Fundamentalism is a religious response to modernity. Although the term is frequently used in a popular context to mean any religious position perceived to be traditional, archaic or scripture-bound, it has a specific meaning from an historical perspective, and a genealogy which has seen the term change from the self-referential description of a particular religious group, to a term which may have lost its impact through misplaced, and indiscriminate, application. Originally used by a specific group of American Protestants, who shared a similar world-view and theology, Fundamentalism grew from individuals within disparate denominations finding common cause to an organized movement with the power to challenge modernity at the level of the courtroom and the popular press. This essay will consider just how we can account for Fundamentalism’s emergence in the US by first considering its historical roots within the Great Awakening, and up to the 1920’s with the Scopes “Monkey” trial. Secondly it will consider the theological innovations that underpinned Fundamentalism by exploring both Dispensationalism and Premillenarianism, before finally placing Fundamentalism within its sociological background by looking at broader cultural movements in American society, and considering how changes in both the scientific and intellectual spheres challenged the traditional place of evangelical Protestantism.
Christian fundamentalism has been succinctly defined by George Marsden as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism.” In the latter part of the 19th century and into the first decades of the 20th they developed specific beliefs and operating principles that set them apart from what was, in their view, dangerously liberal evangelical Protestantism. In a post-Darwinian world the Protestant worldview, particularly in the US, came under a number of specific threats from advances in science and contemporary intellectual developments. Unlike the liberals, who sought compromise with these developments, it was the Fundamentalists “chief duty to combat uncompromisingly ‘modernist’ theology and certain secularizing cultural trends.’” This militant tendency would eventually lead them to challenge modernity in the courtroom, and through utilizing the political system to achieve their ends. Although Fundamentalists were anti-modernity, they were not anti-modern in their readiness to embrace new forms of communication media. Newspapers, publishing, cinema and radio were all exploited as effective methods to publicize their agenda. The very term “Fundamentalism” was coined in 1920, in the Watchman-Examiner newspaper, by Curtis Lee Laws, who defined fundamentalists as those ready to “do battle royal for the Fundamentals.” Traditional evangelicalism, from which Fundamentalism would grow, had taken shape during the Great Awakening of the 18th century. A series of Christian revivals had brought together a number of disparate movements, and blended Calvinist and Methodist theologies along with experiential conversion into a powerful and popular Christian movement. It also preached on the evils of alcohol and other forms of vice, in addition to the need to evangelize to the poor for their moral renewal through a social Gospel that emphasized personal piety and good works.
Nineteenth century America started out as an overwhelmingly Protestant country. The specific lineage of the majority group was traced back to northern European ancestry, from the settlers who had travelled across the Atlantic in search of land in which they might practice a truly reformed Christianity. Different colonies along the eastern seaboard had been under the theocratic rule of the different Protestant sects, yet all had a common purpose in implementing God’s will as laid out in the Bible. This would all change with the arrival in the 1820s off the first large scale immigration of Catholics, along with Jews and other religious minorities. Together with homegrown...
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