Let’s be honest, we use this word with a very negative connotation these days. When someone is called a fundamentalist or “fundi”, they’re usually being labeled as radical, irrational, and usually ignorant. I’ll be honest, I’ve used the word many times myself to label particular people, but my usage was based off how I perceived it being used by others. I had no clue as to what the history behind the word was. Where did the term fundamentalist even come from?
What I learned first is that the real meaning behind a fundamentalism isn’t really that bad, but has been escalated to have a very negative connotation today that far exceeds its original meaning. Fundamentalism comes from an American movement in the early 1900’s. For years the Churches were adopting very liberal theology due to modernism, Darwinism (and of course liberalism) compromising and omitting many teachings in the Bible. Many Christian leaders and prominent theologians were disappointed and concerned with this trend, so prominent members of Princeton Theological Seminary agreed that a movement should be started. These leaders published over 90 articles from 1910 to 1915 which were collectively titled, The Fundamentals: A Testimony of Truth. These articles aimed to defend the core essential (fundamental) doctrines of the Bible, which they felt was being morally undermined by Modernism. These articles were printed in the millions and distributed to churches across America. Anyone who stood by the writings of these articles was therefore considered a fundamentalist.
The articles revolved around 5 main concerns:
- The Bible being understood as literally true.
- The deity of Christ.
- Humanity’s atonement through faith in God and His grace.
- The resurrection of Christ.
- The authenticity of Christ’s miracles and His eventual second coming.
But outside of these main issues, the theologians disagreed regarding many other topics. Here we stumble across a misconception in who is labeled a fundamentalist today. The original fundamentalist theologians disagreed on whether evolution contradicted the Bible or supported it. Some agreed with the former, some agreed with the latter. They also disagreed with the age of the earth and other controversial creation topics. What is interesting is that Christians are often labeled fundamentalists if they don’t believe in evolution, or believe in a six day creation ect. This is an inaccurate title however, because there were fundamentalists that believed the opposite! Other issues that the theologians disagreed with: Moses wrote the first five books of the Gospel; the rapture will occur before end times; and dispensationalism. These issues were disputed because they’re often the result of interpretation and not direct wording from the Bible.
All and all the purpose of the Fundamentalist movement was to defend the Bible as being true. So in a traditional sense, if you today believe that the Bible is the accurate word of God, with Jesus being the messiah and Son of God, and that all men need God’s forgiveness for their sins, then you’re a fundamentalist. By this standard I am a fundamentalist as well. All other topics of dispute can’t be considered fundamentalism because the fundamentalists didn’t even agree on them!
So how did Fundamentalism become a bad word of derogatory use? Well, down the long road of history the word fundamentalism slowly became the shameful word it is today. In 1925, the famous Scopes trial was covered extensively by the media which falsely labeled the prosecution as fundamentalists, even though evolution was a subject the fundamentalists disagreed on between each other. Therefore when people read their history about the Scopes Trial they read of the prosecution being fundamentalists even though that title is inaccurate. In more modern times, religion entered the political realm with the Religious Right and the Christian Coalition among others. All of which self-proclaimed themselves to be “fundamentalists.” Naturally those (democrats) that opposed the viewpoints of these fundamentalist parties (which were republican in alignment) developed a disliking of fundamentalists. From this point on it would be set in stone by liberals that fundamentalism = bad!
Despite the origins of fundamentalism it has become a word today that represents crazy snake-handling ignorant Christians with radical agendas, and is even used to describe other religions like Islam. It’s interesting to see how a word meaning changes over time and fundamentalism is a great example. It can be argued that fundamentalism being used in a derogatory fashion stems from a lack of understanding the history of fundamentalism. I think we should instead be true to history and roots of the word. To be a fundamentalist is to hold the Bible’s scripture as true, nothing more nothing less. To attribute anything else to fundamentalism would be an exaggeration of its true meaning. In knowing this, I’m challenging myself to only use this word for its true context and not in a misconceived context which is so prominently used today.
 Modernism was a trend that considered that humans (not God) held the only power to create and shape our environment with scientific knowledge and new technology. This movement was gaining momentum in the church leading to theology that contradicted scripture.