Fundamentalism celebrates 100 years, a turning point for the Christian right


Nowadays, the term “fundamentalism” is often associated with a militant form of Islam.

But the original fundamentalist movement was actually Christian. And he was born in the United States a century ago this year.

Protestant fundamentalism is still very much alive. And, as Susan Trollinger and I discuss in our 2016 book, it fueled today’s cultural warfare over gender, sexual orientation, science, and American religious identity.

Roots of Fundamentalism

Christian fundamentalism has its roots in the 19th century, when Protestants faced two challenges to traditional understanding of the Bible.

Throughout the century, scholars have increasingly valued the Bible as a historical text. In the process, they raised questions about its divine origins, given its apparent inconsistencies and errors.

In addition, Charles Darwin’s 1859 book “On the Origin of Species” – which set out the theory of evolution by natural selection – raised deep questions about the creation story in Genesis.

Many American Protestants easily squared their Christian faith with these ideas. Others were horrified.

Conservative theologians have responded by developing the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Inerrancy claims that the Bible is without error and correct in everything it says, including science.

This doctrine has become the theological touchstone of fundamentalism. Along with inerrancy emerged a system of ideas, called apocalyptic or “dispensational premillennialism”.

Followers of these ideas argue that reading the Bible literally – especially the book of Revelation – reveals that the story will soon end with a dreadful apocalypse.

All those who are not true Christians will be slaughtered. As a result of this violence, Christ will establish the millennial kingdom of God on Earth.

Christian fundamentalists have remained consistent in their core beliefs for a century.


A series of Bible and prophetic lectures spread these ideas to thousands of Protestants across the United States in the late 19th century.

But two publications from the beginning of the 20th century were particularly decisive for their distribution.

The first was the 1909 Reference Bible by author Cyrus Scofield. Scofield’s Bible included an overwhelming set of footnotes pointing out that the Error-Free Bible foretells a violent end to history which only true Christians will survive.

The second was “The Fundamentals,” 12 volumes published between 1910 and 1915 which argued for biblical inerrancy while simultaneously attacking socialism and affirming capitalism.

“The Fundamentals” provided the name of the future religious movement. But there was no fundamentalist movement yet.

It happened after World War I.

The birth of the fundamentalist movement

After Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war on Germany in April 1917, the government mounted a massive propaganda campaign designed to demonize the Germans as the barbaric Huns who threatened Western civilization. Many conservative Protestants have traced Germany’s devolution from depravity to its adherence to Darwinism and the de-emphasis of the divine origins of the Bible.

Six months after the war ended, William Bell Riley – pastor of the First Baptist Church in Minneapolis and well-known speaker on Bible prophecy concerning the end of history – organized and chaired the World Conference on Christian Foundations in Philadelphia .

This five-day meeting in May 1919 drew over 6,000 people and a range of conservative Protestant speakers. He produced the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, which spawned a movement that influences American political and social life today.

During the summer and fall of 1919, Riley sent teams of speakers to spread the fundamentalist word across the United States. In addition to promoting biblical inerrancy and apocalyptic premillennialism, they attacked socialism and Darwinism.

Soon Riley and his new fundamentalists began trying to take control of the major Protestant denominations and eliminate the teaching of Darwinian evolution from American public schools.

The anti-evolution crusade has had some success in the South. Five states have passed laws banning the theory of evolution in classrooms.

In March 1925, Tennessee made it illegal to teach “that man descends from a lower order of animals.” Four months later, a science professor named John Scopes was tried and convicted of breaking the law.

A historical marker outside the courthouse in Dayton, Tenn., Where the Scopes trial of 1925 took place.
AP Photo / Mark Humphrey

Fundamentalism after the litters

Although the Scopes trial was ridiculed by the national media, fundamentalism has not weakened.

Instead, it continued to progress through the 20th century. And it has remained remarkably consistent in its central commitments of Biblical inerrancy, apocalyptic premillennialism, creationism, and patriarchy – the idea that women must submit to male authority in church and home.

Fundamentalists have also embraced political conservatism. This commitment intensified as the 20th century progressed.

Fundamentalists despised President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. They viewed the welfare of the poor and raising taxes for the rich as an indefensible expansion of government powers.

When the Cold War brought the United States into conflict with the Soviet Union, their concerns about the anti-Christian and universal state intensified.

Then came the 1960s and 1970s.

Fundamentalists have fiercely opposed civil rights and feminist movements, Supreme Court rulings banning school-sponsored prayer and asserting a woman’s right to abortion, and President Lyndon Johnson’s programs that sought to eliminate poverty and racial injustice.

Fundamentalists go into politics

Realizing that Christian America was under deadly assault, in the late 1970s, these politically conservative fundamentalists began to organize.

The emerging Christian right has attached itself to the Republican Party, more aligned with the central commitments of its members than the Democrats.

At the forefront was Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell Sr. His “moral majority” sought to make America Christian again by electing “pro-family, pro-life, pro-biblical morality” candidates.

President Ronald Reagan with Pastor Jerry Falwell Sr., March 1983.
White House / Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Since the 1980s, the movement has become increasingly sophisticated. Christian right-wing organizations like Focus on the Family and Concerned Women of America are pushing for laws that reflect fundamentalist views on everything from abortion to sexual orientation.
By Falwell’s death in 2007, the Christian right had become the most prominent constituency in the Republican Party. He played a crucial role in the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

After a century, Protestant fundamentalism is still alive and well in America. William Bell Riley, I bet, would be delighted.

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