Review of “Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom during the Twentieth Century” edited by David Bebbington and David Ceri Jones

evangelicalismEvangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom during the Twentieth Century edited by David Bebbington and David Ceri Jones (OUP, 2013), hb 409pp

This handsome volume contains twenty chapters from eighteen authors. Most contributions originate from papers delivered at a series of conferences some years ago which addressed the theme. The writers are largely professional academics in history or related disciplines.

The relationship between Fundamentalism and (conservative) Evangelicalism is significant for anyone interested in nineteenth and twentieth century church history, and has bearings on aspects of church life today. The issue is much contested. Are they substantially identical (James Barr, Fundamentalism, 1977), or largely sharing the same mentality (Harriet Harris, Fundamentalism and Evangelicals, 1998), or significantly different (Stott, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, 1988)?

Of course, definitions of the two terms are crucial (and themselves contested), and then there are the different varieties of each movement both in the USA and the UK. A real issue is whether we add social criteria to the intellectual ones. Some of the key factors in Fundamentalism are – commitment to inerrancy and biblical literalism, pre-millennial eschatology, separatism, a propensity for militancy (even violence on occasions eg attacks on abortion clinics in the US), and resistance to changing gender roles. Some have been committed to creationism and a broader anti-intellectualism. In the social dimension, there was frequently disparagement of social action or reform.

Part One considers precursors of twentieth century Fundamentalism, Parts Two and Three the beginnings and extent of it and Part Four some national variations. Part Five has three thematic theological reflections before a conclusion by the editors. The central thesis is that while Fundamentalism existed in the UK and there are overlaps (some substantial) with Evangelicalism, the two cannot simply be equated as one and the same phenomenon.

Some readers may be surprised that seventeen of the sixty-two contributors to the many-volumed The Fundamentals, published in the USA from 1910 to 1915, (ie 27%) were British. Their contributions were substantial, prominent and moderating. They included bishops JC Ryle and Handley Moule, James Orr, Campbell Morgan and Griffith Thomas. Such scholars did not at all share the full range of Fundamentalist characteristics listed above.

At the beginning of Part Two, Andrew Atherstone on the inter-war CofE is particularly thorough and illuminating. There are chapters on Methodists, Baptists and the Brethren, also interesting chapters on the place and roles of women, and on anti-catholicism in the inter-war period.

Part Three moves into the post-war era, Ian Randall shows how Billy Graham moved from a Fundamentalist background towards increasing co-operation with those of other traditions, a “generous orthodoxy”. Alister Chapman similarly traces the trajectory of John Stott from Fundamentalist roots towards opposition to anti-intellecualism and to separatism (against Martyn Lloyd-Jones), and a growing commitment to social action. His key role in the 1974 Lausanne Congress (and its Covenant) is of great historical significance.

Further chapters are on Free Methodism, a case study of new churches in the city of York, and on Ulster, Scotland and Wales.

The final section has chapters on Pentecostalism, Bases of Faith and Theology. Rob Warner’s chapter on Evangelical Bases of Faith and Fundamentalizing Tendencies is thoughtful and thought-provoking. One aspect of its value is that it lists the eight significant Fundamentalist factors John Stott adduced as rejected by Evangelicals (in Essentials, p.90 quoted in this book on p.339). I was surprised that he made no mention (let alone analysis) of the CEEC/AEA Basis of Faith, and would have liked to know about what Bases are used by “black-led” and New churches. It also would have been good to have some analysis of post-war Strict Baptists and the FIEC.

The arguments in support of the central thesis/conclusion that Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism are distinct phenomena seem cogent, but the contested nature of the two main terms makes the debate complex and fraught with misunderstandings. The overall quality of the symposium is high, and the OUP production excellent.


2 thoughts on “Review of “Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom during the Twentieth Century” edited by David Bebbington and David Ceri Jones”

  1. “Of course, definitions of the two terms are crucial (and themselves contested)… A real issue is whether we add social criteria to the intellectual ones.”

    Yes, the definitions are crucial and contested. Yes, at least in the United States, scholars of religion usually do add social criteria, especially when defining ‘fundamentalist’.

    Readers here will know that by the early C20, higher criticism, evolutionary science, and doctrinal revision had impelled many American Protestants to reassert The Fundamentals against what their coreligionists and their society understood to be the single path of progress. Decades later, the hostage crisis with Iran (1979-1981) confronted American scholars of religion with an Islamic counter-revolution against the rapid and secularising modernisation program of the Shah. In the supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini, such scholars of religion as Martin Marty and Harvey Cox heard grievances and aspirations analogous to those of the prototypical American fundamentalists.

    Around the world other oppositional movements emerged in the ’80s and ’90s that were likewise strikingly modern yet passionately religious.* The analogy evolved into a sociological ‘type’ as scholars compared notes from several fields, both geographic and academic. This type even seemed to make sense of some earlier struggles such as that between Russia’s Old Believers and the modernising Patriarch Nikon.** Thus when policymakers, generals, and journalists asked them to identify the force that was mobilising these insurgencies, the latter replied that it was ‘fundamentalism,’ the determination of traditionalist believers everywhere to modernise on their own terms. In this way,‘fundamentalism’ came to be used here with a scientific aspiration, not just to describe, but to explain.

    Pejorative terms for religious groups (eg Calvinists, Lutherans, Puritans, Quakers, Methodists, Mormons, etc) often lose their edge as their targets come to embrace them. But as ‘fundamentalist’ now refers to a whole class of religious movements with common enemies, perhaps, but with scarcely any common beliefs, it is likely to remain a polarising word in many places. Even so, as the post-modern world discovers that there are many paths into the future, we may someday acquire empathy and even respect for believers determined to let their traditions shape their futures.


    * The Hindu nationalist BJP in India swiftly proved that fundamentalists need not be Western monotheists.

    ** Nikon, centralising control over Russian worship in his office, also imposed a new translation of the service books made from Greek editions printed in Venice. To Nikon, the new translation corrected many “corruptions” in the received Old Church Slavonic translation. However the charismatic Archpriest Avakkum preferred being burnt alive to praying with texts he regarded as innovative and corrupt, and the Old Believers have followed him in this ever since. Recent liturgical research shows that the Slavonic use was in fact older than the Greek use of Nikon’s day, and that the Venetian edition had indeed been somewhat Romanised.

  2. Gordon Kuhrt explains the question posed by the book. The publishers go some way to revealing the answer given.

    “Fundamentalism certainly existed in Britain, that evangelicals did sometimes show tendencies in a fundamentalist direction, but that evangelicalism in Britain cannot simply be equated with fundamentalism.

    The evangelical movement within Protestantism that arose in the wake of the eighteenth-century revival exerted an immense influence on British society over the two subsequent centuries. Christian fundamentalism, by contrast, had its origins in the United States following the publication of The Fundamentals, a series of pamphlets issued to ministers between 1910 and 1915 that was funded by California oilmen. While there was considerable British participation in writing the series, the term ‘fundamentalist’ was invented in an exclusively American context when, in 1920, it was coined to describe the conservative critics of theological liberalism. The fundamentalists in Britain formed only a small section of evangelical opinion that declined over time.”

    Fundamentalism originally to a specific movement within American Evangelicalism. It has come to be used as a term of abuse for all literalists especially when they become propagandists. It is frequently applied to some in other religions.

    The term fundamentalist has been applied to British evangelicals. J I Packer at least accepted it and replied to the charges in “Fundamentalism and the Word of God”

    James Barr is significant because he gives a detailed picture of those he calls fundamentalists and presents a cogent argument against some forms of literalism in his “Escaping Fundamentalism” I remember hearing him debate with Michael Green. He conceded that some IVP authors were not fundamentalists in his sense.


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