A twentieth‐century theological movement among conservative Protestants, largely in North America. Despite its broad, amorphous, and decentralized character, fundamentalism has the following features:
1. A strong emphasis on the inspiration and authority of the Bible, which is to be understood “literally” and which is held to be “inerrant”—totally free from any error whatsoever, whether historical, theological, or scientific. It is not surprising that fundamentalists strongly repudiate the conclusions of modern biblical criticism, seeing them as implicitly, if not explicitly, undermining the beliefs of traditional Christianity (see Interpretation, History of, article on Modern Biblical Criticism).
2. A marked, at times militant, impulse toward separatism from the other branches of Christianity. Inasmuch as the large mainline Protestant denominations were perceived in the early twentieth century to be drifting toward “modernism” or “liberalism,” fundamentalists often withdrew fellowship from them, eventually creating rival Bible colleges, seminaries, publishing houses, and even entire denominations. In 1941, for example, they founded the American Council of Christian Churches, explicitly separate from its mainline counterpart, the Federal (later National) Council of Churches of Christ.
3. With a few exceptions, mostly among some Calvinist churches, fundamentalists tend to embrace the dispensationalist school of biblical interpretation, especially as popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible. Again understanding the Bible “literally,” particularly the many prophecies concerning the land of Israel as yet seemingly unfulfilled, fundamentalists tend to be premillennialists, looking forward to a literal thousand‐year future reign of the Messiah (the second coming of Christ) over a restored Jewish nation (see Rev. 20.4). Thus, a strong emphasis on future fulfillment of biblical prophecy usually characterizes fundamentalists. A perhaps inevitable corollary to this type of premillennialism is a strong sense of pessimism concerning contemporary human history, which is expected only to degenerate further and further until Christ's return.
4. In accord with this last point, fundamentalists tend to emphasize personal piety and holiness over against the social concerns of the mainline churches. Typically, fundamentalists promote evangelistic revivals and missionary activity, both foreign and domestic, while they heavily inveigh against smoking, drinking (see Wine), the theater, card playing, and the like. Somewhat paradoxical, however, is their strong sense of patriotism, often identifying American values and traditions closely with Christianity. Ever since the 1960s, for example, fundamentalists have bitterly denounced the United States Supreme Court ban on prayer in the public schools as “un‐American” as well as “anti‐Christian.”
The term “fundamentalist” first appeared in the early 1920s to describe those who subscribed to the “fundamentals” of Christian faith, especially the tenets promulgated in a twelve‐volume work, entitled The Fundamentals, which had been printed and mailed to thousands of ministers and laypersons during the years 1910–15 by two California oil millionaires, Lyman and Milton Stewart. These booklets took issue with a wide list of enemies of Christianity—Romanism, socialism, atheism, Mormonism, and most of all naturalism, which was held to be the basis of contemporary theological liberalism. The volumes also reaffirmed what were deemed to be “fundamental” truths of traditional Christianity, especially the inspiration and authority of scripture. Historians of fundamentalism commonly link the publishing of these volumes to the “five fundamentals” that had been previously adopted by the General Assembly of the (northern) Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1910 (later reaffirmed in 1916 and 1923), namely, the inerrancy of scripture, the deity of Jesus Christ and his virgin birth, Christ's substitutionary atonement, his physical (bodily) resurrection, and the historicity of his miracles. But, as Ernest R. Sandeen has pointed out, any such listing of the “five points” of fundamentalism, and still less the twelve volumes of The Fundamentals, never typified the leadership of this era. Nonetheless, by the early 1920s, various lists of “the fundamentals” had indeed been drawn up, and they were meant to represent the essential, and hence nonnegotiable, doctrines of Christianity.
Throughout the 1920s, fundamentalists exerted a surprisingly powerful force on American religion and politics, especially in several of the larger Protestant denominations such as the northern Presbyterians and northern Baptists. As Sandeen notes, the origins of fundamentalism were largely to be found in the northeastern region of North America in metropolitan areas, not, as commonly argued, in agrarian or southern locales. Nonetheless, the real strength of fundamentalistic religion eventually did manifest itself among the Southern Baptists and the countless independent Bible churches that began to spring up throughout North America during this time, especially in the southern and midwestern regions of the United States. Politically the fundamentalists flexed their muscles as well, strongly opposing, for example, the teaching in public schools of Darwinian evolution (see Science and the Bible). This opposition led eventually to the notorious “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925, in which William Jennings Bryan, a Presbyterian layperson and three‐time Democratic party presidential candidate, argued unsuccessfully against the teaching of evolution in the public schools of Tennessee. Other famous fundamentalists of the era included the colorful and popular evangelist Billy Sunday and Princeton seminary professor John Gresham Machen, who personally resisted being called a fundamentalist, saying that it sounded like a new religion.
By the 1940s, less militant fundamentalists were also chafing under the term, regarding it as connoting anti‐intellectualism, combativeness, extremism, and paranoia. Calling themselves “evangelicals,” they banded together in 1942 to found the National Association of Evangelicals as a more moderate counterpart to the fundamentalist American Council of Christian Churches founded the previous year. Evangelicals still reckoned themselves as the heirs of true, historic Christianity, but they were more willing to work within and among the mainline denominations. The well‐known contemporary evangelist Billy Graham, a moderate fundamentalist, has been repeatedly and bitterly denounced by his more conservative counterparts for such compromise.
Fundamentalism is still a force within modern North American Protestant Christianity. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, a self‐styled “born again” evangelical Christian, was elected president of the United States, and Ronald Reagan's 1980 and 1984 presidential victories were due in part to the votes of evangelicals and fundamentalists. Jerry Falwell, a prominent Virginia preacher and founder of the so‐called Moral Majority (recently disbanded), and Pat Robertson, an influential television evangelist and 1988 Republican party presidential candidate, are two contemporary North American fundamentalists of some renown.
William H. Barnes