Beware the Christian fundamentalists!
24 June 2021 Hits:1123
It may surprise you to learn that Christian fundamentalism is a relatively modern branch of the Christian faith. It started in the USA at the turn of the last century.
A Little History
In the early 1900s, a whole lot was going on, all at once. The world had experienced its first world war in which over 40 million soldiers were killed or wounded. In the final year of the war, the Spanish Flu pandemic broke out. The pandemic infected almost a third of the world’s 1.8 billion people. Fifty million died.
Add to this the growing prominence of Darwinian evolution, declining moral values, and well, people were having just too much fun. As the war and pandemic faded, the world bound into the roaring 20s. New forms of music, like jazz, were driving people to dance. Cars were rolling off the assembly lines. Women were ready to claim the vote, and African-Americans were eager to enjoy full citizenship, at long last. People were exploring new ideas and beliefs. Life was magnificently modern. And some Christians saw red!
And so, a powerful counterrevolution began in some of America’s largest churches and Bible institutions.
On 25 May 1919, 6,000 ministers, theologians and evangelists came together in Philadelphia for a weeklong series of meetings. The men and women assembled there believed that God had chosen them to call Christians back to the “fundamentals” of the faith and prepare the world for one final revival before Jesus returned to earth. They called their group the World Christian Fundamentals Association.
Their leader? A Baptist pastor, William Bell Riley, said, “The hour has struck for the rise of a new Protestantism.” He described the inauguration of his organisation and the rise of fundamentalism as more significant than Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, 400 years earlier. No pride there, brother Bill! He was wrong, though.
The men and women at the conference were all white. African-American and Latino Christians were excluded entirely from fundamentalists churches and organisations. They taught that the Holy Spirit would soon turn the world over to the antichrist. This diabolical world leader would preside over an awful holocaust in which those true believers who had not already been raptured to heaven would suffer interminable tribulations.
They were kinda right and kinda wrong. A decade later, the Great Depression began. Ten years after that saw the start of World War 2. A diabolical world leader did arise who directed the wholesale slaughter of 11 million people (Jews, Gypsies, and gay men, amongst others).
Their appeal bore out of the fact that they matched up biblical prophecy with world events. Fundamentalists believed that the return of Jews to the Holy Land must precede the second coming of Christ. The British had captured Jerusalem in 1917 and declared Palestine a homeland for Jews. A fact that became a reality in 1948.
This attracted me to Christianity in the late 70s (along with God’s supernatural power). I felt like all of history had waited for Rob Buckingham to “get saved”. The planets would align in 1982, causing cataclysmic events on earth, the rapture, and the Great Tribulation. Antichrist would arise from the Common Market (EU) and take control of the world. Jesus would come back in 1988, a generation (40 years) after Israel became a nation. What happened? Nothing! I’ve reconstructed a much healthier (and more Biblical) approach to eschatology since.
Back to 1919
Fundamentalists associated evolution with last-day atheism, and they made it their mission to purge it from the schoolroom. They criticized how the fight for women’s right to vote was driving women out of the home. Shock horror! They worried that birth control was undermining the family. They were concerned about modern theological ideas.
The fundamentalist message resonated with hundreds of thousands of white Americans. The 1919 meeting in Philadelphia was just the beginning. Soon, fundamentalist magazines, Independent Bible institutes, annual conferences, and church-run radio stations sprung up to spread the Christian faith’s new design (the proper interpretation, of course).
Good qualities of fundamentalism
There are three things I appreciate about Christian fundamentalism:
- It presents a relevant and up-to-date faith – the very thing I found attractive in my early 20s. I’m very grateful to God for this and today strive to apply the Bible in a way readily received by people.
- It communicates a sense of urgency (the imminence of Christ’s return). The message stirs people out of spiritual lethargy with constant calls for action.
- It provides something solid that offers comfort and safety in tumultuous times. To fundamentalists, the Bible is simple, black and white, and straightforward.
The dangers of Christian fundamentalism
Although I was attracted to Jesus initially by the fundamentalist’s message, it also caused much damage in my life. Since my early days as a Christian, I’ve needed to deconstruct the negatives I’ll list below. It’s been a process that continues some four decades later. So, what are its main dangers:
- It is too simplistic. Everything doesn’t happen instantly by ‘decreeing and declaring.’ The Bible is not always simplistic (2 Peter 3:16) and easy to understand.
- It’s Gnostic (Gk. gnosis, “to know”). You’ll get the message from fundamentalists that “we know something you don’t know.” We see this at present with all the COVID Conspiracies. “Trust the Plan.” “We’re in; you’re out.” I’ve had close Christian friends tell me, in all seriousness, they believe the world is run by a cabal of reptilians. These satanic paedophiles drink blood and scheme to set up a one-world government with the antichrist. One friend talked at me for hours about this, totally unaware that he was boring me to tears. This is all gnostic rubbish!
- It’s Exclusionist. A century ago, people of colour were barred from their churches. Today, fundamentalists are opposed to anything to do with LGBTIQ people. It’s the same package with a different label.
- It’s always “against”. Christian fundamentalists actively worked against women’s right to vote. They were against alcohol (think the temperance movement of the 1920s). They’ve opposed evolution and some science (like climate change). Christian fundamentalists are against abortion, marriage equality, voluntary assisted dying, “boat people”, you name it. This blog is not a commentary on any of these issues. My point here is there’s a danger in being known only for what you’re against. What about the things Christians are to stand and speak for? Justice, mercy and faith (Matt. 23:23). Christian fundamentalism can obscure pure religion (James 1:27).
- It’s too political. Christian fundamentalists fight and lobby to preserve “our rights and freedoms”. While Christians have as much right (in some countries) to speak out like anyone else, we need to be careful that our main message – the gospel – doesn’t get drowned out in the process. In any case, fighting for “our rights and freedoms” is missing the point of the gospel. The Christian’s motivation should be the same as God’s, that of love: “for God so loved …” Love should be our impetus – love for God, one another, neighbour, and enemy. People will know we’re Jesus’ followers by our love, not our lobbying. Christian fundamentalists invariably miss this in their fight to preserve “our rights, our culture, our traditions.” They can appear prideful and self-interested rather than caring “for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).
- It’s isolationist and nationalistic. Recently, we’ve witnessed this in the USA with Donald Trump and “Make America Great Again (MAGA)”. There’s no doubt that Christian fundamentalists had a massive influence over Trump. 81% of White Evangelicals voted for him in 2016 (75% in 2020). At the expense of other nations and needs, the focus on America created a vacuum that could have led to war as nationalism usually does. But that’s not a problem; Christian fundamentalists don’t mind “a good war”. They also like their guns and gas chambers. But they are pro-life. Don’t forget that!
- It’s fixated on the “end times.” They’re preoccupied with current events and live with a newspaper in one hand and Bible in the other. Some of them like to pick dates for the rapture or Christ’s return. They haven’t been right once! In the past 100 years, they’ve predicted the antichrist would arise out of the League of Nations, United Nations, and Common Market (EU). All wrong. Fundamentalists believed that in the end times oppressive governments will clamp down on Christians’ rights and freedoms.
- It’s captivated by conspiracies. Consider this quote: “The demand of the State will leave no room for freedom of thought, or independence of action in any direction whatsoever. The circumstances of the war have already furnished the machinery for this. Practically everything and everybody” would soon be under government control. Those words could have been about any bizarre conspiracy doing the rounds due to the COVID Pandemic. It was written by Evangelist W.W. Fereday a century ago. Christian fundamentalists are mesmerised by conspiracies about The Great reset, one-world government, antichrist, QAnon, Illuminati, microchips in the COVID vaccines, 5G, the long, boring list goes on and on.
In 1947, William Bell Riley lay on his deathbed. An aspiring young evangelist sat at his side. The veteran fundamentalist told the rookie preacher that God had destined him to lead the fundamentalist movement forward, to take the mantle from Riley. The young evangelist was Billy Graham. After World War II, Graham and his fundamentalist allies began calling themselves “evangelicals”. Today, some Evangelicals are also fundamentalist, but certainly not all.
I have massive respect for Billy Graham and his clear call to millions who responded to the gospel. But when it comes to fundamentalism, I have grave concerns. Many people have walked away from the church (and Jesus) because of its legalism and condemnation. Others have simply not joined a church or been attracted to its message. Ultimately, fundamentalism is a “different gospel—which is really no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:6-7)
Amongst the various resources I’ve used for this blog, I’d like to particularly acknowledge Matthew Avery Sutton, a professor of history at Washington State University. He has written extensively on this subject.