Review – A History of Fundamentalism by George Dollar

George Dollar was Professor of Church History at Bob Jones University, a self-professing Fundamentalist institution. A History of Fundamentalism offers an insider’s perspective on a confusing Christian movement. The work is oriented toward the present, most of the history being lists of people, places, and organizations that serve to explain to the reader how the current (at the time of writing, 1973) state of affairs came to be.

The work’s major divisions are chronological. In the period of 1875-1900, Dollar examines on the one side the burgeoning American Liberalism, and on the other the Niagara prophecy conferences, the positions of which Dollar takes as definitive of Fundamentalism. In the second phase, 1900-1935, Dollar traces the widespread infiltration of liberalism into the mainline denominations and the various conservative reactions. Center stage in this section are the “prima donnas of Fundamentalism,” the polarizing personalities that built empires with matchless pulpit oratory and a gun-slinging attitude. Dollar also discusses the battles in the major Baptist bodies and the formation of alternative Fundamentalist fellowships. In the final period, 1935-1973, Dollar laments the rise of new evangelicalism, which he portrays as a betrayal of the Fundamentalist cause. Most of this section is taken up by a seemingly exhaustive catalog of all the Fundamentalist and Fundamentalist-leaning groups in existence at the time of writing.

A History of Fundamentalism suffers from a number of grievous flaws. It is questionable whether the work is a history at all. First, the author’s definition of Historic Fundamentalism is “the literal exposition of all the affirmations and attitudes of the bible and the militant exposure of all non-Biblical affirmations and attitudes.” This definition is, from a historical standpoint, worthless. Unless the reader happens to agree with Dollar concerning what all the affirmations and attitudes of the Bible are, he cannot even accept the definition. It carries too much theological bias. An even greater problem with the definition is the lack of any historical situation. How far back does the “historic” in Dollar’s historic Fundamentalism go? Against what did Fundamentalism react? What cultural pressures shaped it? Dollar is confusing categories: he gives an ideological definition for a historical/organizational phenomenon. A final problem with the definition is that it is incoherent. Taken literally (and how else can one take a Fundamentalist text?) it would demand perfect uniformity on doctrinal issues. Regarding something such as eschatology, Dollar would agree with this reading. However, later in the book, during a discussion of “crusading Calvinism,” he states that Fundamentalists have not seen a need to take any particular stand on Calvinism and that it should not be a test of faith. Landmark Baptists get a free pass as well. Clearly there is a contradiction somewhere.

Furthermore, Dollar’s account of the origins of Fundamentalism is both incomplete and arbitrary. All three chapters dedicated to Fundamentalist origins  focus exclusively on the Niagara prophecy conferences. One of those chapters is nothing more than an exposition of the documents in the work Prophetic Studies of the International Prophetic Conference. The views expressed at these prophecy conferences, and particularly those of A. J. Gordon, serve as Dollar’s measuring rod to determine whether the rest of the people in his book are “historic Fundamentalists.” Despite the fact that many of the recognizable figures in Fundamentalism were involved in the Niagara conferences, it is arbitrary and unreasonable to insist that the activities of a prophecy conference provide a normative guideline for an ecclesiastical movement. Dollar never does any historical exposition of the churches, which would show how Fundamentalism arose out a pre-existing American evangelicalism that itself possessed a history of sometimes conflicting creeds, practices, and emphases. In fact, the reader is left entirely in the dark as to what these proto-Fundamentalists did when they were not in Niagara.

Dollar’s initial choice of the prophecy conferences as a baseline produce reverberations of annoyance throughout the book. The only doctrine which receives sustained attention through A History is eschatology. Every person, church, and organization is assessed according to whether they militantly maintained the immanent coming of the Lord. Dollar criticizes groups that tolerated post-tribulationists and amillennialists. He explicitly declares at several points that a weak stand on eschatology opens the door to new-evangelicalism or worse. Conveniently, he never actually gives an account of how these eschatological failings led to further apostasy.

Perhaps the most egregious failing of A History of Fundamentalism is the exhausting, preachy tone. A historian does not need to be an emotionless robot, and certainly he may and must make value judgments, but barely a page passes in A History without a paragraph-length (or more) lament, rebuke, or adulation. When writing about Liberals or New-evangelicals, Dollar employs about 90% of the invective of Luther with about 10% of the wit. On the other hand, the reader may be overwhelmed by waves of dreamy nostalgia as Dollar wonders whether the world will ever see the equals of the prophecy conference preachers or the old-time evangelists. The net effect is that the book is bloated with sermonic material. Dollar spends as much space telling you what you ought to think as he does providing information or even justification for his analysis.

On the whole, this is a poor book that even most of  those interested in the subject matter may nonchalantly pass over. The single strength of A History of Fundamentalism is its bulk of raw facts – persons, dates, and organizations. A student of American church history could mine this work for potential research topics.

To Reading and Reviews

Published in: on May 7, 2010 at 12:09 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. When you have time, I’d be interested in you comparing/contrasting this book with Bauder’s essay series (which I wish he would complete).

    • There is almost no overlap, really. Bauder spent lots of time describing the intellectual and cultural forces that shaped the formation of proto-Fundamentalism. Dollar examined the Niagara prophecy conferences and said, “This is Fundamentalism.” Bauder is providing an explanatory narrative in terms of secondary causes for why things happened the way they did whereas Dollar did not.

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