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In 19th century North America, evangelicalism basically referred to a loosely associated, intradenominational coalition of Protestants who held to the basic reformational doctrines of sola fide [faith alone] and sola scriptura [Scripture alone], mediated through the revival experiences of the Great Awakenings.

David Bebbington’s evangelical quadrilateral—namely, that the common denominator among evangelicals is the combined belief in biblical authority, cruciformity, conversionism, and evangelism—has value but lacks specificity when applied to the North American experience (instead of just evangelicalism in Great Britain). North American evangelicals not only believed in the Bible’s general authority but also its inerrancy and infallibility. They not only believed in conversion but also saw revivalism as a way in which God might work.

The following are ten key events that took place in the relationship between evangelicals, fundamentalists, modernists, and neo-evangelicals during the 20th century in North America.

1. The Fundamentals Published (1910-1915)


In the wake of late 19th century Darwinian evolutionary theory and with the concomitant rise of biblical higher criticism in the early 20th century, two wealthy businessmen (oil man Lyman Stewart [1840-1923] and his brother Milton] funded a 12-volume series on The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (1910-1915). These 90 essays were written by 64 English and American pastors and theologians, most of them denominational evangelicals, setting forth what they agreed were the “fundamentals” of the faith. Between 2 to 3 million copies were distributed.

2. The Term “Fundamentalism” Is Coined (1920)

In 1919, the World Christian Fundamentals Association was founded, led by William Bell Riley (1861-1947), a Minneapolis pastor who also founded Northwestern Bible College and would later be known as ”The Grand Old Man of Fundamentalism.”

In 1920, Baptist journalist Curtis Lee Laws (1868-1946) wrote an editorial (“Convention Side Lights,” Watchman-Examiner 8 [July 1, 1920]: 834) offering new nomenclature to capture the current state of conservative dissent.

The label conservatives, he wrote, “is too closely allied with reactionary forces in all walks of life.” Premillennialist ”is too closely allied with a single doctrine and not sufficiently inclusive.” Landmarkers “has a historical disadvantage and connotes a particular group of radical conservatives.”

In its place he suggests “that those who [1] still cling to the great fundamentals and who [2] mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals shall be called ‘Fundamentalists.'” In other words, they were the type of people willing to continue the fight  for the sort of truths laid out in The Fundamentals pamphlets, the type of people who were joining the World Christian Fundamentals Association.

Refining the Definition

Following Laws’s original usage and utilizing the excellent analysis of Nathan Finn, fundamentalism, in its broadest and original sense (encompassing the disparate parties that would emerge), can be defined as conservative Protestant dissent against progressive (or revisionist, or Modernist, or Liberal) doctrine and mores. Those in the crossfires of fundamentalist so-called militancy were those who advocated:

  • progressivist beliefs that undermined the fundamentals doctrines (e.g., naturalistic evolution, biblical criticism, later neo-orthodoxy), and
  • progressivist values that undermined the fundamentalist understanding of the Christian life (e.g., dancing, drinking, gambling for some; others would focus more upon political movements like communism in the 1950s, or upon sexual mores, especially into the 1960s).

3. Denominational Battles Fought in the North (1919-1937)

From 1919-1937 a series of denominational battles were fought in the northern states for control of the Northern Baptist and the Northern Presbyterian denominations. Fundamentalist-evangelicals were committed denominationalists who were ecumenically minded toward those who held to the fundamentals but fought for the purity and integrity of their ecclesiastical bodies. During this time, conservative Presbyterians on several occasions sought to produce statements identifying the minimal core of their evangelical convictions: namely,

  • the inerrancy of the Word of God in its original autographs
  • the virgin birth of Jesus Christ
  • his vicarious atonement for sin
  • his bodily resurrection from the dead
  • the reality of biblical miracles

Others would later want to add additional items to the list like belief in the premillennial return of Christ.

4. Fosdick Preaches, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” (1922)

Harry_Emerson_Fosdick On May 21, 1922, Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) preached a provocative sermon to the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, entitled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Referring to himself as an evangelical, he sounded a warning against the anti-modernistic obscurantism and anti-intellectualism of the fundamentalists. They could believe what they wanted about the virgin birth, the inspiration of Scripture, and their understanding of the atonement, but their boundary-drawing was a danger to the church and must be firmly resisted. He called for increased tolerance of spirit—though it seemed he mainly wanted the tolerance to be a one-way street toward his brand of modernism. Fosdick understood modernism to be the spirit of the age, and he viewed Christianity as needing to accommodate its categories and to infuse it with a Christian ethic of love.

5. The Scopes Monkey Trial Becomes a Symbol (1925)


In 1925 the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial transfixed the nation as the ACLU orchestrated a trial of John Thomas Scopes (1900-1970), a young biology teacher willing to test the state laws on the teaching of evolution. The trial pitted famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) against the charismatic prosecutor William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), a progressivist politician who was a confident fundamentalist in biblical doctrine.

Through the combination of acerbic reporting by H.L. Mencken (1880-1926), unforced errors by Bryan, and (later) a historically inaccurate play and Hollywood movie, the trial would eventually become symbolic in American culture for fundamentalism’s mean-spirited anti-intellectualism and even buffoonery.

(For more on the history of the trial, go here.)

6. Machen Defends the Faith against Modernism (1929-1937)

J.G.MachenIn 1929, J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937)—a brilliant Reformed New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, who had studied under Adolf Schlatter in Germany—left the school after it reorganized its curriculum, having opened the door (in Machen’s view) to modernist compromise. He would then found Westminster Theological Seminary (1929) and later The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1936) after he was tried and found guilty for continuing his Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions (IBPFM), designed so that money contributed by orthodox Presbyterians would end up going to support likeminded orthodox Presbyterian missionaries rather than modernist Presbyterians like Pearl Buck (1892-1973).

Machen was a non-dispensational example of conservative dissent. He did not particularly care for or embrace the “fundamentalist” label, but he understood that their belief in premillennialism (while in error, in his judgment) was an error of a different kind than that propagated by the modernists.

In 1923 Eerdmans published Machen’s landmark book Christianity and Liberalism, arguing that modernistic liberalism was not a sub-species of Christian orthodoxy but rather a different religion that must be rejected once and for all. For example, he wrote, that the “Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all” (p. 52).

When Machen died in 1937 at the age of 55, after a bout with pneumonia, it marked the passing of an era in 20th century fundamentalist-evangelicalism.

(The best biography of Machen is D.G. Hart’s Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America; the best entry point is Stephen J. Nichols’s J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought.)

7. Internal Criticisms Issued within Fundamentalism (Late 1930s-Early 1940s)

By the late 1930s and early 1940s, some quarters of fundamentalism began to experience discomfort with the trajectory of the movement. There was a concern that the militancy of fundamentalism was having unfortunate results. Speaking in broad terms, some critics perceived the default posture of fundamentalism to have

  • a focus on infighting over soul-winning
  • a diminished social conscious in order to protect the doctrine of the gospel, and
  • a downplaying of intellectual engagement with the academy in the desire to avoid influence by modernism.

8. Ockenga and Henry Lead Fuller Seminary and Christianity Today (1941-1947)

ockenga portraitIn 1941 Harold John Ockenga (1905-1985), pastor of Park Street Church in Boston and a former student of Machen’s, issued the call for “neo-evangelicalism,” and the National Association of Evangelicals was formed that year. (Carl McIntire [1906-2002] was originally to be part of this, but broke off to form his own fundamentalist association that would define itself in many ways as a corrective to and critic of neo-evangelicalism.) This group was broadly ecumenical, at first encompassing not only evangelical denominationalists but also holiness, Pentecostal groups, and independent ministries like the Salvation Army.

In 1947 Ockenga co-founded Fuller Theological Seminary with Charles E. Fuller (1887-1968), CFHHenryhost of the popular radio broadcast “The Old-Fashioned Revival Hour.” The initial faculty—including Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003)—were evangelical intellectuals who wanted to write a new chapter in confessional Christian higher education.

That same year Eerdmans published Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalismwhich argued against both fundamentalists and liberals who were obscuring the gospel by focusing upon secondary issues.

In 1956 Billy Graham (1918-) founded Christianity Today, designed to be a forward-looking, positive alternative to The Christian Century. Henry was tapped as the magazine’s first editor.

9. Billy Graham and Bob Jones Separate (1957)


An epochal internal rift occurred in the summer of 1957, as Billy Graham engaged in his historic evangelistic crusades in Madison Square Garden with record crowds. From Graham’s perspective, he needed to partner with local pastors and churches in the area to ensure a warm reception of collegiality rather than to exacerbate competition and suspicion. This would also be a key part of the follow-up effort for those who had professed faith at the meetings. The strategy worked and Graham was not only welcomed by the local churches (many of them Modernistic) but also by the masses.

But this methodology was increasingly seen as problematic and troublesome, especially for fundamentalists in the South. Bob Jones Jr. (1911-1997), with the support of his father Bob Jones Sr. (1883-1968), founder of the eponymous Bible college, made it clear to Graham and his supporters that partnership with the modernists was a bridge too far. They felt that by having modernists on the platform—a visible endorsement, replete with asking some of them to pray and entrusting the gospel follow-up to some of their churches— Graham was engaging in sinful compromise and offering an implicit endorsement of the enemies of the faith. For the Joneses, and those who followed in their lead, this meant that they must separate not only from Graham himself, but from all those who supported Graham.

Thus emerged a new phase in the history of fundamentalist-evangelicalism, as the so-called “secondary separationists” began to have increasing influence, especially in the South. Whereas “fundamentalism” had originally been a conservative dissent movement within the denominations (working for their reform), a new segment of it defined faithfulness as leaving compromising denominations that had become apostate in their view—and also rejecting any fellowship and partnership with those who refused to do the same.

Three Approaches to Separatism 

Emerging from this 1957 division, and continuing through the intra-denominational controversies of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention into the 1980s, there was conservative agreement that personal holiness was a necessity and that separation from moral sin was required. But beneath this general principle, there were three overlapping approaches to separation within fundamentalism.

First, there were denominational reformers who believed they should stay within a denomination and fight for its doctrinal and moral purity.

Second, there were denominational separatists who believed that faithful Christians should extricate themselves from denominations and professing Christians influenced by modernism and therefore apostasy.

Third, there were ecclesiastical separatists who were also secondary separationists, refusing to have fellowship with fellow conservative dissenters who did not withdraw from apostate denominations.

What must be noted here, and is often overlooked in discussions of fundamentalism, is that the original fundamentalists were in categories 1, and sometimes 2. But category 3 was largely the result of post-1957 fundamentalism and represents a new phase of development.

10. Fuller Seminary Divides over Inerrancy on Black Saturday (1962)

DPFIn 1962 there occurred another event that, in my view, may be the second most important development after the 1957 split. On December 1, at the conclusion of a three-day planning retreat for the faculty and trustees of Fuller Theological Seminary, the issue of revising the school’s creedal statement on inerrancy was on the agenda. Ockenga, the school’s president in absentia who had helped to draft the original informal statement in a Reformational-Princetonian direction, wondered why the creed needed to be revised in the first place.

Daniel P. Fuller (1925) was the only child of the school’s founders, Charles and Grace Fuller. He had long abandoned his father’s dispensationalism, and had gone off to get a second doctorate in Basel with serious doubts about inerrancy—doubts that were solidified in his studies with Oscar Cullmann and after a conversation with a former fellow Fuller student who had gone on for a PhD at Harvard and expressed his opinion that Fuller would not survive if it retained its outmoded fundamentalist doctrine of inerrancy. Fuller informed Ockenga that the Bible did contain errors on non-revelational details (observable but not essential matters) and that an appeal to the original autographs would not solve the problem. Fuller’s nuanced view—which had much to do with the hermeneutics of authorial intent and divine accommodation—sought to retain the term “inerrancy” because he thought every word of Scripture was inspired by God and inerrant in its purposes, but it was clear he was breaking with the historic Warfieldian-Princetonian understanding.

The progressive-conservative divide was exacerbated and solidified and between the faculty—between those who were more comfortable with a traditional understanding of inspiration and those who wanted more progressivist changes. “Black Saturday” forever changed the direction of the school and stands for a significant change in the relationship between fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism, as progressive evangelicalism proffered itself as a new third way.

(The story is told from a critical perspective in Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible, though it has a number of historical errors in recounting the story. The fullest version by a celebrated historian is George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism.)

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9 thoughts on “10 Key Events: Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism in 20th Century America”

  1. Curt Day says:

    As a Christian Fundamentalist and also a Socialist, I very much appreciate this post. First, it was very informative in a concise way. Second, it mentions the original criteria for what was considered fundamentalism and that was the doctrines about Christ and the Scriptures.

    I am longing for the days when fundamentalism will be defined solely by doctrines believed. Such would accomplish two important tasks. It would focus everybody’s attention on the essential doctrines and it would make everybody face the fact that fundamentalists are not a monolith. On the latter point, it would not only keep nonbelievers from stereotyping fundamentalists, it could help us to be more tolerant of fellow fundamentalists who differ over the nonessentials.

    Unfortunately, fundamentalism is defined as a specific set of Christian personality flaws and we are somewhat responsible for that use of the word fundamentalism. And as much as we are responsible for that perception is as much as we are responsible for distracting people from the Gospel.

  2. Ray Ortlund says:

    Very significant. Thanks, JT.

  3. Thanks Justin. This is a very helpful article.

    Doing theology as an Australian, has numerous advantages. One is that we are in many respects, quite free of much of the political arm-wrestling, and nasty fall out over all of this. This probably helps us in terms of relationships between Christians, churches, citizens an cities.

    We have not experienced so much in the way of public debate, or brawls, by leaders of movements. There have been less of the evangelical ‘show-downs’ and watersheds over this and that. Although we have always been involved, and on the edges of it all, of course, through literature and seminary and bible college debates, and so on.

    One of the disadvantages is that we often don’t understand where all the heat is coming from.
    We don’t have all these battles, in our recent history – not so much anyway. So, we often wonder why a person is speaking in the way they are, defending certain doctrines so fiercely.

    For example, we don’t meet a Christian, and ask: ‘are you post, pre or a?’ And the inerrancy and infallibility debates seem to almost be by-passed by many, here. Whereas to Americans, this often seems to define who people are – and the camp they belong to. Thanks again.

    1. JohnM says:


      Thank you. It is good for Americans to hear a perspective from outside the U.S. Some American evangelicals probably need to be reminded there is such a thing. :)

      I do have to say though, I don’t know when was the last time anyone asked me if I am post, pre or a, or a comparable question. At ground level those types of debates are less common than you might think given all the polemics in print.

      But of course such debates do very much exist here in the U.S. If you don’t mind, and please understand it’s an honest question, why haven’t Australian evangelicals experienced “‘show-downs’ and watersheds over this and that”?

      1. Trevor Faggotter says:

        Good question, JohnM. Yes, undoubtedly Americans do benefit from some global objectivity. As you may realise, there are many fine Australian theologians, Christian leaders and biblical teachers.

        Possibly, one reason why we don’t have the same history of ‘showdowns and watersheds over this and that’ is that Christian leadership has a less loud, less prominent role in public life. That is not to say there in little influence. It is just less on display. Some thoughts…

        The Prime Minister does not have a kind of Presidential Chaplain, in the Billy Graham mould. We are far less likely to line up behind any one theologian or leader. Rather than ‘I am of Peter, Paul, Apollos, Christ, Billy or Bob’ we may be more along the lines of ‘all things are yours’. We have not had a civil war. We don’t really have Southern Baptists, and Northern Presbyterians, though the denominations have had their share of fights. We don’t have the same one-upmanship between Universities, though the cities of Sydney and Melbourne often imagine they are the best. We are probably more influenced by theologians from England, Scotland, Germany, Geneva and other parts of Europe – as well as from the US. The Anglican ‘middle-way’ is probably more influential here than in America. The settlement of South Australia as a haven for the free, independent churches and for leadership by many Methodists may have spread Wesley’s more ‘Catholic Spirit’ far and wide.

        In general, ‘Presidential’ style – one main speaker, type-leadership does not really occur so much in our churches. And maybe the Australian mateship thing, and tendency to cut down ‘tall poppies’ has had an influence. Maybe the more rigorous theology has been done inside the seminary, the synod gathering, presbytery and home group rather than in the public square, or between university faculties. Maybe we would rather let the US leaders have the debates and write the books, and then just read them. Maybe smaller cities and greater distances meant people were more self-reliant for daily life and theological thoughts. A good question… Cheers!

        1. JohnM says:

          Trevor, Thanks again. Naturally in the course of giving some possible reasons why “Australians don’t” you provide some possibilities as to why Americans do. In addition to the things you mentioned and along the same line perhaps Australians don’t so much have notions like “City on a Hill”, or “last best hope of earth” in their background?

          Now books on evangelicalism in the English speaking world outside the U.S. and Britain would be good.

  4. Ken Stewart says:

    This is a very helpful overview. But two caveats
    1. About Starting Points. I do not think that the contrast between the evangelicalism summarized by Bebbington with his quadrilateral and North American evangelicalism are distinguishable in the ways you suggest. It has long ago been shown that contrary to Marsden, fundamentalism was a British (and Australian) phenomenon as surely as it was American. Revivalism was just as real a phenomenon in the UK as in America. Britain furnished a number of fundamentalist leaders to the English-speaking world. As well,in both places, certain strains of evangelicalism rejected revivalism. Louis Sperry Chafer was distancing himself from this in the 1920’s when he wrote _True Evangelism_. Machen followers have generally distanced themselves from this (even though Machen was repeatedly friendly to Billy Sunday). A distinction was and is still drawn between ‘revival’ (in the Great Awakening sense) and ‘revivalism’ (the formulaic approach introduced by Finney).

    Second, your end point could be interpreted as largely standing by the analysis of Harold Lindsell (though you are careful to note his weaknesses). But from another analysis, Lindsell exacerbated the situation so much that Packer had to write a post- _Battle for the Bible_ book called _Beyond the Battle for the Bible_. It has to be said that Lindsell was not a nuanced voice for evangelical thinking about the Bible in that era. This was better attended to by the series of Chicago conferences on 1)Inerrancy and 2) Hermeneutics. _Christianity Today_ found that Lindsell had had a fractious influence in the constituency they were trying to serve.

  5. John S says:


  6. Dear Taylor:

    In #8 above you noted the break of Ockenga & McIntire. Last week Dr. Rick Flanders emailed an article to his readers. Dr. Flanders is a long time pastor, evangelist in the independent Fundamental(ist) Baptist movement. The Flanders article is IMO an excellent companion piece. I have (with his permission) reproduced that article.

    The title of the article is Understanding Carl McIntire: Important Insights into our Present World.

    I trust your readers will find it helpful.


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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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