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Fundamentalism is the demand for a strict adherence to orthodox theological doctrines, usually understood as a reaction to Modernist theology. The term was originally coined by its supporters to describe five specific classic theological beliefs of Christianity, and that developed into a Christian fundamentalist movement within the Protestant community of the United States in the early part of the 20th century.
The term usually has a religious connotation indicating unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs, but fundamentalism has come to be applied to a broad tendency among certain groups, mainly, although not exclusively, in religion. This tendency is most often characterized by a markedly strict literalism as applied to certain specific scriptures, dogmas, or ideologies, and a strong sense of the importance of maintaining ingroup and outgroup distinctions, which can lead to an emphasis on purity and the desire to return to a previous ideal from which it is believed that members have begun to stray. Rejection of diversity of opinion as applied to these established “fundamentals” and their accepted interpretation within the group is often the result of this tendency.
Fundamentalism is sometimes used as a pejorative term, particularly when combined with other epithets (as in the phrase “right-wing fundamentalists”).
Fundamentalism as a movement arose in the United States, starting among conservative Presbyterian theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary in the late 19th century. It soon spread to conservatives among the Baptists and other denominations around 1910 to 1920. The movement’s purpose was to reaffirm key theological tenets and defend them against the challenges of liberal theology and higher criticism.
The term “fundamentalism” has its roots in the Niagara Bible Conference (1878–1897), which defined those tenets it considered fundamental to Christian belief. The term was popularized by the The Fundamentals, a collection of twelve books on five subjects published in 1910 and funded by the brothers Milton and Lyman Stewart. This series of essays came to be representative of the “Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy”, which appeared late in the 19th century within some Protestant denominations in the United States, and continued in earnest through the 1920s. The first formulation of American fundamentalist beliefs can be traced to the Niagara Bible Conference and, in 1910, to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which distilled these into what became known as the “five fundamentals”:
- Biblical inspiration and the inerrancy of scripture as a result of this
- Virgin birth of Jesus
- Belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin
- Bodily resurrection of Jesus
- Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus
By the late 1910s, theological conservatives rallying around the Five Fundamentals came to be known as “fundamentalists”. In practice, the first point regarding the Bible was the focus of most of the controversy.
Fundamentalist groups generally decline to participate in events with any group that does not share its essential doctrines. They reject the existence of commonalities with theologically related religious traditions. For instance, some Christian fundamentalists do not believe in the common Abrahamic origin of Christians, Muslims and Jews. In contrast, Evangelical groups, while they typically agree on the theology “fundamentals” as expressed in The Fundamentals, often are willing to participate in events with religious groups who do not hold to the essential doctrines.