DISTINGUISHING ROOTS: Discerning the Origins of the Fundamentalist Movement

Fundamentalism is a movement that emerged during the early stages of the industrial revolution.  This view of faith has no doubt been troublesome for many in recent years, particularly in the arena of politics.  With great militancy, Christian fundamentalists fight for the causes of morality and conservative politics in the public square.  Evolution still remains a major threat to the biblical literalists, and so a new science has been developed to expose any gaps that exist in Darwin’s theory.  Fundamentalism continues to paint a picture through the use of media and protest that Christianity stands at odds with all things pertaining to their understanding of secular culture.  As a result, many within American life have decided that Christianity is irrelevant and have given up on the church as being a voice of truth.  The current uprising of the religious right (although it is slowing down) begs the question: How did this approach to Christian faith called “fundamentalism” begin? If we can figure out the factors that contributed to its origins, perhaps we will be able to understand its aggressive approach that has been evident in recent years.  In order to do this, it will be necessary to attempt to distinguish the roots of the movement.  To do so will require the examination of several approaches that historians have used to figure out what brought rise to the fundamentalist movement.  The scholarly work of Sandeen, Marsden, and DeBerg will be considered as well as voices within fundamentalism itself.


One of the most well known scholars in the study of Fundamentalism is Ernest R. Sandeen.  In 1967, he published an article titled, “Toward a Historical Interpretation of the Origins of Fundamentalism.”  In order to gain a broad understanding of his approach to the genesis of the movement, it will be beneficial to summarize the article that seems to encapsulate the view that he put forth.

The Approaches of Others

To begin his exploration of Fundamentalism as history, Sandeen discusses some of the major works that preceded his own writing.  The first study that he mentioned was that of Stewart G. Cole, who authored History of Fundamentalism in 1931.  In the view of Sandeen, this book was written in too close of a proximity to the events that formed the movement.  Due to this, an accurate assessment was difficult because there were still not a large enough distance between the author’s own experiences and the early days of Fundamentalism.  In no way could he have understood many of the cultural ramifications without the gift of hindsight.  Another scholar that Sandeen briefly mentioned was Norman F. Furniss who wrote, The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-1931 (written in 1954).  As Sandeen argued, both of these academics were biased in that they saw the rise of fundamentalism as a completely negative force that was compelled, not by religious convictions, but by the hunger for political denominational power.  Neither of these works had (up to that point) sufficiently traced the origins of fundamentalism within its historical context.

Other approaches that Sandeen took note of was that of scholars who attempt to attribute the fundamentalist movement to either psychological or sociological factors.  Most of the work in this area of study had mainly concluded that the forenamed factors were the main forces that propelled fundamentalism forward.  Even those who claimed to be primarily concerned with history seemed to come to that conclusion most often.  Sandeen explained: “The factors that explain the Fundamentalists’ brash behavior, most historians have argued, can be discovered in the economic and intellectual forces which alarmed and agitated the churches so terribly in the last decades of the nineteenth century and in the psychological states of those whose lot it was to live through those days.”[1] Sandeen was discontent with such an approach.

The reason for the dissatisfaction with the above view was that those types of historians did not recognize that fundamentalism was not the same basic faith as that of nineteenth century Christianity.  To lump these two sects into the exact same group was a category mistake that needed to be corrected if accurate study is to be done.  This mistake is the same that most fundamentalists also made, claiming to have exact continuity with the past.  Sandeen quoted a prominent leader in the movement who said, “…there is nothing new in Fundamentalism except it may be its name…”  Being convinced that this was the wrong approach, Sandeen proposed his thesis for the study as understanding the fundamentalist movement to have emerged as an “allegiance between two newly-formulated nineteenth century theologies, dispensationalism and the Princeton Theology.”  He went on to say that these two may not have always been perfectly attuned, but they were able to join together against the cause of modernism until around 1918.

The Role of Dispensationalism

The theology of dispensationalism emerged amongst a small group of Plymouth Brethren in England and Ireland in the 1820’s.  John Nelson Darby is credited with expounding the view that the Biblical record of history out to be understood in various stages (dispensations).  According to the Scofield Study Bible (an early reference tool used by dispensationalists), seven such dispensations are discussed in the Bible.  These include: Innocence (Eden), Conscience (Adam to Noah), Human Government (Noah to Abraham), Promise (Abraham to Moses), Law (Moses to Christ), Grace (Christ through the present up until the final judgment), and the Millennium. [2] The followers of Darby believed that most of the prophecies in the Old Testament had been fulfilled by the coming of the Messiah Jesus.  They also believed that there were several prophecies that are foretold in the New Testament writings that would be the next step in God’s divine plan.  Because of a strong conviction in the imminent return of Christ, what dispensationalists considered to be prophetic received much attention.  Not only so, but due to a belief that Christ would return and rapture the elect out of this world[3], dispensationalist teaching held to a pessimistic view of everything having to do with the earthly life.  This eschatology is called “premillennialism,” meaning that Christ must return before the final dispensation could begin.

Dispensationalism also taught that an elect group was the chosen people who would endure in the life to come.  They considered most religious institutions and leaders as being apostates, while they saw themselves as a remnant of overlooked righteous individuals.  Sandeen states: “In nineteenth-century America as in Europe, the apostates were quickly identified as liberal theologians.”[4] Dispensationalists often felt that they were marginalized believers who rarely had power like the large denominations.  Therefore, the larger church structures were the source of heresy and pure faith could only be produced by true spiritual individuals.  This ecclesiology may point to the reason why fundamentalism has never created one single denomination, but rather believed it should “remain a spiritual fellowship of individual Christians.”[5] Whatever the case may be, what is certain is that the combination of premillennial convictions and a feeling of being the outsider, contributed to a pessimism that eventually led to militancy towards those whom they considered to be liberal.

Finally, it must be stated that dispensationalism relies heavily on Biblical literalism.  Anything that threatened such a view of the Scriptures was up for attack.  Before this time, many Protestants had viewed the Bible as highly authoritative, but never had applied such an intensive common sense interpretation.  This hyper-literalism was driven by zeal to interpret prophecy accurately in order to anticipate the end of the world.[6]

The Role of Princeton Theology

The relationship between Princeton Theology and dispensationalism began in 1878 in a significant way.  Prophetic conferences had become a means to explore prophetic themes and premillennialism for the dispensationalists.  By 1878 they held the First International Prophetic Conference.  Several conservative Calvinists who were related to Princeton Theological Seminary had an intrigue about the topics to be discussed at the conference.  In the view of Sandeen, this conference “marks the beginning of a long period of dispensationalist cooperation with Princeton oriented Calvinists.”  This, he argued, was when the “unstable and incomplete synthesis which is now known as Fundamentalism at this point first becomes visible to the historian.”[7]

Princeton Theology understood the Bible to be God’s inspired word.  Many Christians from various traditions would agree with that statement, although what developed as a proof of this conviction would be unique.  The way that Princeton theologians (Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, B.B. Warfield and J.G. Machen) believed that the Bible must be defended as such was through objective reason.  This pursuit eventually led to the doctrine of inerrancy—the belief that every word in the Bible is true in every way.  The view of the Bible that was expounded eventually taught: 1) the Bible is verbally inspired, 2) inerrant in its every reference, statistic, and quotation, 3) as written down on the original autographs.  This common sense understanding complemented dispensationalism and allowed the two beliefs to come together for the causes of fundamentalism.[8]

The Allegiance

From the above, it could be clearly understood as to why Sandeen believed that dispensationalism and Princeton Theology were able to work so well together.  Both understood the basic themes of biblical authority.  They both saw the Bible as inerrant, pointing to the original autographs.  Both groups believed that the culture had become corrupt and therefore had a generally pessimistic view of the world.  Wherever disagreements existed between the two, they where able (for the most part) to put differences aside and direct their attention at a common foe: modernism.[9]

As Sandeen closed his article on the origins of fundamentalism, he listed several things that he had attempted to demonstrate.  First, fundamentalism emerged to fight for certain religious truths that were within the span of definable values.  Second, he claimed the view that most fundamentalist had about the origins of their beliefs being consistent with the past is flawed.  In other words, fundamentalism innovated several theological ideas that had not been held in the past.  Third, Sandeen admitted that his proposed definition would not satisfy everyone, but that he had at least demonstrated historically that the movement was driven by religious comradely.  Fourth, fundamentalism must not be portrayed as a southern country movement.  The fact is that many of the early fundamentalists came from places in the North such as Princeton.


Sandeen can be commended for several issues that his perspective on the origins of fundamentalisms brings forth.  He successfully critiqued writers like Cole and Furniss who completely ruled out the theological convictions of those within the movement.  Their contention that the primary causation of the genesis of fundamentalism is rooted in a struggle for political power within denominational structures is outlandish![10] Yes, there were struggles that ensued within denominational structures, but as almost every source will point out; fundamentalism is a movement that transcends denominations.  Therefore, such a claim is unwarranted.

Sandeen can also be affirmed in his attempt to study the collaboration between Princeton Theology and dispensationalism.  He makes a mistake when he claims that fundamentalism can be narrowed down to only these two groups.  These two groups were clearly major forces in the war against modernism and biblical liberalism; but as Marsden points out: “Sandeen had to use an unusually narrow definition of fundamentalism.”[11]

This critique carries weight when other voices in the movement are examined.  There were many fundamentalist who did not fit into either of these theological boxes.  Curtis Lee Laws, who is credited with coining the phrase ‘fundamentalism’ in an article describing the Fundamentals stated that isolating the definition to premillennialism was “too closely allied with a single doctrine and not sufficiently inclusive.”[12] A prominent example of this type of fundamentalist was Augustus Hopkins Strong, who was a well known educator and theologian at the time.  He was comfortable with premillennialism, but also was willing to give the same importance to postmillennialism.  Also, he was not willing to use the language of inerrancy as the Princeton theologians did.  He was more comfortable with the phrase “infallible.” Nevertheless, Northern Baptists in particular, and fundamentalists in general, would have seen Strong as a champion of their cause against Liberalism.[13]


Arguably the best known modern scholar on the topic of fundamentalism is George M. Marsden, who proposes a view of its origins that understands it as a uniquely American phenomenon.  In his book, Fundamentalism and American Culture, he expounds why he believes this to be so.  The following is an overview of his basic flow of argument.

America as Unique…But Not That Unique

America is not the only place in which fundamentalism has taken root.  Certainly other countries have seen some of its unique characteristics within other revival movements and the mission effort of missionaries from the United States.  Nevertheless, as Marsden states: “almost nowhere outside of America did this particular Protestant response to modernity play such a conspicuous and pervasive role in the culture.” [14]

The country that has the closest parallels to American fundamentalism is England.  Much of the awakenings during the colonial years had there root on the other side of the Atlantic.  Social reform organizations such as the YMCA had their origin there as well as the modern missionary movement.  Dispensationalism (which was discussed at length above) found its roots in England although it mostly thrived on United States soil.  Even the Fundamentals (the essays from hence we get fundamentalism), contained a fourth of the material written by Englishmen!  From the days of the early Puritans, to the ministry of Dwight L. Moody, Christian faith in both countries could be understood as a single transatlantic movement.  After Moody, although many things were held in common, differences would begin to emerge.

When the battle against liberalism ensued during the 1920’s in America, most conservative evangelicals in England did not have the same militant approach.  Those who did had a quiet voice as far as the larger culture was concerned.  This was mostly because the issues raised by Darwinism and higher criticism had been dealt with in the decades prior.  One notable English fundamentalist, A.C. Dixon, attempted to create a ruckus among those in the mother country; but his attempt was to no avail.  The hyper-militancy of the American breed did not appeal to those in England.  In fact, events such as the Scopes Trial in 1925 seemed odd to those across the ocean.  One commentator for the Times in London wrote: “Perhaps no recent event in America stands more in need of explanation.”

Marsden raises the necessary question: “What was it in the American situation that fostered militant fundamentalism on such a large scale?”  Why did England fail in cultural impact while American fundamentalism in many ways thrived?  To answer this, Marsden proposes that there are three categories worthy of examination: social factors, religious-cultural traditions, and intellectual tendencies. [15]

Social Factors From Marsden’s Perspective

Marsden marks out that there were two significant social factors that affected the ability of fundamentalism to flourish in America as opposed to England.  The first of these is that America contained (at the time) more diversity amongst ethnic cultures and denominations.  Every group held to specific beliefs, but these also could adopt various components from interactions with other forms of American Protestantism.  Acceptance or non-acceptance of a view was the normative means by which the various sects would form, and so fundamentalism had a multiplicity of opportunities to flourish among several different groups.  England’s religious culture by this time was much more assimilated into the larger society.

The second social factor that Marsden indicates is the experience of displacement from the larger culture.  In England, evangelicals had navigated their way through a religiously diverse culture to emerge as a respectable minority group.  The situation in America at this point in history was quite the opposite.  American evangelicalism had been the dominant force for several generations, but now was challenged by new ideas and became one of many paradigms.  This newfound marginalization (at least in the eyes of evangelicals turned fundamentalists), moved them into an uncomfortable posture of defense rather than the remaining the loudest acceptable voice of moral truth.  This would have been traumatic to anyone of these types of Christians living between the 1880’s and the 1920’s.[16]

Religious-Cultural Factors From Marsden’s Perspective

From the beginnings of colonization up through the late eighteen hundreds, revivalism flourished in America without any major competitor.  While England had a role in most of these awakenings, they could not infiltrate British culture as dramatically because several other ‘non-revivalist’ traditions were well established with hundreds of years of history.

In these awakenings and movements, a common understanding of the Bible was held by most religious groups in America.  Sola Scriptura bound the multiplicity of denominations and faith expressions together with the common theme of rejecting all forms of traditionalism.  A return to so-called New Testament church life demanded that the Bible would be the only guide to the pious person’s practice of faith.  This was made possible because America did not have a strong institutional church as did England.

This understanding of the Bible was also complemented in America by a strong sense of individualistic piety.  The church was almost always seen as secondary to the individual experience of the believer.  The community of faith within local congregations was more of a support group for individuals to live our moral lives in obedience to God.

Another factor that is noteworthy is that the church in America had developed a tendency to see things in “simple antitheses.”  Naturalism was seen as a direct threat to the supernatural.  Light versus dark, kingdom of God versus the kingdom of Satan, the world versus heaven, weakness versus strength, and purity versus impurity; are all examples of the antithetical view of religious experience.  Conversion can be seen as the epitome of this understanding of life where one once was a sinner but has had a dramatic conversion experience and now is a saint.  This revivalistic theme of simple antitheses left no room for processes as the more liberal theologians and modernists would embrace.  Thus, fundamentalism (from Marsden’s perspective) is understood to have been in direct continuity with the revivalist tradition, while amplifying such themes in often more militant ways.  This tendency was especially true for those groups of more Calvinistic heritage whose history had often been focused around intellectual articulation of statements of truth.[17]

Intellectual Tendencies From Marsden’s Perspective

Baconian scientific thought which was closely related to Common Sense Realism philosophy, was highly esteemed in the decades before romanticism.  This way of thinking about the world had become a treasured part of the American experiment, and was the basic model of epistemology that fundamentalism held on to during its emergence.  England had a similar view of knowledge for a time, but it was deconstructed by the romanticism in the 1780’s.  During this time, people across the Atlantic began to question fixed rational definitions.  Romanticism did not make its way on the United States soil until the 1830’s and at that time mainly influenced New Englanders.  In the mid- eighteen hundreds some evangelicals began to adopt romantic ideas, but those of the Princeton Theology (and those like them) chose to hold firmly to the Common Sense tradition.  When naturalism in the forms of Darwinism began to be taught, fundamentalists were not without intellectual leadership; but such intellect held on to a Common Sense model that could not harmonize with process ideology because of its tendency to fabricate fixed laws about truth.[18]

Marsden summarizes his understanding of the American fundamentalist movement in the following way:

This philosophical outlook was buttressed by revivalist thought and the American reverence for the Bible as well as by a variety of social, ethnic and geographical circumstances.  These influences combined to dispose many people to anathematize every aspect of the new views and to set up rigidly developmental views increased until by the 1920s they had become prevalent, the fundamentalists continued to stress their opposing paradigms more and more urgently.[19]


In all of the research done for this paper, Marsden is clearly the most respected authority on the origins of fundamentalism.  His approach that places the fundamentalist movement within the unique American context is difficult to fault.  He is right in understanding the continuity that exists between the awakenings and revivals of the previous generations, while also maintaining that fundamentalism took old ideas and innovated new ones.  Where he may be critiqued, is from the next perspective that will be discussed.  DeBerg’s argument will contend that historians (of whom Marsden is the most prominent) have failed to take into account the rapid changes in gender ideology that took place during industrialization.  The new gender roles, as will be demonstrated below, gave a social context for the rise of fundamentalism.  Yes, as Marsden suggests, there is a great deal of continuity with the past revivalistic traditions; but perhaps this movement was fueled by a loss of gender identity.


Betty A. DeBerg is one of the most contemporary voices in the conversation about the origins of fundamentalism.  In her book, Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism, she examines the function of Victorian gender roles as they relate to the emergence of the movement.  She states: “This volume attempts to fill the gap, analyzing the roots and character of fundamentalism in light of the rapid changes and severe disruptions in gender-role ideology and in actual social behavior in the United States between 1880 and 1930.”[20]

DeBerg begins her argument by discussing the pillars of traditional male identity.  The first was the “identification of manliness with work.”  The second pillar was that of a “hunter” or “warrior” who would use physical strength and aggression to fuel the ego.  The third pillar of male identity could be identified with the patriarchal model of family structure.  Under such a model fathers had basic control over both daughters and sons within the household.  Upon his death, he would relinquish his property and possessions to his male children in order to ensure their economic stability.  In these three areas, a man was assured of his masculinity and therefore his value.[21]

With the industrial revolution, DeBerg argues that the roles of men were forced to change.  No longer did most men work the land through toil in order to make a profit for the family and leave behind an inheritance for their sons.  The office replaced the field; maximizing profits through corporate competitiveness replaced the “hunter” impulse.  The husband spent more time fighting for financial gain outside of the sphere of home, and thus the household became a refuge away from the vicious world of market exploitation.  With this shift, the wife became the “queen of the home” who had most of the daily control in the upbringing of the children.  Essentially, the home became the sphere of the woman, and the breadwinning world became that of the man.  Men found their identity in what they did outside of the home (public life), while women were confined to the life within the home (private life).[22] Even church participation was effected by the social phenomenon.  Religion did not seem relevant to the capitalistic spirit of the public businessman, so faith became a matter of private life.  As a result, women became the pious parishioners of the period and the church experienced a feminizing inclination.[23] This was the way of the separate gender spheres, but such would be doomed for collapse.

The Collapse of the Spherical System

Over time, DeBerg contends, big business began to dominate the corporate world and the average man no longer could find pride in his competitive work environment.  Many would have felt like pawns of the corporate system and would not have found the “psychological satisfaction he needed in defining himself as a breadwinner.”[24]

To add to the lack of identity that men found in work, an impulse towards women’s rights in the public sphere began to challenge the superiority complex of the public male.  DeBerg states: “The presence of women in the workplace made it less likely that men could achieve unquestionable masculine identity through their work.”[25] The “New Woman” would emerge as one who was integrated into public life through higher education, career, and delayed marital commitments.[26] Also, they began to campaign for women’s suffrage.[27] The systems of the gender spheres had been demolished and masculine identity had been undermined; thus, the door was opened for theological claims for social change by the emerging fundamentalist movement.  According to DeBerg’s analysis, gender role issues were the main cause that led to the rise of fundamentalism.[28]

The Fundamentalist Agenda and Gender Roles

The fundamentalist movement arose in the midst of a cultural crisis for men and a cultural revolution for women.  Fundamentalist leaders (always men) saw the cultural shift away from spherically defined gender roles as a shift towards ungodliness.  They held the view that in order for the “divinized household” to manifest the kingdom of God that society must return to the fundamental structures that had once ruled during the Victorian era.[29] This would sooth the moral ills (such as divorce by women) that had supposedly emerged as a result of the breakdown of such structures.[30] It is suspicious that a religious movement, dominated by males, would call for a return to a male dominated culture of the past.  They encouraged women to be submissive and to stay out of the public life as to do “more for God.”[31] DeBerg continues throughout the book to draw out this theme as the reason that fundamentalists were pushed towards their rigid dogmatic schemes.  This, she argues, is not foremost a theological conviction that led to social ramifications, but rather the opposite.

In response to the female dominated churches of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, fundamentalists began to attack women’s roles within the church.  Based on the inerrant literal readings of the Bible, they prohibited women from speaking in the congregations.  By the same authority, they also began to remove any power from women who had positions of leadership over men.[32] Some were more aggressive than others, but the general fundamentalist consensus was that no woman could be ordained under any circumstance.[33] Ironically enough, the reason so many women had become leaders was due to the lack of men in the churches; yet the finger of blame was pointed at females.  They taught that the “woman is subordinate to man just as man is subordinate to Christ; no ‘true woman will complain that her sphere is narrowed, because she is told to keep silence in the churches.’”[34]

The reclaiming of the church for men also incorporated violent military imagery into the regular discussion of the church.  This was an effort to eliminate all things feminine from the faith.  One fundamentalist writer believed that: “Wherever this Gospel is preached it must create antagonism…Christianity began as a fighting religion.”[35] This attitude gave the aggressive premise to attack other forms of Christianity such as ‘modernism,’ calling their leaders proponents of “emasculated Christianity.”[36]

Young women were a specific concern for the fundamentalists[37] who were warned not to engage in the new kinds of “worldly amusement.”[38] They held that many had been influenced by modernism and needed to return to the old values.  Dancing, theater, cards, and gambling were all viewed as pulls away from the spherically appropriate life.[39] Premillennialism (fundamentalist eschatology) taught that these and other activities that influenced women away from submissiveness were all signs of the end.  One writer even went as far as to claim that such women “possess the spirit of the beast.”[40] All of these moral codes would have been understood as revealed by the “eternal divine law” of the Bible.[41] In order to maintain a control on fundamentalist morality, anything that threatened a plain reading of the Bible (such as higher criticism or evolution) was attacked.  DeBerg connects this back to the Victorian gender roles:

The divine origin and verbal accuracy of the Bible were important…because it was upon scriptural authority that the fundamentalists defended their standards of morality—the social conventions of the late-Victorian middle-class to which they belonged.[42]


Marsden said the following about DeBerg’s work on the back of her book: “Betty DeBerg’s focus on early fundamentalist concerns to preserve Victorian family values and sexual mores helps round out our understanding of the dynamics of the early movement and its continuities with recent fundamentalism.”[43] It is fair to say that Marsden gives some legitimacy to the argument that DeBerg put forth in her book.  With that noted, he also would have some critical remarks about her perspective.  For instance, in his updated edition of his book, he added a chapter to update the conversation on the emergence of fundamentalism.  He readily admits that he should have addressed the cultural crisis of changing gender roles and family values.[44] Even with such an admission, Marsden critiques DeBerg in an endnote saying that she takes this case too far.  By claiming that gender roles more significantly contributed the beginnings of fundamentalism than did theology, over exaggerates the impact of gender ideology.  Even so, he is gracious enough to say that her “point is well taken.”[45] DeBerg has pinpointed a direct contributing factor that laid the groundwork for militant fundamentalism to develop.


In order to give a fair hearing to all perspectives in the study of fundamentalism, it is important to briefly listen to voices within the tradition.  To begin this section, a quote from an article titled, “The Early Days of Fundamentalism,” by George W. Dollar will lay some of the foundation:

God raised up able men who would not accommodate, men highly trained and deeply and irrevocably dedicated to the Word of God.  Their names deserve reverent mention often for they were God’s giants against a black sky.[46]

The above quotation is a demonstration of how someone within the movement or who is at least sympathetic towards such will have an entirely different perspective than a detached historian.  Dollar understood fundamentalism to be the work of God in the world, when culture was veering in another direction.  Using Biblical tones, he seemed to have understood fundamentalism as faithfulness to the old time religion, rather than a new wave of religious extremism (as some critics and historians might suggest).  What also can be demonstrated by this simple quote is that the task of writing history is rarely an objective exercise.  In other words, every historian comes to a particular subject within a context and holding to various presuppositions.  It happens that in this case, a self proclaimed fundamentalist was studying the subject as one within its context and with a preconceived notion that it was some kind of continuity towards orthodoxy.

Another example of a self described approach to the origins of fundamentalism can be found in the writing of David O. Beal, who wrote, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850.  He defined fundamentalist views as having a view of the Bible as inerrant, and who in doing so strives to live a life of holiness.[47] Beal also believed that “fundamentalism is virtually synonymous orthodox Christianity.”  In other words, the faith that has been handed down through the centuries has been preserved by those who hold this view of the Scriptures.[48] Until the 1930’s, fundamentalists saw their role as purifying a religion that had been tainted by modernists within the mainline denominations.  According to Beal, this effort should have been pursued more intensely, because this first effort to purify the churches failed.[49] The hope was that God would bring revival like he had in the past generations of perceived orthodoxy, but a pessimistic understanding of culture was proven true when this did not occur.  With the belief that Christ is going to return to a world that is similar to the “days of Noah,” hope for a national revival was far from their minds.  Rather, they prayed that God would purify the remnant individuals within the communities of faith.[50]

It is apparent that the self proclaimed view did not see themselves a new sect or branch of Christian faith, but rather as the continuation of the work of God through orthodox tradition.


Each of the four views that have been explored in this paper has some positive qualities that must not be left behind in the quest to discern the roots of fundamentalism.  In an attempt to pinpoint some specific themes that are helpful in each approach, it is imperative that some kind of synthesis be proposed.

Sandeen has some things in his study on the origins of fundamentalism that are worth affirming.  As was mentioned briefly before, his perception on the role of Princeton Theology and dispensationalism are important to understanding the movement’s origin and progression of thought.  Although his approach was much too narrow minded in it scope, there is no doubt that these two groups were highly involved in the rise of fundamentalism.  From their first interaction during the prophecy conferences, up until Princeton began to take its theology toward a more moderate pathway, the two theologies that emphasized Common Sense readings of Scripture helped fuel the militant attacks on the modernist/liberal agenda.  Even to this day, it is evident that this view of the Bible is dominant in many evangelical traditions that would not even self identify as fundamentalists.  The influence of this movement into the larger Christian culture can not be underestimated.  This way of viewing the Bible is common practice by the average lay person, and is almost always the assumed mode for reading devotionally.

Marsden’s view of fundamentalism as unique to the American situation gives the best foundation for understanding the movement in regards to the larger historical Protestant story.  Revivalism emphasized many of the same areas that the fundamentalists amplified.  The centrality of the Bible had already been assumed by most Protestants in America who rejected the traditionalism of any institutionalized church.  This was not the case for those on English soil.  They understood their story as a natural progression and embraced the traditions that were handed down throughout the years.  America did not have a natural progressive story, but one that was newly established having cut all ties from the mother country.  That is why in England, evolution was much easier for the evangelicals to accept as opposed to those in the new land.

Marsden is also helpful in giving a perspective on how fundamentalism spread so easily in America.  With diversity as the norm, the various groups were used to accepting or rejecting views that they came in contact with through interaction with various Protestant groups.  With fundamentalism not being centered as a denominational movement, this allowed any group to adopt and adapt these kinds of convictions.  It was especially helpful that unlike England, America did not have an established state church; so the soil was fertile for diverse options.

Lastly, Marsden draws out the theme of antithesis that had developed in the revivals of American Protestantism.  It makes sense when one considers the high value that was placed on conversion experiences.  The more dramatic the conversion from sin to sainthood, the more legitimacy that it is often given in evangelical faith.  The aggressive fundamentalism that attacked all things that threatened their reading of the Common Sense Bible was always in antithesis to their cause of morality (a morality that was completely dependent on a plain and literal reading of all Scripture).  This theme still rings true in fundamentalist circles today.  I have experienced many who use aggressive and insulting apologetics approaches that point back to the theme of antithesis.  Today, people are either “in” (going to heaven) or “out” (going to hell); either liberal (heretics) or conservative (orthodox); either literalists or read the Bible as fable.  Polarities dominate the conversation rather than having the freedom to ask the hard questions.  Anything that disrupts the antitheses of life is automatically deemed liberal by fundamentalism.

DeBerg gives clarity on how the crisis of male identity gave this male driven group a reason to become militant.  This is a movement that emerged in the 1880’s as a call back to Victorian family code values.  When that system of separate spheres collapsed by women being liberated and allowed to enter into the public arena, fundamentalism began as a movement to define a clear-cut “moral code” that all should live by.

In order to reclaim maleness, fundamentalism arose as a call that included a return to family values.  They called women to embrace the godly calling of submissiveness.  I would agree with many of the moral values that these and the new fundamentalists would put forth, but I think the way they went about it all has damaged Christian faith in the present.

In order to defend the “moral code” that they were comfortable with, men in this movement began to do several things. They de-feminized the church with militant themes. They kicked women out of the pulpits (many of whom had taken leadership because of a lack of godly men who were tied up with questionable public lives). They attacked the so-called modernists who began to rethink and challenge their assumptions about the Bible.  All of this, they did on the grounds that the Bible should be read in a plain sense, taking the meaning that makes the most sense as we read it through our lens of culture.  This is why most of the early fundamentalists embraced dispensational theology, because it was based on setting up systems in the Bible so that it all made logical sense.  In the eyes of the fundamentalists, every thing they believed was based on reason and ought to be defended.  This preserved their models of understanding family and gave them a defendable voice against the changing gender roles.  Even to this day, women are treated as inferior to men in fundamentalist families and churches even if they are given colorful titles to glorify their subordinate position.  DeBerg’s input in the conversation on the origins of fundamentalism must not be ignored.

Finally, something should be said about the “self described approach” to the origins of fundamentalism.  Although this vantage point may have the most biases, it would not be fair to not give them credit as sincerely believing that their movement is out of obedience to God.  Although this has had many negative affects on the perception of outsider in recent years, most fundamentalists are sincere and desire to attain holiness.  Unfortunately the pursuit of holiness has yielded to unholy warlike tendencies that have damaged the public face of Christianity.


Beal, David O. In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850. Greenville, South Carolina: Unusual Publications, 1986.

DeBerg, Betty A. Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2000.

Dollar, George W. “The Early Days of Fundamentalism.” Bibliotheca Sacra 123, no. 490 April-June, 1966: 115-123 [journal on-line]; available from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000702750&site=ehost-live; Internet; accessed May 2008; ATLA Serials.

Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2d ed. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Moore, LeRoy, Jr. “Another Look at Fundamentalism: A Response to Ernest R. Sandeen.” Church History 37, no. 2 June 1968: 195-202 [journal on-line]; available from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000709905&site=ehost-live; Internet; accessed May 2008; ATLA Serials.

Ruthven, Malise. Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 2007.

Sandeen, Ernest R. “Toward a Historical Interpretation of the Origins of Fundamentalism.” Church History 36, no. 1 March 1967: 66-83 [journal on-line]; available from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000709899&site=ehost-live; Internet; accessed May, 2008; ATLA Serials.

[1]Sandeen, Ernest R., “Toward a Historical Interpretation of the Origins of Fundamentalism,” Church History 36, no. 1 March 1967: 66 [journal on-line]; available from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000709899&site=ehost-live; Internet; accessed May, 2008; ATLA Serials.


[2]Ibid., 67.

[3]Malise Ruthven, Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 2007), 8.

[4]Sandeen, Ernest R., “Toward a Historical Interpretation of the Origins of Fundamentalism,” 68-69.

[5]Ibid., 69.

[6]Ibid., 69-70.

[7]Ibid., 72-73.

[8]Ibid., 74.


[10]LeRoy Moore Jr., “Another Look at Fundamentalism: A Response to Ernest R. Sandeen,” Church History 37, no. 2 June 1968: 195 [journal on-line]; available from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000709905&site=ehost-live; Internet; accessed May 2008; ATLA Serials.

[11]Marsden, George M., Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2d ed. (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 200.

[12]Moore Jr., “Another Look at Fundamentalism: A Response to Ernest R. Sandeen,” 197.

[13]Ibid., 198.

[14]Marsden, George M., Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2d ed. (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 221.

[15]Ibid., 222.

[16]Ibid., 222-223.

[17]Ibid., 223-225.

[18]Ibid., 225-227.

[19]Ibid., 227.

[20]DeBerg, Betty A., Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2000), 1.

[21]Ibid., 15-16.

[22]Ibid., 18-20.

[23]Ibid., 22-23.

[24]Ibid., 25.  Filene, Him/Her/Self, 73.

[25]Ibid., 26.

[26]Ibid., 39.

[27]Ibid., 51.

[28]Ibid., 41.

[29]Ibid., 64.

[30]Ibid., 69.

[31]Ibid., 56.

[32]Ibid., 76.

[33]Ibid., 79.

[34]Ibid., 77.

[35]Ibid., 88.

[36]Ibid., 91.

[37]Ibid., 100.

[38]Ibid., 101.

[39]Ibid., 102.

[40]Ibid., 124-125.

[41]Ibid., 131.

[42]Ibid., 129.

[43]Ibid., Back Cover.

[44]Marsden, George M., Fundamentalism and American Culture, 240-241.

[45]Ibid., 325-326 n. 28.

[46]Dollar, George W., “The Early Days of Fundamentalism,” Bibliotheca Sacra 123, no. 490 April-June, 1966: 116 [journal on-line]; available from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000702750&site=ehost-live; Internet; accessed May 2008; ATLA Serials.

[47]Beal, David O., In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850 (Greenville, South Carolina: Unusual Publications, 1986), 3.

[48]Ibid., 4.


[50]Ibid., 11.