Volume III - Church History

Twentieth Century

Protestant Fundamentalism and Protestant Liberalism

In the late 19th century and on into the 20th century, many conservative Protestants felt challenged, even shaken, by certain developing strands of thought and action that seemed to undermine traditional faith in the Gospel—especially Darwinism, German Biblical Criticism, and the American philosophical school known as Pragmatism. The Process Philosophy developed by Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) eventually led, in the 1980s, to the radically non-traditional Process Theology, according to which God is in a process of development along with all of Creation, which is held to be co-eternal with God.

In response to the many various forms of Protestant Liberalism and secular humanism/modernism, a movement arose within conservative Protestantism in America in the early 20th century known as Protestant Fundamentalism. The Movement’s specific roots can be traced to the publication and widespread distribution of a series of 90 essays in 12 volumes entitled The Fundamentals. Published between 1910 and 1915, this project was financed by a wealthy California oilman, Lyman Stewart, and his brother Milton. The various authors, some of them quite well-known scholars such as James Orr (1844–1913) of Scotland and Benjamin B. Warfield (1851–1921), drew upon the previous work of the annual Niagara Bible Conferences; the work of the great urban evangelist Dwight L. Moody (1837–1899), founder of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago; and the Scofield Reference Bible, annotated by C. I. Scofield (1843–1921) and published by Oxford University Press in 1909.

About a third of these essays defended the Bible against German higher Biblical criticism, another third presented basic traditional Protestant doctrines, and the rest of them included personal testimonies, practical applications of Christian teaching, appeals for missions and evangelism, and attacks on various “isms” such as Liberalism, Modernism, Secular Humanism, and Darwinism. Presented as a united conservative “testimony to the truth,” some three million of the volumes were sent free of charge to Protestant religious workers all over the world.

The World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, organized in Philadelphia in 1919 by a group of interdenominational Protestants, urged the founding of “Bible-based” institutes and colleges to offer a clear alternative to the growing liberalism in the denominational seminaries and colleges. The new schools were to preserve the non-negotiable, foundational, fundamental truths of Christianity: the Virgin Birth of Christ, His miracles, His sacrificial atoning death, His real resurrection, His Second Coming, the Last Judgment, and the eternal existence of heaven and hell. The famous Dallas Theological Seminary and Bob Jones University were founded in the 1920s as part of this movement.

In 1922, the nationally known liberal Baptist preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969), preached his most famous sermon, entitled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” in which he challenged their belief in the Virgin Birth, the inerrancy of the Scriptures, and the literal Second Coming of Christ. He argued for the necessity of interdenominational Christian fellowship that is “intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, and tolerant.”

In 1923 J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937), professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary, published Christianity and Liberalism, in which he defended Protestant orthodoxy in the face of the growing challenges of liberalism. In this book he argued that liberal Christianity and historic Christianity were two entirely different ­religions. In 1929 he and other traditionally-minded professors left Princeton Seminary to establish the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. And in 1936 he led a conservative group that left the Presbyterian Church and founded a new denomination—the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.