J. Heinrichs, in an article called “Fundamentalism and Why We Have It,” explained some of the rationale behind the adoption of the term ‘fundamentalism,’ revisiting and quoting from the famous article by Curtis Lee Laws. Heinrichs’ explanation offers an interesting parallel with the attempts of definition that would arise later.
Should the growing coalition of fundamentalists call themselves the ‘conservatives’? They found this word connoted too much reaction for them. Heinrichs quoted Curtis Lee Laws who made it sound as if there were too many varieties of conservatives with reputations he did not wish to share. ‘Conservatives’ must not have been a term sufficiently allied to a theological position: the next name is taken from theology.
Heinrichs and Laws did not want to call themselves the Premillennialists either. This is significant in that it shows how varied the theological position of the fundamentalists could be. It was not varied in the sense of including heterodoxy, but it could not be reduced to a single characteristic doctrine. Even if fundamentalists were premillennialists in the main, they recognized this single doctrine was not what held them together.
“Landmarkers” was the last term discarded. Laws found it restricted to a group too radical to characterize the fundamentalists, and Heinrichs does not even discuss it. Excluding this last term, however, one can see in these two paragraphs from 1927 the main outlines of the literature written in search for an understanding of fundamentalism since then. Cole and Furniss would look for an explanation that understood fundamentalists as conservatives, making them a reaction to modern ways of life; Sandeen would focus on the premillennial doctrine, bringing doctrine back into consideration as a serious element, but constricting the definition more than should be allowed; and last would come Marsden, giving a definition similar to Heinrichs who said, “Fundamentalism then is an organized endeavor to counteract the alarming spread of modernism in our churches, schools and colleges.”
My thesis is not a revision of the understanding of fundamentalism; It is an attempt to explore something that has been present all along but not sufficiently developed in the literature. Fundamentalism consists of an allegiance to protestant theological orthodoxy, but it is an allegiance that sought a rallying place against the hostilities of theological modernism in popular culture. Popular culture provided a shelter from the encroachment of modernism coming by way of the high culture. Even though they might not have put it in those terms, fundamentalists sensed that the threat of modernism was emanating and being spread by the high culture. Men like Machen wanted to resist it at that level; Men like Bryan and Sunday wanted to resist it from a position more antithetical, pitting orthodoxy against heresy by pitting popular culture against high culture.
Fundamentalists have viewed the notion of a confrontation of cultures with suspicion, partly because the argument was put to them not in terms of theology, but in terms of culture. Modernists like Cole wanted to make the issue an issue of learning and cultivation, an issue of progress, an issue of the advance of civilization. This was a maneuver calculated to privilege the Modernist argument. Fundamentalists believed they stood for orthodox theology and that Modernists, who had a sub-orthodox theology, wanted to obscure or avoid the real issue by arguing about culture and progress.
Both Sides Were Partly Wrong
The Modernists believed the dispositive power of modern culture greater than the determinative power of ancient theology; they went to culture to get their theology; they believed in the rightness of the assumptions of the spirit of the age. They had learned the learning of their times and they believed it to be right, so they wanted to reinterpret Christianity in light of secular culture. They also believed they could see the end of a long and arduous process which with a little effort could be culminated. If only the petty and antiquated concern for mere doctrinal precision could be overcome, the task of filling the world with the Christian spirit of universal brotherhood and global peace would come at last.
Fundamentalists believed the determinative power of theology to be greater than the dispositive power of culture. Theology, for them, was primary and all other concerns secondary. Because of this, theological orthodoxy was the great rudder-setter. Right belief led to right practice so that secondary considerations (questions of practice, questions of culture) could remain mostly unattended. It was enough to look at the deleterious effects a preoccupation with modern culture had on historic Christianity to know that theology was more important than culture.
Both Sides Were Partly Right
The Modernist knew the power of culture to shape hearts and minds. Theology, for them, could not avoid being shaped by culture, it had to be part of the deliberate cultivation that sought to integrate every branch of learning. Culture gave a disposition toward the world, an attitude from which all other considerations were ordered. Orthodoxy alone could not move the Modernists; theology needed the resonance of meaning that culture provides. The crucial refinements of learning could not be neglected without paying a price; and the vitality of culture depended on its attachment to the modern way of life.
The fundamentalist saw a departure from orthodoxy as a betrayal of Christianity. They accused the Modernists of a sort of mysticism, an undisciplined following of mere feeling at the expense of thorough thinking. They knew that right religion must have a shaping and molding influence on culture, instead of being shaped and molded to modern culture. They resisted the impulse to shape religion in the mold of the spirit of the age, to change the charge of the great commission for the goals of alien, secular ideas.
Neither Side Was Right Enough
Because the Modernist urged exclusive attention to the climate of culture, the fundamentalist urged exclusive attention to right theology; both made a mistake with regard to culture. By seizing on modern high culture, the Modernists departed from orthodox religion. In a way, they neglected religion and ended up with a sub-orthodox one. By neglecting matters of culture, the fundamentalists indiscriminately seized a modern, popular culture. To neglect culture means only to have something inferior, to live by indiscriminate choices. Both cultures were dispositive, both proved hostile to orthodoxy, and both resulted in a casual attitude toward doctrine. The Modernists boldly advanced heresy from the centers of culture. The fundamentalists sought shelter for a diminished orthodoxy in the popular culture.
I have shown how William Jennings Bryan betrayed the fundamentalist cause by taking it to the Scopes trial. He cast about fundamentalism the mantle of popularity and battled for theological orthodoxy in a populist way. He could do this because he had the sympathy of the populace and because he commanded the attention of the press. The Scopes trial offered him a venue for a great showdown, which is what Bryan got. His impatience with legal procedure and his desire to triumph with a flourish, as it were, proved the undoing of his cause. His methods were the methods of popular culture.
I have shown how Billy Sunday packed the old-time religion in the packaging of popular culture, bringing revivalism into the twentieth century. He embodied the ideal of the popular imagination, he was on the cutting edge for mass evangelism, and he left a mark that outlived him. If anybody represents orthodoxy clad in the vestment of popular culture, Billy Sunday does. His fundamentalist credentials were unimpeachable–even though his theology may have not have been. Sunday, in fact, preached conversion as a way of improving society, a subtle and not entirely unintentional form of the social gospel.
I have shown J. Gresham Machen’s distaste for the popular culture of fundamentalism. Machen was not unwilling to align himself with theological orthodoxy, but he knew fundamentalism to be more than merely theological orthodoxy; he only counted himself on the side of fundamentalism with reservations. What sets Machen apart, really, is that his thinking with regard to culture is more careful than that the main stream of fundamentalism. He did not want to be casual in matters of culture; he thought Christians should embrace the arts and sciences or risk losing the work of centuries.
Conclusion: Fundamentalism is Hosed
Fundamentalists wanted to defend orthodoxy against modernism. Because they were not careful in thinking how they went about this, because they were reacting to the high culture perceived to be part of the implications of Modernism, the fundamentalists sought to shelter theological orthodoxy in popular culture. Popular culture was like a vestment, like the packaging for their message; it was the means fundamentalists inadvertently seized on to deliver their message, like a soldier sheltering behind any cover at hand to fire in the heat of the battle. Bryan identified with fundamentalism because he was against modernism; Sunday identified with fundamentalism because he was against modernism; and in contrast to these was Machen, who sought for a third way against Modernism.