A Lesson from the Beginnings of American Fundamentalism

Some may be curious about the beginnings of American Fundamentalism. Contrary to common opinion, the beginnings of the movement do not arise from the multi-volume work The Fundamentals, but from the desire and push of a Midwestern Baptist pastor.

Every child has a father, and organized American fundamentalism is no exception. In the summer of 1918, William Bell Riley, pastor of First Baptist Church in Minneapolis, met with other prophecy-conference leaders in the summer home of R. A. Torrey, dean of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, to discuss future plans. The group had just completed a successful “prophetic conference” in Philadelphia, where attendance far exceeded expectations; but instead of planning for another one in Philadelphia, Riley convinced the group to host a conference on the defense of the fundamentals of the faith. Such a confederation had been his desire for at least a year, as seen in his book The Menace of Modernism (1917); surely, he must have been excited to see this vision get some traction.

During May 25 to June 1, 1919, over six thousand attended the first ever World Conference on the Fundamentals of the Faith. Riley gave the keynote address, comparing this nascent movement to the Protestant Reformation. Citing anti-modernism as a cause for the conference, Riley then mentioned the goal of “a new fellowship, a fellowship that is bringing into closer and closer union men from the various denominations who hold to the certain deity of Jesus Christ and to the utter authority of the Bible” (God Hath Spoken, 45).

As a result of the conference, the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA) emerged, representing the first “organizational structure capable of correlating the fundamentalist opposition to modernism” (Gatewood, Controversy in the Twenties, 18). Riley served as president. One of his main goals was “to bring under the WCFA umbrella the just-emerging interdenominational network of fundamentalist Bible schools and publications” (Trollinger, God’s Empire, 39). To correlate the work of these separate institutions, five standing committees were created:

(1) On Bible Schools – to standardize curriculum and creeds
(2) On Colleges and Seminaries – to create a list of doctrinally safe schools
(3) On Religious Magazines and Periodicals – to promote WCFA and in turn receive articles and reports
(4) On Missions – to withdraw support from unfaithful boards and to give it to approved boards
(5) On Conferences – to bring the concerns to other cities

Of the five, only the fifth produced substantial results. Chaired by Riley, the committee “launched an extraordinarily ambitious cross-continent tour,” with speakers staggered out in a series, going on ahead without waiting for the others to finish speaking. The results were amazing. In six week, the tour reached eighteen cities, and “transformed the concerns of Riley and other conservative Protestant leaders into a national crusade” (Trollinger, God’s Empire, 39-40).

Equally amazing, however, was how quickly this initial organized faded in importance. By 1922, the WCFA was already in decline. Commenting on this decline, Riley’s biographer noted, “Although Riley’s speaking tours and related activities heightened antimodernist sentiment, they were of minimal value in banding fundamentalists together in a tightly structured organization” (ibid., 41). What went wrong?

Chief among the factors was a stiff independent spirit among the fundamentalist leaders. In the words of Riley’s second wife Marie, “Some personal incompatibilities, and a constant tendency towards independent leadership combined to retard the progress of what was intended to be an ‘all-inclusive fellowship’ in the Association itself” (ibid., 41). This independent spirit seemed to include Riley himself, who probably chose unwisely to lead the surge that he had birthed. Yes, he himself lamented, and perhaps rightly so, that “some fundamentalists are laws unto themselves, and [that] even those who have no such disposition are not as yet in the close co-ordinated fellowship that would accomplish the best and most to be desired results” (ibid., 41-42); but the fact also remains that he himself kept the coordinated effort under his supervision.

If there is one lesson to learn from the beginnings of American fundamentalism, it may be this lesson: Revival comes through brotherly unity (cf. Psalm 133). Disunity grieves the Spirit and dooms all effort to the resources of the flesh, which cannot succeed in building the temple of God (cf. Ephesians 4:30; Zechariah 4:6).

Regarding the 1920s, more than one commentator has noted that fundamentalist “internecine battles, especially the power struggles among ambitious spokesmen, help to explain their organizational difficulties as well as their failure to achieve some of their stated goals” (Gatewood, Controversy in the Twenties, 17-18; cf. Trollinger, God’s Empire, 41-42). As a result, the WCFA in particular failed to provide “an institutional alternative to the modernist-tainted denominations,” and eventually shifted its goal to antievolutionism, which was in essence almost an admission of defeat, though not as public a defeat as the ill-crafted Scopes Trial it later sponsored (Trollinger, God’s Empire, 43, 44).

Brothers, there is a spirit of unity among many churches today. God be praised! Let it be discerning unity, as the ground for unity is ever the truth that is in Jesus, but let it also be an ambitious unity, for the motive for unity is the love that makes us speak the truth (cf. Ephesians 4). If we hold to the fundamentals with a firm faith, and promote them with a genuine love, how can God the Father and God the Son not be pleased and pour out the Holy Spirit on such a house?


Gatewood, Willard B., Jr. Controversy in the Twenties: Fundamentalism, Modernism, and Evolution. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1969.

God Hath Spoken: Twenty-Five Addresses Delivered at the World Conference on Christian Fundamentals, May 25 – June 1, 1919. Philadelphia: Bible Conference Committee, 1918. Reprint, Fundamentalism in American Religion, 1880 – 1950, ed. Joel E. Carpenter. NY: Garland Publishing, 1988.

Light on Prophecy: A Coordinated, Constructive Teaching Being the Proceedings and Addresses at the Philadelphia Prophetic Conference, May 28-30, 1918. New York: The Christian Herald Bible House, 1918.

Trollinger, William Vance, Jr. God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

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