Understanding the Changing Facade of Twentieth-Century American Protestant fundamentalism: Toward a Historical Definition -- By: John Fea

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 15:2 (Fall 1994)
Article: Understanding the Changing Facade of Twentieth-Century American Protestant fundamentalism: Toward a Historical Definition
Author: John Fea


Understanding the Changing Facade of
Twentieth-Century American Protestant fundamentalism:
Toward a Historical Definition

John Fea*

The term fundamentalism has become the most elusive term on the American (and world) religious scene. To delve into the meaning of fundamentalism is to immerse oneself in a cornucopia of scholarly (and non-scholarly) books and articles, each articulating a somewhat different definition. Today the label fundamentalist is not only applied to old-fashioned, Bible believing, anti-modernist Protestants but also to conservative Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Buddhists, and Sikhs.1 Even within Protestant circles, the debate over who is a fundamentalist and who is not continues to rage. For example, are self-styled evangelicals (those associated with Christianity Today, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, or Wheaton College) deserving of the label fundamentalist, or does that moniker apply only to the most conservative of Protestant institutions, with strict moral codes and commitments to ecclesiastical separation, such as Bob Jones University? Those attempting to penetrate the dense forest of such twentieth-century religious terminology are bound to encounter a few thorns along the way.

This paper will attempt to make some sense of American Protestant fundamentalism by chronicling its subtle changes through the course of the twentieth century. I will argue that

* John Fea is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, New York.

Protestant fundamentalism in America can be understood best by viewing the movement through four distinct periods, or “phases”: 1) an “irenic phase,” which runs from approximately 1893–1919 and serves as a harbinger to fundamentalism “proper”; 2) a “militant phase,” that runs from 1920–1936 and which encompasses the now famous “fundamentalist-modernist controversies”; 3) a “divisive phase” from 1941–1960, associated with the intramural fragmentation of fundamentalism into “evangelical” and “separatist” factions; and 4) a “separatist phase” from 1960 to the present, in which the term fundamentalism is applied to those Protestants who choose to remove themselves from the mainstream of American culture and religion.

The story of American fundamentalism is the story of those nineteenth-century American mainstream Protestants and their heirs who arose to defend traditional evangelical doctrine in light of cultural, intellectual, and ecclesiastical change in American society and religion. While fundamentalists always maintained a certain continuity in their core do...

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