Back to issue

It is common for scholars to suggest that Protestant fundamentalism is a mostly American phenomenon that has had minimal influence within the United Kingdom. In recent years, a number of historians have challenged this assumption. Furthermore, as in North America, in the British Isles the lines between evangelicalism and fundamentalism are not always easy to draw. For this reason, in 2008 and 2009 a group of British historians, sociologists, and theologians participated in the Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in Britain Project (EFBP) to discuss the relationship between the two movements. Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom during the Twentieth Century represents the published proceedings of key papers that were written in conjunction with the EFBP.

Editors David Bebbington and David Ceri Jones open the volume with an introduction that explains the purpose of EFBP, offers some initial interpretations of key terms and timelines, and briefly summarizes the contents of each chapter. Part I includes two chapters on British precursors to fundamentalism (pre-1920s). Geoffrey Treloar discusses the British contributors to The Fundamentals (1910–1915), though he neglects the contribution of British Baptist pastor John Stock. Neil Dickson focuses on the work of Thomas Whitelaw, a conservative dissenter among Scottish Presbyterians. Dickson suggests Whitelaw was a proto-fundamentalist, though he died in 1917 before the movement came to its maturity.

Part II includes five chapters that examine the beginnings of British fundamentalism during the interwar years (ca. 1919–1939). Andrew Atherstone argues that some Calvinistic Anglican evangelicals embraced fundamentalism, though most never owned the fundamentalist label. Martin Wellings examines the formation and early history of the Wesley Bible Union, one of the few self-consciously fundamentalist movements during this period. Bebbington examines Baptist fundamentalism, a phenomenon that arose largely in response to ecumenism within the Baptist Union. Tim Grass suggests that the Brethren, though dispensational (a hallmark of early fundamentalists), were actually more evangelical than fundamentalist, while Linda Wilson argues that women often played a key, albeit non-clerical role in promoting British fundamentalism. John Maiden suggests that a key difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals was the more militant anti-Catholic rhetoric of the former. These chapters more than any other demonstrate that Britain experienced its own fundamentalist controversies during the same period as the more famous denominational melees in North America.

Part III includes four chapters that discuss the later twentieth century. Ian Randall and Alister Chapman focus upon two key evangelical leaders who gravitated away from fundamentalist roots and encouraged the grown of evangelicalism in Britain: Billy Graham and John Stott. Derek Tidball argues that Free Methodism represents one movement that transitioned from a more fundamentalist heritage to a more evangelical identity. Scholars will note that these same trends were evident among postwar evangelicalism and fundamentalism in North America. David Goodhew suggests that new church plants in York since 1980 are evangelical, but not fundamentalist, though among the contributors he offers the most idiosyncratic interpretation of fundamentalism by associated it with religious violence. By Goodhew’s definition, virtually none of the subjects treated in Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism would qualify as fundamentalists—including self-confessed fundamentalists.

Part IV focuses upon national variations of fundamentalism. Andrew Holmes examines W. P. Nicholson’s ministry in Ulster; Nicholson was a precursor to the more famous (and avowedly fundamentalist) Ian Paisley. Kenneth Roxburgh discusses mild fundamentalism within Scotland, which was dominated by a more moderate evangelicalism, while Jones examines fundamentalism and evangelicalism in postwar Wales. Martin Lloyd-Jones, who is difficult to categorize, was the key figure among Welsh conservative Protestants.

Part V includes theological reflections on British evangelicals and fundamentalists. William Kay discusses the oft-debated topic of the relationship between fundamentalists and Pentecostals, repeating the common (and overly simplistic) notion that fundamentalists care more about doctrine while Pentecostals focus more upon experience. Rob Warner’s chapter includes a helpful comparison of the confessional statements of various evangelical ministries, demonstrating their tendency to become more conservative over time. Stephen Holmes examines theological continuity and discontinuity between evangelicals and fundamentalists. According to Holmes, fundamentalists are Princetonian inerrantists while evangelicals normally are not, fundamentalists are more separatist and anti-Catholic than evangelicals, and fundamentalists are less open to theological innovation and departures from premillennialism than their evangelical counterparts. In the final chapter, Bebbington and Jones expound some common themes that emerge in the book, determining that evangelicalism and fundamentalism are not identical movements.

Historians will note that six figures loom large in the background of this book. First, many of the contributors draw upon the interdisciplinary approach of the Fundamentalism Project that was convened in America between 1987 and 1995 under the leadership of Martin Marty and Scott Appleby. Unlike the Fundamentalism Project, however, these scholars focus their attention on conservative Protestants, for the most part avoiding attempts to relate Protestant fundamentalism to similar movements in other religious traditions (Goodhew’s chapter is an exception). Second, the contributors closely follow David Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism and George Marsden’s understanding of fundamentalism. These two historians are undoubtedly the most influential recent interpreters of these traditions over the past generation. Finally, most of the chapters interact with James Barr and Harriet Harris, two British scholars who closely associate fundamentalism with evangelicalism. Nearly all the contributors to this volume reject or significantly nuance the Barr-Harris thesis.

Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom during the Twentieth Century is a significant contribution to an understudied but important theme in British religious history. Nearly all of the essays reflect a high caliber of scholarship. The attempt by the historians to examine theological, social, and denominational factors influencing fundamentalism and evangelicalism is refreshing; these movements simply cannot be explained adequately when social historians and intellectual historians work in isolation from on another. The theological chapters are informative, if perhaps more impressionistic than the historical chapters.

Many contributors argue that it can be difficult to clearly draw the line at times between fundamentalists and evangelicals in Britain. Lloyd-Jones is a clear individual example of this phenomenon, while the Brethren and many more conservative British Baptists illustrate it on a larger scale. In the second edition of his classic work Fundamentalism and American Culture, George Marsden suggests the category of “fundamentalistic evangelicals” to describe militantly conservative evangelicals who nevertheless demonstrate more theological diversity and greater hesitancy toward ecclesial separation than self-confessed fundamentalists. Marsden applies this category to key leaders in the early Religious Right and the conservative dissenters who gained control of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s (Fundamentalism and American Culture [new ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006], 229–57). Perhaps this terminology could provide some explanatory power to Lloyd-Jones and others who defy simplistic categorization.

Bebbington and Jones have edited an important work that should inspire scores of subsequent monographs, essays, and theses. Unfortunately, Oxford University Press has priced the volume out of the reach of most scholars. A book this significant deserves a quality paperback volume that can be more widely read by scholars and especially the graduate students who will build upon its insights and further our understanding of modern conservative Protestantism in the British Isles.

Nathan A. Finn
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina, USA