Among Friends, Who Is an Evangelical? Is Anyone a Fundamentalist?

March 28, 2013

A month ago, I featured here three paragraphs from a 1959 Friends Journal article by Howard Brinton entitled “The Place of Quakerism in Modern Christian Thought.” The three paragraphs concerned Brinton’s view of fundamentalism among Friends.

The blog post drew quite a number of comments.  After reading them, I said I wanted to do some further thinking and reading about the proper use of the terms “Evangelical” and “Fundamentalist” among Friends. Since then, I’ve re-read John Punshon’s Reasons for Hope: The Future of the Friends Church and George Marsden’s Understanding Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, and rummaged through a number of other things.  (Regarding Punshon, I did a five-part series summarizing aspects of Punshon’s broader argument: (1), (2), (3), (4), and (5).)

In that 1959 article Brinton said that “About one-third of those under the name of Friends in America” can be classified as Fundamentalists. He uses that term throughout his piece, and never uses the term “Evangelical.” Brent Bill (and others) objected to this characterization, and to the implication that all Evangelicals are Fundamentalists.  The objection is certainly correct.  But what is the proper use of the term Evangelical, and is there any proper use of the term Fundamentalist when speaking of Friends?

Both terms are difficult to define with precision, says Marsden, because both refer to movements, and both movements have changed a great deal over the past century. As a starting point he offers this: “Central to the Evangelical gospel was the proclamation of Christ’s saving work through his death on the cross and the necessity of personally trusting him for eternal salvation” (p 2).  Through the waves of revivals, especially Holiness revivals, in the 19th century, many Friends came to see themselves as Evangelicals as well as Quakers.

The term “Evangelical” is the older and broader of the two. While “Evangelical” is a term used regularly throughout the 19th century; no one called himself (or was called by others) a Fundamentalist until about 1919. At that time, the term began to be used by a group of conservative, largely Presbyterian, theologians to describe commitment to a set of beliefs they considered fundamental to Christianity. The “five fundamentals” they stressed are these: Biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, belief that Christ’s death was atonement for sin, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the historical reality of Christ’s miracles.

Since no Quaker was part of this specific historical movement, in a strict sense, no Quaker is fairly described as a Fundamentalist. At the other extreme, Marsden offers this quite broad definition: “A Fundamentalist is an Evangelical who is angry about something” (p 1).  Surely that fits some Quakers, though hardly a third in 1959 or at any other time.

A more useful understanding of Fundamentalism may be to use it to describe someone who holds to the first of the ‘five fundamentals,’ the doctrine of Bible inerrancy, since that is the lynchpin that holds the other elements together. On this understanding, are any Friends fairly described as Fundamentalists – in 1959, or today?

I think the answer to that is yes, and that is Punshon’s view, too.  Punshon’s focus is on “Evangelical Friends,” which he describes as follows: “all those Yearly Meetings in North America that are affiliated solely to Friends United Meeting or the Evangelical Friends International, but to exclude the more liberal congregations that nevertheless belong to these yearly meetings.  Also included within the definition are the evangelical monthly meetings that belong to the more liberal yearly meetings and all evangelical Friends in the rest of the world” (p 3).

Such Evangelical Friends, Punshon believes, “will obviously take scripture as its ultimate authority” and are strongly influenced by holiness revival (p 22).

Within this broad grouping (which I take to exclude FGC meetings and Conservative Friends), Punshon does identify a segment that he describes as “Fundamentalist,” and he identifies such Fundamentalist Quakers as those who subscribe to Biblical inerrancy.

A thin but important line emerges following Punshon, a line between taking scripture as the ultimate authority (all Evangelicals) and believing in Biblical inerrancy (those Evangelicals who are Fundamentalist).  How Punshon understands this difference I explored earlier in my fourth and fifth commentaries on his book.

One other difference is worth noting, a greater tendency of Fundamentalists to want remain separate from those who do not share their views.  Says Wheaton College’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, “Concerns over doctrinal purity and issues of “first-degree separation” (the refusal to associate with groups who endorse questionable doctrinal beliefs or moral practices) and “second-degree separation” (refraining from association or identification with groups or individuals who do not practice first-degree separation) have meant that self-identified fundamentalism has been prone to constant disputes and splits.”

We saw an urge to separatism in the Indiana Yearly Meeting schism, and also indications of inerrantist ideas creeping into IYM and other FUM Yearly Meetings.

In future posts I’ll write more about the dangers posed by Fundamentalism among Friends.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Beliefs, Bible, Quaker Identity, Schism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Among Friends, Who Is an Evangelical? Is Anyone a Fundamentalist?

  1. Patrick J. Nugent says:

    Good points all. Evangelical and Fundamentalist are both multilayered terms and both have evolved. Evangelical dates back to the early church and was used throughout the Middle Ages. Fundamentalist is a term of reaction against liberalizing trends in 19C Anglo Protestantism. It has become so pejorative that it is rarely used as self description any longer; “fundamental” is more often apparent.

    If there are differences between Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches or persons any longer, they are as much (sub) cultural as theological, perhaps more. Martin Marty put I brilliantly in the 70s in his indispensable book, “A Nation of Behavers”: I’m quoting from memory here, bu it’s close: “fundamentalists would condemn beauty pageants. Evangelicals would have beauty pageants for Jesus.” In his view, while certainly many evangelicals are not theologically fundamental(ist), the main distinction would be in how one would engage, or eschew, mainstream culture.

  2. Douglas Bennett wrote: “Within this broad [evangelical] grouping (which I take to exclude FGC meetings and Conservative Friends)”

    In fact, the 1913 statement of faith approved by all of the Conservative yearly meetings existing at that time, included the following language identifying Conservative Friends “…with other evangelical religious bodies”. It is all too easy to attribute to Conservative Friends attitudes and beliefs they did not espouse in the past. Take the notion that they were a creedless denomination, for example. How would anyone square that with the 1913 proclamation of faith???

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