Origins of the term Fundamentalist

The term “fundamentalist” appeared less than a century ago, in relation to the Christian publishing venture known as The Fundamentals. These were released as a series of pamphlets in the 1910s. They were designed to provide clear, intelligent, orthodox pronouncements on Protestant Christianity–specifically, they served as repudiations of liberal Protestantism, threatening scientific advancements (such as Darwinism), and Biblical higher criticism, and as reiterations of what was fundamental and therefore eternal to true Christianity. These widely disseminated pamphlets provided a name for the emerging wing of ultra-conservative American Protestantism, and “fundamentalism” is now synonymous with scriptural literalism, dogmatism, and determined supernaturalism both within and beyond the Christian religion. While The Fundamentals have in many ways been forgotten by contemporary culture, the influence of the movement they helped shape is undeniable.

Written by scholars, ministers, and laymen alike, The Fundamentals range rather widely in quality and coherency of argument. Many of the essays, however, are of surprisingly high quality, avoiding ad hominem attacks and demonstrating engagement with opposing material rather than simple dismissal. But regardless of the merits of particular essays, throughout all authors show certain similarities. First, the Bible is taken as the ultimate authority, as inspired by God, and as literally true. Second, conservative American Protestant doctrines are taken as plainly expressing the clear meaning of the Bible’s words, not as cultural traditions developed over time in a process of change and adjustment. Third, orthodox Protestant Christianity is presented as the only legitimate form of religion, as possessing answers to all possible questions and situations, and as a matter of utmost importance.

This last point seems to be the driving motivation behind The Fundamentals. More than anything else, The Fundamentals are concerned to position conservative Protestantism as clear, straightforward, authoritative, and solid. Opposing ideas are attacked precisely for lacking these qualities. Darwinism is objected to less because it supposedly demeans humanity or insults God (though these arguments are made), but primarily because it is a theory. Several authors take pains to point out its hypothetical nature, emphasizing over and over again that it is speculative, weak on details, and full of confusing contradictions. This contrasts with the robust confidence inspired by the complete and perfect system of conservative Christianity. In all of this there seems to be a fear of the modern age as relativistic and fraught with uncertainty. This probably connects too to the diminishing sense of power and relevance felt by conservative white Protestants, as immigration and incipient religious pluralism began to threaten their sense of entitlement in America. The Fundamentals appear to pronounce the permanent truth and relevance of orthodox Protestantism precisely when such permanence, truth, and relevance can no longer be taken for granted.

As such, they are quintessentially modern works, not representative of traditional Christianity. They are as tied to their time as the statements of the liberals they oppose. There is a tendency among liberals to dismiss fundamentalism as somehow a survival of ancient, ignorant days, irrelevant to the modern day and thus puzzling in its ability to cling to life. But this attitude overlooks how The Fundamentals, and the works that have followed in their wake, are attempts by contemporary Christians to grapple with the modern world and find answers. Naturally, the answers they come up with, even if they masquerade as ancient and unchanging, will be to some degree conditioned by and probably suited to the modern context.


1 Comment

Filed under Anti-Liberalism, Book Notes

One response to “Origins of the term Fundamentalist

  1. ck

    Do you see any parallel trend in any Buddhist traditions that engage with modernity? I know that in academic studies of Buddhism in the West, there’s been a definite Protestant lens, which prompts questions of distilling it down to its rational “essentials.” But within the traditions themselves?

    I ask because I’m curious if you see this as a response that Abrahamic religions have primarily to modernity because of their reliance upon a divinely given text, and also because I wonder what the influence of Protestantism upon Buddhism has had for the way Buddhists themselves view their origins.

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