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.

Also published on River View Friend.

Views: 627

Comment by William F Rushby on 3rd mo. 28, 2013 at 6:12pm

Especially in the past, I think a fair number of Conservative Friends would have subscribed to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy.

Comment by Brian Young on 3rd mo. 29, 2013 at 2:11am

Thanks for this review, Doug.

I believe Bill is correct about some Conservative Friends being inerrantist, at least in the past.

In re: your last remark, "we saw... indications of inerrantist ideas creeping into IYM and other FUM Yearly Meetings," the choice of "creeping in" sounds to me like you would make this a recent phenomenon. In fact, as your review of Punshon elsewhere shows, some evangelical Friends have held inerrantist views for quite some time.

Comment by William F Rushby on 3rd mo. 29, 2013 at 10:08am

For much of the 19th and earlier centuries, I believe that the authenticity of the Bible would have been taken for granted by most conservative Christians.  I doubt that they spent much time elaborating theories of "inerrancy".  I am quite sure that this also applied to Conservative (and other Orthodox unprogrammed) Friends, although probably not to Hicksites.  (There were, of course, some quite orthodox Hicksites; Samuel Levick comes to mind.)


I do know that skepticism about the authenticity of the Bible and challenges to its authority became much more common during the first half of the 20th Century.  This was true among the more liberal among Conservative Friends at Paullina IA, where my wife was born and lived her early life.  Her parents did NOT accept such doctrinal innovations.


Archeology has not been very supportive of Biblical minimalists.  Archeological evidence has been "unearthed" (apology for the pun) to document many Biblical people and places thought to be fictitious during the 1930s.  When all is said and done, God will have the last word!!!

Comment by Daniel Wilcox on 3rd mo. 29, 2013 at 11:17am

Thanks for raising all of these important problems--sort of like brushing fleas out of your dog;-)

Maybe one key point to keep in mind is the difference between "evangelical with a small e"

versus "Evangelical with the big E."  I first saw this emphasized by Larry Ingle years ago on a Quaker list; don't know for sure what he meant.

But here's my understanding:

Big E now  seems to mean the 20th century socio-political-doctrinal separation movement within various creedal denominations, even within some churches/meetings of Friends which emphasize doctrine and changed lives usually associated with only personal morality (unlike the E. of the 19th century which were so socially Good News against slavery, etc.)

In contrast, "little e" 

I take to mean that Quakerism (and other spiritual movements)  at its fount, its foundation, is, guided by the Spirit of God  like the early Friends, to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus--that God loves the whole world and that we should to live transformed lives living in the way of God (mercy, peacemaking, humility, purity, etc.) helping transform the world.

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox

Comment by Gene Hillman on 3rd mo. 30, 2013 at 1:43pm

I like Danial's distinction between big and small 'e' evangelical. There is also the use of Evangelical to identify the Lutheran strain of Reformation thought (and one Eastern Region pastor I know does not consider the Evangelical Lutheran Church to be sufficiently Evangelical as he understands the word), there also being 'reform' (Calvinist), Anabaptist, and Anglican. As to fundamentalist, they are those who add to inerrancy of scripture the belief that the literal understanding is the only permissible understanding (except maybe the Song of Songs [of Solomon], I never thought to ask if they considered Jesus' teaching stories to be literally true). I have known fundamentalist Quakers in Evangelical, FUM and in OhioYM (Conservative). Also, you will find Doug's "degrees of separation" issue in Evangelicals who may, or may not, be fundamentalists, IMHO.

Comment by Doug Bennett on 4th mo. 10, 2013 at 9:49am

Just came upon this interesting take on the difference between Fundamentalists and other Evangelicals, from the Anglican evangelical John Stott:

“The fundamentalist emphasizes so strongly the divine origin of Scripture that he tends to forget that it also had human authors who used sources, syntax and words to convey their message, whereas the evangelical remembers the double authorship of Scripture.” John R. W. Stott, “Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?” Christianity Today (September 8, 1978), p 46. 

Comment by Gene Hillman on 4th mo. 10, 2013 at 10:34am

I would add to Doug's "sources, syntax and words" selection. It was one of those church councils (Trent? off the top of my head but not sure) that settled on the canon of scripture, though one could make a case that they were just ratifying what the Holy Spirit had guided the church to through usage. Luther betrayed his questioning of that selection when he balked at including the Epistle of James ("a right strawy epistle" because of its works theology). He did include it in his translation of course but I don't think a fundamentalist would ever question ("don't confuse me with the facts; I've made up my mind").

I've long thought the early Quakers more often cited James that the sermon on the mount just because they knew the Calvinists with whom they were sparing would be angered by it. Any thoughts?


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