The interpretation of American Fundamentalism has undergone considerable development since the 1960s. An earlier generation of scholarship understood it both theologically and culturally as a movement in the backwaters of American society that sought to deny the advances of modern culture in general and of science in particular. Academic interpreters recognized that it had something to do with religious faith but suggested it also reflected the sociological alterations in a society undergoing industrial and urban transformations. In the eyes of these historians the Fundamentalists were viewed primarily as opponents of modernity who left their mark on denominational machinery of many Protestant bodies. Religiously, in this view, Fundamentalists expressed resistance to scientifically informed thought. Politically they expressed attitudes of alienation and distrust. Psychologically they tended toward authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism.
Historians in more recent analyses have suggested that these cultural explanations of Fundamentalism were caricatures of something that was also theological and stood in a legitimate intellectual and theological tradition. The work of Ernest Sandeen, The roots of Fundamentalism, provided a corrective by noting the Fundamentalist rootage in 19th-century theology, particularly a millenarian tradition and Princeton [Seminary] theology. He provided a theological definition of Fundamentalism by describing it as an alliance between dispensational premillennialism and a doctrine of inspiration that guaranteed an inerrant Scripture. This interpretation of Fundamentalism suggested not so much anti-intellectualism but rather intellectualism of a different sort.
The most recent scholarship, specifically the work of George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American culture renders a much more complex interpretation that recognizes Fundamentalism as a variegated phenomenon that embraced many strands of the American religious past. It represented the confluence of lingering forms of 19th century revivalism, Pietism, Evangelicalism, Presbyterian theology that was congealing at Princeton Seminary, historic Methodism as influenced by the holiness movement and Pentecostalism, new millenarian interpretations, Common Sense or Baconian science, and many forms of denominational conservatism.
For Marsden the story of Fundamentalism centers on how people of diverse strands who commonly thought of themselves as evangelical Christians were influenced by and responded to the religious and intellectual crisis of the late 19th and early 20th century. These evangelicals were the heirs of the respectable Christians who had hoped to fashion a Christian society. They sensed that the culture in which they were located was clearly turning away from its religious past and from the shared assumptions that they and other Americans had long sustained.
The evangelical assumptions were fast corroding under the impact of modernity. Modernism comprised both a new theology and the cultural changes which that theology endorsed. It was the banning of God from the creation of the universe and thereby implicitly from his continuing role in the world, together with the social and cultural changes sustaining this new scientism. Fundamentalism was the militant opposition to modernism in both forms. These changes threatened the Puritan and early 19th-century evangelical ideal of building a Christian civilization. The Fundamentalists alternatively wished to redeem America and restore the ideal or to abandon the social order even to the point of withdrawing from it. For Marsden it was a movement of both cultural and theological opposition to the drift of North American culture.
The Marsden interpretation suggests that while Fundamentalism was certainly a defense of the faith, it was also part of the larger search for the relationship between culture and Christianity within the American context. The agonizing reappraisal required by both the cultural and theological changes produced theological and cultural Fundamentalism.
For Mennonites Fundamentalism was also a way to reassess cultural and theological issues. The dialogue that Mennonite Fundamentalists engaged in paralleled the national discussion in various ways but was also modulated by historic Mennonite distinctives and concerns. With the exception of John Horsch, the Mennonite Church (MC) writer and historian, Mennonites were not participants in the larger Fundamentalist movement. Yet they were participants in their own way in both forms of Fundamentalism -- theological and cultural. The precise mixture of the two forms varied among Mennonite groups, depending upon the history of the particular group.
Mennonite scholarship of the 1970s and 1980s suggested three conceptual frameworks for understanding Mennonite Fundamentalism. They reflect the impact of Sandeen and Marsden. The first interpretation assumes that ever since the mid-19th century for General Conference Mennonites (GCM) and since the late 19th century for Mennonite Church (MC) and Mennonite Brethren Mennonites the various groups had been in a process of developing the characteristics of American denominationalism. Denominations are defined in various ways, but common to most definitions are the creation of purposive activities and a clearly articulated theology. The purposive activities are new forms of work and activity by which the group coheres and extends itself into the larger world (evangelism, mission, schools and other institutions). The creation of an articulated theology is the necessary second stage in the creating of an identifiable denomination in the mosaic of American denominations. Theological Fundamentalism was part of the larger search for the distinctives of Mennonite theology. The American Fundamentalist movement coincided with this second stage of the denominationalizing process. Amidst the dividing of theology into two mutually exclusive and even hostile camps, Mennonites also had to define and distinguish a theology. In so doing, it was easy to borrow American formulations. The Mennonite Church (MC) adoption of the Eighteen Fundamentals at the 1921 general conference, as one example of this borrowing and systematizing, should be understood as part of the larger pattern of becoming a denomination in the American tradition.
The second framework suggests that the Mennonites who seem to be Fundamentalist were frequently denominational conservatives. Many of them distanced themselves from the highly structured and tightly guarded system of the Fundamentalist crusaders. Ambivalence about dispensational premillennialism characterized the major Mennonite groups. A softening of the constricted language of inspiration and the creedal quality of the "Fundamentalists" placed them in an older tradition of theological orthodoxy. They were the traditionalists who wished to conserve the distinctive traditions of the various Mennonite denominations. They meant to insure that the new issues of scriptural authority or millenarianism, did not overwhelm the older corpus of belief. These Mennonite conservatives frequently thought of themselves as more fundamental than the Fundamentalists in that they sought to preserve and even revitalize such historic fundamentals as nonconformity and nonresistance as well as the new issues in the "Fundamentalist party" agenda.
The third perspective suggests that Mennonite Church (MC) Fundamentalism was a response to the awakening or quickening (renaissance) which had significantly transformed Mennonites' relationship to the larger world (acculturation; language problem); that General Conference Mennonite Church Fundamentalism was an initial way of responding to the cultural transition accompanying World War I and the subsequent adaptation of a substantially Germanic population to the psychic requirements of Americanization; and that Mennonite Brethren Fundamentalism emerged also with the transition from a largely closed Germanic culture and language to more open participation in American society. The awakening for the Mennonite Church (MC) and the cultural transitions for the Mennonite Brethren and General Conference Mennonite Church brought greater interaction with the larger Protestant and national culture. Among those who wandered more freely in these circles a few brought back hints of theological modernism. More brought back a refusal to utilize the categories of the strict Fundamentalists, and in a world of simple dichotomies they seemed to be liberals. Even more brought back forms of cultural modernism: new fashions, new modes of conversation, new aspirations, new forms of church worship services, new educational degrees.
Fundamentalism came to differing parts of the North American Mennonite world at different times. But for all it was a way of responding to the groups' changed relationship to the dominant culture. Fundamentalism among Mennonites was as much an effort to redefine the relationship between culture and Christianity as a crusade to root out theological modernism. It was significantly a cultural movement because the theological modernism in the Mennonite world was only incipient and marginal. Cultural Fundamentalism was a way to codify doctrine, reassert churchly authority and redefine cultural boundaries. More rigid forms of authority and order are antidotes to rapid social change.
As the Mennonite boundaries became more permeable, as the cultural shifts were navigated, and as newer theological formulations, largely rooted in the rediscovery of the historic tradition, emerged, the need for Fundamentalism diminished. Theologically Fundamentalism in the major Mennonite denominational bodies may be thought of as a transitional theology between an inherited 19th-century theology, less doctrinal and precisely formulated, and the emergence of a theological biblicism rooted in a rediscovered Anabaptist hermeneutical tradition. After an initial stage in more formal theologizing when Fundamentalist categories seemed appropriate, they became increasingly less central to Mennonite theological reflection. -- Paul Toews
Fundamentalism, a movement in conservative American Protestantism in the first half of the 20th century of reaction against the growth of theological liberalism and modernism, derived its name largely from two sources: (1) the publication in 1909 of a series of 12 small volumes in defense of conservative theology called The Fundamentals, of which almost 3,000,000 copies were circulated (2,000,000 in America and 1,000,000 in the wider English-speaking world), and (2) the World Christian Fundamentals Association, which was organized at Philadelphia in 1919 and continued in existence until its merger in 1950 with the Slavic Missionary Society. At its organizing meeting the W.C.F.A. adopted the following statement of Christian fundamentals as standards of evangelical ordiodoxy:
- We believe in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as verbally inspired of God, and inerrant in the original writings, and that they are supreme and final authority in faith and life.
- We believe in one God, eternally existing in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- We believe that Jesus Christ was begotten by the Holy Spirit, and was born of the Virgin Mary, and is true God and true man.
- We believe that man was created in the image of God, that he sinned and thereby incurred not only physical death but also that spiritual death which is separation from God, and that all human beings are born with a sinful nature, and, in case of those who reach moral responsibility, become sinners in thought, word, and deed.
- We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures as a representative and substitutionary sacrifice; and that all that believe in Him are justified on the ground of His shed blood.
- We believe in the resurrection of the crucified body of our Lord, in His ascension into heaven, and in His present life there for us, as High Priest and Advocate.
- We believe in "that blessed hope," the personal, premillennial, and imminent return of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
- We believe that all who receive by faith the Lord Jesus Christ are born again of the Holy Spirit and thereby become children of God.
- We believe in the bodily resurrection of the just and the unjust, the everlasting blessing of the saved and the everlasting conscious punishment of the lost.
The evangelical movement of protest against the inroads of modernism began long before the W.C.F.A., and was far more widespread than this organization, but the W.C.F.A. focused the movement and for a time gave it greatly increased vigor and influence. It had its earlier roots in interdenominational Bible conferences and Prophetic conferences, and it found organized expression in several of the larger Protestant denominations, particularly, Baptist, Methodist, Disciples, and Presbyterian. Numerous other interdenominational conservative organizations and institutions, such as the widespread Bible institutes and numerous local and regional Bible conferences as well as a considerable amount of periodical and pamphlet literature, contributed to the strength of Fundamentalism. A number of smaller orthodox denominations joined the movement en masse. The outstanding Fundamentalist leader was W. B. Riley of Minneapolis, president of the W.C.F.A. throughout its history, and militant advocate of its cause, founder and long-time president of the Northwestern Bible Institute.
The movement reached its height during the period of 1925-1930, after which it declined rapidly in volume and strength. Part of the loss in strength was due to excessive polemicism and a certain hyper-fundamentalism which proved unattractive to the masses and quite unsatisfactory to moderate conservatives. The strong emphasis on nondenominationalism alienated others. In the large denominations the Fundamentalists failed in their intent to capture the organizational machinery, and consequently many Fundamentalists withdrew from the denominations to form independent fundamentalist churches and affiliations. Furthermore, the growing tide of Neo-orthodoxy in the second quarter of the century displaced much of outright modernism in the denominations. By 1955 only a small remnant of organized Fundamentalism remained, its most polemic and vocal wing, represented chiefly by the rather small American Council of Christian Churches. The smaller evangelical denominations, which had sympathized largely with Fundamentalism, organized the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942, which had several times the constituency membership of die A.C.C.C. in the mid-1950s.
American Mennonites, historically fully evangelical and orthodox, and deeply loyal to the Bible, were not unaffected by the organized Fundamentalist movement. Here and there individual Mennonite pastors joined the local or regional and national Fundamentalist organizations, and occasionally served as leaders in them. Most Mennonites sympathized warmly with the struggle against modernism, although modernism had had only small success in infiltrating the several Mennonite denominational bodies. Some Mennonite colleges were for a time under considerable suspicion, criticism, and attack for liberal tendencies. By and large, however, the Mennonite groups did not formally join the Fundamentalist ranks, although they almost without exception held to the fundamentals and considered themselves to be fundamentalists in a descriptive sense. When the N.A.E. was organized the only Mennonite body to join it was the Mennonite Brethren Church. Grace Bible Institute, an inter-Mennonite educational institution, founded at Omaha, Nebraska, in 1945, undoubtedly owes its existence in a large part to the Fundamentalist spirit in several Mennonite bodies. The more conservative Mennonite bodies were aided in their resistance to Fundamentalist influences by their traditional objection to outside influences and contacts, and by their strong insistence upon nonresistance, which the Fundamentalists usually sharply rejected (many Fundamentalists manifested a strongly militaristic spirit). In a few cases, however, schisms occurred in local Mennonite congregations over fundamentalist-type issues, some as late as 1954-1956, the withdrawing groups at times dropping the name Mennonite altogether.
Considerable Fundamentalist influence has been exercised upon some Mennonite bodies through attendance of their young people at Fundamentalist Bible institutes. The close union of Premillennialism and Dispensationalism with Fundamentalism has contributed to the considerable growth of these systems of thought in some Mennonite bodies, again often through the Bible institutes. The polemic spirit of Fundamentalism has also at times infected Mennonites and contributed to tension and contention. That certain Calvinistic doctrines such as eternal security have been adopted by some Mennonites is due almost entirely to Fundamentalist influence, Fundamentalists being largely Calvinistic in theology.
From the vantage point of 1956, with a considerably faded Fundamentalism and a generally subsiding Fundamentalist influence, Mennonites, though generally continuing to insist upon a conservative evangelical theology and resisting Modernism in any form, see more clearly than before that they belong neither in the Modernist nor Fundamentalist camps, but have a satisfactory Biblicism and evangelicalism of their own with its unique Anabaptist heritage. - Harold S. Bender
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The Fundamentals: a testimony to the truth (The Fundamentals first published in 1909 in twelve volumes; here from 1917 text)
|Harold S. Bender
Cite This Article
Toews, Paul and Harold S. Bender. "Fundamentalism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 2 Mar 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Fundamentalism&oldid=162877.
Toews, Paul and Harold S. Bender. (1989). Fundamentalism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 March 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Fundamentalism&oldid=162877.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 418-419; v. 5, pp. 318-320. All rights reserved.
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