A Short History of the Western Church – Part 3 (end)

If you have not read the previous segments of this history, I recommend you start at the beginning, here.

Note that as we approach our own times some readers will find that the history of their denomination or church may move away from that shown in this final segment. This segment was originally designed to help people in my home church — Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas — learn our particular spiritual heritage.

At the end of the second segment of this history, available here, we paused at the beginning of the nineteenth century in America. That is where our story will resume below.

Religious Change in America

After the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, our focus shifts to America, where Protestants prospered in a religiously pluralistic society in which they viewed denominations as “voluntary organizations that believers create and join according to their convictions and preferences.”[1] But immigration was rapidly changing the national mixture of faiths. Gonzalez says, “The Catholic Church (which, at the time of independence, was a small minority) had, by the middle of the nineteenth century, become the largest religious body in the nation.”[2]

We should not ignore the sad fact that one issue held back America and the progress of the gospel: slavery. Eventually this led to Civil War followed by an oppressive Reconstruction. Afterward the greatest wave of immigrants came. Davies notes, “Europe lost 25 million emigrants to the USA in the last quarter of the century.”[3]

Poisonous German Ideas

As important as the flow of people across the Atlantic was the westward flow of ideas. The second half of the nineteenth century saw a burst of scientific and engineering triumphs as well as the spread of the theory of biological evolution. German scholars produced a stream of ideas that questioned the historical accuracy and reliability of the Bible: Jesus was just a great man ? they said ? and certainly could not have risen from the dead. Miracles either had a natural explanation or were just products of inspired imagination. There was enormous faith in man, his future and perfectibility.

Of these developments Gonzales says, “Protestant Liberalism was an attempt to couch Christianity in the mold of those ideas, and gained wide acceptance among the intellectual elite of the United States.”[4] Seeing this as a threat to the very core of Christian faith, an anti-liberal reaction developed that came to be known as “fundamentalism.” The fundamentals may be considered to include the following essential doctrines: the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, the atonement of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the miracle-working power of Christ.[5]

The Rise of Fundamentalism

But fundamentalism did not arise in a vacuum. One driving force may be found in the fellowship and Bible teaching enjoyed by Christian leaders who met annually for 1–2 weeks at the Niagara Bible Conference, held mostly at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, from 1875 to 1900.[6] Such meetings have been widely copied over the years and often given the name “the prophecy and Bible conference movement.”

But fundamentalism had another strong support, the independent Bible institutes. Sandeen says, “During the last two decades of the nineteenth century the unordained Dwight L. Moody [1837–1899] was the most influential ‘clergyman’ in America.”[7] From 1873–75 Moody presented evangelistic sermons to over 2.5 million people in England and Scotland. The Moody Bible Institute in Chicago was established in 1889 and has profoundly influenced evangelical Christianity in America. Across the country, in 1907, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles was also important.

Historian George Marsden has said that fundamentalism was rooted in the eighteenth century idea that truth is available and can be obtained through the inductive method — when used to analyze the Bible.[8] To this Marsden added the nineteenth century experience that combined individualism, revivalism, the centrality of the Bible, personal comitment and inward holiness. Finally, he summarized fundamentalism as an “anti-modernist coalition” that was resistant to religious and cultural change. [9]

Perhaps the most crucial publication of early fundamentalism was the Scofield Reference Bible, which emerged in 1909. It provided helpful notes and cross references along with the interpretive framework of J.N. Darby’s views about the different ways God had interacted with man through the ages, a system known as “dispensationalism.” C.I. Scofield (1843–1921), a Dallas minister from 1882–1895 and 1902–1907, was not famous before the reference Bible came out, but he certainly was afterward.

The Modern Church: World War I (1914-1918) to 1970

From the viewpoint of those who consider the Bible completely trustworthy and accept supernatural acts by God through Christ, the most notable Christian development following World War I was the degree to which American denominations struggled with the penetration of Protestant Liberalism into denominational seminaries. The Presbyterians and the Baptists experienced denominational splits over the matter, and the issue still simmers today.

However, Bible-believing Christians had new options. Sandeen says, “Dissatisfaction with the denominations certainly grew stronger with the progress of Liberalism, but the really decisive factor seems to have been the development of nondenominational institutional structures which could function in the same manner as the denomination.”[10] By this he means the Bible institutes and the new seminaries and churches that formed in loose relation to them.

One such seminary was Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) which began in 1924. DTS was formed by Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952), who had served from 1914–1923 on the faculty of the Philadelphia School of the Bible. DTS was founded as an institution centered on the Bible. The seminary stands in the stream of theology known as the Protestant Reformation, and within its American successor the early fundamentalist movement.

Sandeen notes that since 1950, the more moderate wing of the fundamentalist movement has called itself Evangelicalism and “has manifested an unexpected vitality and appeal.”[11]

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.


[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2 vols. (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1984) 2:242.

[2] Gonzalez, 2:243.

[3] Norman Davies, Europe: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) 782.

[4] Gonzalez, 2:256.

[5] Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970) xviii.

[6] Sandeen, 134.

[7] Sandeen, 172.

[8] Cited by John D. Hannah, An Uncommon Union (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) 43.

[9] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

[10] Sandeen, 240.

[11] Sandeen, xiii.


Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!