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 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).
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).
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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).