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The word fundamentalism dates from around 1920 in the United States, but fundamentalist beliefs within Christianity clearly date back to Christ and the New Testament writers in the first century AD.

Origin of the Word

The word fundamentalism originally referred to fundamental beliefs that existed solely within Christianity. Powerful church revivals up to the 19th century had seen countless numbers commit their lives to Christ. But by 1900, conservative church leaders started seeing erosion of church influence because of liberal German biblical criticism and the increasing acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

In response to these attacks, many evangelical Christian leaders and churchmen who believed in the inerrancy of the Bible came together and formed the American Bible League in 1902. Between 1910 and 1915 these evangelicals published a series of 12 pamphlets called The Fundamentals: A testimony to the truth. The pamphlets responded to, and counterattacked, the biblical critics, and reaffirmed the authority of the Bible. They were distributed to clergy and seminary students at no cost.

In 1920, the Baptist editor of the conservative publication Watchman-Examiner, Curtis Lee Laws, used the term "fundamentalist" to describe those who were ready "to do battle royal for the Fundamentals." [1] Laws may have borrowed the term, but as his use of the word is the first recorded, he received the credit for inventing it.

How the meaning has changed

In its original sense, fundamentalism had a positive image among many conservatives who accepted basic Christian doctrine. As time went on, the word gained more negative overtones. It came to be applied to any movement that promoted adherence to traditional beliefs. Since the 1970s, the media have used the word fundamentalist with the more sinister meaning of "violent extremist", and this is what comes to mind for most non-Christians today when they hear the word.

In 1977, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould named John Maynard Smith, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett as representatives of Darwinian Fundamentalism[2]. Dennett (at least) accepts the label[3].

News reports during the Iranian Revolution of 1978, and after the September 11, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, referred to Muslim extremists as "Muslim fundamentalists" — even though Muslims say there is no concept of fundamentalism in Islam. The media also began referring to hardline politico-religious sects in India and elsewhere as "radical fundamentalists". Even zealous evolutionary scientists were called fundamentalists in the 1990s. [4]

Fundamentalist Beliefs

In their attempt to fight modernism and liberal critics, those who wrote and accepted the Fundamentals pamphlets tried to define the most essential doctrines that a true Christian would believe. The northern Presbyterian Church in 1910 came up with five essential beliefs: [5]

  1. The inerrancy of Scripture
  2. Christ’s Virgin Birth
  3. The substitutionary Atonement of Christ
  4. Christ’s bodily Resurrection
  5. The historicity of Christ’s miracles.

Other versions put the deity of Christ in place of the Virgin Birth, or Christ’s Second Coming in place of the miracles.

Number of Fundamentalists

How many fundamentalists exist?

It is impossible to come up with a number of adherents because it depends on how an individual defines "fundamentalist." Do you include only Christians? Do you include Muslims and other religions? Do you include secular or evolutionary fundamentalists? One conservative estimate claims there are at least 30 million Christian fundamentalists in the United States alone. [6] Others say there are 80 million born-again believers in the United States and most could be described as fundamentalists.

Fundamentalism stands with Pentecostalism as the most successful religious movements of the 20th century. [7]

Not all born-again Christians accept these numbers. High-profile church leader and author Rick Warren said at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life held on May 23, 2005, that there were not many fundamentalists left in America.

Today there really aren't that many Fundamentalists left," he said. "I don't know if you know that or not, but they are such a minority; there aren't that many Fundamentalists left in America. [8]

Influence of Scopes "Monkey trial"

Main Article: Tennessee vs. John Scopes

By 1925, fundamentalist thinking had influenced half the States in the U.S. to introduce laws banning the teaching of evolutionary biology in public schools. [9]

In Tennessee, the State Legislature passed the Butler Act, which made it illegal for anyone to teach in a state-funded institution:

... any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals. [10]

To challenge these laws, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered legal help for any schoolteacher in Tennessee who would be willing to stand trial for having taught evolution in a public school. The teacher selected was John Scopes. [11]

Scopes lost the trial on a technicality, and the judge fined him $100. But the fundamentalist side, led by William Jennings Bryan, lost the sympathy of many, because he managed to make belief in the inerrancy of Scripture seem foolish. Many turned to thinking it was more important to reform social problems than to argue whether it had rained for 40 days and nights in the days of Noah. [12] Fundamentalism took a hammering from the Scopes trial.

Revival of Fundamentalism

From the 1940s, some fundamentalists started calling themselves "evangelicals", and equated this with true Christianity. Beginning in 1948 a few called themselves neoevangelical. [13]

The American Council of Christian Churches carried the term "fundamentalist" into the 1950s, as did many southern and independent churches. Bob Jones University, Moody Bible Institute, and Dallas Theological Seminary proudly carried the name. So did hundreds of evangelists and radio preachers. [14]

By the late 1970s, through Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign for the American presidency, and into the 1980s, fundamentalists had entered a powerful new stage. They were now getting serious scientific backing from creation science groups, especially the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego.

Along came a new generation of television and print fundamentalists, notably Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, and Pat Robertson. They were largely Baptist and southern, but they tapped into the thinking and needs of all denominations.

Fundamentalism today

Today, many Christians have become wary of being labeled fundamentalists, even though they happily subscribe to the fundamental beliefs listed above. This has a lot to do with the media’s portrayal of fundamentalists as violent "radicals" or "extremists". Many have switched to calling themselves evangelicals, although a large number of independent churches still wear the fundamentalist badge with pride.

In addition, fundamentalists are often referred to as 'fundie' by anti-Christian individuals.

Related References