What Is The Difference Between Fundamentalists and Evangelicals?

by Dr. Michael L. Williams · Print Print · Email Email

In Christian and non-Christian circles, you often hear the words fundamentalist or evangelical used to describe Christians. Often, people refer to those who are in megachurches as evangelicals. Likewise, people often refer to Christians whom are staunch in their beliefs as fundamentalists. These popular descriptions make it necessary to ask what is the difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals.

What is the history of the term fundamentalist?

The term fundamentalist today is often used to describe people of different religions, this article will focus on Christian fundamentalism (1). Linking fundamentals to the Christian faith was first presented with the publishing of Noah Webster’s original 1828 dictionary as follows (2):

“FUNDAMENTAL”, n. A leading or primary principle, rule, law or article, which serves as the ground work of a system; essential part; as the fundamentals of the Christian faith.”

Christian fundamentalism began as a movement from the late 1800’s that was a response to liberalism and the teachings of Charles Darwin. The term was initially used by conservative Presbyterians from Princeton University and established as a movement at the Niagara Bible Conference, which began meeting in the late 1800s.

In the late 1800s through early 1900s men such as John Nelson Darby, Dwight L. Moody, William B. Riley, and Billy Graham brought fundamentalism to the forefront. Their activities, preaching, and writings constantly targeted anti-Biblical teaching and practices that were infiltrating churches, schools, and institutions. William B. Riley and Billy Graham were later ostracized by many fundamentalists for adopting beliefs contrary to the original movement.

The term fundamentalist was also made widely known by the publication of “The Fundamentals,” a 12-volume set of 90 essays that reinforced the closely held fundamentals of the faith held by Christians since the time of Christ. The essays were written by Christian leaders of various denominations and published by A. C. Dixon and Reuben Archer (R.A.) Torrey from 1910 to 1915 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA).

What Is The Difference Between Fundamentalists and Evangelicals

What do fundamentalists believe?

Fundamentalists hold the following foundational theological beliefs amongst others:

  • The inspiration, inerrancy, and literal interpretation of the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 Peter 1:25; 2 Peter 2:20-21)
  • The virgin birth of Christ (Isaiah 7:14-16; Isaiah 9: 6-7; Luke 1:27-32)
  • The belief that Christ died on the cross to pay for the sins of the world and rose from the dead (Luke 18:31; Luke 24:7; Acts 10:38-40; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
  • The historical reality of Christ’s miracles (John 2:11, John2:23; John 3:2; John 11:46-47; Acts 2:22).

As the fundamentalism grew in popularity, conflict arose with those who held to a more liberal and individualized interpretation of Scripture. This led to some fundamentalists to reject those who did not have similar conservative beliefs or worship practices. This attitude resulted in the rejection of fundamentalists by liberal theologians as intolerant, hateful, bigots. Fundamentalists are still defined by many in society today to as intolerant, racist, evil, right-winged, and hateful (3).

What is the history of the term evangelical?

The first published use of the term “evangelical” in English was in 1531 by William Tyndale, who wrote “He exhorteth them to proceed constantly in the evangelical truth.” The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel (4).”

It was not until the 1730s that the term evangelical was used to describe a movement. The movement came from the Protestant Reformation and focused on living a life that reflected personal salvation and piety instead of tradition and ritual. This movement transcended denominations and was originally protestant in origin.

Evangelical leaders who embraced this piety, holiness, movement were Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield, and John Wesley. Each held massive revivals that were directly responsible for Protestants in the American Colonies experiencing a “Great Awakening” and directly influenced America’s founders in their establishment of the republic.

What do evangelicals believe?

Evangelicals are described as follows from the National Association of Evangelicals (5):

“We are a vibrant and diverse group, including believers found in many churches, denominations, and nations. Our community brings together Reformed, Holiness, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic and other traditions. Our core theological convictions provide unity in the midst of our diversity. The NAE Statement of Faith offers a standard for these evangelical convictions.”

“These distinctives and theological convictions define us, not political, social, or cultural trends. In fact, many evangelicals rarely use the term ‘evangelical’ to describe themselves, focusing simply on the core convictions of the triune God, the Bible, faith, Jesus, salvation, evangelism, and discipleship.”

Evangelicals have four primary characteristics that serve as the unifying factor regardless of denomination or sect (4) (5):

  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus
  • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
  • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

The modern evangelical movement is often called a friendlier version of fundamentalism and continues to be vibrant and diverse. However, less emphasis has been placed on Biblicism as evidenced by the various opinions of self-proclaimed evangelicals concerning the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. This has created changing opinions concerning traditional Christian values, practices, and lifestyles

What Is The Difference Between Fundamentalists and Evangelicals?

Historically, evangelicals and fundamentalists started out very close in their beliefs, worship practices, and lifestyles. They both held to the Spirit and truth of the faith out of a desire to be like Christ (Psalms 11:3; Luke 6:47-49; 1 Corinthians 3:9-15). However, like the terms liberalism and conservatism that once had a common foundation and association in Scripture, many fundamentalists and evangelicals have redefined the terms and practices they once held in common.

Unfortunately, these redefinitions have resulted in many sectors of these movements straying from their Biblical roots. This is evidenced by those who claim to be fundamentalists demonstrating mean spirited and demeaning attitudes toward those less “conservative” than they are. This is also evidenced by those claiming to be evangelicals demonstrating mean spirited and demeaning attitudes toward those less “liberal” than they are.

This opposition has resulted in what is now known socially and politically as the Christian right and the Christian left. Unfortunately, one tends to stand more on the truth at the expense of the Spirit, while the other stands on the Spirit at the expense of the truth. Until both can reclaim the Biblical mandate to worship in Spirit and in truth, they will continue to stray further away from being like Christ (John 4:23-24; Ephesians 5:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 4:6).

Conclusion

Historic fundamentalists and evangelicals are those who identify with the original tenants of Biblical truth and holiness. Fundamentalists directed their efforts more at defending historic doctrines and activities against anti-Biblical teachings that had crept into churches, schools, and institutions. Evangelicals directed their efforts at promoting the preaching of the Gospel and living holy lives regardless of theological differences.

Many fundamentalists today have taken a more militant stand on the truth of Scripture at the expense of love. They demonstrate this by their attitudes and actions toward those who are less conservative. Many evangelicals today have taken a more militant stand on the love of Scripture at the expense of truth. They demonstrate this by their attitudes and actions toward those who are less liberal.

True fundamentalists and evangelicals hold to the Spirit and truth of the faith out of a desire to be like Christ not like what some politician or religious leader tells them they should be (Psalms 11:3; Luke 6:47-49; Romans 16:17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:9-15).

Take a look at more articles from Dr. Mike here: Dr. Michael Williams on WCWTK

Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, King James Version. (1) Williams, Michael L. (2012). “What do Christian Fundamentalists believe?” Wisdom4Today, Retrieved from http://wisdom4today.org/what-do-christian-fundamentalists-believe/. (2) Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1828). “Fundamental”. Retrieved from http://machaut.uchicago.edu/?resource=Webster%27s&word=fundamental&use1828=on. (3) Thesaurus.com (2012). “Fundamentalist”. Retrieved from http://www.thesaurus.com/browse/fundamentalist. (4) National Association of Evangelicals (2014). “What is an Evangelical?.” Retrieved from http://www.nae.net/church-and-faith-partners/what-is-an-evangelical. (5) Bebbington, David W (1989), Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1930s. (London: Unwin Hyman).

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

DocReits December 5, 2014 at 12:21 am

Great article Dr Williams! Thank you for explaining the similarities and differences between Fundamentalists and Evangelicals.

I thought it interesting that there was no “box” in either group’s charter to place the most important part of Christianity into which is man’s need to be awakened to his complete depravity through the knowledge of God’s Law, and his need to repent, and only then…Christ.

I realize space is limited and that it perhaps could be included under “Conversionism”, but unfortunately, in my experience, the emphasis in most of the evangelical churches I have attended is on , “Saying the prayer, inviting Jesus into your heart” and all will be well.

That is like placing a Band-Aide on skin cancer. When was the last time anyone heard a sermon on the Law(The Ten Commandments)? When was the last time we were confronted with Johnathan Edward’s words that we are, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”?

When will we stop being so “polite” so as not to offend someone but instead, be loving enough to confront folks with the fact that we are all going to hell, unless all of us(me included) turn from our sin, and turn towards Christ?

The Law of God is Supernatural. Its telling will awaken the soul to its fatal danger. After which, the sharing of Christ, its only salvation.

“The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul…”(Ps 19:7)

Blessings,

DocReits

Reply

Robert December 5, 2014 at 12:17 pm

Very informative, Dr. Williams,
It seems like I’m hearing the term ‘Fundamentals’ used more and more in a derogatory manner…as if being a ‘Fundamental’ means no one should pay any attention to you. Anyway, DocReits’ comments are spot on also. Preaching on the Law and sin is so sparse in our culture today that many who believe they are Christians are decieved. Many do not believe God even has any standard other than to ‘love one another’, which they define as ‘anything goes as long as you’re not making anyone else uncomfortable’. This kind of thinking leaves us to make up our own standard, and this standard falls far short of God’s standard. Therefore, these people simply think they are ‘good enough’ to be accepted by God and they see no reason to address the sin in their lives. Anyway, Doc’s comments touched a nerve with me, as I’ve heard a pastor say that he doesn’t mention sin from the pulpit because ‘everyone knows that they are sinners’. I’m not sure they do anymore. God bless you both.
Yours in Christ,
Robert

Reply

Dr. Michael Williams December 5, 2014 at 9:18 am

Thanks for the comment DocReits. My belief is to preach it all and let God sort it out. Psalms 119:165 in the King James says, “Great peace have they, which love thy law and nothing shall offend them.” We live in a world where nearly EVERYBODY gets beligerantly offended if you mention Jesus or the Bible. It makes me wonder sometimes if they get that upset over something they think is not real and not believe in, they must be going broke on therapy bills between the Easter bunny, tooth fairy, and Saturday morning cartoons. Praise God for his unspeakable gift.

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whisperingsage January 16, 2018 at 2:15 pm

It sounded like they were one and the same but this article explains a little, there are the “emerging church” and the New Evangelicals. it was confusing to me or my husband to talk about evangelicals as a separate and distinctly different doctrine, and the article above does not releive my confusion. That does clear things up for me. I could see years ago, the many churches moving toward accepting the One World Church, that’s what the emerging church is. When the Antichrist is in power they will hold hands and sing Koombaya. And they won’t have a saving faith. They have churchianity, not Christ as their Lord. We have dealt with these a lot, and they are blind. Just because you “go to church” doesn’t mean one is saved- Christ said, many will come in my name saying Lord Lord haven’t we done many good works in your name and cast out devils in your name, and Christ will say, I never knew you.

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