Fundamentalism, conservative movement among Protestants in the United States, which began in the late 19th century. It emphasized as absolutely basic to Christianity the following beliefs: the infallibility of the Bible, the virgin birth and the divinity of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as atonement for the sins of all people, the physical resurrection and second coming of Christ, and the bodily resurrection of believers.
Fundamentalism is rooted in 18th- and 19th-century American revivalism (see Revivals, Religious). Until the middle of the 19th century, its principal beliefs were held by almost all orthodox Protestant denominations, particularly by evangelical denominations. Fundamentalism as an organized, conservative movement dates from the early part of the 20th century. It developed out of a series of Bible conferences, the first ones held in 1876. These were called by members of various denominations who strongly objected to the following: the historical-literary study of the Bible, known as the higher criticism (see Biblical Criticism); the attempts (still continuing) to reconcile traditional Christian beliefs and doctrines with contemporary experience and knowledge; and the acceptance of a scientific view of the world, particularly the popularization of the theory of evolution. Such trends and beliefs were opposed by many conservative members of Protestant denominations.
The more conservative members of each denomination at first attempted to exclude from their own institutions persons they considered outspoken or unyielding liberals. As a result a number of ministers and theologians were dismissed for espousing higher criticism. The exceptionally conservative, however, set up various rival bodies and educational institutions to spread their creed.
Fundamentalism began to flourish in 1909 with the publication and distribution of 12 books called The Fundamentals. By the time the 12th of the series had been published, about 3 million copies of The Fundamentals had been distributed throughout the U.S. and abroad. About this time a number of Bible institutes, such as the Los Angeles Bible Institute and the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, were established or began to teach Fundamentalist beliefs and doctrines.
Fundamentalism spread in the 1920s. It was strongest in rural areas, particularly in California, in the border states, and in the South. In these areas, Fundamentalists sharply delineated the issue of biblical infallibility in historical and scientific matters. The controversy over this issue grew most intense in the secular sphere when Fundamentalists urged many states to pass legislation forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools. Several southern and border states, among them Tennessee, passed such laws. The Tennessee statute led, in 1925, to the world-famous trial of John Thomas Scopes, a high school instructor, who was convicted of teaching evolution in defiance of law. The orator and politician William Jennings Bryan was an associate prosecutor at the trial; the lawyer Clarence Darrow defended Scopes. In 1967 Tennessee repealed the law. In 1968 in a similar case the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such laws were unconstitutional.
Fundamentalism lost momentum in the early 1930s. The main reasons were the acceptance by most Americans of modern scientific theories and methods and more liberal religious doctrines and the lack of an effective national organization to lead the Fundamentalist associations. Fundamentalism, along with the related, but more moderate Evangelical movement (see Evangelicalism), has since revived, however, primarily in reaction to such contemporary theological movements as ecumenicity (see Ecumenical Movement), neoorthodoxy, and Modernism. Since the 1940s Fundamentalists have spent large sums annually to broadcast radio and television programs setting forth their views on the Bible. They established (1941) the American Council of Christian Churches as a conservative alternative to the National Council of Churches. In 1948 an international Fundamentalist group was formed; centered in Amsterdam, the International Council of Christian Churches claims support from 45 denominations in 18 countries. At the founding convention, some members of this group opposed the stated purposes of the World Council of Churches and offered their group as an alternate to the council.