Whatever you do, don’t invite an historian to lunch. They’ll ruin your meal with their endless disputes about stuff no one else cares about. In this case, it’s the definition of American fundamentalism that has us in a tizzy. Why is it so problematic?
These days, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m just about finished with my book manuscript about conservative evangelical higher education. In the book, I’m arguing that colleges, universities, seminaries, and Bible institutes did more than most institutions to define evangelicalism. And I’m offering a new definition that will probably get me disinvited to more lunches.
It’s not as straightforward a question as you might think.
Back in the 1930s, the first academic history of Protestant fundamentalists—Stewart G. Cole’s History of Fundamentalism—defined fundamentalism as a “cult;” a blight on American society led by “disturbed men” who suffered from a “psychotic condition.” Ouch.
Soon, leading religious historian H. Richard Niebuhr (the famous theologian’s brother) gave academics a definition that was less vicious, but offered the same basic outlines. Fundamentalism, Niebuhr wrote, was a hillbilly affair, surely destined to wither in the sunshine of modernity.
In 1954, another academic history of fundamentalism suggested a similar explanation. Norman Furniss’ book The Fundamentalist Controversy assumed that fundamentalism meant a lack of knowledge about modern life, a head-in-the-sand stupidity.
These early definitions of fundamentalism were so far removed from reality that it was only a matter of time before a new generation of historians threw them out. Just as a 1960s class of historians from non-elite backgrounds offered new and better histories of minority ethnic groups and working classes, so too did historians from evangelical backgrounds redefine their own tradition.
Most influential, Ernest Sandeen argued that fundamentalism was best understood as the modern rebirth of an old evangelical theological tradition, premillennialism.
George Marsden counter-argued. Yes, premillennialism was vital to fundamentalism, but it was not enough. In his 1980 book Fundamentalism and American Culture, Marsden lay out the definition of fundamentalism that most nerds still use today. What is fundamentalism? Marsden noted that we need to include revivalism, premillennial theology, common-sense philosophy, and a vague but vital political and cultural conservatism.
In the past few years, ambitious historians have re-opened the case. Matthew Sutton, for example, fresh off his blockbuster academic hit Aimee Semple McPherson, took on the challenge of defining American fundamentalism. Yes, fundamentalism is a blend of influences, Sutton argued in American Apocalypse, but it’s not just a jumble. If we want to understand fundamentalism, Sutton insisted, we need to understand that the defining feature of the radical evangelical experience has been its fixation with the end times.
Sutton isn’t alone in wondering what it has meant to be fundamentalist. Kathryn Lofton has pointed out (sorry, subscription required) that fundamentalists and their arch theological enemies were both “commonly modern.” Brendan Pietsch has demonstrated that one of the signature methods of fundamentalist Bible-reading—the dispensational lens—is a profoundly modern approach.
Most compelling, from my point of view, has been Timothy E.W. Gloege’s definition. Like me, Gloege focused on evangelical higher education, in his case, the earlier history of the Moody Bible Institute. From that lens, it seems clear that it will always be self-defeating to offer any simple theological definition to fundamentalism. Why? In short, fundamentalism worked as a set of goals, not a system of doctrine. Fundamentalism was a kind of least-common-denominator coalition, not a list of beliefs or a systematized theological vision.
Fundamentalists, Gloege argues, were united by their dream of creating a new, modern sort of orthodoxy, laid out on the model of the modern corporate business organization. But that approach left fundamentalists dangling when it came to traditional orthodoxy. They did not and would not mimic traditional denominational orthodoxies by agreeing on a systematic theology, because they were never willing to compete with denominations. At the same time, however, most fundamentalists valued and venerated the idea of a traditional Christian orthodoxy.
At the Moody Bible Institute, at least.
I’m still tweaking my argument, so you’ll have to wait until Fundamentalist U comes out to see the deets. (It will be soon, I promise.) It seems clear to me, though, that if we really want to understand the history of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism we will have to ditch our impulse to copy the theological creeds offered time and again by fundamentalists themselves.
If we don’t, we keep bumping up against unsolvable dilemmas:
- What do we do with people like J. Gresham Machen, the breakaway Princeton Calvinist who said he was and wasn’t a fundamentalist?
- What sense can we make of a fundamentalism that never agreed with itself on what fundamentalism required? For example, Bob Jones College forced its students to participate in dramatic plays, while Wheaton College banned such things. How can we step in and say one was right?
- What IS the theology of fundamentalism? Calvinism? Yes. Arminian revivalism? Yes. Dispensational premillennialism? Yes. Amillennialism or postmillennialism? Yes.
It’s tempting to wade into these disputes with a hindsight definition. We might want to say Professor Machen was not a fundamentalist, but rather a Calvinist, or a creedal conservative, or a denominational conservative. All those are also true, but they sidestep the central difficulty that Machen was considered a fundamentalist during the peak of the 1920s controversies, including by himself.
We might want to say that fundamentalism was one core belief, fringed by an accumulation of disputed ideas. If we do that, we can say that both Bob Jones College and Wheaton were fundamentalist, but they disagreed on some non-essential details. That’s a smart approach, but it avoids the main problem—both sides insisted that their positions on student drama were CENTRAL to their fundamentalist identity.
We might try to say that one theology represented real fundamentalism, while others only thought they were fundamentalist. Those others weren’t real fundamentalist theologies; they were confused. But this mistakes the central fact that both dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists worked together and considered themselves fundamentalists. Except when they didn’t. It ignores the fact that Calvinists, revivalists, and lots of others all taught at fundamentalist schools. Maybe not happily, but loosely united in their self-image as fundamentalists. Usually.
In short, there’s no way to untie this knot, definitionally. Instead, we need to cut it; we need to take a different approach to understanding fundamentalism. At least, that’s what I’m arguing in the book. And it’s not easy. It takes me about 128,000 words to make my case.
See? This is why I don’t get to leave the house much. Not many people find this kind of thing as interesting as full-time historians.