Fundamentalism vs. Evangelicalism

Fundamentalism vs. Evangelicalism March 8, 2023

Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism, and New Evangelicalism – what’s the difference? (Guest Post by self-identified fundamentalist Rev. Don Johnson)

“We suggest that those who still cling to the great fundamentals and who mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals shall be called ‘Fundamentalists.’” This sentence appeared in The Watchman-Examiner, a Christian paper edited by Curtis Lee Laws. Laws published this on July 1, 1920, eight days after the 1920 Pre-Convention Conference, held just prior to the annual meeting of the Northern Baptist Conference in Buffalo, NY.

Some would say the Pre-Convention Conference and Laws’ editorial were the opening salvos in what came to be called “the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.” This Controversy roiled several denominations in the 1920s, notably the Baptists and the Presbyterians, with Bible believing pastors attempting to halt the rise of modernism (or liberal theology) within their schools and denominational institutions. The conflict affected almost every religious group in North America, pitching the more conservative pastors and leaders into battle with the liberal or more accommodating moderates in these groups. In the end, the Modernists won the fight, with the militants withdrawing to form new denominations and institutions.

The fight resulted in a difference between “main-line” denominations (dominated by liberals) and “evangelical” denominations (sometimes called “fundamentalist”). At that time, between approximately 1930 and 1957, the terms “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” were virtually synonymous, descriptors of conservative Christians. There was a sense of division between the conservatives and the liberals, with an air of hostility between main-line and evangelical denominations.

In the 1950s, a new term emerged. “New evangelicalism” was proposed by Harold John Ockenga, pastor of the Park Street Church in Boston, MA, and founder of Fuller Theological Seminary in California. Ockenga says, in the foreword to Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible, that “Neo-evangelicalism was born in 1948 in connection with a convocation address I gave in the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena. While reaffirming the theological view of fundamentalism, this address repudiated its ecclesiology and its social theory.” The idea of new evangelicalism became the organizing principle of Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today, and the evangelistic campaigns of Billy Graham. As I understand it, new evangelicalism felt the militancy of fundamentalism hindered the evangelistic outreach of the church, so it called for a different approach. To borrow a later phrase, the new evangelicals wanted to do fundamentalist theology, but be “kinder and gentler.”

Ockenga continues in that same source, “Neo-evangelicals emphasized the restatement of Christian theology in accordance with the need of the times, the reengagement in the theological debate, the recapture of denominational leadership, and the reexamination of theological problems such as the antiquity of man, the universality of the Flood, God’s method of creation, and others.” The idea was to engage with liberals, infiltrate more liberal institutions, and to influence a widening evangelical point of view through dialog rather than confrontation.

The popularity of Billy Graham promoted this approach, with Graham increasingly warming to liberals, ultimately including them, to one extent or another, in sponsorship and participation in his evangelistic campaigns. In 1957, the New York City Crusade included sponsorship by the Protestant Council of New York (which included “out and out modernists” according to George Marsden). Marsden also reports that this sponsorship “meant sending converts back to their local churches, no matter how liberal those churches might be.” [Reforming Fundamentalism, 162.] At this point, the militant side of evangelicalism (the fundamentalists) had seen enough, and a severe breach formed. Fundamentalists and evangelicals diverged at this point, and have followed divergent paths ever since.

Some will say that fundamentalism is a subset of the broader evangelicalism. However, history paints the picture in a different way to me. The rise of new evangelicalism transformed the face of evangelicalism. All conservative Christians, once allies, now found themselves divided, with calls for them to identify with one side or the other. Most evangelicals adopted the new evangelical philosophy. That is, they dropped some barriers to cooperation with modernism, broadened their perspective on Genesis, adopting modern views of man’s origins (some going further than others), and became more accommodating to culture, bringing the music styles of the world into the church, ending taboos on movies, concerts, and other cultural institutions. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, generally hardened their opposition in all these areas. Their emphasis was on keeping the church pure in doctrine and practice, keeping themselves separate from error in theology and in the world. New evangelicalism prompted changes in both the militant and more moderate sides of evangelicalism, creating something new on both sides.

We don’t talk much about new evangelicals anymore. If you read Harold Ockenga, most modern evangelicals broadly fit under the categories he described positively. If you read fundamentalists, you will find the spirit of confronting error alive and well.

My description is broad and general with respect to both terms. You can find exceptions on both sides. The reason for that is evangelicalism and fundamentalism are movements, not organized groups. There is no “head office” for fundamentalism, there is none for evangelicalism (the National Association of Evangelicals notwithstanding). As with other movements, exceptions and modifications happen all the time. There are movements within movements. It is hard to pin down a comprehensive definition that fully describes everyone that employs one term or the other.

Nonetheless, I believe that the new evangelical movement, sponsored by Graham, Ockenga, and others, forced conservative Christians to adjust their thinking. The days of evangelical cooperation before 1957 was gone. The present scene is mostly dominated by evangelicals (as modified by new evangelicalism) and a smaller but vigorous remnant of fundamentalists. I am happy to count myself as one of the latter. I hope this description aids understanding. Ultimately our efforts to serve God will come under the scrutiny of a much higher judge than any of us, may he find us faithful, wherever we are in man’s eyes.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria and the editor of Proclaim & Defend, the blog of the Foundations Baptist Fellowship International.

*Note to commenters: If you choose to respond with a comment, make sure it is relatively brief (no more than 100 words), on topic, addressed to the guest author of this blog post essay, civil and respectful (not hostile or argumentative) and devoid of links or pictures.)

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