What Is Fundamentalism?

Author’s Note: This is the second post in a short series on Fundamentallism.


John 8.31-32Another war erupted after the First World War—a war to reaffirm orthodox Christianity and to defend it against liberal theology, German higher criticism, Darwinism, and other philosophies that were thought of as harmful to American Christianity.

In the end of the nineteenth century, a professor of biblical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Charles A. Briggs, was put on trial for heresy. The charge was that he taught that errors may have existed in the original text of the Scriptures.[1]

In 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick preached a sermon titled “Shall Fundamentalism Win?,” wherein he argued that the modernist had been able to show that the virgin birth was no longer thought of as a historic fact, that the literal inerrancy of the Bible was an incredible claim, and that the second coming of Christ was an “outmoded phrase of hope.”[2] The war was on.

Fundamentalism was seen as anti-intellectual because of the fundamentalist’s stance and his insistence that he had the right, as an American, to believe what he wants to believe. Ernest R. Sandeen, in his article, Fundamentalism And American Identity, explains:

“The Fundamentalist’s response was often anti-intellectual, but it was also classically American. He claimed his God-given, democratic birthright to believe whatever he pleased. As observers from the time of Tocqueville have noticed, Americans place little restraint upon the right of a majority, often in defiance of minority rights and in spite of the weight of evidence on the other side, to decide—to accept, to do, or to believe what they please.”[3]

Fundamentalism went through four phases from the 1920s through the late 1990s and present. Through the 1920s it entered its first phase, identifying the enemy and establishing what were believed to be the fundamental truths of the Bible. The enemy was identified in a series of twelve volumes called Fundamentals that were written between 1910 through 1915. In it the enemy was identified as Romanism, socialism, modern philosophy, atheism, Eddyism, Mormonism, spiritualism, liberal theology, a naturalistic way of interpreting the Bible, German higher criticism, and Darwinism.

To combat these enemies the fundamental truths that the fundamentalists were so militantly defending were established by the General Assembly of the northern Presbyterian Church in 1910 as five essential doctrines that were being attacked: the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the historicity of the miracles in the Bible.

The second phase from the late 1920s through the early 1940s was a time when the term fundamentalist came to be defined. After failing to expel the modernists from the mainline denominations, the fundamentalists came to be considered as orthodox Protestants outside of large northern denominations, newly established denominations, southern churches, or independent churches in the United States.

The third phase in fundamentalist history was during the early 1940s through the 1970s. During this time, fundamentalists broke into two different camps. There were those who continued to be identified as fundamentalist, and those who came to think of the term as undesirable and called themselves as “evangelical.”.

“There were those who came to regard the term as undesirable, having connotations of divisive, intolerant, anti-intellectual, unconcerned with social problems, even foolish. This second group wished to regain fellowship with the orthodox Protestants who still constituted the vast majority of the clergy and people in the large northern denominations—Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopalian. They began during the 1940s call themselves “evangelicals” and to equate that term with true Christianity.”[4]

In the fourth, and currently final, phase, fundamentalists became prominent in the country, with the American presidency of Ronald Reagan and the leadership of men like Jerry Falwell as having answers to society’s ills, and they identified a new pervasive enemy called secular humanism. They believed that secular humanism was responsible for eroding churches, schools, universities, government, and American families. The offspring of secular humanism were identified as evolutionism, liberalism in politics and theology, loose personal immorality, sexual perversion, socialism, communism, and the attack on the inerrant Word of God.

At times, the war for the fundamentals was fierce and today the war continues—the battle still rages and what the church needs are “Good Soldiers of the Faith.”


[1] Edwin S. Gaustad and Leigh E. Schmidt, The Religious History of America, rev. ed. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2004), 291.

[2] Ibid., 296.

[3] Ernest R. Sandeen. “Fundamentalism and American Identity.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 387 (1970):63

[4] Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 474.


About Peter van Brussel

Peter is the Director of For His Glory Prison Ministry. Peter holds a BA in Pastoral Studies from Southwestern College, a MA in Theological Studies, and a M.Div. from Liberty University. Peter is married to Niki, and has two children. He has been saved by grace and seeks to share the Gospel with those who have been forgotten.
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