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date: 25 March 2023

Christian Fundamentalism in Americafree

Christian Fundamentalism in Americafree

  • Margaret BendrothMargaret BendrothCongregational Library and Archives


Fundamentalism has a very specific meaning in the history of American Christianity, as the name taken by a coalition of mostly white, mostly northern Protestants who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, united in opposition to theological liberalism. Though the movement lost the public spotlight after the 1920s, it remained robust, building a network of separate churches, denominations, and schools that would become instrumental in the resurgence of conservative evangelicalism after the 1960s. In a larger sense, fundamentalism is a form of militant opposition to the modern world, used by some scholars to identify morally absolutist religious and political movements in Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and even Hinduism and Buddhism. While the core concerns of the movement that emerged within American Protestantism—defending the authority of the Bible and both separating from and saving their sinful world—do not entirely mesh with this analytical framework, they do reflect the broad and complex challenge posed by modernity to people of faith.


  • Christianity
  • Religion in America

“Fundamentalism” is a complicated word. It has a very specific meaning in the history of American Christianity, as the name taken by a coalition of mostly white, mostly northern Protestants who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, united in opposition to theological liberalism. Scholars also use it in a broader sense to describe militant opposition to the modern world, referring to morally absolutist movements in Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and even Hinduism and Buddhism. In popular usage, however, “fundamentalist” has become a label applied to all kinds of conservative groups, religious as well as political. The result is a motley mix of awkward bedfellows—from Southern Baptists to Islamic revolutionaries to free-market economists—squeezed into one all but meaningless category.

Despite the potential for confusion, both the specific and the broader uses of the term help us understand the meaning and significance of fundamentalism. The baseline of this essay is historical, focusing on the development of the American Protestant movement that first adopted the term. Yet American fundamentalism is not sui generis, a one-time historical event with no broader significance. Because its vocabulary of protest has resonated so powerfully in American culture and because it invites compelling cross-cultural comparisons, fundamentalism is also an important entryway into understanding the much larger and endlessly complex question of religious belief and behavior in the modern age.


The best introduction to fundamentalism, then, is the ongoing argument about how to define it. Certainly the American variety shares much with militant antimodernism in other religious traditions. Strict opposition to the perceived permissiveness of contemporary society, backed up by the infallible authority of a written word, is more common than not in the 21st-century world. This kind of resistance, moreover, often goes hand in hand with authoritarian family values and a strongly masculine rhetorical tone. But it is a particular kind of antimodernism, not conservative in the traditional Amish sense, that is, of preserving the purity of the past by building barricades against modern technology. The resistance is selective, even a bit ironic, especially when it comes to innovative technology that might aid the cause. Just as early 20th century American Protestant fundamentalists were early adopters of radio, 21st-century Islamicists recruit followers through social media. In that sense, what is often called “fundamentalism” is a creation of modernity; it is not a rearguard effort to turn back progress, but a form of resistance only possible in a secular, technologically advanced world.

Beyond these broad similarities, however, the terrain becomes difficult. There are certainly unmistakable “family resemblances,” as some scholars call them, across cultural and religious lines, but whether or not these can be labeled “fundamentalist” is a different matter. Should a word that originated as a way of describing a relatively small group of white, 19th-century American Protestants apply to other faiths and other cultures, religious movements with their own historical roots, theological concerns, and social agenda? The best alternative, as the religion scholar Simon Wood argues, is precision. If, for example, “in certain Islamic cases fundamentalism effectively means a politicized form of the religion,” he suggests, “why not call it political Islam?”1

Another reason for caution is the almost universally pejorative meaning attached to “fundamentalism,” not just in its popular usage but among scholars as well. The word so often invokes an “other”—exotic, foreign, and possibly dangerous—a handy shorthand, as historian David Watt observes, for “things of which I disapprove.”2 It is all too easy to marginalize fundamentalism as a temporary aberration, a cultural lag by an intolerant few proving the general rule of modern tolerance and rationality. Moreover, defining and then demonizing certain religious groups as inherently militant and hostile to human rights, the religion scholar Mark Juergensmeyer argues, is deeply problematic, obscuring “the fact that religious politics comes in many shapes and forms, especially in the modern world.” Far too easily, the fundamentalist label can give rise to “witch hunts” against imagined enemies, or legitimize the settling of old grudges.3 Given the potential for misunderstanding and misuse, then, it is not surprising that scholars disagree, sometimes sharply, about employing the term at all.

Given all these qualifications, “fundamentalism” is a word best used sparingly and specifically, a rule particularly apt in regard to the branch of late 20th century Protestantism popularly known as evangelicalism. The two movements, though similar, are not synonymous. Evangelicalism of the 21st century is a diverse movement with roots in Pentecostalism, Wesleyan holiness traditions, and African American Christianity. Its constituency includes conservative Lutherans and Calvinists, and even some Mennonite Anabaptists. Moreover, with the globalization of Christianity, American evangelicalism has taken on an increasingly African and Asian tilt. Without a doubt, fundamentalism factored prominently into the rise and growth of modern-day evangelicalism, but how much and where is debatable—and for many, a sensitive question. One could argue that contemporary evangelicals have inherited from fundamentalism a vocabulary of protest and, to a degree, parameters of doctrinal orthodoxy that still hold true. Yet it was one precursor among many, important but by no means singular.

The movement’s basic concerns were as deceptively simple as its name. Fundamentalists certainly stood for doctrinal orthodoxy, for maintaining what they believed was the original purity of Christian belief—the fundamental doctrines of the faith. But they disagreed constantly about what constituted correct belief and behavior. Moreover, their two core doctrines, the authority of the Bible and the necessity of separation from the sinful world, were ridden with paradoxes and internal complexities. An important key to understanding fundamentalism, then, is tracing the way these two ideological concerns developed over time, and how they helped shape the movement’s complicated relationship with modern American society.

The Authoritative Text

The absolute authority of a divinely inspired text is a central tenet of all the so-called Abrahamic traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—but it takes on a special urgency as faith radicalizes. Ardent religion often goes hand in hand with literalism, the insistence on obedience to every word of the scriptures, down to the last letter. But the equation is rarely that simple. American Protestant fundamentalists were not, in fact, literalists. As with any other book, they recognized metaphor, poetry, and figurative language in the Bible, and made allowances where appropriate. They often sounded like literalists, however, because they assumed that every word of the Bible was utterly clear and its teachings utterly plain. The difference might seem subtle, but it is an important distinction, an understanding of how exactly the Bible was “inspired” by God. The emphasis was not so much obedience to every single precept in the Bible, but the belief that every single line of scripture was exactly as God intended it to be, down to the last syllable. Every part of the Bible conveyed divine truth—lengthy genealogies, stories of violent warfare, and obscure prophecies were the word of God, just as much as the teachings of Jesus or the letters of Saint Paul.

In a variety of ways, this fundamentalist doctrine of “divine inspiration” was far more demanding than any previous form of traditional Protestant belief. Certainly all Protestants believed the Bible was true. Since the 16th-century Reformation they had upheld it as a completely trustworthy guide in all matters of belief and practice, the unique and undisputed word of God. But that broad standard did not always stand up to criticism, especially with the rise of serious biblical scholarship in the 18th-century Age of Reason. As it first developed, primarily in British and German universities, scholarly study of the Bible was largely aimed at determining the accuracy of texts and translations, known as the “lower criticism.” Yet as scholars delved more deeply into ancient texts—a method known as the “higher criticism”—they unearthed troubling historical discrepancies, and these led to doubts about the Bible’s overall truthfulness. Further research raised more questions about the Bible’s uniqueness. The creation story in Genesis and the account of Noah and the great flood were eerily similar to those found in Assyrian and Babylonian epics. The death and resurrection of Christ tracked uncomfortably close to Egyptian myths about Osiris. Even more problematically, deeper historical understanding of the biblical writers and their cultural world opened questions about the Bible’s contemporary relevance. What did a set of ancient Middle Eastern texts have to say to modern Europeans? Were the biblical writers so wrapped up in myth and miracle, so trusting in supernatural explanations for natural events, as to be all but unintelligible in the age of reason and science?

The higher criticism did not reach seminaries and colleges in the United States until after the Civil War, and it would not filter into church pews and pulpits until much later. But by the 1870s and 1880s, the lines of opposition were forming, led by a generation of scholars in Princeton Seminary, long a bastion of Presbyterian orthodoxy. Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield were leading voices in American biblical scholarship for much of the early to mid-19th century, especially regarding the way in which American Protestants read and understood the Bible. The scriptures, the Princeton scholars declared, were not only a completely reliable guide to faith and practice, but were completely accessible to anyone willing to take the “plain meaning” of the text.

This assumption, which played a major role in fundamentalist ideology and persists within contemporary evangelicalism, is worth further explanation. It drew from the 18th-century philosophy of “common sense rationalism,” a system of thought developed in response to the extreme skepticism of Enlightenment figures like David Hume, who questioned not only the existence of miracles but even the ability of human beings to perceive anything beyond what was immediately available to the senses. The common-sense theorists—Scottish thinkers like Frances Hutcheson, Thomas Reid, and Dugald Stewart—argued that it was possible to know true things about the world through an innate capacity of perception. (Even David Hume, after all, ducked to avoid a low doorway.) The common-sense school became centrally important in the United States in the years after the Revolution, serving as a powerful rationale for democracy, a society in which each citizen not only had the same capacity for reason but also the same ability to access self-evident truths.

In the early 19th century the common-sense philosophy taught Americans to read the Bible as equally self-evident, a book of propositions supported by the data of individual scriptural texts. “The Bible is to the theologian,” Charles Hodge wrote, “what nature is to the man of science. It is his store-house of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches.” The theologian’s method, then, was to “ascertain, collect, and combine all the facts which God has revealed concerning himself and our relation to him. These facts,” Hodge declared, “are all in the Bible.”4 This confidence fostered a deep trust in science as an intellectual pursuit following the same inductive principles as study of scripture. American Protestant thought, then, took on a deeply rationalistic cast, grounded in a Bible that was clear and logically consistent, with its truths obvious to any reverent and careful thinker.

By the late 19th century, the weaknesses of the common-sense approach were becoming equally obvious, and not just because of questions raised by the higher criticism. In the years leading up to the Civil War, American Protestants found themselves mired in complex arguments about the Bible’s word on slavery, realizing that a strictly factual reading of scripture actually supported an institution which many found morally repugnant. (Not only did the Hebrew patriarchs own slaves, and the Old Testament legal codes and New Testament epistles of Paul provide rules and regulations reinforcing it, but Christ himself had healed slaves without uttering a single word against their subjection.)

Under the rising pressure of scientific and critical scholarship, the Bible’s defenders took on a much stronger standard of truth. They argued that the Bible was not just infallible but “inerrant”—that is, completely accurate in every scientific, historical, or geographical reference. Any remaining flaws, they argued, occurred in the translation or transmission of texts. The “original autographs,” the Bible’s first drafts, in other words, were perfect in every respect.

In effect, conservative defenders of scripture were adopting a new standard of proof, one that rested on the same assumptions underlying the higher criticism. The Bible was not true because of what it taught, the traditional argument used by Protestants since the Reformation, but because it squared with modern scientific and historical scholarship. The proof, therefore, was no longer internal but external. The inerrancy doctrine became the focus of controversy in the 1880s and 1890s, leading to a series of public heresy trials in the Presbyterian church, the most famous of which led to the defrocking of the historian Charles A. Briggs, a professor at New York City’s Union Seminary, in 1893.

Though the scholarly defenders of inerrancy did not call themselves “fundamentalists”—the Princetonians saw themselves as orthodox Presbyterians defending the Bible from its enemies and detractors and actively disliked the fundamentalist label—the doctrine became a central tenet of the movement, as it was developing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hard-nosed biblicism would become fundamentalism’s hallmark, a self-proclaimed dividing line between true and false believers. Indeed, if anything, the inerrancy controversies put to rest any suggestion that fundamentalism was inherently anti-intellectual. More accurately, it took a vigorously rationalistic view of the Bible, which became not so much a mystical revelation as a set of propositions which could be defended by scientific and historical evidence and inductive arguments. The inerrancy doctrine is, in many ways, one of fundamentalism’s most influential legacies within modern evangelicalism. It would remain prominent within the so-called neo-evangelical movement which arose in the 1940s and 1950s, making for decades of controversy over a doctrine which some saw as essential to orthodoxy and others deemed an unwelcome residue of fundamentalism.

Sin and Separation

Fundamentalism’s reputation for “otherworldliness,” for shunning involvement with anything deemed secular, is also misleading. Certainly, in the American Protestant case, separation from both sin and sinners was behind several denominational schisms in the 1920s and the creation of a protective canopy of schools and organizations in the 1930s and 1940s. But fundamentalism also provided an even more powerful rationale for continued engagement with the world, bringing new energy to mass evangelism and overseas missions. In a complex way, believers were to be agents of salvation for a society they deemed morally hopeless.

The source of this dilemma was dispensational premillennialism. This was a form of biblical interpretation that harmonized all the prophecies of scripture into a single narrative, culminating in a cataclysmic “second coming” of Christ. Interest in prophecy was nothing new in the history of Christianity, nor was the belief that Christ would return suddenly to vanquish Satan and establish God’s kingdom on earth. For most of the 19th century, however, the vast majority of American Protestants took a more optimistic view of Christ ’s return, as the final climax in a long history of human progress.

One major difference between these two views of the end times was their overall trajectory. Both held that in some sense, the end times would involve a “millennium,” a thousand-year reign of peace and prosperity. The biblical basis for this idea was a short passage in the book of Revelation (Rev. 20:1–10). The first scheme, known as “premillennialism,” saw human history as a downward spiral always toward chaos and sin. It took a more literal view of the millennium as a thousand-year interval before God ’s final judgment of humanity. In contrast, “postmillennialism” took a more figurative view of biblical prophecy, and held that Christ ’s return would be the culmination of human progress toward a just and peaceful world.

Dispensational premillennialism was a particular interpretation of biblical prophecy that originated in Great Britain, mainly among early 19th century evangelicals associated with a small sect, the Plymouth Brethren. Under the leadership of the Irish Bible scholar John Nelson Darby, the Brethren added two new ideas to traditional premillennialist doctrine. The first, the “secret rapture,” drew upon a passing reference in the book of Revelation, that Christ ’s true followers would be “caught up in the air,” whisked heavenward before the final judgment. (There was disagreement about whether the rapture would take place before or after the “tribulation,” a brief period during the end times in which Satan would be let loose to wreak havoc on the earth.) The Plymouth Brethren also took a “historicist” approach to prophecies in the Bible, insisting that these were not referring to a time to come—what would be a “futurist” interpretation—but had been occurring all along within human history. This meant that students of prophecy could find clues about the second coming in world events as they unfolded. Though dispensational premillennialists were careful not to make any specific predictions about the date or time of Christ’s return, they regularly debated the meaning of events that appeared to coincide with biblical prophecies. Fundamentalists, therefore, read newspapers and followed the evening news with special diligence.

In the years after the Civil War, Darby ’s teachings gathered adherents in the United States, primarily through a network of summer conferences and regional gatherings, the most famous of which was the Niagara Bible Conference, started in 1876. Another important conduit was the Scofield Reference Bible. This was a fully annotated version of the Bible, compiled by the Congregational pastor Cyrus Scofield and published by Oxford University Press in 1909. It was in effect a one-volume handbook of dispensational premillennial doctrine, immensely popular among lay people and an easily portable study tool for overseas missionaries.

In many ways dispensational premillennialism was arcane and complicated, requiring a thorough knowledge of the Bible, especially of the dense prophetic texts in books like Daniel and Revelation. The overall scheme, however, was relatively simple. Dispensational teaching divided all of human history into discrete time periods, or “dispensations,” beginning with the original divine decrees in the Garden of Eden and ending with the thousand-year reign of Christ and the final judgment. Each dispensation followed the same narrative: God provided humanity with a set of rules and conditions, humanity disobeyed them, and the result was chaos and destruction, presenting God no choice but to begin anew. Then the same cycle would repeat. Dispensationalists believed they were living in the “age of the church.” This was the last period of time, beginning after the resurrection of Christ and ending with the last judgment, an event which, according to the signs of the times, looked to be happening very soon.

Dispensational premillennialism did not lead to empty cynicism or fatalism, as one might expect of such a negative view of human history. Instead it inspired new efforts for evangelism: the goal was to reach all of the unsaved with the Christian gospel before Christ’s return. Given this urgency, traditional methods would not do. A new movement of independent “faith” missionary societies arose to recruit and quickly send out thousands of young men and women. They skirted slow-moving denominational bureaucracies by relying entirely on individual donations, insisting that it was not necessary to solicit funds because God would provide day by day. The China Inland Mission was the first and most famous. It was formed in 1865 by the British premillennialist J. Hudson Taylor, who arrived in China with “ten pounds and a prayer.” The Sudan Interior Mission and the Africa Inland Mission followed in the 1890s. An entire new denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, was founded by the Canadian Presbyterian A. B. Simpson in 1887, originally as a faith mission.

Dispensationalists felt special urgency for the Jews, who played a central role in the events of the end times. They believed that the original nation of Israel was still God’s chosen people, and would have the opportunity to accept Christ as savior before the final judgment. More significantly, they regarded the return of the Hebrew people to their ancient homeland as one of the most important signs that the end was near. For reasons entirely different from those of the secular defenders of Israel, dispensational premillennialists were ardent Zionists. “Israel is forever linked to the salvation of the world,” Arno C. Gaebelein, an evangelist to the Jews, wrote in 1894. “Having been Messiah’s cradle, it will, when once it becomes a Christian nation, form the framework of His future visible kingdom.”5

Bible schools and institutes also contributed to the missionary cause. By 1945 there were more than a hundred across the United States and Canada, though some only survived for a brief time. The curriculum revolved around exhaustive study of the Bible, without scholarly commentaries or for that matter knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, and based on the firm belief that the scriptures were self-evidently clear in every respect. The Bible teacher James M. Gray (later president of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago) taught the “facts” of scripture to his students, much as a science teacher would outline a lesson in geology or human anatomy. “If we get the facts,” he declared, “the interpretation will take care of itself, for the Bible is wonderfully self-interpretive.”6 The Bible school curriculum was also intensely practical, aimed at sending missionaries and “Christian workers” into the field as soon as possible. Students thus received hands-on training in evangelism and introduction to specific skills needed for the mission field—pedagogy, music, first aid. The schools also provided an intense, abbreviated training regimen for young men and women with an ambition to serve but few financial resources. Where the traditional missionary might have both college and seminary degrees, Bible institute required at most only high school and awarded certificates after just a few years of study.

By the early 20th century, biblical inerrancy and premillennial dispensationalism had found common cause, both insisting on a rigorous standard of scriptural truth and resistance to what they decried as bland, lifeless “churchianity.” The two did not entirely overlap: one could hold to inerrancy, as many Princetonian Presbyterians still did, and scorn the prophetic certainties of the Scofield Reference Bible. But they were a potent combination and ultimately became the nub of protest.

In the early 20th century these separate currents coalesced into a movement with both an agenda and a name. In 1921 the Baptist editor Curtis Lee Laws of the Watchman-Examiner dubbed those fighting “a battle royal” for the authority of the Bible “fundamentalists.”7 He was not the first to use the word. It had already surfaced in a major Presbyterian dispute in 1910 and was also tied to the publication of a twelve-volume series of books, issued between 1910 and 1915, called The Fundamentals. Funded by the California oil magnates Lyman and Milton Stewart, these volumes were widely distributed but not yet incendiary, full of densely reasoned articles by theologians and biblical scholars. But Laws’s timing was important. Fundamentalism would come into its own in the 1920s, in a series of confrontations that in many ways still reverberate within American Protestantism.

The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy

The enemy was theological liberalism. With roots in European academia, and arriving in the United States in the mid to late 19th century, the so-called New Theology was more about ethics than about metaphysics, less concerned with doctrinal formulations about the Trinity or atonement than with refitting Christianity for the modern world. Theological liberalism was incarnational; that is, it found God in human interactions and human institutions. In 19th-century terms—in an era before the world wars and genocides of the 20th century—this meant it was a religion of progress and ethical optimism. Liberals also accepted the Bible’s historical limitations, seeing it as an ancient text bound to its original time and place, when myth and miracle were accepted as true.

At its best 19th-century liberalism was a warm, optimistic faith keyed to the spirit of its day; a growing number of conservative critics, however, saw it as vague and imprecise, making dangerous concessions on the authority of the Bible and the uniqueness of Christ as the only avenue of salvation. In their view it was little more than dry rationalism, bound by the naturalistic presuppositions of science more than the reality of the supernatural. Ultimately, they believed, liberalism threatened the entire missionary enterprise and the vitality of American church life, offering only a set of ethical teachings and a watered-down Christianity.

The anxieties set loose by World War I sharpened fundamentalists’ sense of conflict. Many Americans opposed entry into what they saw as a strictly European dispute, and early on some leading premillennialists veered surprisingly close to pacifism, seeing little to be gained by a pointless secular entanglement. But as the war dragged on, neutrality became impossible, especially on the home front, where ardent patriots demanded “100 percent Americanism” of every citizen. When liberals began to excoriate fundamentalists for lack of patriotism, the response was to insist ever more loudly on their loyalty to American values, forging what would later become a near-unbreakable bond between conservative religion and patriotism.

During the 1920s, a building sense of frustration played out in two large northern denominations, the Baptists and the Presbyterians. Other Protestant bodies—Congregationalists, Methodists, and Lutherans—dealt with fundamentalism, but for reasons of both theology and institutional structure they escaped direct or prolonged conflict.

The Presbyterian conflict led to angry and lasting division. In this case the denomination’s centralized organizational structure provided conservatives both a means of protest and a national stage for doing so. Complaints about the orthodoxy of ministerial candidates or prospective missionaries might start in a local presbytery but could be appealed upward, as in a court system, and ultimately land on the floor of the national body, the General Assembly. This was the case in 1910, when the New York presbytery’s refusal to ordain three candidates who did not assent to the doctrine of the virgin birth led to a series of reversals and rulings that ended with the General Assembly issuing a list of the five “fundamentals” of the Christian faith: the inerrancy of the Bible, the death of Christ the only atonement for sin, Christ ’s bodily resurrection, the truth of miracles, and the virgin birth of Christ. It took an outsider, however, to raise this simmering conflict into an all-out schismatic contest. In 1922 the Baptist minister Harry Emerson Fosdick preached a sermon in New York City’s First Presbyterian Church entitled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” decrying doctrinal conservatism as intolerant and obscurantist. To those long unhappy with the denomination’s liberal leadership, this was an outright provocation (from a Baptist outsider, no less) and a call to arms. The Philadelphia pastor Clarence Macartney’s reply “Shall Unbelief Win?” was the first in a string of efforts to bring the denomination under conservative leadership. A campaign to elect William Jennings Bryan as moderator failed in 1923, but the following year Macartney won the position himself, though narrowly.

The most important emerging leader in the Presbyterian cause, however, was a professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary, J. Gresham Machen. A highly respected scholar, and by no means a dispensational premillennialist, Machen was determined to keep Princeton orthodox and to force liberals to take a stand for their beliefs. His book Christianity and Liberalism, published in 1923, argued that Presbyterians were drifting toward a faith dangerously outside historic Christian orthodoxy, “so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.”8 His cause would not prevail, however. In 1929, when moderates gained back control of the General Assembly and Princeton Seminary, which was under its supervision, Machen was ousted from his position. He left the denomination in protest and led in the formation of a new seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and a new denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Baptist conflicts were no less intense, but mitigated by the denomination’s decentralized structure. Airing grievances was difficult in a polity designed to protect the independence of local churches. In 1921 a group calling themselves the Fundamentalist Fellowship demanded a full investigation of doctrinal standards in Baptist colleges and seminaries—only to find that the denomination’s national body, the Northern Baptist Convention, had no institutional authority to carry this out. Undaunted, the dissenters declared that all Baptists should sign a doctrinal creed, a controversial practice in the denomination’s long history of defending the freedom of local churches, though not unknown. But when the Minneapolis pastor William Bell Riley brought the demand to the Convention meeting in 1922, moderator Cornelius Woelfkin offered a substitute standard that no Baptist could rightfully resist. The New Testament, he declared, was the sole and final authority of belief and practice. Riley’s measure failed, but by then he had lost patience with the denomination and with the moderates in the fundamentalist camp. As founder of the World Christian Fundamentalist Association—the organization that engaged William Jennings Bryan as prosecutor in the Scopes evolution trial—he was already on an outward trajectory, forming an “empire” of fundamentalist schools and churches in the upper Midwest. The Baptist Bible Union became the organizational home for fundamentalists opposed to any forms of compromise with liberals, and ultimately a separate denomination altogether, the General Association of Regular Baptists, formed in 1932.

But creeds and doctrines were not the only battleground, or in the long run the most significant one. In fact, denominational battles did little to resolve questions of doctrinal orthodoxy; in both cases, the real winners were the moderates who outlasted the extreme voices on either side. By then the real battle was over evolution, fueled by mounting invective in the public press and a growing taste for sensationalism in 20th-century American society. In many ways the ado was a product of the decade’s media-driven culture, as Darwin ’s theory had been a staple of American scientific and intellectual conversation for half a century or more. Up through the turn of the century it had generated relatively little open opposition, as most Protestants understood Darwinism within a larger framework of faith in upward progress, and they found ways to harmonize both the theory of development and its startlingly long time frame with the book of Genesis. They were willing to accept, as Congregationalist Lyman Abbott put it, that evolution was merely “God’s way of doing things.” Of course, the more troubling, yet rarely articulated, element of Darwinism was its deeply secular notion of natural selection, a system in which God was simply no longer necessary. The public antics of the 1920s, climaxing in the 1925 Scopes trial, did little to add nuance, however, especially with the growing popularity of new and alternative theories of “creationism.” Like biblical inerrancy, creationism was a standard of belief far more intense and demanding than anything previously required in orthodox Protestantism, full of unlikely explanations for a six-day creation and Noah’s ark. And like the defenders of biblical inerrancy, creationists adopted the analytical methods of their opponents—gathering evidence, deducing hypotheses, framing theories—and saw themselves as scientists, just as much as the secular evolutionist in his laboratory.

The Scopes trial has lived in memory as a watershed moment, a resounding defeat for fundamentalists and an inspirational victory for rational thinkers everywhere. In fact, Bryan and the World Christian Fundamentals Association won their case, which was actually a relatively minor infraction of a state law. John Scopes was a substitute teacher in the Dayton, Tennessee, public schools who agreed to spearhead a legal challenge by teaching evolution in his classroom. Despite a spirited defense by Clarence Darrow, who had been engaged by the American Civil Liberties Union, Scopes lost his case and would have paid a small fine if the ruling had not been overturned on a technicality. But the image of a stifling courtroom in a southern town, a Bible-thumping prosecutor and an earnest defender of modern science, has lived on. This was thanks in part to the cynical eye of the journalist H. L. Mencken, editor of the American Mercury, who mercilessly skewered Bryan as “one of the most tragic asses in American history” and his supporters as “gaping primates from the upland valleys of the Cumberland Range.”9 Not surprisingly, to most observers at the time—and generations of scholars as well—the Scopes trial appeared to be fundamentalism’s last, losing desperate stand.

Popular Piety

But Scopes was far from the end. In fact, fundamentalism proved surprisingly sturdy up through the World War II era, especially as a form of popular piety. It by no means died out after the Scopes debacle, but made a permanent imprint on Protestant hymnody and devotional writing, and fueled a passion for evangelism.

In many ways, fundamentalism was just as current with its times as theological liberals hoped to be. As it took form in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fundamentalism was a faith for aspiring people, for lower-middle-class or working-class Americans. It resonated most powerfully in industrialized cities, where a continual flow of European immigrants (many of them Jews and Roman Catholics) left native white Protestants a shrinking minority with declining political power. Consequently, fundamentalist churches and Bible institutes flourished in northern cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Chicago, in direct contrast to the stereotype of the movement as rural and southern. Certainly biblicism and opposition to theological liberalism resonated in conservative southern churches, and many of fundamentalism’s early leaders—William Bell Riley, J. C. Massee, John Roach Straton—were born and raised in the South. By then, however, southern Protestants already had their own language of alienation, as the defeated but righteous remnant devoted to a “lost cause” uniquely blessed by God.

Fundamentalism’s urban strength owes much to the revivalistic tradition in American religion. By the late 19th century, the art of saving souls had grown far beyond its back-country roots. Evangelism took place in highly organized mass meetings adapted for the urban middle class, with professional musicians and a well-known “headliner” on the platform. D. L. Moody was a major pioneer in this respect. With the hymn writer Ira Sankey he reached thousands with a message that was sentimental, laced with pieties about sainted mothers and wayward children, and emotionally powerful. Moody’s international appeal—some of his most important campaigns were in Canada and Great Britain—testified to his sensitivity to the mood of the times. Yet in an age of rising labor unrest, urban poverty, and mass immigration, Moody did not address social issues from his platform. As he put it, “God has given me a lifeboat, and said to me, ‘Moody save all you can.’” Other evangelists followed in Moody’s wake, each more colorful than the last, as city-wide revivals began to take on the shape that Billy Graham would make famous in the post-World War II era. In the early 20th century, Moody ’s most famous (and controversial) successor was Billy Sunday, who combined intense patriotism, fervent opposition to alcohol, and an aggressive masculinity in his platform presence.

Fundamentalist piety also had an otherworldly streak, however, emphasizing the importance of self-abnegation in the lifelong struggle against sin. This message, like dispensational premillennialism, originated in British circles, in a series of conferences associated with the Keswick movement. The central theme of Keswick spirituality was deliverance from the power of sin, achieved only by total devotion to Christ and “forgetfulness of self,” to use the popular phrase. The language was intensely devout but in its own way empowering to the liberated believer, free from the power of sin. It was also demanding, requiring constant vigilance against the assertion of one’s own will rather than God’s. In contrast to Wesleyan understandings of sanctification, which held out the possibility of perfection, Keswick spirituality offered no such promise. Like biblical inerrancy and dispensational premillennialism, Keswick was an arduous reworking of traditional Protestantism’s belief and practice.

All told, however, fundamentalist piety was a paradox. In one sense it was vigorously situated in the world, in efforts for mission and mass revivalism particularly; in another it yearned for purity, especially as denominational battles raged. The question, as it evolved, became one about cooperation with outsiders, Christian or otherwise. How literally must true believers take the biblical demand to “come out and be ye separate?” Many Presbyterians and Baptists stayed in their original denominational homes and did not take the more radical path toward schism. Many others were content to live within the growing subculture of fundamentalist churches and schools. But others saw both of these as compromise. Their ethic was “second degree separation”—refusing to associate with anyone who had any connection to any form of liberalism. In this spirit, the evangelist Bob Jones II founded Bob Jones College (later University) in 1926. In 1937 Carl McIntire led a faction out of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to form the Bible Presbyterian Church, a denomination with a more openly fundamentalist agenda, including premillennialist theology and prohibition on alcohol and tobacco.

The tension between pragmatism and purity was most evident in fundamentalist attitudes toward women. On the one hand, women were indispensable. As in virtually all American churches, they represented some two-thirds of the membership and played an active role in fund raising, personal evangelism, and hymn and devotional writing. Women like Virginia Asher and Frances Miller played prominent roles in the Billy Sunday campaign. But especially by the 1920s, the worst excesses of popular culture—bobbed hair, short skirts, increasing sexual freedom—appeared to be feminine sins. Once deemed far more moral and religious than men, women became in fundamentalist eyes more threat than ally. Thus, in public rhetoric fundamentalist men denounced feminine vice, opposed woman suffrage, and refused to countenance access to any kind of leadership role. In actual practice, however, women taught at Bible institutes, constituted the majority of overseas missionaries, and of course formed a consistent majority of the membership of fundamentalist churches.

Fundamentalism’s Influence

By the 1940s, a good deal of fundamentalism’s original separatist zeal had been channeled into a vigorous infrastructure of schools, churches, and evangelistic organizations. By 1941, for example, Wheaton College in Illinois—on its way to becoming the “Harvard of the Bible Belt”—had the largest student body in the state. Every summer thousands of ministers and lay people flocked to Bible conferences, the most popular of which was in Winona Lake, Indiana, mixing outdoor fun with inspirational music and addresses by a regular array of fundamentalist celebrities. The separatist impulse remained strong, but it did not limit the movement ’s mainstream appeal. The evangelist Charles Fuller’s radio program, the “Old Fashioned Revival Hour,” was drawing an audience of some 15 to 20 million, making it the most popular prime-time broadcast in the United States.10

The close of World War II saw a rising generation of younger fundamentalists openly weary of the movement’s narrow separatism. Older dreams of worldwide revival and new aspirations for broader influence on American culture found a powerful spokesman in Billy Graham, who by the early 1950s had gained national preeminence not just as an evangelist, but as an advisor to presidents and ultimately as “America’s pastor.” In a parallel fashion, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), formed in 1942 as a conservative alternative to the National Council of Churches, provided a platform for men like Harold John Ockenga of Boston’s Park Street Church, radio evangelist Charles Fuller, and university-educated scholars like Carl F. H. Henry to call for more purposeful engagement with American intellectual culture. Somewhat confusingly—and controversially—they adopted the name “neo-evangelical” or simply “evangelical” to describe themselves, rejecting the old fundamentalist label but also implicitly claiming to represent the mainstream of conservative Protestants everywhere. Certainly present-day evangelicalism is much more than an intellectual refitting of old-line fundamentalism. It is a diverse array incorporating old-line Presbyterian and Baptist fundamentalists as well as Wesleyan and Holiness traditions, Pentecostals, and African Americans.

The desire to move away from old-line, separatist fundamentalism made sense, as by the 1940s the movement was flagging. Old animosities toward denominational officials and modernists in liberal seminaries grew less potent as American society itself grew more socially conservative and spiritually inclined in the postwar years. Some extreme separatists remained—men like Bob Jones II and Carl McIntyre, who railed against Graham and the NAE for the sin of compromise. Jones in fact labeled Billy Graham the most dangerous man in the United States because the evangelist had shared a platform with Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants. Institutions like the Moody Bible Institute and the Dallas Theological Seminary continued to teach dispensational premillennialism, but by the 1950s the doctrine was beginning to feel a bit antique, unnecessarily esoteric in the face of Graham’s undisputed success in gaining a popular mainstream American audience, and as post-World War II cultural values arced toward conservative Protestant beliefs about church and family.

One important element of the “new evangelicalism” was the rising importance of Pentecostalism, a movement which fundamentalists had long abhorred. Some of the reasons were doctrinal—dispensational premillennialism taught that the miracles and supernatural phenomena associated with Christ ’s life on earth and the early Christian church did not belong to the dispensation which succeeded them, their own “age of the church.” Any tongue-speaking or healing, in their view, was false or, worse, instigated by Satan. Beyond the doctrinal disagreements, however, was a vast difference in style. Fundamentalists had no use for the exuberance of Pentecostal worship, especially when associated with flamboyant evangelists like Aimee Semple McPherson, who made a name for herself in the 1920s with some highly public scandals. There is no better example in recent years than the running feud between Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Virginia, and Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker, Pentecostal television hosts of the PTL Club. In 1987, after years of hostility, Falwell managed to take over the Bakker empire, which included Heritage USA, a 2,300-acre theme park. His awkward trip down the park’s water slide, fully clad in suit and tie, spoke volumes about the cultural divide between the two groups and fundamentalist ambivalence toward the modern world they hoped to rescue from destruction.

It is easy, however, to overstate the divide between old-line fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals. While dispensational premillennialism was falling out of favor among upwardly mobile evangelicals after the 1950s, fascination with end times prophecy certainly was not. If anything, with the growing popularity of writers like Hal Lindsay, author of the best-selling Late Great Planet Earth, the sense of urgency grew more intense in the 1960s and beyond. Even more telling, by the 1970s biblical inerrancy was also becoming more important than ever, elevated as the central marker of evangelical orthodoxy. And while neo-evangelicals called for greater engagement with American culture, they remained firmly conservative on important social issues. In regard to the role of women, in fact, they adopted far more explicit and uncompromising standards on “male headship” and “female submission” in the family, and rejected women’s ordination as unbiblical, a direct threat to the doctrine of inerrancy. Recent studies of neo-evangelicalism’s early years also foreground a widespread implicit racism, as separatist schools and academies arose in response to the civil rights movement and new Supreme Court rulings on school desegregation.

It is best to say that fundamentalism persists in a lingering set of attitudes, articulated in a rhetoric of persecution and alienation that has persisted despite the rising cultural power and economic stature of most evangelical believers. It is a language that resonates with immigrants, for example, experiencing the same “in but not of” relationship to American culture. It has been a powerful political tool, mobilizing evangelicals in defense of “family values” and other conservative causes. Fundamentalism is, in other words, far from an aberration in an American narrative of tolerance and progress. It is a story essential to understanding some important disagreements and divisions in the past, which though invisible remain potent in the controversies of the present—and promise to remain so for decades to come.

Review of the Literature

Scholarly analyses of fundamentalism are almost as old as the movement itself, beginning with H. Richard Niebuhr’s Social Sources of Denominationalism, published in 1929, just as the fundamentalist-modernist controversy was drawing to its ignominious close. Niebuhr’s account proved influential even into the present, drawing a picture of fundamentalism as a predominantly rural backlash against secular modernity, a futile rearguard action by an increasingly marginal set of believers. Important subsequent studies, including Stewart Cole’s History of Fundamentalism and Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, probed into psychological and cultural conflicts, adding to the image of a reactionary, maladjusted, and dying cause.11

Major change came in the 1970s with the publication of Ernest Sandeen’s Roots of Fundamentalism. This study was the first to focus on the theological content of fundamentalist beliefs, identifying dispensational premillennialism and biblical inerrancy as its two core concerns. George Marsden’s still classic volume, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1875–1925, took Sandeen’s analysis further, adding new layers of social and cultural context, and emphasizing the role of Keswick spirituality and the lasting influence of 19th-century revivalism in the movement’s formation. Marsden also defined fundamentalism as “militant antimodernism,” a description that has provided years of conversation among religious historians and scholars of religion. Historians of American religion disagree about the degree to which American fundamentalists were actually militant. Here the core account is Joel Carpenter’s book Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism, dealing with the movement in the decades after the Scopes trial. Carpenter not only demonstrated that it was far from dead after Scopes, but also that its message had a powerful mainstream appeal, consistently prioritizing evangelism over doctrinal or moral purity. If anything, fundamentalism’s best years, Carpenter argues, came in the 1930s and 1940s.12

In the 1990s the Fundamentalism Project, a major collaboration of scholars from across the religious spectrum, brought cross-cultural analysis and a religious studies methodology to bear on a field previously dominated by historians. In five volumes of essays, all thickly researched and carefully crafted, the project participants charted “family resemblances” across contemporary movements in all of the major religions. Each volume also, however, included significant disagreement about the usefulness and validity of the concept “fundamentalism” to describe the rising militancy in disparate religious communities—Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, and Christian.13 Perhaps the best response to the project, and in addition an able summary of recent scholarship, is the volume of essays edited by David Harrington Watt and Simon Wood, Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History.14

Since the 1990s historians have also broadened their approach to include gender and social class, as well as thicker, more nuanced cultural and social context. In regard to the former, the scholarship has burgeoned since the publication of books by Betty DeBerg and Margaret Bendroth.15 Analysis of social class is much more recent, led by works like Timothy Gloege’s Guaranteed Pure: Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of American Evangelicalism, viewing the movement within the context of 20th-century consumer capitalism.16

Primary Sources

Fundamentalism’s primary sources reflect its character as a movement. There is no central repository or major archive of fundamentalist documents, since its leaders were by definition wary of such secular places. The exception is the various denominational archives, which hold personal papers of important figures like John Roach Straton and J. C. Massee. The American Baptist archive in Macon, Georgia, and the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia are well worth visits. For more general purposes, the Billy Graham Center Archive at Wheaton College remains the best single research destination, especially for topics associated with revivals and evangelism. Otherwise, the most useful sources remain close to their original locations, in the records of Bible institutes and colleges, theological seminaries, missionary organizations, and individual churches. Often these institutions contain papers of the men founded or led them—J. Gresham Machen at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, William Bell Riley at Northwestern College in Minneapolis, and A. J. Gordon at Gordon College in Boston. The most available and widely useful source is fundamentalist periodicals, relatively few of which are available digitally.

Further Reading

  • Bendroth, Margaret. Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.
  • Brereton, Virginia Lieson. Training God’s Army: The American Bible School, 1880–1940. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.
  • Bruce, Steve. Fundamentalism. 2d. ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2008.
  • Carpenter, Joel. Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Carpenter, Joel, and Wilbert R. Shenk, eds. Earthen Vessels: American Evangelicals and Foreign Missions, 1880–1980. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.
  • DeBerg, Betty. Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism. Philadelphia: Augsburg/Fortress, 1990. Reprint, Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2000.
  • Gloege, Timothy. Guaranteed Pure: Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
  • Larson, Edward. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
  • Lawrence, Bruce. Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.
  • Marsden, George. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of American Evangelicalism, 1875–1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • Marty, Martin E., and R. Scott Appleby, eds. Fundamentalisms Comprehended: The Fundamentalism Project, Volume Five. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Numbers, Ronald. The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1992.
  • Sandeen, Ernest. The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800–1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
  • Sutton, Matthew. American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
  • Trollinger, William Vance, Jr. God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
  • Ruthven, Malise. Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Wood, Simon, and David Harrington Watt, eds. Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014.


  • 1. Simon Wood and David Harrington Watt, eds., Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014), 11.

  • 2. Ibid., 6.

  • 3. Mark Juergensmeyer, “Antifundamentalism,” in Fundamentalisms Comprehended: The Fundamentalism Project, Volume Five, eds. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 361, 362.

  • 4. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (3 vols.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1952 [1872–1873]), vol. 1, 10–11.

  • 5. Arno C. Gaebelein, “To Jewish Christians,” Our Hope 1 (September 1894): 58.

  • 6. James M. Gray, Synthetic Bible Studies (Cleveland: F. M. Barton, 1900), 15, cited in Virginia Liesen Brereton, Training God’s Army: The American Bible School, 1880–1940 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 92.

  • 7. Curtis Lee Laws, “Convention Side-Lights,” Watchman-Examiner, July 1, 1920, 834.

  • 8. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974 [1923]), 6–7.

  • 9. H. L. Mencken, A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial (Hoboken, NJ: Melville, 2006), 129, 108.

  • 10. Joel Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 22, 24.

  • 11. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: Henry Holt, 1929), and also Niebuhr’s entry “Fundamentalism” in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York, 1937), vol. 6, 526–527; Stewart Cole, History of Fundamentalism (New York: Richard R. Smith, 1931); and Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Knopf, 1963).

  • 12. Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of American Evangelicalism, 1875–1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); and Joel Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

  • 13. The five volumes are Fundamentalisms Observed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education (University of Chicago Press, 1993); Accounting for Fundamentalisms: The Dynamic Character of Movements (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); and Fundamentalisms Comprehended (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

  • 14. Simon Wood and David Harrington Watt, eds., Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014).

  • 15. Betty DeBerg, Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990); and Margaret Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993).

  • 16. Timothy Gloege, Guaranteed Pure: Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).