Understanding Christian Fundamentalism
by Harry McMullan, III
This document explores the origins of
Christian Fundamentalism, its basic beliefs and its distribution in
North America today. Information is provided to assist readers of The
Urantia Book in understanding and relating constructively to this branch
of the Christian family.
Between 1900 and 1920, strong intellectual and scholarly elements within
several "mainline" US Protestant denominations repeatedly met
in an attempt to set forth which beliefs were central to Christianity and
essential for salvation. These scholars from the Episcopal, Methodist,
Presbyterian and Lutheran churches represented a conservative reaction
to the liberal, relativistic and modernistic trends in their respective
churches. This unofficial group became known as the Fundamentalists.
Philosophically one can trace their roots to certain movements in eighteenth
century England, such as the Methodist splitting-away from Anglicanism.
This academically oriented group was almost wholly different from what
we call "fundamentalists" today. Today's fundamentalists evolved
out of those groups which were suspicious of education, particularly "higher
criticism of the Bible" -- studies which trace certain sources of
the Bible and thereby infer a human origin to it.
So although they share certain beliefs, the original fundamentalists
are otherwise a totally different group than the ones we call fundamentalists
You might be surprised by the fundamental beliefs that this original
group came to agree upon, remember, these were the most important doctrines
of Christianity as they saw it. The list had variously five to seven parts--here
are six of them.
- 1. The literal inerrancy of the Scriptures
- 2. The second coming of Jesus Christ
- 3. The virgin birth (not the Immaculate Conception)
- 4. The physical resurrection of the body
- 5. The substitutionary atonement
- 6. The total depravity of man - original sin
The second coming is the only one we agree with, and even then, few
of us would argue that a belief in the Master's return is essential to
While these five beliefs constitute the historic founding of fundamentalism,
to understand them only marginally helps in understanding fundamentalism.
It's adherents have a living first-hand, genuine religion, and as individuals
they are serving, loving, devoted and loyal. Fundamentalism is by far the
most dynamic religious movement in the United States and even in the world
today, excluding a resurgent Islam on the grounds of its high Arab nationalist
content. The missionaries of fundamentalism are on every continent in every
nation. They have smuggled Bibles into Eastern Europe, to Red Chinese prisons,
to Siberian Gulags. They are in remote Amazon camps, on Sproul Plaza, and
on Times Square.
Most likely, they visit your neighborhood regularly, passing out tracts
and inviting you to visit with them in their church. If you turn your radio
on in a larger city, several full time stations will be there preaching
the gospel. Increasingly, this is true of UHF television also. There is
no centralized command for all of these activities -- far from it. There
is no conspiracy of men meeting deep within a concrete bunker somewhere
plotting strategy for their armies of missionaries. In fact, fundamentalists
are fiercely independent of outside governance, even from their own denominations,
and if they believe their leaders are straying from the true path, they
will start up fresh groups without missing a step.
The component organizations of the original group that decided what
was fundamental to salvation have all changed now. The mainline denominations
within which it began cannot be said to be fundamentalist, because their
membership -- not to speak of their leadership, no longer accepts one of
the twin pillars of fundamentalism, which is to believe in the literal
inerrancy of the Scriptures. The other pillar is the belief that Jesus
died for our sins.
There are three large subgroups, quite different from one another, who
are fundamentalists today. I group them for convenience as follows:
- 1. The "Southern Baptists"
- 2. The "Charismatics"
- 3. What I call the "Peculiar Selectives"
These subgroups are not only at tremendous variance with one another,
but within each group there is a vast spectrum of outlook, sincerity and
The label of the first group, the "Southern Baptists", is
intended as a handle on a group which also includes other denominations
such as the Dutch Reformed Church, the Disciples of Christ, and numerous
other free evangelical congregational churches. Their ministers like to
be known as "Dr.", which connotes a post-graduate degree in Bible
studies. They take the Bible as the Word of God, but differ from the second
group, the "Charismatics", in that they believe that faith healing,
miracles, and speaking in tongues were confined to the times of Jesus.
They offer a clear-cut view of Jesus, to whom they are dedicated. Their
preachers tend to dwell overly on going to hell, talk too loud for my taste,
and have a distinctive lilt in their speech patterns in preaching. (Jimmy
Carter delivers his speeches in a subdued Baptist preacher's style.)
Many of their churches have pans in one corner, which they occasionally
use for foot washing.Their preachers talk about salvation a lot -- the
reality of sin and the necessity for repentance. They have no compunction
or hesitation about condemning evil in their communities and the world.
They emphasize the need for a personal Savior, Jesus, who died to restore
the connection between man and God. Their pastors give their congregations
frequent chances to repent at altar calls, and after 47 stanzas of "How
Great Thou Art", or "Amazing Grace", quite a few come forward
They teach that we are saved "by grace, through faith, and that not
of ourselves, it being the gift of God." Baptist churches are family-oriented,
and have sub-groups designed to fit everyone--children, teenagers, young
singles, young marrieds, old marrieds, divorcees, single adults, and so
on. They have breakfast meetings, lunch meetings, supper meetings, picnics
and coffees as church occasions. They meet Monday, Tuesday and Sundays
3 times. The best known evangelist representing this group is Dr. Billy
On the low end of that same category of "Baptists" are the
more extreme literalists such as Dr. Victorio Wierwille. This man spent
25 years translating all known manuscripts which became canonized Scripture
and founded The Way School of Biblical Research. His belief is not only
that the Bible is true, but also that it is the only source of truth. This
teaching is totally unacceptable to us, as it not only disallows the possibility
of a Urantia Book, but also the direct revelation of God to us.
A close friend of mine spent several hours with the man and said that
from the way he talked, the high point of his life had been to disprove
Dietrich Bonhoffer on the translation of a particular word as the key to
a text - something on the order of an "of" to a "from".
Since according to his teaching Scripture is the only source of truth,
it becomes extremely important to purchase Major Keys to the Scripture,
at about $50 per text. According to my friend, Dr. Wierwille was an example
of the first part of that saying which is: "The letter kills, but
the spirit gives life." He engaged in intellectual gymnastics and
destructive put-downs, and he generally was consumed with the pride of
unspiritualized learning in demonstrating phariseistically just how well
he had mastered the Scriptures.
The second major group with an equal claim to being fundamentalist are
the Charismatics. The high end of this group is represented by Oral Roberts
and Pat Robertson. They tend to emphasize the daily companionship of Jesus
Christ with the believer in the inner life; faith, prayer, and miracles.
The spiritual teachings of this group concerning the relationship of the
individual believer with God, however, are almost perfectly congruent with
our own. Pat Robertson, in my opinion, is one of the most brilliant and
effective spiritual teachers and organizers since the Apostle Paul. He
was a Wall Street stockbroker, son of a United States Senator from Virginia,
who, after his conversion, bought a defunct UHF TV station on credit. In
less than 20 years, and starting from absolute scratch he built a global
religious broadcasting system with an annual budget of around $80,000,000,
derived wholly from contributions. His organization is called the Christian
The low end of the Charismatic spectrum could be typified by such bunko
artists as the late A.A. Allen, about whom silence is the most charitable
The third major group of fundamentalists, whom I have called the "Peculiar
Selectives," all likewise claim to be deriving their beliefs solely
from the Bible, but the conclusions they reach are so far-fetched and extraordinary
that they are impossible to otherwise generalize. Examples of this group
are the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Herbert W, Armstrong's
Radio Church of God. For purposes of this presentation, I will disregard
this group, which would provide more than enough material for another separate
presentation, and concentrate rather on the Baptists and the Pentecostals
as the groups I consider to be the 'mainline fundamentalists".
The vitality and persistence of the fundamentalist movement is astounding.
I had the pleasure of talking with a man named Chad Stendal, who 15 years
ago was a civilian worker at one of our North Dakota missile complexes.
He pushed the buttons that opened and closed the missile silo doors. Chad
experienced a spiritual conversion, and soon felt moved to preach the gospel
to a tiny group of Indians in the mountains of Columbia, South America,
known as the Coci.
There are only about 5000 of these Indians altogether, and they live
in an unsubdued mountain fastness where the government of Columbia does
not hold sway. In spite of the fact that his wife was pregnant at the time,
they sold their home and moved to Columbia. They built a hut as close as
they could to the Coci, but could not move immediately among them, for
the Coci tended to kill strangers with their poison darts and arrows.
After two years on the periphery, Chad had the opportunity to give medical
treatment to their chief, who was then running a high fever, He gave him
some medication, knowing that if the chief should die he would surely be
accounted responsible and murdered. But God was merciful and the chief
grew well. This episode enabled Chad to become intimate with the tribe,
the first white man ever to do so, His objective was to translate the Bible
into the Coci language, so first he had to learn the language himself,
then create a written language for them, since they had none, then teach
the Indians to read their own language from the alphabet he had created,
then begin to translate the Scriptures into this new language, and finally,
and the point of the whole effort, to induce the Coci to become converted
and nurture their faith on the translated Scripture. From talking to him
I get the impression that the results have been meager so far, and I tell
the story not to connote approval of his choice of fields of ministry,
but to show the persistence and extraordinary lengths to which so many
fundamentalists go to spread the gospel.
Let's roll back the tape and see where these fundamentalists came from;
what are their origins? Since the reformation the spiritual debate among
Protestants has largely been framed by the question of whether the Scriptures
should be believed, and if so, what do they say about God and man? The
materialists' effort has been to establish the human origins of the Bible,
thereby (supposedly) disproving the validity of the life of faith. Reformers
such as Martin Luther and John Wesley called people back to faith through
an appeal to the Scriptures. Faith became synonymous with a belief in the
Bible, which became the universal ground of authority.
As the revolt against the Catholic Church spread through northern Europe,
and new denominations sprang up, the Scriptures became the standard of
authority in the absence of papal decrees. The Roman Catholic Church had
founded its claim of spiritual authority on the 'keys of Peter", the
twin grounds of Scripture and the tradition of apostolic succession. For
the Roman Catholics the Scriptural basis of their religion was not a serious
philosophic problem. Their own councils had canonized the Scripture to
begin with from among the many documents available, and if they had that
authority once, why could they not exercise it again? The Catholic claim
of authority, then, was God acting through their church throughout history.
The Protestants obviously could not accept this line of reasoning and consistently
justify remaining outside the Catholic communion.
Therefore the Protestant underpinning and standard of moral authority
came to rest solely on 1) a direct understanding of God's will through
the Scripture without priests and 2) the revelation of God directly to
the individual. Therefore, deprived of tradition, the Protestant substituted
the inerrancy of Scripture as the generally accepted standard of spiritual
When higher criticism within Protestantism began to point to human origins
of the scripture, the fundamentalist reasserted literal divine inspiration
of the Word of God. In fact, all of this is inconsistent, since the Protestant
believing in scriptural inerrancy must say that at a particular point the
Catholic church lost its inspiration-after Nicea & Chalcedon.
All the prophets of Israel appealed to Scripture, including John the
Baptist and Jesus. Jesus said that he did not come denouncing Moses and
the prophets; that he did not come to destroy, but to fulfill. Jesus was
willing to present himself as a fulfillment of Scripture, and we need to
be able to justify the Urantia Book, or at least attempt to explain it,
in those same terms. Rather than to implicitly repudiate the moral authority
of the Bible, we need to be able to show that the Urantia Book is a logical
continuation of the same God's revelation of Himself to us, carried one
This, in my view, is what the author of Paper 1 does with his numerous
quotes of Scripture--he makes the bridge between the old and the new. Jesus'
teaching was full of quotes and stories from Scripture. He confronted the
same attitude toward the Scripture that fundamentalists have today, and
he handled it by selective use of the best Scriptures, with which we are
told he was unusually conversant.
In dealing with fundamentalists, the two most important things for Urantia
Book readers are knowledge and appreciation. By knowledge I refer to knowledge
of the Bible, which in our lifetimes will continue to be the most widely
accepted body of spiritual truth on this planet. A very unfortunate trait
one sees among us is the tendency to disparage and poke fun at the Bible,
a tendency which is totally contrary to the spirit and teachings of the
Urantia Book, a tendency which is seen, I might add, only among those who
have little or no familiarity with the Bible. Those who have spent the
time and effort in studying the Scriptures, instead of bemoaning the flaws,
more often are amazed and thrilled with its teachings and beauty of expression.
One major shortcoming of the Bible, however, is the portrayal of Jesus
the man. Many of you have perhaps seen the movie about Jesus by Franco
Zefferelli, based primarily on the Gospel according to Matthew. I enjoyed
the scenery, but was quite offended by the portraiture of Jesus - austere,
cold, harsh and humorless. But if one reads the gospels without preconceptions,
that is in fact the Jesus who is portrayed. Because of this it is astonishing
to me how the fundamentalists have converted the Jesus of the Gospels into
the Jesus they worship. The average fundamentalist sees Jesus just as we
see him: strong, affectionate, loving, merciful, and imaginative. Since
he is like that, we see evidence of the Spirit's teaching in the fundamentalist
movement. The fundamentalist has a very clear-cut view of Jesus. He has
no doubt that he is a person, and he relates to him like a person. This
spiritual communion with the person of God is what gives fundamentalism
its superior vitality compared to most all of the world's other religions.
As Urantia Book; readers, we need to be more appreciative of the fundamentalists
as the largest body of enthusiastic, loving, devoted, serving, loyal, God-believing,
faith-led people in the world today, the ideals of whose lives are Jesusonian
theological differences notwithstanding. Their key success and strength
has been in conveying the truth that the believer is a child of the living
God, and is loved and constantly cared for by a God he can personally know
and love. It is peculiar to me that while Urantia Book readers are always
willing to give eastern religions the benefit of the doubt, always seeking
for a common ground of understanding, as is proper, they are so often unwilling
to extend that same consideration to the fundamentalist Christian. There
is often an attitude of implicit superiority and condescension which treats
their theological peculiarities as dimwitted. Toward eastern religions,
the typical attitude is to seek to find truth, while toward the fundamentalist
Christian, it too often is to find fault. If we can't love and sympathize
with the fundamentalist whom we can see, how can we expect to love and
sympathize with the Zoroastarian whom we can't see?
In discussions with fundamentalists, only three things I know of will
create a favorable response First, an appeal to the Spirit, such as Jesus
taught, is good anywhere, anytime; secondly, quotes from the Scriptures;
and thirdly, reasonings based on the Scriptures. Luckily, there is abundant
material in the Bible from which one may select quotes in favor of our
positions, or, directly or by inference, in refutation of theirs.
There are many people in this world who love nothing better than to
argue and debate. The fundamentalist who fits this category is the one
who has his mental list of necessary religious propositions, ranked by
order of importance, and who will tick them off one by one and ask if you
believe then. Maybe you made it through #9, but if you flunk #10, that
is where conversation starts. Instead of establishing grounds for agreement
and concurrence, he wants to help you in your one area of "deficiency"
But Urantia Book readers, of all people, should exercise extreme caution
in the choice of discussion topics. Such factual matters as whether Jesus
is Immanuel, or the subject of the Virgin Birth, have intellectual and
philosophical significance, but not spiritual. We should save our areas
of disagreement for the subjects that really matter, and not unnecessarily
appear to be totally off-base or kooky. The Urantia Book teaches that Jesus
rarely corrected misconceptions, except where they impinged on an understanding
of the character of God. This rule should also guide us. Why debate about
Adam and Eve? We weren't there, and even though the Urantia Book account
is logical and internally self-consistent, we do not know from personal
knowledge what really went on. We believe what we believe because we read
about it in a book, and this puts us on equal ground with the fundamentalist
The Master taught that a person should be brought into the temple before
he is shown the glories of the temple, and the details of the Urantia Book
cosmology might as well wait until the prospective convert becomes a reader.
In the absence of being a reader he wouldn't believe them anyway.
The importance of North American Urantia Book readers understanding
Christianity- Catholicism and Protestantism-can hardly be overstated. I
submit that while many Urantia Book readers might think they understand
Christianity, in fact, it is very poorly understood and appreciated among
us. It is an accepted belief that we should all strive to understand the
world's great religions, and Christianity is not only one of them, but
the one closest to us. If we intend to spend our lives in this country
or Canada, we will meet 100 Catholics, Baptists, Methodists or Presbyterians
for every Confucian, Taoist or Hindu. If our motive is to become effective
laborers in this corner of God's vineyard, we should try particularly hard
to understand those with whom we come into daily contact.
The use of Scripture quotes to refute positions of the Christian or
fundamentalist religion should be used with extreme care, scripture being
many peoples' basis for the practical living of their life of faith. Like
Jesus talking to Teherma, we must take care always to add to what the person
already has. Moreover, memorizing a few key Scripture quotes is no substitute
for repeatedly and thoughtfully seeking the inner meaning and context of
what is said.