This article was updated on 26 December 2021
I minister in a church sub-culture that has no understanding of the fundamentalism/evangelical debates. I received graduate theological training from an excellent fundamentalist seminary. I’m a doctoral student at yet another fundamentalist institution. But, the church I serve has no self-conscious fundamentalist identity, even though it’s a member of an association that hails from Northern Baptist fundamentalism–the GARBC. I minister in an “evangelical” church, though many members might not know exactly what that means.
Recently, a church member asked me what an “evangelical” is, what a “fundamentalist” is, and how they’re different. This article is basically how I answered. It’s a short answer. But, I think it captures the essential distinction between the two groups.
Fundamentalism in America began as a protest movement within conservative Christian circles in the late 19 century. Christian leaders in churches, bible colleges, seminaries and denominations began to be aware of a revisionist, unorthodox approach to the Bible and theology. There was a willingness to reevaluate the integrity of the Bible, how it was transmitted and preserved, whether Adam and Eve were real people, whether Moses really wrote the Pentateuch, whether Isaiah really wrote all of Isaiah, whether Jesus was really conceived by a miracle of the Holy Spirit, whether miracles really happened, and more. This openness to “new ideas” began in seminaries and gradually filtered down to the pulpits in local churches of many denominational stripes. See Jeffrey Straub’s wonderful book The Making of a Battle Royal: The Rise of Liberalism in Northern Baptist Life, 1870-1920, for more context.
Fundamentalism was a movement that fought against that. It marshaled brilliant men; pastors, theologians and laymen, to make the case for orthodoxy. Working in very loose, often disjointed concert, men from many denominations fought this revisionist approach in the denominations, bible colleges, seminaries and churches. They fought them for several decades.
Increasingly, throughout the mid-1920s and 1930s fundamentalists faced a choice–stay or go? The forerunners of what became the Conservative Baptist movement stayed within the Northern Baptist convention for about two further decades. Others led their churches out of the denomination much sooner, in protest. The Baptist Bible Union (now the GARBC) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are examples.
Until the 1940s, fundamentalists generally thought of themselves as “evangelicals.” The words were synonyms. They meant something like “conservative, bible-believing Christian.” It meant you believed generic Protestant orthodoxy and were probably somewhat loud about it.
So, why are the terms different, today?
They’re different because the conservative Christian movement split in the mid-1940s through the late 1950s. It didn’t split over doctrine per se. It split over mood, over approach, over mindset. It split because two camps arose within this big tent, and each had very different approaches to Christian life and ministry. These two camps were fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Roger Olson explains:
The difference between early fundamentalism and later fundamentalism is not so much one of doctrine as of mood. The single most important distinction between them has to do with late fundamentalism’s adoption of a militant stance toward exposing the ‘heresies’ of other Christians and of a policy of separation not only from liberal Christians but also from fellow evangelicals who do not separate from liberal Christian denominations and organizations
This “mood” is indeed different, and so is the mission. First-stage fundamentalism (Olson’s term) was a protest movement to preserve generic Protestant orthodoxy. In its modern form as evangelicalism, this remains part of its core ethos. The overwhelming amount of literature and media designed to protect and equip the church against heresy is produced by “evangelicals,” today.
However, second-stage fundamentalism is less about combating theological revisionism and more about separation from perceived heresies and “disobedient brethren.” Fundamentalist literature preaches avoiding perceived compromise and emphasizes personal holiness. It spends little time combating heresy, and the movement’s influence and reach is so small that even if it did commit the resources to do so, its message likely wouldn’t reach much beyond its own constituency.
For example, historian Kathleen Wellman writes this about Bob Jones University:
Its faculty and the policies the university requires of them preserve its consistent character and ideology. Faculty are not granted tenure and must espouse and support fundamentalist views. For example, science faculty members must now subscribe to Young Earth creationism, the belief that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. The university neither promotes research nor allows academic freedom. Its students must “live obediently under authority.” Not surprisingly, there have been several purges of faculty for disloyalty. Unaccredited for much of its history, Bob Jones University is now accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools.
Bob Jones University and its chancellors have had a long history of insisting on theological purity and have regularly fallen out with other evangelicals and even other fundamentalists, condemning them as lax or insufficiently committed to the truth. The university claimed a “purest of the pure” status, defined itself in staunch opposition to modern culture, and rigorously separated itself from itHijacking History: How the Christian Right Teaches History and Why It Matters (New York: OUP, 2021), p. 24
Tellingly, its best scholars are often educated at evangelical institutions. The doctrine is largely the same. The mood is different. David Beale called pre-1930 fundamentalism “non-conformist,” and post-1930 fundamentalism “separatist.” The ethos changed. Some agreed, and others didn’t. Thus, the split. In many cases, the heirs of first-stage fundamentalism refer to themselves as “evangelicals” today. Likewise, many second-stage fundamentalists own the “fundamentalist” label proudly.
Some examples may help:
- The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is a first-stage fundamentalist denomination and is a decidedly “evangelical.” It engages the culture and pushes aggressive orthodoxy. It does not focus on separation from allegedly “disobedient” brethren.
- The Conservative Baptist movement left the Northern Baptist convention in the early 1940s. It later split into various factions amidst sustained and unfortunate infighting; it was a fundamentalist/evangelical split in microcosm. The heirs of this split include, respectively, the FBFI and CBAmerica. Some readers may be aware the FBFI is a solidly fundamentalist organization. CBAmerica is evangelical.
- The GARBC, formerly the Baptist Bible Union, left the Northern Baptist Convention in 1923. Whatever it used to be, it is a solidly evangelical association of churches today. It recently changed its purpose statement to drop legacy language from the fundamentalist/evangelical split
The difference in mood is even clearer if you example mission or vision statements:
- CBAmerica (evangelical): Its vision is “Gospel-centered transformational churches in every community.”
- FBFI (fundamentalist): “FBFI’s Vision is to perpetuate the heritage of Baptist Fundamentalism complete, intact, pure, and undiluted to succeeding generations of fundamentalists.”
- GARBC (evangelical): It’s mission is to “champion biblical truth, impact the world for Christ, perpetuate a Baptist heritage” and to “advance the association churches.”
Telling “evangelical” from “fundamentalist,” today
So, what is the difference between “fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism,” today? We can draw some general observations.
Fundamentalism, at its best, is generally concerned with personal holiness and local church purity in practice and doctrine. The content of this holiness and church purity will vary according to the particular flavor of the movement to which the group or church belongs. Its doctrinal emphases are often framed through a prism of separation from compromise and combined with a remnant mindset. Its rhetorical foe is often not theological revisionism, but evangelicalism – those who are believed to have “compromised.” The movement’s essence, according to Beale, is “unqualified acceptance of and obedience to the Scriptures.”
However, the worst elements of the fundamentalist movement can be caustic, arrogant, and extraordinarily legalistic. Edward Carnell, an evangelical scholar with hard feelings about fundamentalism, wrote that the movement had degenerated into an entirely negative mentality with no positive ethos, similar to the mood Olson spoke about. Carnell wrote:
The mentality of fundamentalism is dominated by ideological thinking. Ideological thinking is rigid, intolerant, and doctrinaire; it principles everywhere, and all principles come in clear tones of black and white; it exempts Itself from the limits that original sin places on history; it wages holy wars without acknowledging the elements of pride and personal interest that prompt the call to battle; it creates new evils while trying to correct old ones.
This mentality, Carnell argued, is marked by externalism:
When the fundamentalist develops his ethical code, he is somewhat prompted by a quest for status in the cult. Consequently, he defines the good life as the separated life – separated, that is, from prevailing social mores. Whereas Christ was virtuous because he loved God with all his heart and his neighbor as himself, the fundamentalist is virtuous because he does not smoke, dance, or play cards.
In short, Carnell says “fundamentalism is orthodoxy gone cultic.” In some quarters (but not all), Carnell is right.
Evangelicalism, at its best, is concerned with evangelizing the world and preserving generic Protestant orthodoxy. Its scholars produce mass amounts of literature and media to equip the church to navigate a complex and changing world. Its name is synonymous with “conservative Christian.” Roger Olson explained, “[t]he genius of evangelicalism is its combination of orthodox Protestantism, conservative revivalism, and transdenominational ecumenism.”
Fundamentalists often criticize this movement as having lax doctrine and a diluted sense of personal holiness. However, as noted above, this can produce a “remnant mentality” mindset; a drive to “sound the alarm” against alleged apostasy. You can get a sense of this from fundamentalist Ernest Pickering’s book The Tragedy of Compromise:
All over America and the world at this hour there are churches that are drifting into New Evangelicalism without the remotest knowledge that they are doing so. They are being carried along by the shifting winds of compromise and have long since departed from the solid biblical position established by their predecessors. Young pastors, many without firm doctrinal underpinnings, have led their churches to believe that in order to reach the masses they must abandon the strict biblical principles of yore and embrace more fluid and attractive positions. They have changed, but they do not realize that they have changed.
More recently in 2016, the FBFI devoted an entire edition of its magazine to warn of the threat from so-called “Convergents” who were evangelicals in disguise. One author’s article warned of “long-established churches that are being changed through the hidden agenda of Convergent leadership.” The author declared he was warning Christians to not have their hearts “stolen” by these evangelicals, whom he described as conspiratorial, hypocritical and crafty. He used Absalom, who planned and executed a palace coup against King David, as his foil to describe evangelical pastors.
When I was at seminary, I recall one seminary professor lamenting that Andrew Naselli had “left our movement.” Naselli is a professor at a conservative evangelical seminary, but has a PhD from Bob Jones University (a fundamentalist institution). You can see the “remnant” mindset behind that statement from my former professor.
So, to generalize a bit:
- Fundamentalism is about purity and holiness. It wants you to obey the Bible, and it wants you to stay away from folks who allegedly don’t.
- Evangelicalism is about the Gospel and protecting the faith from those who want to re-define it
Many conservative Christian groups in America today are heirs of the fundamentalist-evangelical tradition. Most of these took a side during or after the big split. Where you find yourself is not so much a matter of doctrine, but of mood, approach and emphasis. Of ethos. Both movements try to do good things, necessary things, biblical things. Evangelicalism today takes many forms. Fundamentalism is dying as a movement, but its ethos may well live on.
What does it mean to be “evangelical?”
Many books, many pages, and many gigabytes have been expended to answer that question. In a different generation, Bernard Ramm defined “evangelicalism” as “the historic Christian faith as reflected in the great creeds of the ancient church, and in the spirit and writings of the Reformers,” (The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), preface, p. 4). Nowadays, a more common definition is the so-called “Bebbington Quadrilateral,” which posits four characteristics of the label. The National Association of Evangelicals discusses these four traits, and more. One excellent, recent book, that can help flesh this out further is authored by Christian historian Thomas Kidd: Who is an Evangelical? A History of a Movement in Crisis.
For my part, I’ll stick with the Anglican pastor J.C. Ryle, who gave his summary of the “evangelical religion” a long time ago, in a different context. He had five headings:
- The first leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the absolute supremacy it assigns to Holy Scripture, as the only rule of faith and practice, the only test of truth, the only judge of controversy.
- The second leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the depth and prominence it assigns to the doctrine of human sinfulness and corruption.
- The third leading feature of Evangelical Religion is the paramount importance it attaches to the work and office of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the nature of the salvation which He has wrought out for man.
- The fourth leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the high place which it assigns to the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of man.
- The fifth and last leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the importance which it attaches to the outward and visible work of the Holy Ghost in the life of man.
This encapsulates the Christian faith and message so well. It doesn’t distort a good thing out of proportion by framing the Gospel and the Christian life through a prism of separation from error, real or imagined. It’s a balanced expression of divine truth. I admire that old Anglican, and that admiration forces me to align myself with “evangelicalism” today.
 This is not a comprehensive history of either movement, and it doesn’t pretend to be. It doesn’t malign Billy Graham. It doesn’t mention Billy Graham. It’s a very brief, 500 mph drive-by discussion to orient a reader to the general “lay of the land” who knows nothing about this chapter in American religious history. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear. To those that don’t, well … what else do you expect from a “convergent!?”
 Roger Olson lists seven different ways the term “evangelical” is used in contemporary culture (Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology [Louisville: WJK, 2004], 2-10). The etymology is fascinating and instructive.
 Ibid, p. 36.
 David Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1950 (Greenville: Unusual Publications, 1986), 5.
 Ibid, p. 1.
 Edward Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), 114.
 Ibid, p. 122.
 Ibid, 113.
 Olson, Evangelical Theology, p. 10.
 See especially Rolland McCune, Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism (Greenville: Ambassador International, 2004).
 Ernest D. Pickering, The Tragedy of Compromise (Greenville: BJU Press, 1994), 155.
 Dan Unruh, “Why I Left My Fundamental Baptist Church,” in Frontline (Sept/Oct 2016), 11-14.
 J.C. Ryle, Knots Untied: Being Plain Statements on Disputed Points in Religion from the Standpoint of an Evangelical Churchman, 10th ed. (London: William Hunt, 1885), 3-7