3 Types of Fundamentalists and Evangelicals After 1956

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Yesterday I linked to an address by David Dockery on the state of evangelicalism in the 21st century.

On Twitter, I highlighted the somewhat tongue-in-cheek definitions from Dr. Dockery:

In its most simple terms,

an evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham; a liberal is someone who thinks Billy Graham is a fundamentalist; and a fundamentalist is someone who thinks Billy Graham is apostate.

This is a riff on the statements by George Marsden that “A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something,” and that during the 1950s and 1960s, “the simplest, although very loose definition of an evangelical in the broad sense was ‘anyone who likes Billy Graham.'” (Fundamentalists had their own clever definitions. Bob Jones Sr. once defined an evangelical as someone who says to a liberal, “I’ll call you a Christian if you’ll call me a scholar.”)

These are basically aphorisms, of course, and can’t be used as airtight definitions. Marsden’s first one is not entirely fair (though it points to something all-too-often true), but his second one gets at an important factor: how conservative Protestants viewed Billy Graham was usually a pretty good indicator of how they saw themselves and interpreted the virtues and vices of others in the church, especially after Graham’s 1957 crusade in Madison Square Garden, in which fundamentalists were dismayed at his partnership with modernists.

In my opinion, the two best introductions to fundamentalism—indispensable treatments, really—are George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture (though I disagree with some of his analysis on the Princetonians and inerrancy) and Joel Carpenter’s Revive Us Again: the Reawakening of American Fundamentalism. Marsden focuses upon 1870-1925 and Carpenter focuses upon 1925-1950.

For an excellent analysis of mid-century fundamentalism up until the rise of the Religious Right (with special attention on the Baptist South), see Nathan Finn’s currently unpublished doctoral dissertation, “The Development of Baptist Fundamentalism in the South, 1940-1980.”

Finn shows that one common mistake in analyzing fundamentalism and evangelicalism is the assumption that they are simple, monolithic categories. In reality, there are subcultures within both, containing different visions and suspicions, even if united in some significant ways.

Using Finn’s analysis, we can map the three varieties of conservative Protestants after 1956 in the following way:

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 4.44.11 PM

Fundamentalism is a fascinating subject of study, still under-explored when it comes to its relationship to evangelicalism. But hopefully the introductory analysis above helps us begin to avoid the reflex to assume we are only talking about one unitary thing when we employ these labels.

Update: For those who want a helpful overview article before reading a whole book on this subject, see John Fea’s “Understanding the Changing Facade of Twentieth-Century American Protestant Fundamentalism: Toward a Historical Definition,” TrinJ 15:2 (Fall 1994): 181-99, who identifies four phases:

  1. irenic (1893-1919), which had more continuity with 19th century evangelicalism than 20th century militant fundamentalism
  2. militant (1920-1936), including the fundamentalist-modernist controversies
  3. divisive (1941-1960), which saw the intramural fragmentation into evangelical and separatist factions
  4. separatist (1960-present).

Fea’s concluding three points of application are spot on and should be taken to heart:

First, such a methodological treatment of fundamentalism should have some effect on how American religious historians understand the movement. Very few historians of American fundamentalism are aware of the subtle changes that fundamentalism has undergone through this century. Many historians tend to define a fundamentalist by certain doctrinal distinctives such as a belief in biblical inerrancy or dispensational eschatology. To interpret American fundamentalism solely through a doctrinal grid is to miss some of the social and ecclesiastical issues (separation, social concern, etc.) that have shaped the movement. While most fundamentalists and evangelicals have been united on certain creedal convictions, disagreements over minor doctrinal issues and the social and ecclesiastical implications of the Christian faith have historically created a great deal of diversity.

Second, such an interpretation of American fundamentalism has implications for religious pundits and observers, whether in the media or the academy, who tend to clump all religious conservatives under the banner of fundamentalism. It is clear that historically not all conservative Protestants desired the fundamentalist label. If religious observers were to examine the history of this popular and often pejorative label, they would find that many of the groups they label as fundamentalist have long traditions of opposing this descriptive religious term. Many such pundits may be surprised to find that only a small percentage of American Protestants use this label to describe themselves because of both the past and present implications surrounding the term.

Third, such an interpretation of fundamentalism should have implications for church leaders in American evangelicalism. Pastors, missionaries, educators, and religious leaders of all kinds should be aware that fundamentalists of the separatist variety do exist and have made up an important part of the “born-again” heritage in American culture. Most of their religious convictions stem from historical evangelical concerns such as personal holiness, revivalism, and the authority of Scripture. While there is a tendency to treat fundamentalists as extremists or ecclesiastical outcasts, for the most part they make up a unique part of the American evangelical tradition and should be understood in that light.

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