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Published: June 27, 2011


An archconservative form of evangelism that developed in the late 19th century as evangelistic fervor seemed to dissipate with the spread of universal, secular public education. Spawned by DWIGHT L. MOODY, a charismatic leader of 19th-century revival meetings, fundamentalism was Moody’s response to the perception spreading among many Americans of the day that society was “a sinking ship.” That perception may have been an outgrowth of several late 19th-century trends.
First, scientific explanations for phenomena ranging from electricity and telegraphic communications to the origin of man were threatening biblical authority. Second, popular interest in evangelism was declining in the face of the practical requirements of an expanding industrial nation. The study of engineering, mining, physics, chemistry, agriculture and other sciences and vocational skills grew far more important to the ordinary man than salvation. A third factor was the arrival of millions of non-Protestants— Catholics, Jews and others—who threatened the philosophical as well as political sway over American life that Protestants had held for more than 250 years. Even more threatening to evangelists was a growing ecumenical movement that sought to unite a number of sects. And another factor was the threat of integration of the races following the Civil War.
To halt what he perceived as America’s descent into Hell, Moody carried the fundamentalist message to college campuses, where he held revival meetings, organized libraries of evangelical literature and tried to convert secular campuses into religious institutions. Central to fundamentalist beliefs, however, was the absolute acceptance of the literality of the Bible—a concept that found less than universal acceptance on campuses where students were studying the most exciting new developments in electricity, mechanics, engineering, law and medicine. Moreover, many schools of theology were graduating a new breed of “modernist” clergyman who sought to reconcile Christian beliefs with contemporary knowledge and experience.
Rebuffed, the fundamentalists formed their own institutions and Bible institutes and adopted an even more aggressive approach. In 1909, the publication of the first books of a 12-volume work called The Fundamentals served to stir fundamentalist spirit to a fever pitch. When the last of the books was published in 1915, 3 million sets had been sold worldwide. In 1919, fundamentalists formed the WORLD’S CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALS ASSOCIATION, and in 1920–21, fundamentalists carried their doctrine of biblical infallibility in scientific and historical matters into public school classrooms and state legislatures across the United States. By 1925, four states had prohibited the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution or any other theory that “denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible. . . .” Three other states had only narrowly defeated such legislation. Although the laws passed in the 1920s were eventually repealed or declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, fundamentalist efforts to introduce biblically inspired “creation science” into the public school curricula of American public schools continue to this day.
Although interest in fundamentalism suffered a decline during the economic depression of the 1930s and the war years of the 1940s and early 1950s, it experienced a stunning revival during the 1960s and 1970s in response to civil rights legislation and the racial integration of public schools. Throughout the South, fundamentalists established private, all-white CHRISTIAN SCHOOLS to bypass court-ordered desegregation of the races in public schools.