The word fundamental can describe any religious impulse that adheres to its basic tenets. Fundamentalism, for the purpose of this article, is a movement within the church that holds to the essentials of the Christian faith. In modern times the word fundamentalist is often used in a derogatory sense.
The Fundamentalist movement has its roots in Princeton Theological Seminary because of its association with graduates from that institution. Two wealthy church laymen commissioned ninety-seven conservative church leaders from all over the Western world to write 12 volumes on the basic tenets of the Christian faith. They then published these writings and distributed over 300,000 copies free of charge to ministers and others involved in church leadership. The books were entitled The Fundamentals, and they are still in print today as a two-volume set.
Fundamentalism was formalized in the late 19th century and early 20th century by conservative Christians—John Nelson Darby, Dwight L. Moody, B. B. Warfield, Billy Sunday, and others—who were concerned that moral values were being eroded by modernism—a belief that human beings (rather than God) create, improve, and reshape their environment with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation. In addition to fighting the influence of modernism, the church was struggling with the German higher criticism movement, which sought to deny the inerrancy of Scripture.
Fundamentalism is built on five tenets of the Christian faith, although there is much more to the movement than adherence to these tenets:
1) The Bible is literally true. Associated with this tenet is the belief that the Bible is inerrant, that is, without error and free from all contradictions.
2) The virgin birth and deity of Christ. Fundamentalists believe that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary and conceived by the Holy Spirit and that He was and is the Son of God, fully human and fully divine.
3) The substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross. Fundamentalism teaches that salvation is obtained only through God’s grace and human faith in Christ’s crucifixion for the sins of mankind.
4) The bodily resurrection of Jesus. On the third day after His crucifixion, Jesus rose from the grave and now sits at the right hand of God the Father.
5) The authenticity of Jesus’ miracles as recorded in Scripture and the literal, pre-millennial second coming of Christ to earth.
Other points of doctrine held by Fundamentalists are that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible and that the church will be raptured prior to the tribulation of the end times. Most Fundamentalists are also dispensationalists.
The Fundamentalist movement has often embraced a certain militancy for truth, and this led to some infighting. Many new denominations and fellowships appeared, as people left their churches in the name of doctrinal purity. One of the defining characteristics of Fundamentalism has been to see itself as the guardian of the truth, usually to the exclusion of others’ biblical interpretation. At that time of the rise of Fundamentalism, the world was embracing liberalism, modernism, and Darwinism, and the church itself was being invaded by false teachers. Fundamentalism was a reaction against the loss of biblical teaching.
The movement took a severe hit in 1925 by liberal press coverage of the legendary Scopes trial. Although Fundamentalists won the case, they were mocked publicly. Afterwards, Fundamentalism began to splinter and refocus. The most prominent and vocal group in the USA has been the Christian Right. This group of self-described Fundamentalists has been more involved in political movements than most other religious groups. By the 1990s, groups such as the Christian Coalition and Family Research Council have influenced politics and cultural issues. Today, Fundamentalism lives on in various evangelical groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention. Together, these groups claim to have more than 30 million followers.
Like all movements, Fundamentalism has enjoyed both successes and failures. The greatest failure may be in allowing Fundamentalism’s detractors define what it means to be a Fundamentalist. As a result, many people today see Fundamentalists as radical, snake-handling extremists who want to establish a state religion and force their beliefs on everyone else. This is far from the truth. Fundamentalists seek to guard the truth of Scripture and defend the Christian faith, which was “once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
The church today is struggling in the postmodern, secular culture and needs people who are not ashamed to proclaim the gospel of Christ. Truth does not change, and adherence to the fundamental principles of doctrine is needful. These principles are the bedrock upon which Christianity stands, and, as Jesus taught, the house built upon the Rock will weather any storm (Matthew 7:24-25).