Is “Fundamentalist” a Bad Word?

from Jul 18, 2020 Category: Ligonier Resources

Is “fundamentalist” a bad word? In this brief clip from his series A Survey of Church History, W. Robert Godfrey considers how the fundamentalist movement came to be perceived in an increasingly negative light in the 20th century.


From originally being a scholarly, cultured, influential group defending orthodox Christianity, they had emerged as a group seen to be bitter, intolerant, negative, and uneducated. Regrettably, fundamentalism in the 1930s did take on a number of those features. In almost all of the denominations, the mainline denominations, the fundamentalists lost the battle. Many of them separated to form new denominations, and in many of those new denominations, there was a measure of bitterness about what had been done to them. There was, in some circles, a reaction against education as not really so important. As dispensationalism became more influential in some of those groups - not so much amongst the orthodox Presbyterians - but in many of the other denominational groups, there was such a pessimism about the future, such a sense that Christ must surely be coming soon that there was a sense, “Why bother with education? There is no time for that! Let’s just get the gospel out.” It’s a period in which there is the rise of a lot of Bible institutes. You don’t need a liberal arts degree, you don’t need a seminary education; just go to a Bible institute, find the basic things to preach, and get out on the field, whether it is at home or abroad, and preach. So, fundamentalism does take on a kind of different sociological character. It does move out from places of influence. In Dr. Machen’s day, what happened at Princeton Seminary was regularly reported on the front page of the New York Times. It was important stuff. But now, fundamentalists increasingly were marginalized, and things really did change. They became very separatistic, many of them, in their own mentality, not wanting to cooperate with anybody, lest they take the first step down the slippery slope to liberalism. Today, we find the word “fundamentalist” used in all sorts of ways, and I think - usually, it annoys me as a historian - I think very unfairly. We have to remember that the history of the word “fundamentalism” was a people who wanted to maintain the fundamentals of the Christian faith.