Spiritual Formation

The Fundamentalism Factor

I grew up in a Fundamental Baptist world. Fundamental Baptist home. Fundamental Baptist church. Fundamental Baptist school.

I know what you’re thinking.

Okay, actually, I don’t. But I imagine a handful of common responses. Defensiveness is one. Maybe you know some Fundamentalists, and they get your back up. Or maybe you are one, and you are now afraid that I’m going to rip them to shreds. If you’re not defensive, maybe you feel pity? Or curiosity? Incredulity? Empathy? Or disgust?

This label leaves few of us completely indifferent.

Perhaps a little history is in order.

According to Stefan Ulstein (Growing Up Fundamentalist), the term “Fundamentalism” was coined in the early twentieth century. “In 1910 Lyman Stewart, an oil magnate from southern California, commissioned a select group of Bible teachers and evangelists to pen a response to the modernist influence within the evangelical coalition. The result was a series of twelve paperback volumes, known collectively as The Fundamentals” (13). Ninety essays by sixty-four different authors were included. And they covered a wide range of topics—from the Virgin Birth to Socialism to the Second Coming of Christ.

Early Fundamentalism, then, held firm to the beliefs spelled out in these books. It stressed orthodox doctrine, intentional evangelism, personal piety. And followers rose up quickly to the call.

Within just a few years, however, a marginalization of Fundamentalism began. The Scopes Trial of the 1920s pitted Fundamentalists against Modernists in a very public debate around the issue of evolution—and Fundamentalists were painted as “anti-science” and even “anti-intellectual.” Later, when some Southern Fundamentalist voiced support of the Jim Crow laws, the movement as a whole was also labeled “racist.” Then, as American culture experienced the sexual revolution and Fundamentalists clamped down on their progeny with strict dress codes and an uncompromising list of rules, Fundamentalists were often viewed as “reactionary” and “old-fashioned.” The movement became increasingly fraught with fear. “Come out from among them, and be ye separate” became their major refrain.

Rightly or wrongly, this “image problem” has plagued Fundamentalists ever since. And many of us who grew up in the movement have done everything we could to shake this identity loose. We’ve run. We’ve rebelled. We’ve renounced. Much to our parents’ dismay.

On the other hand, though, I have to be fair. For me, the experience of growing up in the Fundamentalist world was certainly not all negative. My Fundamentalist church and school—like many others—faithfully preached the Gospel and taught us to take the Bible seriously. They provided a sense of belonging, security, commitment, and community that is difficult to replicate.

Ulstein wrote his book to give a voice to ex-Fundamentalists. To help those who are still struggling with their Fundamentalist heritage. To encourage communication between Fundamentalist parents and their estranged children. But ultimately, he says, to draw all readers closer to Jesus Christ. According to Ulstein, “our place in the body of Christ is usually guided by the way people around us live their lives and by the ways that they help or hinder us in our own journey” (21).

But this is true—no matter what your religious heritage, right? Whether you grew up Baptist or Catholic or atheist or something else—your understanding of God and your relationship with him was not so much learned as absorbed.

Certainly, I learned much from my family, my church, and my school. But I absorbed even more. Certainly, I was both helped and hindered by my Fundamentalist upbringing. Here, then, is just a bit of how.

When the movie opens, the following verse fills the screen to the sound of an ominous ticking clock.

“Keep a sharp lookout for

you do not know when I will

come, at evening, at midnight,

early dawn or late daybreak.

Don’t let me find you sleeping!”

Jesus Christ

Then the clock comes into view. It’s 10 a.m. The radio turns on, and the news anchor is already describing a universal state of shock. “The event seems to have taken place at the same time all over the world,” he reports. “Just about twenty-five minutes ago, suddenly, and without warning, thousands, perhaps millions of people just disappeared…millions who were living on this earth just last night are not here this morning.”

In the middle of his account, Patty Jo Myers—young, blond, beautiful—bolts awake. She has been sleeping!

After taking a moment to rub her eyes and listen to the report, she calls out to her husband. “Jim. Jim? Jim!” Hearing no response, she rushes to the bathroom and finds Jim’s electric razor. Plugged in. Buzzing loudly. Lying in the sink. Jim is clearly gone. Patty Jo screams.

She stumbles back down the hallway, into the bedroom, and collapses on the floor as the news anchor reads from Matthew 24. Some church leaders are speculating, he says, that this could be an event called the Rapture, spoken of in some branches of theology. “And I quote. ‘Even if it is something like the Rapture, we need not panic. The very fact that we are here and able to discuss it is sign enough that it is not all inclusive.’ End quote.”

Thus goes the opening sequence for the 1972 movie A Thief in the Night. The first time I watched it, I was eight years old, sitting with my family on the hard pews at Grace Baptist Church. It was probably a special Sunday night evangelistic event. For an already anxious child, a child who kept a tearful vigil by the window every time her parents left the house, this movie wrecked me. For months, every night, I begged Jesus to forgive my sins and come into my heart and take me up to Heaven, too, when he came for my mom and dad.

I believed the movie was true. I was a child. Of course I did. I believed that Jesus will come again in the clouds. That it can happen at any time. And that my salvation depends on my confession of Him.

But this, too, I believed. That God is, above all, terrifying. That He is unpredictable, unapproachable, uncompromising, and even cruel. That He keeps us in fear. And that He would not think twice about tearing my fragile family apart.

This I believed.

When I was in fifth grade, our family left Grace Baptist Church and joined a smaller Baptist congregation closer to our home. We were quickly integrated into the little community, attending every time the doors were open. Sunday School. Morning Church. Sunday Training Time. Evening Church. Thursday Prayer Meeting. Saturday Pre-Teen Club. And Social Events.

This church didn’t have a building of its own. We met in the Richfield Community Center and the pastor’s home. For a couple of years, my parents hosted the Pre-Teen Club in our basement. Using primary-colored tape, our leaders laid down an AWANA-like circle on the concrete floor. And every Saturday morning, with a dozen or so other kids, I ran relays around the course. Played Steal the Bacon. Tug of War. Crab Soccer and more.

Every week we also recited memory verses, completed worksheets, and had a “sword drill” for points. Our leader would ask us to hold our Bibles high in the air, making sure that no one had a finger tucked between the pages. Then he would call out a Bible reference and say, “Draw your swords!” We would all bring our Bibles to our laps and feverishly whip through the pages.

I was good at church. As a kid who always felt she had something big to prove, I was as fiercely competitive at Pre-Teens as I was on the softball field. I did church to win. So quite often, I would be the first one to jump to my feet and start reading the sword drill verse aloud. Quite often, I grabbed the beanbag out from under a smaller child’s nose and ran like the wind. And quite often, I recited the most Bible verses for the most points and the most pats on the back.

This I believed. That the Church and the Bible are important. That I should be committed to this Community. And that I should know the Scriptures inside and out.

But this I also believed. That my performance was important too. That I had to win to be worthy. And it was not a good option to be weak.

From the people at this little church, my parents learned about a Baptist school across town, and they sent me there—much against my will—when I started seventh grade. Once I got past the initial transition—only vomiting once in an assembly because I was too timid to ask for help—I thrived there in many ways. I made life-long friends. Excelled in school. Participated in extra-curricular teams and events.

But success in this setting also meant adhering to a long list of rules.

No walking on the left side of the hall.

No long hair for boys.

No pants for girls.

No popped collars for anyone.

No music with a drum. They said that the beat appealed to our baser side.

And so on.

Every morning during homeroom, in the midst of prayer and announcements, our home economics teacher and the school administrator came by to check on us. The administrator carried a comb. If a boy’s hair touched his collar or his ears, he went with the administrator for a trim. Meanwhile, the girls had to stand up next to our desks while the home economics teacher passed by, looking for visible knees. If a skirt was too short, the offender was whisked out of homeroom and taken to the office, where she had to don one of the “office skirts,” an unflattering polyester A-line.

I made it through junior high and high school with only one mortifying detention. And I never, ever wore an office skirt. That doesn’t mean that I never broke a rule. It just means that I got good at the game.

This I believed. That God’s standard is pure. That sin carries consequence. And that followers of Jesus Christ should live a different sort of life.

But this I also believed. That rules matter to God more than relationship. That sin must be done in secret because the discovery of it brings shame. And that guilt is more powerful and more prevalent than grace.

For my first two years of college, my parents insisted that I attend a small Baptist Bible school not far from home. In addition to my major in English Education, I was required to take many Bible and Theology courses.

During my first semester, my friends and I had a 7:30 a.m. Old Testament Survey class. We put long johns on under our skirts, trudged through the snow drifts across campus, and sat shivering in a drafty old auditorium. Our professor had given us a thick set of notes, complete with an extensive outline, some diagrams, and blank lines for us to fill. Each long class period, then, he displayed countless overhead slides, while we copied down the missing words.

This I believed. That truth can be known, and the Bible is its primary source.

But this I also believed. That the Fundamental Baptist idea of truth is always right. It is not to be questioned or contradicted. And memorizing it is all that is required of me. Not learning. Not changing. Not thinking. Just parroting it all right back.

I talk often about these things with the LOML. Though Peter didn’t attend a Christian school—they are rare in England—he did attend a little Plymouth Brethren Church not unlike my Baptist one. We have that similar background. Similar helps and hindrances.

We talk often about how we want to give our children the same Biblical grounding that we had. We bemoan the fact that some kid and youth programs these days emphasize the Fun. But not much of the Fundamentals. So yes, we teach the Bible at home. But we also try to create opportunities for them to study it with their peers.

We talk often about wanting to invest our lives in a committed community of believers that is pursuing hard after Jesus. We long for deep relationships with fellow followers whose faith is central to their lives. Whose faith changes everything. Demands everything. Costs everything. And we hurt. When we go to church and leave again, not having a significant conversation with one soul. Or when we see fellow Christians settle for a version of faith that is easy and comfortable and cheap.

We also talk often about our own junk. The lies we have believed. Yes, still believe. And we try to work it out. Where were we helped? Where were we hindered?  Where do we go from here?

A couple of weeks ago we had a houseful of family and friends staying with us for Christmas. I love that. I love the camaraderie. I love the conversations. I love everything about it, except the inevitable mess.

When we weren’t out doing something fun or I wasn’t busy in the kitchen feeding the many mouths, I was scurrying around the house—tidying toys, piling pillows, wiping windows. But with the population of our house doubled, there was no way I was going to win that war. And it felt like a war. Me against everyone else—my two kiddos with their Christmas booty and my two teenage nephews leading the enemy charge.

Peter could read the stress on my face one afternoon and stopped me in my tracks. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“It’s the mess,” I said. “I have this involuntary physical reaction to it. My chest gets tight. I find it hard to breathe. I panic almost. I know it’s crazy. I’m sure it’s an issue of control. But it feels like it’s me against everyone else. And I’m losing.”

“If Jesus were here, what would he say about the mess?” he asked. (If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll start to see a theme here with him. Drives me crazy sometimes. But I know he’s right to keep bringing me back to Him.)

I slowed down and filled my lungs with air. Released a long, slow sigh as I asked myself. If Jesus were here? What would he say about the yogurt on the walls? The muddy boots by the door? The pine needles piling up on the floor? The dust settling on His own nativity?

I said, “As silly as it sounds, my gut reaction is that I need to apologize.”

I know I don’t, of course. But there they are again. Those old beliefs. The old need to perform. The old shame when I can’t.

But praise God that He keeps bringing me back to Himself. That I don’t have to clean myself up before I come. That He sent His Son to a dusty and messy stable. To love and redeem a messy and lost lot like us.

This I believe.

That’s my two cents. What’s yours?

Please discuss…

13 thoughts on “The Fundamentalism Factor

  1. I understand, beautiful writing about your beliefs!! I heard Jesus saying to you, ” Martha Martha you are worried about many things, Mary has chosen the best”. It is hard for Christian women to find a balance between Mary and Martha living. You are so blessed to have such a wonderful Christian husband!!!

  2. I’m not a Christian, but I worry about any religious order that teaches to separate themselves from society and the sins therein. In the bible, Jesus didn’t hide within a closed community.

    I’ve witnessed baptist churches firsthand, the calling of the preacher to come forth and be healed. It was terrifying. All these good people prostrating themselves before a vengeful god.

    You asked what gut feeling the reader had when they thought about baptist. This reader feels disgust. And maybe that’s wrong, in the same way racism is wrong. But I cannot imagine living in a structure were skirt lengths and haircuts are more important than peace and creativity.

    1. You are so right, Alex. Jesus was right in there with the “sinners.” He loved them.

      I am sorry about your experience in the Baptist church. It is a shame that we fallen beings sometimes get so caught up in the rules and regulations. But that’s not true Christianity. True Christianity does value the peace and creativity you speak of. It also values truth. Jesus spoke of truth. But the sort of truth he gives also sets us free (John 8:32).

  3. I enjoyed reading this as I was raised the exact same way. Baptist church, there every time the doors were open, baptist school K-12, small Bible college… I received such a rich foundation of Bible knowledge. My church was fundamentalist, but not to the extreme of others I’ve seen. Relationships were important and I knew that God loved me. But I also walked away with a belief that our (Baptist) way was the right way and every body else didn’t quite understand the Bible as well as us, that those who really loved God went to Bible college and eventually into full-time ministry. There was a hierarchy in Fundamental Christianity. I believed God was more impressed/pleased with those who did xyz.

    It was quite a process God took me through (and is still taking me through) to correct my misconceptions. It took years for me to be comfortable with drums being used in worship, with a worship team leading music rather then a music pastor waving his arms, etc, etc, etc. I remember 1 sermon in particular that was life changing for me. I was between my first and second year of teaching in a Christian school and my husband and I were with a group of teens at a leadership conference. I was burned out. I had done everything I was supposed to do – graduated from Bible college, got a “full-time ministry” position teaching, etc. but there was no joy in what I was doing. No satisfaction or fulfillment in my daily quiet time with God. I was doing all the things I knew a good Christian should be doing, so why was I miserable? In this sermon, the speaker talked about our motive. That it wasn’t enough to “do what good Christians are supposed to do.” He took us all over the New Testament to the verses that explain what motivates us. “Because of the MERCIES of God, present your bodies a living sacrifice,” “The LOVE of Christ compels us,” etc. He took us to passages of Scripture to show us what it is that He did for us. He reminded me of why I love God, why I willingly chose to become a Christian school teacher, why I gave him my life. I had forgotten. I had boiled Christianity down to list of dos and don’ts and walked away from a relationship with God. This is the danger of fundamentalism. Thankfully God loves us too much to allow us to continue in “religion” and he pursues us relentlessly because he doesn’t want a rule follower. He wants a relationship with me. He is continuing to pursue me and keep me in relationship with him.
    There is no joy in Fundamentalism. Only pressure to keep all the rules and impress others.

    I love how you ended this post, Kelli,
    “But praise God that He keeps bringing me back to Himself. That I don’t have to clean myself up before I come. That He sent His Son to a dusty and messy stable. To love and redeem a messy and lost lot like us.”

    That is life changing truth for a fundamentalist.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Jill. I love how God broke through and continues to pursue. I also appreciate what you said about the heirarchy. That was my understanding as well. And it was a foregone conclusion that I would go into ministry. Also, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I felt God “owed” me certain things–primarily a husband and then biological children–as a result. I’ll be writing about this in future posts–how everything came crashing down for me when these expectaions weren’t met. Thanks again for reading and commenting!

  4. Not sure where to begin commenting on that post.

    So much there that rings a bell.

    I wa only saying something the other day to your “LOML” about this.

    I tell myself for example that as a believer in Jesus I have nothing to fear when he returns or when I see him face to face. But actually I dislike thinking about these things, when actually shouldn’t they be the hope that helps me to carry on living in the here and now?

    But I have a theory. That even though I am a believer I have taken on board much of what I heard growing up in my church.

    I would constantly hear every Sunday night that Jesus could come back before the service finished at 7.30, that I could be run over by a bus on the way home and face a lost eternity (even typing this is causing my stomach to churn). I would hear about the horrors of hell. I read comic strips that showed men standing before God as their whole life was replayed in HD. I remember on one occasion a preacher who appeared to be thoroughly enjoying describing life in hell. I was sickened and angry with him.

    Salvation was expressed in negative terms – as the way to escape the most terrible eternal torment.

    No wonder it rubbed off. No wonder I on at least 2 other occasions gave my life to Jesus as if to make sure.

    And rather than security, I do worry, what if I’ve got it wrong? What if I don’t believe all the right stuff. What if the Christians out there have got it right and my limited understanding was wrong. Because after all some people would try to tell us that we had the truth and everyone else was wrong!

    It is very strange. I still believe. I still hang on. I still keep worshipping. But is my faith in a church, or a set of rules, or is it in a Saviour who loves me and gave himself for me and intercedes for me and will never let me go?

    Reading a lot about the Pharisees at the moment. I’ll tell you what – I’ll choose Jesus.

    1. Thanks, Anthony! I appreciate your comments very much. And I resonate with them. I have been driven by so much fear. And I don’t think that’s where Christ wants me to live. I think he wants me to live in his love. Yes, he is sovereign and poweful and holy. And I do live in awe of him. But asI wrote in an earlier post, I have also been learning to “live loved.” Meditating on his love. Let myself enjoy his love and grace. Worshipping him out of gratitude. It is quite a change for me.

  5. I think we lived parallel lives–right down to Cedarville! 🙂 I was raised the same and scarred by the exact same movies–several times over. I remembering being terrified about being “left behind” and terrified that my siblings wouldn’t accept Christ. I have a naturally Type AAAA personality-for my personality, the emphasis on rules rather than relationship was just about as bad as it could have been. Doggone it, I can follow rules. And follow them, I did! I was the “good girl”-my sins were secret, always, shameful secrets.

    I’m now 46 years old and feel like I’ve yet to experience the “joy of my salvation.” Why bother praying if I can’t cover every missionary and every request every day? Why read the Bible if I don’t have time to do an “inductive” study every day? Why go to church at all if I can’t be there EVERY time the doors open serving in EVERY possible capacity? I’ve yet to experience grace.

    What helped you? What was the turning point?

    1. Ah, Jen, it does seem we lived parallel lives. 🙂 I agree that the type-A personality makes for a “perfect storm” in this sort of environment. So hard. And such deep “reprograming” has to happen, doesn’t it?

      What helped me? To be perfectly honest, God completely brought me to my knees. That’s where I’m heading with the blog. 🙂 As I continue to share my story, it will become clear how this foundation that I had–my worldview, beliefs, etc.–took a beating when I was in my 20s and 30s. Specifically for me, infertility became a crisis of faith. I was furious at God for a long time. I had done everything “right.” Or at least on the outside I had. Gone to Bible college and Christian schools. Gone into full-time ministry. Eventually married a missionary. Anyhow, I won’t spell out the whole story here since I will be telling it in more depth as I go. But the short version is that God completely broke me.

      I’ve been doing a lot of reading about brokenness and its role in spiritual growth. I’ll be sharing some of that here as well. George Barna describes it well in his book Maximum Faith.

      This probably doesn’t answer your question terribly well. But hopefully if you keep checking back here, I will answer it more completely.


  6. I call myself a Fundamental Baptist in doctrine. My wife and I have not been going to church lately and we visit other kinds of churches. During my working days, we attended may community churches like Grace Community Church in So. Ca.—-John MacArthur. I am not really into that, but that is my belief. I think they had that right.

    I think there are preaching styles. i have Christian friends that think yelling is normal. lol

  7. When you shared the beliefs, I imagined bricks plopping into place in mortar. I wasn’t raised in a home that followed Christ (at least not Jesus of the Bible). The fear I experienced was more fear of Man than fear of God. In some ways I was set up for and odd combination of spiritual entitlement and treadmill performance. Yuck! I was pretty certain I had the “cream of the crop” set of beliefs in a powerful being. I feared what others would think…and not having the right wording or behavior to get what I wanted from God. What a beautiful thing to put some distance between me and all of that, but I recognize the old ways can try to resurrect every so often.

    I haven’t experienced much of a Fundamentalist perspective. I’ve only done as much reading on the various perspectives as I’ve had time for…which was more often in another earlier season in life.

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