In the early 1900’s new ideas began to take root from Germany. Instead of starting with the Bible as the source of authority and working out to change lives and culture, we should begin with the authority of the Enlightenment – reason, scientific method, and literary criticism – and mold the Bible to its conclusions. The result of this movement is called modernism or liberal theology where one was free to rearrange any doctrine from the virgin birth to the resurrection to the writings of Paul according to this presumably higher criticism of truth.
In response to this movement Bible believers financed and distributed to churches a volume of books called The Fundamentals enumerating historical Christian beliefs in an attempt to push back this new onslaught. The Bible was God’s revelation and therefore its truths and teaching should prevail. Those behind this way of thinking about the Bible was called Fundamentalists.
During those days of debate, both sides of the schism, Liberals and Fundamentalists, were mainline churches. Neither took on the emotional baggage these words may produce today. Liberals pushed towards an intellectual honesty that produced a Jesus so neutered that he really wasn’t much of a savior. Fundamentalist held fast towards the most literal interpretations possible.
This came to a stand off in the Scopes evolution challenge by the ACLU. The Fundamentalist held to a literal seven twenty-four-hour day (now called Young Earth) Creation position (not essential for even Conservative Christianity but it is the most literal reading of Genesis 1). In the end, they won the trial but lost the cultural imagination.
H. L. Menchen was an anti-religious, cynical reporter who was given an opportunity of a lifetime to cover the trials. He believed that Fundamentalism belonged to the ignorant masses who were too stupid to see their own folly. His harsh and biting sarcastic report was syndicated throughout the nation and the stereotypes stuck. Fundamentalists were ignorant, backwoods, and intolerant.
Growing at that time was a Dispensational theology that taught among other things that the world was going to get worse before the day of Christ’s return was ushered in. Following this impulse, Fundamentalists moved out of culture and became a separatists movement. The liberals could have the worldly educational institutes, entertainment, and politics. The Fundamentalists will have their camp meetings and Bible prophecy studies hearkening the day of the Lord.
After World War II, a new movement began to develop. Men and women felt a calling to take a softer (albeit Bible believing) form of Fundamentalism that was called Evangelicalism, into the public square. Billy Graham was a prominent face of this movement.
Unlike liberalism, he didn’t preach a gospel that started with cultural sensibilities and attempted to work it into the Bible. Rather, like the Fundamentalists, he preached a message that started with the Bible and proclaimed it to change lives and culture. The singular difference with his ministry is that he wasn’t doing it in a separatist church or a backwoods camp meeting. He was doing it in stadiums and arenas and before world leaders. Though it would be an exaggeration to say he did this single-handedly, he was a significant instrument of taking Bible believing Christianity out of the backwoods and making it acceptable and even attractive in culture again. He could have easily had the slogan “Make Bible Believing Christianity Great Again.”
Since that time, many responded to gospel presentations, a Jesus movement sprung up among the hippies, Campus Crusade for Christ and the Navigators engaged college students, Christian publishing and music hit the charts, and many mega-churches have been built. Those in this movement today span denominations. politics, and nationalities but are held together by fundamental beliefs such as the authority of the Bible, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the necessity of Christ’s atonement for salvation. Many on this side of the isle have people like Billy Graham to thank for making this gospel accessible to the culture at large.
Both liberal theology and fundamentalism/evangelical has gotten more diverse, complicated, and nuanced. The question of where authority begins – cultural sensibilities or the Bible – remain the crux of the division to this very day. This division will probably always be with us, at least in our lifetime. Nevertheless, it was men like Billy Graham who helped level the playing field.