A Brief History

A Brief History of Baptist Fundamentalism from My Point of View

by Mike Zachary

In the nineteenth century, the world of Bible believers was somewhat less divided than it is now. To be sure, there have always been horrific, divisive problems in churches; but in many ways, the nineteenth century saw a somewhat greater spirit of cooperation among Bible-believing denominations.

For example, when Spurgeon dedicated a new building in London, he held a service one night primarily for his own people and for other interested Baptists. The following evening, he held a service for people of other denominations. Engaging in oversimplification for purposes of clarity, the typical Baptist of that day, the typical Presbyterian, the typical Methodist, and the typical minister of many other denominations clearly believed in the authority of the Bible and in salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. They differed in their beliefs about how one ought to be baptized, who should participate in the Lord’s Table, and other such issues.

Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy

In the nineteenth century, however, a certain kind of unbelieving skepticism crept into many theological schools, especially in Germany. At that time, learned theologians began promoting a higher criticism that asserted such beliefs as these:

Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch.

The prophet Isaiah didn’t write the whole book of Isaiah.

The prophet Daniel didn’t write the whole book of Daniel.

The idea of the Mosaic Law was actually invented after the Babylonian captivity.

Obviously, ideas like these struck at the very heart of Christian belief. For example, if Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch, what does that mean about Jesus, who sometimes quoted Moses? Would that make Jesus uneducated, possibly a person who was part of a great religious farce? Such questions seemed to question the very deity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

By the 1920s, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy was born in the Presbyterian church, and the battle spread to many other denominations.[1] Among other publications, a pamphlet series titled The Fundamentals was published, and this book is still available in a four-volume set.[2] Many of today’s self-identified fundamentalists are rather surprised when they read chapter titles like “One Isaiah” and “The History of the Higher Criticism.”

Dealing with issues like the authority of the Scriptures, the deity of Christ, and the trustworthiness of the Gospel, it could be stated that the conservatives in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy were indeed contending for the faith.

Southern Baptist Liberalism

In the mid-twentieth century, the Southern Baptist Convention had ideologically divided leadership. Some men, like R. G. Lee who preached the famous “Payday Someday” sermon, believed firmly in the authority of Scripture and in the saving power of Christ. Others, including some seminary professors, did not believe in the infallibility of the Scriptures, and even made statements like, “Heaven is nothing more than a bunch of blind-folded spooks flying in a vacuum.”[3]

This ideological division was too sharp for many Southern Baptist to bear, so many of them left the Convention and became independent Baptists. It should be noted that many of these men experienced great personal loss and sadness because of severing ties with the Convention’s power structure. In one instance, Jack Hyles said, “It is hard to understand what fundamentalism is unless you were one of those who was originally Southern Baptist.”[4] For many of the early leaders of the fundamental Baptist movement, the driving issue for separation from the Southern Baptist Convention was doctrinal: they could not, with clear conscience, financially support seminaries that employed unbelieving professors.

A Broadening Term

Originally, then, the term fundamentalism was employed to mean someone who believed in the authority of the Bible and in the fundamental doctrines of the faith, doctrines like the deity of Christ, justification by faith, etc. Later, the term sometimes became associated with the ministry philosophy of a certain fundamental leader. Influential leaders like Lee Roberson and Jack Hyles not only build great congregations, they also built educational systems designed to train people for the ministry.[5] Leaving the historic use of the term, some people began using the term fundamentalism, for example, to describe the ministry of a single leader (like Jack Hyles); and they used the phrase not a fundamentalist to describe people who were not avid supporters of a certain leader.

Of course, this was linguistic slight of hand; but it was not generally corrected, and much damage was done. For example, in the matter of personal dress standards for ladies, most Northern fundamentalists had never believed it was a problem for ladies to wear slacks; however, some Southern fundamentalists believed it was improper and immodest for ladies to do so. While it would have been correct to say, “Pastor X and Pastor Y disagree about the application of the biblical principle of modesty,” it was often said, “Pastor X is not a fundamentalist because he doesn’t preach against slacks on women.”

Comfortable Isolation

Since fundamentalists had a history of separating from groups with which they disagreed doctrinally, it became easy for them to separate from groups with which they disagreed practically. Depending on the situation, one might hear that true fundamentalists do not (a) allow ladies to wear slacks, (b) allow men to wear wire rim glasses, (c) allow Sunday evening church services to be held before 7:00 p.m., (d) allow fellowship with churches that do not have a bus ministry, etc.

It seems that Satan deceived some good men into thinking that fundamentalism had to do with practical, not doctrinal, issues. Further, Satan deceived some good men into thinking that they alone were the guardians of the only true philosophy of ministry.[6]

Certainly it is a long distance from Spurgeon hosting a second dedicatory night for people of other denominations to sermons that proclaim, “That man claims to be an independent Baptist, but the choice of fonts on his tracts indicates that he is not.”

Identity Immaturity

Many independent Baptist preachers seem to allocate a significant amount of time to proclaiming who they are. “We are true Baptists. We are true fundamentalists. Because we do this and do not do that, we are the only true standard bearers.” And, in hubris that is evident to most everyone but themselves, they then say, “Those people over there—they are not true Baptists. They are not true fundamentalists. Because they do this and do not do that, they cannot be considered true standard bearers.”

It is as commonly encountered as it is pitiful that many have continuously and artfully narrowed the definition of fundamentalism in a way that proves “only my group is right.” The self-absorption of this mentality seems to be rooted in narcissism and fertilized with insecurity.

From the viewpoint of Scripture, this kind of self-absorbed immaturity is simply carnality. Quibbling over who only still has the “right philosophy” is not a sign of purity; it is a sign of carnality.

For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? I Corinthians 3:3

This quibbling over the “only true philosophy” is absolute carnality whether it is uttered by a soft-spoken gentleman who lowers his head as he says, “I’m afraid to say it, but I think our dear brother has lost his way,” or by a fiery preacher who yells to the delight of the crowd, “I wouldn’t give you a plug nickel for the kind of Christianity that would use that color on a Gospel tract.”

Oh, the Distance

It is not too far-fetched to imagine a preacher saying something like this:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because I use the anointed King James Bible, because our dress standards are the strictest of all, because boys have short haircuts, because our Sunday night service is still at seven o’clock, and because we continue to preach the long-accepted truths of our forefathers.

Our Lord, however, said this:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18–19).

Gentle reader, can anyone tell me the distance between “our standards are the strictest of all” and “setting at liberty them that are bruised.” It seems to me that the distance is vast, and that the only way of getting from the first to the second is to travel back across the bridge of Calvary, remembering what the Gospel message was all about in the first place.

[1] See, for example, J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism.

[2] The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (4-vol. set) by R. A. Torrey et al. (Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group).

[3] An assertion frequently cited by Jack Hyles as he described some of his seminary professors.

[4] Hyles was obviously speaking from a personal point of view because there were also painful divisions known to Presbyterians and other denominational groups.

[5] Whether intentionally or not, the establishment of Bible colleges has created denominational-like structures within the independent fundamental movement; and that is ironic because the very word independent itself means ‘without denominational ties.’

[6] Thus, one president of a Bible college said, “As I examine all the choices that are currently available, I am saddened when I realize that we are really the only school that still has the right philosophy.” The fact that such a statement could be uttered out loud indicates the depth of the deception.


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