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Fundamentalism as an American Phenomenon, A Comparison with English Evangelicalism

  • George Marsden (a1)

“Fundamentalism” is used in so many ways that a definition is the only place to begin. As I here use the term, “fundamentalism” refers to a twentieth-century movement closely tied to the revivalist tradition of mainstream evangelical Protestantism that militantly opposed modernist theology and the cultural change associated with it. Fundamentalism shares traits with many other movements to which it has been related (such as pietism, evangelicalism, revivalism, conservatism, confessionalism, millenarianism, and the holiness and pentecostal movements), but it has been distinguished most clearly from these by its militancy in opposition to modernism. This militancy has typically been expressed in terms of certain characteristic theological or intellectual emphases: whereas modernism or liberal theology tended to explain life and much of religion in terms of natural developments, fundamentalists stressed the supernatural.

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* Earlier versions of this paper were read at a history colloquium of the Harvard University Divinity School, to the Reformed Fellowship of New England, and at Calvin College. I am grateful for a number of helpful critical comments on each occasion. I am also very much indebted for fine advice from William Hutchison, George Selement, Harry Stout, Barbara Thompson, Peter Toon, Edwin Van Kley, Grant Wacker, and especially Ian Rennie (see below).

1. Fundamentalism especially in the 1920s was a coalition of rather diverse cobelligerents. For helpful accounts of some varieties within the leadership see the essays of Russell, C. Allyn collected in Voices of American Fundamentalism: Seven Biographical Studies (Philadelphia, 1976).

2. In “From Fundamentalism to Evangelicalism: An Historical Analysis,” The Evangelicats, ed. David Wells and John Woodbridge, (Nashville, 1975) I have discussed the changes in the character of fundamentalism since the 1920s. Among those close to the movement the meaning of the term, “fundamentalist,” has narrowed in recent decades to include almost solely doctrinally-militant premillennialist revivalists. Cf. Dollar, George W., A History of Fundamentalism in America (Greenville, S.C., 1973).

3. Ulster appears to be an exception—one that would offer another illustration of the relationship of fundamentalism to relatively unique cultural experiences. Canada has some fundamentalism, although I have the United States primarily in mind in the “American” comparison. In many nations, confessionalists and churchly conservatives survived and in some, such as the Netherlands, they had considerable influence; but these lacked the revivalist ties and some of the intellectual emphases characteristic of fundamentalists. Evangelical or pietist revivalism, sometimes with genuinely fundamentalist traits, could be found throughout the world in the twentieth century, but even if vigorous, as scattered minorities often operating with an aspect of a religious underground.

4. The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism 1800–1 930 (Chicago, 1970). My criticisms are found in a review article, “Defining Fundamentalism,” Christian Scholar's Review 1:2 (Winter, 1971): 141151; see Sandeen's reply, 1, 3 (Spring, 1971): 227–233. See also Moore, LeRoy Jr, “Another Look at Fundamentalism: A Response to Ernest R. Sandeen,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 37 (06, 1968): 195202.

5. A number of the British authors, however, were no longer living.

6. Ratcliffe, S. K., “America and Fundamentalism,” Contemporary Review 128 (09, 1925); now in Controversy in the Twenties: Fundamentalism, Modernism, and Evolutwn, ed. Willard B. Gatewood, Jr., (Nashville, 1969), p. 414. Other British commentators seem to have agreed that fundamentalism was peculiarly American; see Gatewood in ibid., pp. 409–412.

7. August 20, 1929, obituary of Dr. Arthur Samuel Peake, quoted in Fountain, David G., E. J. Poole-Connor (1872–1962): “Contender for the Faith,” (London, 1966), p. 91.

8. This interpretation and that immediately below follow that of Glover, Willis B., Evangelical Nonconformists and Higher Criticism in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1954).Chadwick, Owen, The Victorian Church: Part II, 2d ed. (London, 1972) provides a similar account of Anglican reactions to Essays and Reviews (pp. 75–90) and Colenso (pp. 90–97). A recent general account of British reaction to Darwinism in the 1860s is Hodge, M. J. S., “England,” in The Comparative Reception of Darwinism, ed. Glick, Thomas F., (Austin, Texas, 1972). See Edward J. Pfeifer's interesting essay, “United States,” in ibid.

9. Chadwick, op. cit., p. 23, says that evoluwn was fully accepted and respectable among clergymen by 1896. Spinks, G. Stephen, “Victorian Background,” in Spinks, et al. , Religion in Britain since 1900 (London, 1952) remarks that it was easier for the British to come to terms with the new biology than with Biblical criticism, p. 20.

10. Glover, op. cit., pp. 71–90, 109–110. On Anglican parallel see p.9 and Chadwick, op. cit., pp. 1–111. Cf. McDonald, H. D., Theories of Revelation: An Historical Study 1860–1960 (London, 1963), pp. 101118. By 1900, English champions of higher criticism thought “the battle was won” and that higher criticism had already “penetrated to the country clergymen,” p. 116. McDonald, however, shows that at least the former of these statements was an overestimate since a few conservative attacks continued, pp. 118–136, 203–217. Already by the time of Lux Mundi (1889) which helped promote higher criticism among Anglicans, all the bishops except J. C. Ryle of Liverpool (a rather tolerant conservative) reportedly accepted the new ideas. See Loune, Marcus L., John Charles Ryle 1816–1900: A Short Biography (London, 1953), pp. 4748, 5657. Anti-evolution does not seem to have been a major issue even for the most conservative twentieth-century English evangelicals cited below.

11. Chadwick, op. cit., p. 24, says that “for a decade or two after 1896 some members of the Church of England, especially among the evangelicals… and most of the simple worshippers among the chapels of the poor, continued to know nothing of evolution or to refuse to accept it on religious grounds…” This estimate would still place the general popular acceptance by World War I. Cf. Glover, op. cit., p. 217 for a similar observation regarding acceptance of higher criticism.

12. Darwinsm quite evidently reflected tendencies developing in the British intellectual climate for some time. The sense of history as “a natural and organic development” was commonplace by the mid-nineteenth century. See, for example, the account in Houghton, Walter E., The Victorian Frame of Mind: 1830–1870 (New Haven, 1957), pp. 2931, and passim. Romanticism, which had been a major force in England since before 1800, also encouraged emphasis on process rather than on fixed or static truth. (Cf. note 43, below).

13. Glover, op cit., p. 25. Cf. Chadwick, op. cit., p. 59, who attributes the widespread agreement on new views of the Old Testament “… not only to German criticism and to English scholarship but to the general growth of historical consciousness.…” Cf. p. 462.

14. Orr, , Revelation and Inspiration (New York, 1910), p. 198; cf. 209–210, 214–215. Orr was critical of the emphasis of the Princeton theologians on inerrancy although he thought he had much in common with them regarding Scripture. On evolution see Orr, , “Science and the Christian Faith,” in The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (Chicago, 19101915), 4:91104. The inclusion of Orr's moderate statement on evolution in The Fundamentals indicates that the lines had not yet firmly hardened on this point among the American revivalists.

15. Even some evangelicals who protested against the more liberal trends were rather progressive themselves. Vine, Charles H., ed., The Old Faith and the New Theology: A Series of Sermons and Essays on Some Truths Held by Evangelical Christians (New York, 1907), being protests by British Congregationalists against the “new theology,” and Herkiots, B., The Future of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England (London, 1913) both parallel fundamentalist concerns over questions such as miracles yet assume a tolerance toward higher criticism not found among American fundamentalists. See, e.g., Vine, op. cit., pp. 225 and 227; Herklots op. cit., pp. v, 57–68, 107, 113. Cf. general accounts by Allen, E. L., “The Acids of Modernity,” in Spinks, Religion in Bntain, pp. 4964 and Mozley, John Kenneth, Some Tendencies in British Theology from the Publication of Lux Mundi to the Present Day (London, 1951), p. 2446.

16. The Christian Fundamentalist, 2 (1928): 7, 17. General accounts of Keswick are found in Shelley, Bruce, “Sources in Pietistic Fundamentalism,” Fides et Historia 5 (1973): 6878 and Barabas, Steven, So Great Salvation: The History and Message of the Keswick Convention (Westwood, N.J., 1952). At this same time Riley was engaged in an all-out attack on the well-known conservative-evangelical British preacher, G. Campbell Morgan, sometimes also associated with Keswick, and a contributor to The Fundamentals. Morgan, concluding a brief and stormy stay at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, described as “frankly impossible” the attitude of fundamentalists. “They separate themselves, not only from those who accept evolutionary theory, but from those who deny the literal inerrancy of Scripture.” Quoted from The British Weekly in The Christian Fundamentalist 2 (1928): 14.

17. I am very greatly indebted to Ian S. Rennie of Regent College, Vancouver, for pointing me toward much of the information used in the following sections on English evangelicalism. In two very extensive critiques of an earlier version of this essay he argues that there was “an identifiable movement known as English Fundamentalism” and that “its controversies were only different in the fact that England provided a somewhat different context.” While I am impressed by the evidence used to support this conclusion, and hope that Professor Rennie will publish his own account of it, I nevertheless remain convinced that the English movement differed significantly from American fundamentalism. However, I do not object strongly to calling the British movement (as Rennie does) “fundamentalist,” which I think is consistent with British parlance. With such a broader definition, my thesis would be that there is a qualitative difference between British and American fundamentalism as well as a difference in impact on the churches and the culture.

18. Pollock, J. C., A Cambridge Movement (London, 1953) gives a very complete account of the background and origins of I.V.F. His work may be supplemented by broader accounts in Coggan, Frederick Donald (ed.), Christ and the Colleges: A History of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical Unions (London, 1934), which contains the constitution, and Johnson, Douglas (ed.), A Brief History of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (Lausanne, 1964).

19. Dollar, George W. in his militantly fundamentalist A History of Fundamentalism in America (Greenville, S.C., 1973) includes I.V.F. in “An Enemy Within; New Evangelicalism,” p. 205; cf. p. 258. On the other hand more liberal critics in England called I.V.F. “fundamentalist” in the 1950s, e.g., Hebert, Gabriel, Fundamentalism and the Church of God (London, 1957); cf. Packer's, J. I. defense, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (London, 1958). The “fundamentalism” in these debates is more sophisticated, scholarly, and flexible than all but a very small portion of American fundamentalism.

20. Complementary accounts of this dispute are found in Hewitt, Gordon, The Problems of Success: A History of the Church Missionary Society 1910–1942 (London, 1971) and in Bromiley's, G. W. sympathetic biography of the leader of the conservatives, Daniel Henry Charles Bartlett: A Memoir (Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, Eng., 1959).

21. Ian Rennie points out that there was a substantial infra-structure of such agencies. Among those he mentions are: the Church Pastoral-Aid Society, the South American Missionary Society, the (now-named) Commonwealth and Continental Missionary Society, and the Church's Ministry to the Jews (all Anglican), the Scripture Union and Children's Special Service Mission, the Christian Alliance of Women and Girls (a secession in 1919 from the YWCA), the Bible League, and the Victoria Institute (a center for anti-evolution thought); among theological schools, Tyndale, Clifton, Oak Hill, and to some extent St. John's Highbury, a few Bible colleges, but no colleges at the universities; publications, The Christian, The Life of Faith and the annual Keswick Week. Correspondence with author.

22. Murray, Ian, The Forgotten Spurgeon (London, 1966), whose title is revealing, documents a sympathetic account of Spurgeon's role as a controversialist in Downgrade, pp.145–206. Glover, Willis B., “English Baptists at the Time of the Downgrade Controversy,” Foundations 1 (1958): 46, goes so far as to conclude of Downgrade, “its chief interest is the fact that it has so few long-range effects.”

23. Among the Baptists, however, a “Baptist Bible Union” was organized by the 1920s. See a report on its fundamentalist activities by its founder, Thomas, John W., “Modernism and Fundamentalism in Great Britain,” The King's Business 14 (1923): 817821. The impact, however, appears to have been slight. Poole-Connor, E. J., Evangelicalism in England, rev. ed. (London 1965 [1951]), p. 249, laments that modernism had triumphed almost completely among British Baptists by 1925. Carter, Arthur H., in “Modernism: the Outlook in Great Britain,” The King's Business 15 (1924): 691, remarks: “But the saddest aspect of the situation lies in the fact that the entire body of English Nonconformity accepts their theological position, and, save in a few isolated cases, the whole body of the Free Churches has gone holus bolus over to the ranks of Modernism.” No doubt more non-militant Biblicism survived among Nonconformists than these estimates would allow. Yet contrast American fundamentalists at this time who often claimed to represent the majority of American church members, e.g. “A Divided House,” The King's Business 15 (1925): 347.

24. Another Englishman who qualified as a full-fledged fundamentalist was W. H. Griffith Thomas (1861–1924). He was associated with The Fundamentals, Keswick, dispensationalism, and the founding of Dallas Theological Seminary. However, he left a position as principal at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, in 1910 to become professor of Old Testament at Wycliffe College, Toronto, hence reducing his influence in England. Thorne, C. G. Jr, “William Henry Griffith Thomas,” The Newinternational Dictionary of The Christian Church, ed. Douglas, J. D. (Grand Rapids, 1974), p. 972.

25. Quoted in Fountain, E. J. Poole-Connor, p. 126.

26. The statistics are approximations, Fountain, , Poole-Connor, p. 18. Nearly three hundred congregations were claimed by the time of Poole-Connor's death in 1962, P. 211.

27. Fountain, , Poole-Connor, pp. 34, 44, 131134. Fountain, p. 119 observes, “In the United States the conflict was sharper than in this country for two reasons. The Liberals were more extreme and the Evangelicals more faithful and more able.”

28. Fountain, , Poole-Connor, p. 134. Conservative evangelical scholarship also seems to have been at its nadir during the period between the wars. H. D. McDonald, Theories of Revelation, in a very sympathetic account remarks nevertheless on this era that “There was, on the whole, however, no serious conflict, because, not only were other interests uppermost, but evangelicals were in the backwood as far as convincing Biblical scholarship was concerned,” p. 208; cf. pp. 280–282. The founding of the Evangelical Quarterly in 1929 signaled the reversal of this trend.

29. Coad, F. Roy, A History of the Brethren Movement (London, 1968), p. 185. The figures are for the entire British Isles.

30. Coad, ibid., p. 284. They included, nonetheless, notable elements from higher economic and social standing. Rennie correspondence with author. With respect to the possibility of a more general social factor, Rennie, noting a variety of evidences, observes, “Thus a significant difference does appear—English Fundamentalism often seems upper middle class while its American counterpart is usually much more plebian.”

31. These conclusions may be compared to those of Hutchison, William R., “The Americanness of the Social Gospel; An Inquiry in Comparative History,” Church History 44 (1975): 367381, who stresses the essential similarities between British and American social gospel. Hutchison does find American liberals to have been more optimistic in their humanism and affirmations of the present age than were their British counterparts. It might be added that by the 1920s liberalism appeared to have triumphed far more completely in British churches (cf. note 23 above).

32. The fact that the industrial revolution was earlier in England than America and hence the transitions from rural to urban cultural patterns more nearly completed by the late nineteenth century helped also to reduce such cultural pockets. Cf. Perkin, Harold, The Origins of Modern English Society 1780–1880 (London, 1969).

33. Newman, Albert H., “Recent Changes in Theology of Baptists,” The American Journal of Theology 10 (1906): 600609, made essentially this point at the time.

34. The classic statement of this interpretation is Cole, Stewart G., History of Fundamentalism (New York, 1931). In “From Fundamentalism to Evangelicalism,” The Evangelicals, I have attempted to explain some social factors by suggesting that fundamentalism might involve a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant experience analogous to that of elements in immigrant groups.

35. Sandeen, , Roots, esp. pp. ix–xix, and his “Fundamentalism and American Identity,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 387 (01, 1970): 5665.Carter, Paul A., “The Fundamentalist Defense of the Faith,” in Change and Continuity in Twentieth Century America: The 1920s, ed. John Braeman et al., also offers an effective ciritique of primarily social and social-economic or political interpretations of fundamentalism, which he himself had endorsed in his earlier work.

36. This phrase is borrowed in part from Elkins, Stanley, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago, 1959) who refers to “the dynamics of unopposed capitalism.”

37. Cf. Poole-Connor, , Evangelicalism, p. 220. Well into the twentieth century Anglican conservative evangelicals had to deal with two fronts—the liberals and the High Church party.

38. Cf. Mathews, Donald G., “The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process 1780–1830: An Hypothesis,” American Quarterly 21 (1969): 2343. See also McLoughlin, William G., “Revivalism,” in The Rise of Adventism: Religion and Society in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America, ed. Edwin S. Gaustad, pp. 119154, who goes so far as to suggest that revivalism is the key to understanding American life generally.

39. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York, 1962). Cf. The Paranoid Style of American Politics and Other Essays (New York, 1965). Hofstadter is correct in seeing anti- intellectualism as an important component of fundamentalism, although this single emphasis obscures many other aspects.

40. Seventeenth-century Puritans, for instance, were fascinated by dichotomies and antitheses as the popularity of the Ramist method and their concerns over precisely distinguishing between the regenerate and the unregenerate indicate.

41. Pentecostalism is the movement of this tradition that parallels fundamentalism. Pentecostals also rejected modern culture but more in terms of intense personal piety that separated individuals from the world, rather than in terms of doctrinal warfare. The two movements should be kept distinct, I think, even though they sometimes overlapped and had some common origins in American revivalism and hence many common traits. Hollenweger, W. J., The Pentecostals (Minneapolis, 1972), comments on fundamentalist traits in Pentecostalism, p. 9 and elsewhere. Various holiness teachings are likewise found among fundamentalists.

42. The above generalizations about nineteenth-century American evangelicals are illustrated (among other places) in Marsden, , The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience (New Haven, 1970).

43. It is common practice to set the peak of European (including English) romanticism in the period from 1780 to 1830; e.g. Lovejoy, Arthur O., “The Meaning of Romanticism for the Historian of Ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 2 (06, 1941): 260261 and Barzun, Jacques, Romanticism and the Modern Age (Boston, 1943), pp. 134139. The tiny Mercersburg movement in America compared to the Anglo-Catholic movement in England during the same era suggests something of the contrast in the strength of romanticism in the religious life of the two countries; cf. Nichols, James Hastings, Romanticism in American Theology: Nevin and Schaff at Mercersburg (Chicago, 1961).

44. For examples, Horsh, John, “The Failure of Modernism,” (Chicago, 1925) (pamphlet), pp. 2223 says “The science with which Scripture conflicts is unproved theory; it is science falsely so-called.” William B. Riley defines science as “knowledge gained and verified by exact observation and correct thinking; especially as methodologically arranged in a rational system,” which he takes to exclude “theory,” “hypothesis,” and “assumptions,” p. 5, “Are the Scriptures Scientific?” (Minneapolis, n. d.) (pamphlet).

45. A good example is Reuben Torrey, A., What the Bible Teaches, 17th ed., (New York, 1933 [1898]), which he describes as”… simply an attempt at a careful, unbiased, systematic, thorough-going, inductive study and statement of Bible truth. … the methods of modern science are applied to Bible study—through analysis followed by careful synthesis,” p. 1.

46. Cf. Opie, John, “The Modernity of Fundamentalism,” Christian Century, 05 12, 1965, pp. 608611.

47. One example is the popularity of Lindsey, Hal, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, 1970). As of the July 1974 printing the publisher claimed 4,300,000 copies in print.

48. These dispensations are 1) “Innocence,” ending with the Fall; 2) “Conscience,” ending with the Flood; 3) “Human Government,” ending with Babel; 4) “Promise,” ending in the bondage in Egypt; 5) “Law,” ending with the death of Christ; 6) “Grace,” which will end with a period of great tribulation, immediately followed by Christ's return to earth, victory at Armageddon; and 7) the millennium or personal reign of Christ, ending with Satan “loosed a little season” but quickly defeated. After the millennium is the “new heavens and new earth” of eternity. Scofield, C. I., “Rightly Dividing the World of Truth” (Revell paper edition, New York, n.d. [1896], pp. 1216.

49. Scofield says. “The Word of Truth … has right divisions… so any study of that Word which ignores these divisions must be in large measure profitless and confusion.” Ibid., p. 3.

50. Kraus, C. Norman, Dispensationalism in America (Richmond, 1958), pp. 6667 and 125126 comments perceptively on this point.

51. Tuveson, Ernest Lee, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America's Millennial Role (Chicago, 1968) gives many examples of this point.

52. The total lack of communication between fundamentalists and modernists concerning both history and science fits well the now-familiar patterns of paradigm conflict described in Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962).

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