The Religious Education of Charlie Johnson: Raised Fundamentalist

“A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.” ~ George Marsden, historian of fundamentalism

I was born Christian, but raised fundamentalist.  This installment in my story is more background than autobiography. I hope to give readers some perspective on Christian fundamentalism: to remove some misleading notions, to place it in historical context, and to offer a summary from my own experience. I will endeavor to reassert the personal and reflective tone in following installments, but since I am an academic, you must forgive me my pedantic digressions.

Now, “fundamentalism” is a tricky word. To some people, the word conjures the image of a person so extreme, and perhaps even violent, that he in no way resembles a normal person. In reality, most fundamentalist Christians share many features in common with the average American. Fundamentalists can be accountants and police officers, life insurance and Mary Kay salespeople, doctors and scientists, even politicians. They don’t live in compounds out in the woods, but are sprinkled throughout America’s rural and suburban neighborhoods, and maintain a presence in every major metropolitan area. They might dress a bit differently at times, particularly the women, but rarely to the extent that they would be easily identifiable, and certainly not to the extent that a Hasidic Jew’s or a Amish person’s dress marks him as a member of a particular religious community. Thus, it is entirely possible to know a fundamentalist Christian without knowing that he is one. The fundamentalist will likely be eager to inform you of his Christian faith, but even so, you may not realize how distinct a sort of Christian he is.

Fundamentalist Christianity is a subset of evangelical Christianity, which is in turn a subset of Protestant Christianity. The relevant history can be sketched in three phases. First, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the old Protestant orthodoxies were shaken by a more democratic, more emotional, more activist form of Christianity – evangelicalism (or pietism for Lutherans). A series of “awakenings” or “revivals” swept across many countries (but most significantly English-speaking ones), leaving behind many new, zealous Christians or newly recommitted Christians who often had only loose ties to institutional churches. Most important to these evangelicals was not the institutional church with its sacraments and subtle theological systems but rather the personal experience of conversion and the immediate zeal for a pure life. Evangelicals formed mission societies, rescue missions, children’s homes, publishing houses, and a host of other Christian organizations; yet they often skirted established denominational channels to do so. Evangelicals were not opposed to established churches, but were confident in their abilities to act independently of them, either alone or in voluntary societies established for specific purposes.

The second stage in this history is known as the modernist controversy. Around the beginning of the 20th century, various scientific, philosophical, and theological currents from Europe gravely disturbed the evangelical status quo. Many of these threatened the way evangelicals read the Bible. Trends in geology and biology (Darwinism) cast doubt upon the creation narratives and other cosmological descriptions in the Bible. New literary and historical approaches to biblical criticism raised questions of diversity and inaccuracy in the Bible. Continental philosophy tended to be more guarded about one’s ability to perceive true reality directly than was the reigning Scottish common sense realism. Some theologians, particularly from German-speaking territories, were suggesting reinterpretations (or abandonment) of doctrines tightly held by evangelicals: the virgin birth, miracles, the cross as substitutionary punishment, Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Many evangelicals reacted with an uncompromising condemnation of modernism; these were known as fundamentalists. Interdenominational coalitions were formed to promote and defend traditional ways of thought and life. However, in the end, modernism won control of the five largest Protestant denominations, including their seminaries and publishing houses. Fundamentalists were still numerous, but were banished to the periphery of cultural influence. Here they began to distrust traditional denominations. Believers, they said, must separate themselves from apostate institutions.

The third epoch occurs in the middle of the twentieth century. A split arose within fundamentalism. A group of bright, ambitious, well-educated individuals became dissatisfied with fundamentalism. They found it intellectually stifling, culturally backward, and socially disengaged. They did not want to be liberals, as the modernists came to be called, but wanted to regain cultural standing. (Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism might be considered a manifesto.) They called themselves the new evangelicals (or neo-evangelicals). Perhaps most visible in this group was the rising evangelist, Billy Graham. The neo-evangelicals’ attempt to reform fundamentalism met with stiff resistance. They were labeled compromisers, willing to sacrifice truth on the altar of prestige and respectability. They were eventually squeezed out of the fundamentalist network. In reality, the new evangelicals were not always terribly sad to go. Various judgments have been made about the effectiveness of neo-evangelicalism, but its influence on fundamentalism is critical. Fundamentalists became even more retrenched. They learned that attacks could come not only from openly apostate liberals, but even from seemingly orthodox brothers! The neo-evangelical split fixed fundamentalism, culturally and intellectually, firmly in the 1950s. Fundamentalists formed a doctrine of “secondary separation,” stating that it is necessary for believers to cut institutional ties not only with liberals, but with those who would compromise with liberals. Thus, one’s associations became as important as one’s doctrines for determining one’s standing in the fundamentalist community.

In the present day, many of these labels are passé. Much of mainline Protestantism has moved on from the type of liberalism featured in the early 20th century. Huge swaths of evangelicalism exist that have no particular orientation toward the issues that divided fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals. But, for true fundamentalists, the battle lines drawn in the 1950s are eternally valid archetypes. When I arrived at a fundamentalist Bible college in 2004, within my first week of classes, I was handed a sheet of paper that displayed a breakdown of Protestant Christianity into 4 groups: liberals, neo-orthodox (a reform movement arising within liberalism), neo-evangelicals, and fundamentalists. I learned quickly that a key fundamentalist skill was taking any person or writing and placing it in the correct box, so that one would know how to deal with it.

As a child, I did not know about the distinctive qualities of fundamentalism. To me, fundamentalism was simply Christianity. The next four articles will treat four aspects of my experience of fundamentalism: authoritarianism, biblicism, separatism, and revivalism. None of these four characteristics is unique to fundamentalism; one can easily find other Christians who manifest one or several of these traits. It is rather the combination of all four into a single seamless, organic religious experience that constitutes the fundamentalism of my youth. In fundamentalism, all four factors influence each other, so that one might say that fundamentalists are not just biblicists, but they practice biblicism in an authoritarian-separatist-revivalist way. Then, repeat the process for the other three.

Series home

Published in: on September 10, 2012 at 10:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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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.

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