Pastor’s Article 5/24/2022
Last Sunday, I referenced the fundamentalist movement of the early 1900’s. I suggested it’s not an exaggeration to say that God used this movement to “save” Christianity in the United States.
Let’s learn a little bit more about this movement.
The Christian fundamentalist movement was in response to the rise of theological liberalism in the 1800’s. Theological liberalism (which still exists) was an attempt to make Christianity more relevant to the modern age, but in doing so, it stripped Christianity of many of its core doctrines. Theological liberalism had (and has) 5 major tenets:
- God’s character is one of pure benevolence;
- Human beings are essentially good;
- Jesus is Savior only in the sense of being our perfect teacher & example;
- All religions are valid; and
- The Bible is only a collection of human writings.
By the late 1800’s, theological liberalism had captured large segments of Christianity in the US. The situation truly looked bleak for a robust, biblical Christianity.
A wealthy Christian businessman named Lyman Stewart was greatly concerned about the state of Christianity in the US, especially its slide toward theological liberalism. So, from 1910-1915, he financed the publishing of 12 books that identified the so-called “fundamentals” of the Christian faith.
The goal of the series was to identify and explain the core doctrines of the Christian faith that must be believed in order to call oneself a “Christian.”*
The 12 books had a significant impact, especially at the denominational level. Numerous denominations formally endorsed “the fundamentals,” while those that refused, lost members.
Dr. J. Gresham Machen
Dr. Machen (the original “Dr. J” for all you basketball fans) was a professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary. He eventually became the leading spokesperson for the fundamentalist movement.
In 1923, Dr. Machen published a powerful defense of biblical Christianity and boldly declared theological liberals to be “non-Christians.” Liberals were understandably incensed, even as their churches continued to hemorrhage members.
Fundamentalism Begins to Decline
However, in 1925, things started to change for the fundamentalist movement. This was the year of the famous Scopes trial that riveted the nation. During this trial, Clarence Darrow, the defense attorney, was able to turn fundamentalism into a national laughingstock.
Practically overnight, public opinion turned against fundamentalism and fundamentalists came to be regarded as ignorant, intolerant and miserable people. Fundamentalists responded to this by withdrawing from the public square.**
Their withdrawal ceded power to the theological liberals, especially at the denominational and seminary levels. Once again, God would have to breathe a fresh vision & energy into his church if it was to survive and prosper.
We’ll get a short history of what God did in next weeks’ article.
*According to fundamentalists, there are 5 doctrines that must be believed in order to call yourself a “Christian”:
- The inspiration & inerrancy of the Bible;
- The virgin birth of Christ;
- The reality of miracles, especially those of Christ;
- The physical resurrection of Christ & his 2nd coming; and
- The substitutionary atonement of Christ
**Fundamentalism continues to exist in the US as a relatively small but vibrant segment of the church. They are mostly marked by a desire to separate themselves from society and its corrupting influence. Grace Baptist Harlan is an example of a church that leans toward Christian fundamentalism. By comparison, First Baptist Harlan is fundamentalist in doctrine, but evangelical in practice.