Sunday, June 17, 2012

Understanding Fundamentalism

Much ink has been spilled here at Save OBU about fundamentalism.  The issue goes to the heart of our argument that the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and Oklahoma Baptist University of right and ought to be free and independent entities—that all political connection between them ought to be dissolved.  Legally, of course, this is very tricky as the BGCO owns OBU outright.  However, it is our argument that the fundamentalist nature and mission of the BGCO is incompatible with and indeed hostile to a Christian (and unashamedly Baptist) liberal arts university.

So what do we mean by the word fundamentalism?  —Especially, what do we mean by using fundamentalism in reference to the BGCO and the wider denominational context of the Southern Baptist Convention?  That is the subject of this week's series of posts.

The Understanding Fundamentalism Series
Our goal at Save OBU this week is one of clarification.  Only at the end will we present our conclusions and opinions about the role of Baptist higher education in the context of fundamentalism and wider denominational issues.  As such, the series will be heavily research-based, and I will be documenting my sources as much as possible.  In fact, the series is an adaptation and update of a paper written during my time at OBU.  The paper—"Confessions of Crisis: The Impact of the Fundamentalist Movement on Baptist Distinctives in the Southern Baptist Convention"—won the Gaskin Baptist History Award at OBU and the Mercer Baptist Heritage Student Essay Award at Mercer University.
The focus of the Understanding Fundamentalism series will be the three confessions put forward by Southern Baptists—the Baptist Faith and Message of 1925, 1963, and 2000.  (A very helpful, side-by-side synopsis of the three confessions can be found on the SBC website.)  As we shall see, these confessions illuminate well the shift within Southern Baptist thought throughout the last century.

Initially, the convention held neither creed nor confession at its formation in 1845, relying instead on the commonly understood acceptance of The New Hampshire Confession of Faith of 1833.  However, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy nearly split the denomination and led to the adoption of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message as a necessary measure to maintain unity among Southern Baptists on both sides of debate.  Then, in 1963, the Convention saw fit to clarify and alter the confession in response to the controversy inspired by Midwestern Seminary professor Ralph Elliott and his book The Message of Genesis (in which he took a non-literal approach to understanding the Genesis creation accounts).  Finally, in 2000, the Baptist Faith and Message was revised as a conclusion to the Conservative Resurgence or Fundamentalist Takeover and as an expression of the denomination's new identity.   Each event had its roots in the fundamentalist movement, and at each alteration of the institutional expression of Southern Baptists' faith, the fundamentalist movement in some fashion or other influenced those official declarations.

Defining Fundamentalism
As I hope is clear by now, fundamentalism—as Save OBU is using the term—refers to the specific, historical movement beginning at the turn of the twentieth century and continuing in various forms in the Southern Baptist Convention today.  Historian George Marsden identifies two primary emphases for the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s:  the theology of pre-millennial dispensationalism and a militant opposition to the scientific theory of evolution [1].  I will go into more detail about the history, theology, and politics of these terms and the movement tomorrow.  For now, it is enough to say that Save OBU has and will continue to use the term as it is defined academically and historically.

Let us be honest, there is a lot of confusion about what qualifies as fundamentalism today.  In popular usage, the term is taken as an acceptable substitute for extremism.  Therefore, we can speak of Christian Fundamentalists, Muslim Fundamentalists, Secular Fundamentalists, Market Fundamentalists, and so on.  Such usage implies strongly negative connotations.  All but a few claim the term for themselves.  In popular culture, it is an accusation—a label thrust upon others as means to marginalize their beliefs and actions.

Despite Save OBU's efforts to be fair and balanced toward the BGCO, the SBC, and the forces that have contributed to OBU's recent decline, we cannot avoid the connotations associated with using the term fundamentalism.  We hope that you understand that we are not using the term as pejorative or a label in a passive-aggressive power move.  Rather, we continue to use the term as an accurate description of a specific historical movement as it has developed throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

To continue being honest, Save OBU has made it clear that we believe that fundamentalism and the Christian (and Baptist) liberal arts tradition should not be mixed.  Even so, despite our frustrations with the fundamentalist leadership of OBU, the BGCO, and others, we have no interest in marginalizing their voices or challenging their theology.  Our sole concern is the protection and preservation of the academic and educational heritage of OBU.  It is our belief that a true, Christian liberal arts university will give voice and time to the whole spectrum of human thought—whether Christian or non-Christian, fundamentalist or moderate—and trust the Spirit of God to work in the hearts and minds of its students as they search after God's truth.

The Series Schedule
The rest of the week, we will be discussing more specifically the history of the fundamentalist movement, its engagement with historic Baptist distinctives in the SBC, and the influence this conflict has had on the various versions of the Baptist Faith and Message:

June 17 - Understanding Fundamentalism
June 18 - Baptist Distinctives and the Fundamentalism Movement
June 19 - Preserving Unity:  The Baptist Faith and Message of 1925
June 20 - Censoring Higher Education:  The Baptist Faith and Message of 1963
June 21 - The New Credalism:  The Baptist Faith and Message of 2000
June 22 - Fundamentalism and the Future of Baptist Higher Education

We at Save OBU look forward to you joining us in this investigation into our history and identity as Baptists.  We hope the journey will be revealing and further establish the foundations of our argument for OBU-BGCO separation.

For those interested in a more in-depth treatment of these topics, enjoy the following:

Classic noteworthy texts:
  • Marsden, George M.  Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925.  New York: Oxford, 1980.
  • McBeth, H. Leon.  The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness.  Nashville: Broadman, 1987.
  • Shurden, Walter B.  The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms.  Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1993.

Other relevant texts:
  • Ellis, William E.  “A Man of the Books and a Man of the People”: E. Y. Mullins and the Crisis of Moderate Southern Baptist Leadership.  Macon, GA:  Mercer UP, 1985.
  • Humphreys, Fisher. The Way We Were: How Southern Baptist Theology has Changed and What it Means to All of Us. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002.
  • Yarbrough, Slayden A.  Southern Baptists: A Historical, Ecclesiological, and Theological Heritage of a Confessional People.  Nashville:  Southern Baptist Historical Society and Fields, 2000.


  1. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford, 1980), 45.

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