Fundamentalism

The fundamentalist movement in American Protestantism is named for a theological perspective developed during the first few decades of the twentieth century. It was encapsulated in a series of small booklets collectively called The Fundamentals, published between 1910 and 1915 (Armstrong 2000: 171). Its roots, however, go back to earlier conservative Protestant movements. Fundamentalism is partly a reaction to the theological movement called modernism that began in Germany in the 1880s. Modernism reflected a technique of biblical interpretation called higher criticism, which proposed looking at the Bible in its cultural, historical, and even literary contexts. Creation and Flood stories, for example, were shown by comparison of ancient texts to have been influenced by similar stories from earlier non-Hebrew religions. With such interpretations, the Bible could be viewed as a product of human agency—with all that suggests of the possibilities of error, misunderstanding, and contradiction—as well as a product of divine inspiration.

Christians who were more conservative preferred a more traditional interpretation on which the Bible was considered inerrant (wholly true and free from error—though some individuals qualified inerrancy as applying only to the version of the Bible God gave to the original authors). Passages were to be taken at face value when at all possible rather than be "interpreted." Fundamentalists stressed "(1) the inerrancy of Scripture, (2) the Virgin Birth of Christ, (3) Christ's atonement for our sins on the cross, (4) his bodily resurrection and (5) the objective reality of his miracles" (Armstrong 2000: 171).

Financed by millionaires who had founded a conservative evangelical college in Los Angeles (the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, now Biola), millions of copies of The Fundamentals were printed and distributed "free of charge, to every pastor, professor, and theology student in America" (Armstrong 2000: 171). Different essays treated evolution in different ways: some of the authors rejected evolution, but some accepted various forms of theistic evolution. In some, natural selection was rejected but not common ancestry itself (Larson 1997). Some writers allowed for animal evolution, but not human, and some even allowed for human evolution, though not through natural selection. Natural selection was opposed because it replaced God's direct action with natural causes, and thus indicated to some a less personal, hands-on, involved God, unacceptable to fundamentalist theology. Most of the authors of The Fundamentals were day-age creationists, who allowed for an old Earth but insisted on a recent appearance of humans. Although not all The Fundamentals were antievolutionary, the fundamentalist position toward evolution hardened fairly quickly. Fundamentalists became the ground troops for the campaign to rid schools of evolution. They were motivated by religious sentiments and by a concern that evolution was the source of many negative and even corrosive social trends.

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