Few words have been transformed and stigmatized in the church like the term “fundamentalist.” Today, the poor soul identified as a fundamentalist is more than likely someone (probably older) associated with traditional, tee totaling, ultra-conservative religion far less concerned with social engagement and evangelism as they are with walling themselves off from the larger, Sodom-bound culture. A fundamentalist, according to our normal way of speaking, is someone more often defined by what they don’t do than by what they do, like cussing, smoking, drinking, playing cards, dancing, listening to music composed after 1650, etc. Theologically speaking, a fundamentalist is someone who enjoys talking about the rapture more than they do about God’s love for the sinner. In our modern imagination, the fundamentalist relishes the condemnation of a churchgoer dressed in jeans more than they savor the unconverted stranger believing in Jesus. The fundamentalist is a social pariah but a religious insider, second cousins with the Pharisee. We’ve never been one, but we certainly know one. Or two.
But words change. More importantly, words are inherited. And we’ve inherited our definition of “fundamentalist” from our grandparents. More specifically, from 1925. That’s when the term “fundamentalist” was not only changed; it was publicly discredited and shamed. In Dayton, Tennessee, a young high-school teacher named John T. Scopes, with the support of the ACLU, defied a recently passed Tennessee law banning the teaching of biological evolution of humans. Ultimately, former Vice President and staunchly evangelical William Jennings Bryan and the most famous trial lawyer of the day, Clarence Darrow, would square off in what would become a battle for American culture. Although Scopes was found guilty, the outcome of the trial mattered little. With badgering questions like where Cain, the oldest son of the Bible’s first humans, found his wife, the sophisticated Darrow inevitably made Bryan appear like a foolish backwoods Christian who could not answer logical questions about his so-called faith. Inevitably, Darrow and Darwinism would win the day. While the Scopes Trial was not the only agent of change in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, to say that it publicly tarnished the image of the fundamentalist is an understatement. And to add insult to injury, Bryan died in Dayton, Tennessee just five days after the trial, his legacy tarnished and conservative Protestantism embarrassed.
For Christians today, the battle over creationism is an important one. But just as important for our churches is understanding the original meaning of the word “fundamentalist,” not the modern, socially constructed one. From 1910 to 1915, in response to attacks on very basic, historic Christian beliefs, revivalists from mainstream Protestant denominations published a 12-booklet series called The Fundamentals, defending the most “fundamental” truths of the Bible against theological liberalism and German higher criticism. In 1920, when Curtis Lee Laws coined the term “fundamentalist,” it wasn’t referring to teetotalers or old folks who prefer hymns to Matt Redman. It primarily denoted those Christians who upheld the “fundamentals” of the faith, namely:
- The inerrancy of the Bible
- The virgin birth of Jesus
- The authenticity of miracles
- Atonement for sin through Christ’s death
- Jesus’s resurrection
- Jesus’s bodily return to earth
Today, “fundamentalist” is a cultural name identifying someone in terms of what they don’t do or prefer. But in its original context, a fundamentalist was a Christian who simply defended the basic doctrines of faith once delivered to the saints. (Jude 1:3) It was a positive term in the sense that a fundamentalist wasn’t condemning something; they were defending something. In many of our churches today, pastors and youth pastors have become accustomed to simply protecting Christians from cultural ills while neglecting to equip them with the most fundamental doctrines that Christians for centuries have professed. It’s time to get back to the fundamentals. Christianity was never simply about defining itself against the prevailing culture; it’s about confessing a very specific belief in Christ and defending biblical doctrines to an unbelieving world. Let’s be proud fundamentalists.