intellectual and media elites, resulting in fundamentalism’s subsequent disappearance from the nation’s cultural stage. Since the 1940s, the term fundamentalist has come to denote a particularly aggressive style related to the conviction that the separation from cultural decadence and apostate (read liberal) churches are telling marks of faithfulness to Christ.
Most self-described fundamentalist churches today are conservative, separatist Baptist (though often calling themselves “Bible Baptist” or simply “Bible” churches) congregations such as the churches of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC), or the Independent Fundamental Churches of America (IFCA). Institutions associated with this movement would include Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Tennessee Temple (Chattanooga, TN); representative publications would be The Sword of the Lord and The Biblical Evangelist. Concerns over doctrinal purity and issues of “first-degree separation” (the refusal to associate with groups who endorse questionable doctrinal beliefs or moral practices) and “second-degree separation” (refraining from association or identification with groups or individuals who do not practice first-degree separation) have meant that self-identified fundamentalism has been prone to constant disputes and splits.
©Larry Eskridge, 1996. Revised 2001, 2005, 2011, 2012