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"Fundamentalism": Who Thought of That Name?

Names are everywhere. Everyone has three (or four or five), and some people even know where their name originated. Every name has a story behind it, even if we have forgotten what that story is. Sometimes knowing the story behind a name can help better understand what a name means. Perhaps this will be so with the name "fundamentalism." There are probably as many different definitions of "fundamentalism" as there are opinions about it. Therefore, let’s look at how the name developed and see what the first "fundamentalists" thought of that name.

In order to tackle the issue properly, we have to go back to the mid-1800s in America. As most people know, Charles Darwin wrote a book which many link with evolution. The name of the book is The Origin of Species. It was published in 1859 and caused quite a stir.

But his book was only one among a handful of new ideas that stirred America. The emerging modern sciences questioned long-held biblical ideas: not only did Darwin’s ideas question the origins of humanity, but the developing field of geology questioned the age of the earth. Bible studies witnessed new ideas in the field of "higher criticism" of the Bible. In short, this view analyzes the Bible as if it were a book. Some scholars claimed that parts of the Bible were added later and that Paul did not write all the letters ascribed to him. The world was becoming smaller (even then) and the field of comparative religions (studying different religions) came into vogue. This caused some people to question the truthfulness of Christianity. And finally, William James published his The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902. His book questioned whether religious experiences were truly from God or were being sub-consciously formed by the person in order to satisfy a need which the person created himself.

OK, that is deep, but it illustrates the point. Many Christians felt that Christianity was being attacked from a variety of directions at the same time. The response? A number of Christian groups published lists of required beliefs. For instance, in 1910 the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church published a "Doctrinal Deliverance" which listed five required beliefs: the inerrancy (no mistakes) of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, his sacrifice for sins on the cross, his bodily resurrection, and his miracles.

In addition, a wealthy California oilman named Lyman Stewart and his brother Milton decided to gather articles from concerned Christian leaders and published them in books. This idea grew into a twelve volume series of ninety articles which were published from 1910-1915. The Stewarts sent out approximately 3,000,000 free copies in an attempt to combat what they saw as attacks on Christianity by science. The name of the series? (I should make you guess this, but I won’t.) The Fundamentals.

Yet people who held to a set of non-negotiable beliefs were not called "fundamentalists" yet. That occurred in 1920. Curtis Lee Laws was an editor of a magazine called The Watchman Examiner. In the July 1 issue he wrote an article which included the line: "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.’"

And the rest, as they say, is history.

©2005 Mark Nickens

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