Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Fundamentalism Then and Now – I
"Fundamentalism." The very word has an ominous ring about it. Few words in the English language are as emotionally charged as the word "Fundamentalist." But what exactly is a Fundamentalist? The question if difficult to answer, because the meaning of the word has changed over time.
The word "Fundamentalist" was coined in 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws, editor of The Watchman-Examiner. Describing a gathering of Northern Baptists at a preconvention conference, Laws called them "Fundamentalists," describing them as those who "still cling to the great fundamentals and who mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals." In the face of spreading liberalism within the Northern Baptist Convention, these "Fundamentalists" were determined to preserve the faith once delivered to the saints.
As it turned out, the story became one of the saddest tragedies in all of church history. To understand why things turned out so badly it must be kept in mind that, going into the conflict American Evangelicalism had already been seriously weakened. Theologically it was considerably more Arminian than it had been a century earlier, and it had come to rely too heavily on institutions to further the work of the gospel. To put it bluntly, the Christian leaders of the early 20th Century were overconfident, and were unprepared for the spiritual battles that lay ahead.
As the conflict unfolded the Fundamentalists formed new organizations. They engaged in vigorous pamphleteering and parliamentary maneuvering. And in the end, they lost. In retrospect we can discern at least two fatal mistakes. In the first place they did not give enough attention to prayer. The great battles of previous centuries had been won by prayer warriors, but the Fundamentalists of the early Twentieth Century were men of action, impatient for results. Unfortunately they did not take sufficient care to secure the Lord's blessing on their efforts.
The second fatal mistake was the failure to gain a consensus among themselves. After the Fundamentalist Fellowship, under the leadership of J.C. Massee, failed in 1922 to persuade the Convention to adopt the New Hampshire Baptist Confession, a group of frustrated conservatives formed a rival organization called the Baptist Bible Union in 1923. An even more radical group of Fundamentalists formed what eventually became the IFCA the same year. Thus we saw the beginnings of a cleavage within the ranks of conservative evangelical Christians that persists to this day. The one group seeks peace and tried to remain relevant, almost at any cost. The other group seeks purity almost at any cost. Between these two groups exists a chasm that has never been bridged. Both groups share the blame in this. The militants were too inclined to act precipitously; the moderates were simply too naïve about prospects in the old denominations. They both needed to wait upon God for a sense of direction and unity, and to overcome their natural passions and prejudices. The result of this division was catastrophic. Conservative unity was shattered, only small minorities left the denominations, and the denominations ceased to be evangelical.
What the early Fundamentalists failed to realize fully is that they were engaged in a spiritual battle, and that it would take more than conferences and parliamentary votes to stop Modernism. What was needed was a movement of the Spirit of God to change hearts and minds – to convict the unbelieving, give fortitude to the vacillating, and patience to the impetuous. In particular the folly of relying on human organizations was amply demonstrated in the Baptist Bible Union. One of its key officers, J. Frank Norris, shot and killed a man in his office (he was later acquitted by a jury), and another ranking officer, T.T. Shields, was accused of having an affair with his secretary. To make matters worse the university he headed closed after a student riot. By 1930 Fundamentalism had been discredited in the eyes of many.
More to follow.