Fundamentalist Christianity, also known as Christian fundamentalism or fundamentalist evangelicalism, is a movement that arose mainly within British and American Protestantism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries among conservative evangelical Christians, who, in a reaction to liberal theology, actively asserted that the following ideas were fundamental to the Christian faith: the inerrancy of the Bible, Sola Scriptura, the virgin birth of Christ, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the imminent personal return of Jesus Christ. Some who hold these beliefs reject the label of "fundamentalism", seeing it as a pejorative term for historic Christian doctrine, while to others it has become a banner of pride. Such Christians prefer to use the term fundamental as opposed to fundamentalist (e.g., Independent Fundamental Baptist, Independent Fundamental Baptist Association of Michigan, and Independent Fundamental Churches of America). This term is sometimes confused with Christian legalism.
The contemporary fundamentalist movement has its origins in the 18th century when the First Great Awakening was deeply influencing American religious life. In the same time period the Methodist movement was beginning to renew parts of British Christianity, although this was at first resisted by the majority of the Anglican established church.
Much of this religious fervor was a reaction to Enlightenment thinking and the deistic writings of many of the Western philosophical elites. The chief emphases of the fledgling Methodist movement as well as the Awakening were on individual conversion, personal piety and Bible study, public morality (often including temperance and family values) and abolitionism, a broadened role for lay people and women in worship, evangelism, and cooperation in evangelism across denominational lines (interdenominationally).
Key figures included John Wesley, Anglican priest and originator of the Methodist movement; Jonathan Edwards, American Puritan preacher/theologian; George Whitefield, Anglican priest and chaplain to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, founder of many revivalist chapels and promoter of associated causes; Robert Raikes, who established the first Sunday school to prevent children in the slums entering a life of crime; popular hymn writer Charles Wesley, and American Methodist bishop, Francis Asbury.
There was no single founder of fundamentalism. Americans Dwight L. Moody (1837 – 1899), Arthur Tappan Pierson and British preacher and father of dispensationalism John Nelson Darby (1800 – 1882), among others, propounded ideas and themes carried into fundamentalist Christianity.
The term fundamentalist, in the context of this article, derives from a series of (originally) twelve volumes entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth. Among this publication's 94 essays, 27 of them objected to higher criticism of the Bible, by far the largest number addressing any one topic. The essays were written by 64 British and American conservative Protestant theologians between 1910 and 1915. Using a $250,000 grant from Lyman Stewart, the head of the Union Oil Company of California, about three million sets of these books were distributed to English-speaking Protestant church workers throughout the world.
Important early Christian fundamentalists included Baptist pastor William Bell Riley, the founder and president of the World Christian Fundamentals Association, who was instrumental in calling lawyer and three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan to act as that organization's counsel in the famous Scopes Trial. Moody Bible Institute had mainstream appeal, through its presidents R.A. Torrey and James M. Gray. The views of theologian Cyrus I. Scofield represented fundamentalism's antagonism to figurative interpretation, especially as it was used by fundamentalism's liberal opponents to deny basic elements of the Christian faith, such as the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection of Christ, and it was through his Scofield Reference Bible that dispensationalism gradually gained strong adherence among fundamentalists.
The rise of dispensationalism is an important development distinct from the roots of fundamentalism. In particular, dispensationalism played no part in the Old-time religion typified by the Southern U.S. Methodist revivalism of Samuel Porter Jones, a predecessor of Bob Jones, Sr., founder of Bob Jones University, who later adopted dispensationalism. B. B. Warfield , J. Gresham Machen and Oswald T. Allis were key players in the fundamentalism-modernist controversy but wrote against dispensationalism from the standpoint of the Princeton theology, which many regard as the intellectual roots of the movement before it came under the influence of dispensationalism.
As the movement developed, premillennialism, dispensationalism, and separatism began to overwhelmingly characterize the most popular leaders, which also had an effect on the way that evangelicals as a whole were perceived by outside observers. Dispensationalism's literal approach to the Scriptures was increasingly seen as a main protection against the gradual degradation to theological modernism.
The first formulation of American fundamentalist beliefs can be traced to the Niagara Bible Conference (1878–1897) and, in 1910, to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church which distilled these into what became known as the "five fundamentals":
In particular, fundamentalists reject the documentary hypothesis—the theory held by higher biblical criticism that the Pentateuch was composed and shaped by many people over the centuries. Fundamentalists assert that Moses was the primary author of the first five books of the Old Testament. Even within the fundamentalist community, these fundamentals may be interpreted differently.
Fundamentalists also criticize evangelicals for a lack of concern for doctrinal purity and for a lack of discernment in ecumenical endeavors in working cooperatively with other Christians of differing doctrinal views, even though some fundamentalists had been accused by their critics for doing the same (esp. embracing doctrines such as dispensationalism, "King James Only"-ism, the rapture, Christian Reconstructionism, etc. that critics argue have no biblical basis).
The original 20th century Fundamentalist Movement broke up along clearly defined lines within conservative Evangelical Protestantism as issues progressed. Many groupings, large and small, were produced by this schism. Neo-evangelicalism, Reformed and Lutheran Confessionalism, the Heritage movement, and Paleo-Orthodoxy have all developed distinct identities, but none of them acknowledge any more than an historical overlap with the Fundamentalist Movement, and the term is seldom used of them.
For example, American evangelist Billy Graham came from a fundamentalist background, but parted company with the movement because of his choice, early in his ministry (1950s), to cooperate with other Christians. He represents a movement that arose within fundamentalism, but has increasingly become distinct from it, known as neo-evangelicalism or New Evangelicalism (a term coined by Harold J. Ockenga, the "Father of New Evangelicalism").
The past half-century has witnessed a surge of Christian fundamentalists toward politics. Some attribute this interest to the decisions by the United States Supreme Court in 1962 to prohibit state-sanctioned prayer in public schools in the case of Engel v. Vitale and in 1963 to prohibit mandatory Bible reading in public schools in the case of Abington School District v. Schempp. By the time Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency in 1980, self-described fundamentalists had become more likely to participate in politics than other Christians were.
Credited with this phenomenon are Rob Grant, Jerry Falwell, and other well-known Fundamentalist clergy, who began urging Christians to become involved in politics in the 1970s. Beginning with Grant's American Christian Cause in 1974, Christian Voice throughout the 1970s and Falwell's Moral Majority in the 1980s, the Christian Right began to have major impact on American politics. By the late 1990s, the Christian Right was influencing elections and policy with groups like Christian Coalition and Family Research Council helping the Republican Party to gain control of the White House, both houses of Congress, and a more conservative Supreme Court by the mid-1990s.