A Brief History of Fundamentalism

by | Apr 18, 2020 | Poimenas

Back in the 1970’s when I was teaching at a Bible college, one of my students asked me, somewhat tongue in cheek, what descriptive terms he should use to describe his ministry views in order for him to be, in his words, “the top dog.” He meant, like “fundamentalist.” So I, also somewhat tongue in cheek, listed “fundamentalist,” “Baptist,” (this was a Baptist college after all), “separatist,” “dispensationalist,” “premillennialist,” and “Republican.” We both chuckled then. But fifty years later I wonder if these descriptive terms are still appropriate.


I teach in a nondenominational seminary, but the doctrinal statement of Shepherds Theological Seminary is baptistic. I identify myself as a separatist – that it is unbiblical to work together with theological liberals in order to fulfill the Great Commission. I continue to be delighted to call myself a dispensational premillennialist. But what about “fundamentalist?” That seems to be the elephant in the room for some of us.


As a starting place for our brief analysis, let’s define historic fundamentalism as the religious movement within American Protestantism that stresses the literal exposition of the fundamental doctrines of the Bible and the militant exposure of any deviance therefrom. If this definition is acceptable, we can be more specific and investigate three key concepts in the definition.


The Fundamentalist Movement

Some historians have said that the term “fundamentalism” began to be a “go-to” word with the publication of a series of books from 1910 to 1915 called The Fundamentals. In the view of William Bell Riley, one of the most important fundamentalists in the first half of the twentieth century, The Fundamentals were step one in the naming of the movement. Riley says that he and the editor of The Fundamentals, A. C. Dixon, were together for several days at a Bible conference in Montrose, Pennsylvania in 1919. There, “we agreed to call the initial meeting that brought into existence ‘The World’s Christian Fundamentals Association.’” After the first conference of the WCFA in May of 1919, attended by over six thousand fundamentalists, Riley says, “The Fundamentalist Movement was a new-born infant, but a lusty and promising one.”1 In Riley’s view, he was the one who named and inaugurated the fundamentalist movement. Indeed, the WCFA became the foremost non-denominational fundamentalist organization in the 1920’s.


A year later, July 1, 1920, Curtis Lee Laws, the editor of The Watchman Examiner, wrote an article about a recent gathering of Bible-believing Baptists who had convened to plan how to oppose theological liberalism in the Northern Baptist Convention. Laws proposes three names for these Baptists in his article, but discards two. Shall we call them conservatives, he asks. No that is too broad. Shall we call them premillennialists? No, he answers, this is too narrow. He concludes “We suggest that those who still cling to the great fundamentals and who mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals shall be called ‘Fundamentalists.’” The Fundamentalist Fellowship of the Northern Baptist Convention was formed at this time. Thus, by 1920, one hundred years ago this year, the name “fundamentalism” was being applied to both non-denominational and denominational organizations created to oppose theological liberalism and other evils, such as evolution.


Fundamentalism therefore became a movement. Historian Ernest Sandeen states that “the Fundamentalist movement was a self-conscious, structured, long-lived, dynamic entity with recognized leadership, periodicals, and meetings.”2 Fundamentalism, in other words, has had structure: a doctrinal stance, a time period, a cause, fundamentalist leaders, fundamentalist churches, and fundamentalist schools.


The movement has been modified during its hundred-year history. The first generation of fundamentalists did not practice ecclesiastical separation. They believed that the best way that they could defend the faith was to oppose theological liberals in the major denominations. Beginning in the 1930s, the fundamentalists began to separate from the major denominations and form their own fundamentalist association of churches, mission organizations, and educational institutions. Another development occurred in the 1940s and 1950s when fundamentalists and new evangelicals went different directions on a number of issues, especially over the doctrine of separation.


Interestingly, in the 1970s, some fundamentalists debated with each other over who had the right to use the term. The “pseudo-fundamentalists” debated the “neo-fundamentalists,” and vice-versa. It also became popular to categorize fundamentalist leaders and ministries as to whether they were militant, or moderate, or modified fundamentalists. I remember writing an article during that time entitled, “Will the Real Fundamentalist Please Stand Up.” My impression in 2020, however, is that many strong Bible-believing Christians are hesitant to call themselves “fundamentalists” – at least without explaining what they mean by the term. The word has taken on a lot of baggage, some of which is unwarranted, some warranted.


Personally, I believe that we should honor the historic movement and the courageous leaders of fundamentalism that have done “battle royal” for the Word of God. But I also believe that we can agree with historian George Marsden who wrote in 1980 that “the meaning of ‘fundamentalism’ has narrowed considerably since the 1920s.”3 I don’t think that we have to call ourselves “fundamentalists” in order to fulfill the stern admonitions in Scripture to teach the whole counsel of God and contend for the faith.


The Fundamentals of the Faith

Another important question to ask is: what are the fundamentals of the faith? Actually, the term “fundamentalism” implies that we know what the fundamentals of the faith are. Often five doctrines are described as the fundamentals of the faith: (1) inerrancy, (2) the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, (3) the substitutionary atonement, (4) the bodily resurrection of Christ, and (5) the authenticity of miracles. Later, the authenticity of miracles was often combined with another doctrine and the Second Coming of Christ was listed as number five.


Where did this list come from? It came from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in a document entitled “The Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.” When the New York Presbytery ordained three men who refused to agree with the virgin birth of Christ, the General Assembly of 1910 instructed a denominational committee to draw up a statement which all future candidates would have to affirm in order to be ordained. The Doctrinal Deliverance that the committee constructed established these five articles of faith that were “essential and necessary.”


These Five Essentials, however, cannot be all of the fundamentals of the faith, can they? They say nothing specific about justification by faith alone, for example. Of course, the conservative Presbyterians in 1910 had the Westminster Confession of Faith to support these five essentials and would have agreed that justification by faith alone was an essential of the Christian faith. But they apparently did not think that justification was an issue at that time. The list of five doctrines was intended to be a line drawn in the sand to keep the denomination from being taken over by theological liberals.4


Unfortunately, an early historian of fundamentalism, Stewart Cole, incorrectly stated that the Niagara Bible Conference created this doctrinal statement of five fundamentals in 1895.5 This error has trickled down to contemporary studies of fundamentalism. The Niagara Bible Conference did adopt a confession of faith, but it had fourteen-points. It was accepted by the Conference in 1878, and later legally incorporated in 1890 under the laws of Canada. The Niagara Confession is a Calvinistic, non-denominational, premillennial statement that was intended to be the doctrinal requirements for those who participated in the Conference. So, are there five fundamentals of the faith, or fourteen?


Or, maybe there are nine. The World’s Christian Fundamentals Association mentioned above had a nine-point doctrinal statement. Riley asserts, “Fundamentalism undertakes to reaffirm the greater Christian doctrines… It does not attempt to set forth every Christian doctrine with the elaboration that characterizes the great denominational Confessions.” 6


If we were to examine the three confessions side by side, we might find that they do cover many of the same doctrines. But it can be confusing to proclaim that some doctrines are fundamentals of the faith while ignoring other doctrines. And if we say that certain doctrines are “essential,” we need to be clear about essential to what: for salvation? Or for ordination? Or for church membership? Or for affiliation in a religious organization? Or for unity in a movement? Or to participate in a city-wide evangelistic crusade? Or to be a faculty member? Or for whatever?


The Presbyterian Five Essentials were essentials with which a candidate for ordination to the Presbyterian ministry had to accept. Believing the fourteen-point Niagara Bible Conference was essential to participating in the Niagara Conference. Accepting Riley’s nine “greater Christian doctrines” was essential to becoming a member of the WCFA.


Christian churches and para-church organizations do need to determine what doctrines are essential for being a member or participating. We may even be able to think of some guidelines for determining the basic doctrines of the faith: (1) Clearly taught in Scripture; (2) Explain who God is; (3) Describe what salvation is and how to be saved; (4) That we are warned not to deny. But I am still uneasy about declaring that certain doctrines are the fundamentals of the faith, and others are not. I know it’s naïve of me to say this, but my heart’s desire is to be known by God as a Biblicist. The Lord says, “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa 66:2 ESV).



“Militancy” is not a biblical word and also comes with some baggage. So, we have to be careful with this concept because it can be used to cover up fleshly actions. We learn from Scripture “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Tit 3:2 ESV). Pastors are not to be pugnacious, but gentle and peaceable, (1 Tim 3:3 NAU). Ernest Pickering, who served as the Executive Director of the IFCA from 1955-1959, and later ministered as a GARBC pastor, a president of seminaries, and a missions executive, was a gracious man of God in person as well as a strong fundamentalist. In his booklet, Biblical Separation, Dr. Pickering defended separatist fundamentalism, but also listed six pitfalls of the movement that are, in my understanding, characteristics of unbiblical militancy: (1) An improper spirit – bitterness and acrimony, (2) over-occupations with the issues, (3) uncontrolled suspicion, (4) hasty rejection of offenders, (5) caustic language, (6) public instead of private rebuke.


In spite of these abuses, however, we must not throw out the baby with the bath water. As one of my friends has written, “The corrective is not an abandonment of militancy, but, rather an ethical, careful, kind and yet firm outspokenness which stand for the truth and is willing to defend it against error.”7 The Bible mandates us “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3 ESV).



Ultimately, the purpose of Jude’s command to contend for the faith is for the benefit of the people in our local churches. The religious world is saturated with ignorance of Scripture and false doctrine and maybe we can’t solve these world-wide problems. But when ignorance and apostasy threaten the people in our local churches, this is our problem – and responsibility. So the Apostle Paul instructs us, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert” (Act 20:28-31 ESV).


This article first appeared in VOICE Vol. 99, No. 1 (January / February, 2020). Used by permission.


1 W. B. Riley, The Conflict of Christianity with Its Counterfeits, p. 130.

2 Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism (University of Chicago, 1970; reprint Grand Rapids, Baker, 1978), xvii.

3 George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 5.

4 Regrettably, in 1927 the General Assembly invalidated the Deliverance declaring that it could not mandate certain doctrines as “essential and necessary.”

5 See Stewart Cole, History of Fundamentalism (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1931), p. 34.

6 Riley, p. 132.

7 George Houghton, “The Matter of Militancy,” Faith Pulpit, May, 1994), n.d.

Dr. Larry Pettegrew is the former Dean / Provost, Emeritus of Shepherds Theological Seminary and the Research Professor of Theology. He is a graduate of Bob Jones University, Central Baptist Theological Seminary, and Dallas Theological Seminary. He is the author of The New Covenant Ministry of the Holy Spirit, and the editor of Forsaking Israel. Over the last fifty-two years, he has taught at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, The Master’s Seminary, and Shepherds Theological Seminary.

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