A Brief History of Fundamentalist Christianity in the USA

When we talk about the history of Fundamentalism & rightwing Politics, we have to go all the way back to the mid-to-late 1800s, when both Darwin’s theory of evolution AND the field of archaeology’s discoveries led to a controversy over the reliability of the Bible to give Western societies a proper account of humanity’s origins. Until then, the Bible—to Protestant Evangelicalism (begun mainly by George Whitefield & John Wesley in the 1700s)—had been unchallenged as the inerrant & infallible, inspired “Word of God.” [It is interesting to note that both the First & Second American Great Awakenings brought schism to American Evangelicalism, with special regard to creedalism v. experiential revivalism, & particularly Presbyterians—the most influential denomination at that time, visible in Princeton & Union.]

Slavery Divided the Conquerors

Concurrent to Darwin, in 1857, the Civil War split the American Presbyterian Church over slavery. [As an aside, one might note what some call the Third American Great Awakening or the (Prayer) Revival of 1857, which took also took effect in 1859 in Ulster, Kells, Wales & Scotland] But I digress. Neither Darwin’s books, nor archaeology’s discoveries stopped the advance of both American & British Evangelicalism’s colonizing mission efforts, across the “English-speaking world” and beyond. In my opinion, the functional economic of that era was, “if America & England could no longer import slaves, and if they could not force labor in the colonies, then religion would serve to subdue / control the colonies, or even advance the spread of the white American & English Imperial reach.”

To be fair, some good was done by these mission efforts, such as William Booth’s “Salvation Army” and (later) Edgar J Helm’s Goodwill, D.L. Moody’s Sunday School (for the under educated), orphanages like George Müller’s, Methodist hospitals, sanitation developments & relief creation. YET, one must understand that up until the late 1800s, “the Church” was the uncontested center for ALL humanitarian aid (besides debtor’s prison & work houses) and social benefits (e.g. acts of charity/mercy). That is a power, which is very hard to give up, especially when government wants it. And so, interdenominational cooperation in the form of missionary societies was big back then, & men like James Hudson Taylor were making a big sensation and impact with his interdenominational China Inland Mission.

Heaven Forbid Science & Archaeology

Back home (off the “mission fields”), however, higher textual criticism, Darwinist evolution & archaeology & Marx & Rauschenbusch were causing unrest in the denominations by teaching a “social gospel,” which was rather Kierkegaardian (if not Anabaptist), in that these ideologies forced ministers and missionaries to take a hard look at their classist, white supremacist, self-protectionism, & Empire-supporting, systemically oppressive/abusive theologies, which were not at all like Jesus and his Way. By the late 19th C., in England, among Baptists like Charles Spurgeon, we saw battles with names like, “the Downgrade Controversy,” centering on denouncing textual criticism and ridiculing the liberalism & pragmatism of the social gospel in Baptist denominations. Like Darwinism, Bible textual criticism was fairly new and many were quick to make logical leaps that cancelled out millennia worth of beliefs. The sciences were young. That aside, and despite the industrial revolution’s putting a stranglehold on the poor and working class, men like Spurgeon focused on rejecting theological liberalism and the social gospel vehemently. Again, ceding power (inherent in acts of mercy and charity) to “secular” government institutions, instead of continuing to be a means of bringing converts into the denominations, was a big taboo. It meant both donor money & needy “converts” would be steered away from dependency on the churches & directed toward “secular” governments instead. Due to the Downgrade Controversy [Baptist] and the Briggs Affair [Presbyterian] both sides of the Atlantic were buzzing with Church turmoil in the late 1800s.

Pre-War Ecumenism, 1910, & Big Oil (Rockefeller & Lyman)

[As an aside, one might be interested to note the Welsh Revival c. 1904-1905 focused mainly on the lay ministry of youth in disorganized and irregular meetings. “Begun as an effort to kindle non-denominational, non-sectarian spirituality, the Welsh revival of 1904-05 coincided with the rise of the labour movement, socialism, and a general disaffection with religion among the working class and youths.” (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/1904–1905_Welsh_revival) Some historians credit the Pentecostal Asuza Street Revival of 1906 in California with direct correlation to the 1904/05 Welsh Revival, and Evan Roberts (a leader in the Welsh Revival) spend most of his days in seclusion, writing and defending refutations of false/fake spiritual experiences.]

1910 was a big year. In reaction to theological liberalism, American Presbyterians had revised their Westminster Confession of Faith & then produced “the Five Fundamentals.” Technically, that is where the term “fundamentalist” first arises in Protestant American Evangelical church history. Lyman Stewart, co-founder of Union Oil, paid to have pamphlets on the fundamentals distributed widely. Stewart was also a dispensationalist; but the scholars, who wrote the articles, were not. UNFORTUNATELY, dispensationalism became elevated to the level of the other fundamentals because of Stewart.

On the other side of the pond, 1910 saw the first (Protestant) world mission conference, held in Edinburgh, Scotland and attended largely by youth. The conference adopted a motto: “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” Mostly, post-millennialism [rooted in Augustinian covenant replacement (supercessionist) theology], fueled this maniacal vision of converting the entire world to Western Europe’s Churchianity; but anyone who was anyone in Protestant Evangelicalism joined in. Unless they accomplished this, Jesus could not return. 1910 was the first time the modern world saw a seed form of globally scaled, fundamentalist, evangelical, apocalyptic Christianity (See The Great Commission is Not What Fundamentalist Evangelicals Say)

“The mood at the second world mission conference, held in Jerusalem in 1928, was quite different. The first world war provoked by “Christian” countries had profoundly challenged the ideal of the Western civilization as embodiment of the gospel. The communist revolution of 1917 had made the dream of evangelizing the whole world within one generation unrealistic.” (https://www.oikoumene.org/en/what-we-do/cwme/history)

Post-War Ecumenism & the Death of Mainline Protestant Missions

World War I indeed changed the global landscape of beliefs, both religiously and in views of what constitutes responsible governance. Near the end of the Great War, the seat of global influence shifted from England to the USA’s industrial tycoons. Whereas John D. Rockefeller, Sr. had contented himself with philanthropy through the Church, his son, J.D. Rockefeller, Jr., focused a great deal on improving society via Progressive ideals and the Social Gospel via social sciences & public health and safety studies from 1913–1926; and he used government means to do it (repealing prohibition, fighting venereal disease & helping Margaret Sanger establish birth control clinics).

When J.D. Rockefeller Jr. did involve himself in Church matters, he invested heavily [“follow the money”] in ecumenical organisations, like the Federal Council of Churches (f. 1908), which advanced Progressivism and the Social Gospel. The Presbyterian Church adopted the creed of the Federal Council of Churches (FCC) in… you guessed it, 1910. WWI led the FCC to create the Interchurch World Movement in 1919. Also in 1919, and with no mere coincidence, theological modernists and theological conservatives debated the creation of a union of churches from 17 American Protestant denominations. The result was the 1920 founding of United Churches of Christ in America—and it became the first interdenominational, religious super-PAC of its time, a kind of precursor to the Moral Majority & Religious Right of the the late 20th C. The UCC oversaw interdenominational missions & lobbied for things like the Prohibition. So, technically the Progressive Movement is to blame for the original encroachment of the Church upon the State in America, supported by oil money. [Later, Rockefeller Jr., would seek the repeal of the Prohibition, b/c it brought too much contempt for the law.]

[Aside: The Church’s answer to the human condition in the 1910s – 1920s, exacerbated by WWI, was to preach ‘repentance of sins,’ such as drunkenness (ex. Billy Sunday’s theatrical sermons & pushes for prohibition laws), prostitution, sex outside of marriage, etc, etc. But, what the Church could not account for was the collective, societal PTSD & C-PTSD, resulting from the mass trauma of the most brutal war in human history. Fundamentalist churches simply preached that anger & depression were sins and/or a demonic influence. Dispensational charismatism (Pentecostal, 1906 Azusa Street Revival: again, some say was a direct descendant of the 1904/05 Welsh Revival) made the assertion of demonic oppression most popular. In contradiction of charismatism, other theological conservatives, like B. B. Warfield at Princeton, declared cessationism (non-existence of spiritual gifts).]

The Roaring 20s & the Fundamentalists Go Independent

Old School Presbyterian leaders at Princeton (like J. Gresham Machen) reacted sharply to the 1920 United Churches in Christ formation. Machen—a fundamentalist—opposed it. He didn’t want the modernists to win control of the Presbyterian denomination, because the unique tenets of Presbyterian faith would be erased. But others, like Henry Fosdick argued that modernists were just trying to reconcile science & Faith. The fundamentalists saw that attempt at reconciliation as a secularization leading to altruistic sentiments, without God.

From 1922-1925, loads of Assemblies and Affirmations occurred, mainly centering around Princeton and the Presbyterian denomination.

Then, in 1925, the Scopes (Monkey) Trial ensued, and from 1926-1932, Princeton University was a virtual territorial battleground.

In 1930, J.D. Rockefeller, Jr. overtly stepped back onto the scene, this time to commission some Baptist laymen to see if missions was worth (his) investments. The operation would be called the Layman’s Inquiry. A Harvard professor (William Ernest Hocking) also conducted a study concurrently. The result of the Layman’s Inquiry was a publication titled, “Re-Thinking Missions: A Laymen’s Inquiry after One Hundred Years in 1932.”

Re-Thinking Missions” argued that in the face of emerging secularism, Christians should ally with other world religions, rather than struggle against them. The seven major denominations behind the inquiry didn’t like that result. The Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions issued a statement reaffirming the board’s commitment to the evangelistic basis of the missionary enterprise and to Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Savior. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamentalist–Modernist_controversy)

The one-time, Presbyterian missionary turn feminist, activist and first female Nobelaureate author, Pearl Buck, picked up & ran with the Layman’s Report. After returning to the United States in 1935, she continued writing prolifically, became a prominent advocate of the rights of women and minority groups, and wrote widely on Chinese and Asian cultures, becoming particularly well known for her efforts on behalf of Asian and mixed-race adoption. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pearl_S._Buck)

Pearl Buck’s influence led to fundamentalist Presbyterians (J Gresham Machen) seeing a need to form an independent (fundamental) Presbyterian mission board, which most Presbyterians (1934) saw as a violation of Presbyterian constitution. Machen was defrocked, but he, Westminster Seminary and 7 other ousted Presbyterian ministers formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1939.

When the outcome of the Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy brought the Presbyterians into the camp willing to accommodate modernism, this left the Southern Baptists as the only mainstream denomination where fundamentalists were still active within the denomination. Fundamentalists and modernists would continue to struggle within the Southern Baptist Convention and the triumph of fundamentalist views in that denomination would not be secure until the Southern Baptist Convention conservative resurgence of 1979–1990, [featuring men like defamed Paige Patterson and Richard Land: see https://baptistnews.com/article/ousted-baptist-seminary-president-paige-patterson-to-co-teach-ethics-course-with-former-colleague-richard-land/#.XQNB8yWIaaM)]

The social tensions and prejudices created by the Fundamentalist-Modernist split would remain very active within American Christianity into the twenty-first century, with modernists seeing fundamentalists as intolerant, and fundamentalists seeing modernists as overly willing to compromise with the forces of secularism, abandoning authentic Christianity in the process. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamentalist–Modernist_controversy), brackets mine

Out of the Great War, over Atheistic Communism, through the Roaring 20s & into Conservative American Politics

Because Fundamentalism formed from theological warfare surrounding liberal theology, it saw its societal enemies as political progressivism & liberalism, namely communism, evolution and atheism. Because of its staunchly Protestant history, Fundamentalism also vehemently resisted the political and ecumenical efforts of the Roman Catholic Church.

There are significant ecclesiastical considerations [to the rise of fundamentalism]: its non-denominationalism was a contributing factor. There are also theological considerations: a strong dispensational pre-millennialism played a large part in its growth [in Methodist, Baptists, Pentecostals and Lyman Stewart influenced Presbyterians; although post-millennialism played just as much a role in reformed Presbyterians & Baptist associations]. Others see the core of fundamentalism forming around educational institutions (schools, colleges, and universities) or mission agencies, conferences, and the many fundamentalist periodicals that came into existence [during the early 20th Century’s fundamentalist / modernist controversy].

…fundamentalism developed alongside political ideologies both in North America and in Northern Ireland. In North America fundamentalism became closely allied with the politics of the anti-communist movement [c. 1917] and the struggle against America’s foreign policy regarding the Soviet Union and China. In Northern Ireland, militant “fighting fundamentalism” developed in connection with the political struggles and the threat of a united Ireland [c. 1916] which coincided with an antipathy towards Roman Catholicism. In Canada William Aberhart from Alberta founded the Social Credit Party during the depression of the 1930s, and during WWII T. T. Shields became more political against the Roman Catholic Province of Quebec. Shields’s political aspirations did not come to anything. (http://thinkgospel.com/the-achilles-heel-of-fundamentalism), brackets mine

Fundamentalists feared America’s becoming an atheistic nation most of all. As a result, a boom of fundamentalist Christian colleges/seminaries, publications, and mission boards were either formed or commandeered in the 1930s & 1940s.

During the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s, Christian evangelist Bob Jones, Sr. grew increasingly concerned about the secularization of higher education and the influence of religious liberalism in denominational colleges. Children of church members were attending college, only to reject the faith of their parents. Jones later recalled that in 1924, his friend William Jennings Bryan had leaned over to him at a Bible conference service in Winona Lake, Indiana, and said, “If schools and colleges do not quit teaching evolution as a fact, we are going to become a nation of atheists.”

A Fundamentalism for The Baby Boomers / Hippies

WWII and the rush to create independent, fundamental institutions kept fundamentalists either occupied or occupying from the late 1930s to the late 1940s and up to the rise of the Iron Curtain. Due to having adopted a warfare mentality, which had been further ingrained by 2 world wars, a Korean War, and a Vietnam War,

when major differences developed among [the fundamentalists], they continued to treat each other badly [1950s–1970s].” The history of fundamentalism therefore is littered with [cultish power dynamics &] division among the leaders (Jack Hyles, Bob Jones, Sr., John R. Rice, T. T. Shields, Ian Paisley, and Carl Macintyre to name a few). http://thinkgospel.com/the-achilles-heel-of-fundamentalism, brackets mine

Despite their ever-infinitesimal faction creating, the Fundamentalists were organized enough to keep preaching their 14th Century, Dante’s Inferno styled “Escape Hell Fire & Brimstone to go to Heaven” version of salvation. They emphasized “making a decision for Jesus” by preaching against the same sins as they did to WWI trauma survivors. Fundamentalists presented themselves as defenders of Americana, the American Way, of Civil Religion, Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery. They never touched upon the familial and societal devastation brought by successive generations of America’s warfare culture, nor did they talk about the USA’s increasing Imperialist global presence, its persistent racism and oppression of minorities (including America’s Japanese concentration camps).

…During the late 1950s, BJU and alumnus Billy Graham, who had attended Bob Jones College for one semester and received an honorary degree from the university in 1948, engaged in a controversy [the fundamentalist/new evangelical controversy] about the propriety of theological conservatives cooperating with theological liberals to support evangelistic campaigns, a controversy that widened an already growing rift between separatist fundamentalists and other evangelicals. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Jones_University)

During the 1960s & 1970s, the resurgence of Soviet Russia, the Pink Scare and Lavender Scare, the Castros, the Bay of Pigs, and the Space Race egged on the fundamentalists, who were already frantic to stem the societal tidal waves of the sexual revolution, of feminism and women’s liberation, anti-racism, anti-authoritarianism and disestablishmentarianism. While Billy Graham preached crusades anywhere and everywhere invited (even to Queen Elizabeth II), but still did not see the societal reform (Revival) he hoped for, Conservative evangelicals and fundamentalist in America began listening to fundamentalists like Rousas Rushdoony, Gary North & Greg Bahnsen, who were Christian Reconstructionists. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_reconstructionism

These fundamentalists believe society should be turned Christian via Theonomy, the infiltration of all branches of government to establish biblical laws. Admittedly, it sounds like radical Islam’s Sharia, but it finds its roots in post-millennial, Augustinian reformed, covenant (replacement) theology—the belief that Christians are the new Israel, replacing Jews; and so, must bring in the kingdom of God by establishing His laws in society before Jesus can return. One of the conservative evangelicals listening to these Dominionist Christian fascists was Jerry Falwell, Sr., who worked in the 1970s to establish the Christian Right’s Moral Majority in the USA, resulting in the elections of Jimmy Carter & Ronald Reagan [counterpart to England’s Margaret Thatcher]… and also George H. W. Bush (instead of Falwell’s televangelist rival, charismatic Pat Robertson). [The Christian School Movement and the Homeschool movement are adaptive spin offs of the Christian Reconstructionist ideology].

The Rise of Bill Gothard, his “Opening” Russia & More Fundamentalist Politics

Also within Fundamentalism, concurrent to Rushdoony & Falwell in the 1970s, a man named Bill Gothard gained a unifying popularity among independent fundamentalism’s splintered factions, because he capitalized on the fundamentalists’ penchant for moral and behavioral absolutes, for externals-focused religion, authoritarianism & obedient submission to quash rebellion in youth.

By the 1980s, Bill Gothard obtained celebrity status among every sect of independent, fundamental churches, including Holiness movement churches, which stemmed into Pentecostalism (think Oral Roberts). He had developed a cultish curriculum and a non-profit organization, then called The Institute of Basic Youth Conflicts, now known as IBLP (Institute of Basic Life Principles) & ATI. Gothard’s reach was into the hundreds of thousands at that time, and this made him not just a household name among fundamentalists but also a very powerful ally to institutions like Bob Jones University.

One of Bob Jones University’s fixers (back in the 70s & 80s) was Wayne Van Gelderen, Sr. In 1980, when a sexual scandal hit Bill Gothard, Van Gelderen, Sr. and another BJU goon were called to cover it up. (https://clintonverley.wordpress.com/2014/03/04/new-gothard-revelations-hint-at-bjus-ugly-history-of-abuse/amp/)

The Fall of the Iron Curtain, the Eventual Fall of Bill Gothard & The Rise of the New Moral Majority

In 1991, the Iron Curtain fell, and independent fundamentalists, as well as conservative evangelicals, fueled by their “missionary” fervor, wished to rush into the vacuum left by atheist communism and reconstruct post-Soviet Russia. As soon as he could, Bill Gothard gathered a 747 full of 300 of his best obedient & attractive, young subservients and flew them to Russia to meet Dr. Kezina of the Moscow Department of Education. (http://www.discoveringgrace.com/2018/08/28/why-i-dedicated-my-life-to-serve-youth-and-their-families/)

On the fundamentalists’ monetary and ideological support, Gothard did the same “opening of nations” in Taiwan, New Zealand, & Romania, creating orphanages and “education/training centers.” With Gothard’s international, political clout came even more influence (including Russian Department of Education money via his religious non-profit) as well as the highest reverence from religious leaders and politicians in the USA. Of course, all that interplay of religion and politics meant Fundamentalism became further entrenched in the political landscape of America …and vulnerable to Russian religious/political operations. Said entrenchment is the reason why racist & sex abuse scandalized Bob Jones University (http://watchkeep.blogspot.com/2014/03/bill-gothard-and-bob-jones-university.html?m=1) could attract conservative presidential candidates as recent as 2015 (https://clintonverley.wordpress.com/2014/03/04/new-gothard-revelations-hint-at-bjus-ugly-history-of-abuse/amp/). It is also why Gothard influenced political figures like Mike Huckabee (father of Sarah Huckabee Sanders), Sonny Perdue and Mike Pence. See (https://newrepublic.com/article/151787/bill-gothard-fundamentalist-trap and https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2017/12/old-religious-idea-trickles-contemporary-american-politics/)

In 1994, ECT (evangelicals & Catholics together) happened.

In 2010, we saw a renewal of Vatican’s Great Evangelical Gamble

In 2014/2015, Covergence Movement out of Gordon-Conwell, Dallas & Westminster, who wish to see Catholics, Charismatics, Mainline Protestants and other Evangelicals functioning as one church.

In 2014/2015, evangelicals like Rick Warren, N.T. Wright, Russell Moore visited the Vatican to convene on matters of social morality, despite evangelicals in Italy warning them not to go. This—as well as the SBC’s weight, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s influence (Liberty University) & Franklin Graham’s influence—was a resurgence of the Moral Majority, and led directly to the election of Donald Trump.

See this page for the latest political entanglements of Wayne Van Gelderen, Jr., (incl. following in his father’s footsteps and getting supporting with Jefferson Davis (Menomonee Falls, WI) Scott Walker (R: WI) & the Duggars. Also on that page, see the restructuring of the Independent Fundamental Baptists (in the aftermath of the fall of Gothard & BJU) under Paul Chappell at West Coast Bible College.

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