By: David Stricklin

Type: Overview Entry

Published: October 1, 1995

Updated: October 22, 2020

Fundamentalism is usually characterized by scholars as a religious response to modernism, especially the theory of evolution as an explanation of human origins and the idea that solutions to problems can be found without regard to traditional religious values. Protestant Christian fundamentalists hold that the Bible is the final authority on matters of all sorts, that it is infallible in every way, including details of its stories which appear to be in conflict with modern scientific teaching, and that the "fundamental" tenets of the faith are nonnegotiable and exempt from the varieties of interpretation that members of less authoritarian religious bodies might place on such teachings. Fundamentalists constitute one part of the larger group of Protestants called evangelicals, who believe that they are bound by God to win converts to their faith, usually both from the ranks of nonbelievers and from those of adherents to other forms of religious belief, including other branches of Christianity. Protestant fundamentalists sometimes embrace a view of the end of human history called premillenialism, the expectation that Jesus Christ will return to earth, having triumphed over the forces of evil and degradation, then usher in and preside over a period of 1,000 years of heavenly peace on earth. Though there have been large numbers of biblical literalists among African-American Christians, militant fundamentalism in Texas most often has been an outgrowth of White evangelicalism.

Texas fundamentalists' activities unfolded within three general time periods in the twentieth century. Dismissed by many observers as backward-looking, anti-intellectual, and dangerous, for approximately the first thirty years of the twentieth century fundamentalists in Texas waged a form of religious warfare against the cultural and educational changes associated with modernism. Their tendency was to do intellectual, political, and legal battle with their modernist opponents, especially with the goal of winning control of religious institutions and using the apparatus of secular governments to attempt to stamp out instances of modernist influence. During the first period Texas gave the nation one of its most remarkable fundamentalist leaders, Baptist pastor J. Frank Norris of Fort Worth. Throughout the century it provided homes for some of the best-known fundamentalist institutions and movements. But during the middle years of the century fundamentalists in general attracted and sought less public attention. Unable to win control of mainstream religious organizations or achieve their most fervently longed-for changes in society through legal means, they followed for the middle third of the century a strategy of separating themselves from people who disagreed with them on the fundamentals of the faith. Texas fundamentalists participated enthusiastically and publicly in anticommunist activity in the 1950s and 1960s. But most of their efforts in the middle period went toward the establishment of their own schools, publishing concerns, and broadcast-media facilities. They also helped build an evangelical subculture during those years that surfaced later to take on highly visible roles in national debates over public policy and personal morality, thus making the state a focal point in the last third of the century for the merger of conservative politics and traditionalist religion. In the latter decades of the twentieth century, fundamentalists in Texas returned to many of the methods they had employed in their public and institutional battles in the first part of the century. This last period also saw the embrace of modern methods of persuasion and marketing by fundamentalists determined to restore old values to prominence in the United States. Their reemergence in the major denominations from which fundamentalists had separated in earlier years reflected in the last third of the century a national trend back to the kinds of intrachurch conflict aimed at ridding denominations of suspected liberal influence that had characterized fundamentalism in its beginnings.

Fundamentalism in Texas had its roots in intrachurch controversies of the nineteenth century that originated in other parts of the South. The "restorationist" movement embodied within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Church of Christ, the attempt to recreate church life on the presumed New Testament model, attracted many separatist Baptists and Presbyterians. In Texas much of the restorationist impulse within the Disciples of Christ issued from a dispute between their publishing houses. Firm Foundation in Austin argued an exclusivist position, based greatly on the growing insistence over forbidding the use of musical instruments in worship services; this prohibition characterized Church of Christ practice and pointed many Disciples in the direction of the Churches of Christ. Opposing this position was the Christian Courier publishing concern in Dallas. Members of the Church of Christ and many people within Southern Baptist congregations held the exclusivist view that theirs was the only legitimate church; among Baptists this view was called Landmarkism (see LANDMARK MOVEMENT). Their disapproval of the beliefs of those who disagreed with them, including the majority of Texas Baptists, set the stage for some of the bitter intradenominational struggles in the twentieth century and helped initiate a tradition of Baptist separatism.

Fundamentalists in Texas wasted little time in trying to use the power of the state to prevent the spread of modernist teaching. In 1923, state representatives S. J. Howeth of Johnson County and J. T. Stroder of Navarro County, a Baptist minister and Baptist layman, respectively, introduced the legislature's first antievolution bill. If it had passed, it would have predated by almost two years the Tennessee act prohibiting the teaching of the theory of evolution in state-funded schools that led to the famous trial of John Thomas Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee (1925). The measure failed, though the House passed a resolution condemning the theory of evolution during one of the year's special sessions. During House debates, Stroder claimed to have received the support of William Jennings Bryan, who went on to help prosecute the Scopes case in Tennessee. Other efforts were made over the years to pass legislation in Texas limiting modernist teaching or encouraging Christian perspectives in public education. Church groups advocated legislation authorizing the inclusion of Bible courses in public school curricula and brought pressure on the legislature to make it illegal for public schools to employ agnostics or atheists. Such pressure affected the filling of the presidency of the University of Texas in 1924 and prompted a move the next year to prohibit the university's employment of anyone who was an "infidel, atheist, or agnostic." Texas reaction to the Scopes trial included resolutions by church groups and editorials favoring the prosecution of Scopes in fundamentalist newspapers, especially the Searchlight, J. Frank Norris's paper published in Fort Worth, leading secular newspapers of the state, and papers in small towns in heavily Protestant East and Central Texas, where fundamentalist support was strongest in the 1920s. Supportive statements came from various elected officials all over Texas. Nationally, however, the Scopes trial generated much ridicule for fundamentalists, who were lampooned in many publications. This ridicule helped account for the comparative movement of fundamentalism in Texas out of the public eye between the 1930s and the 1960s. The fundamentalists had succeeded, however, in reducing instruction in evolution in the schools for several decades. In the late 1950s, an unexpected source of renewed emphasis on teaching evolution arose: the accelerated national program of science instruction prompted by fears of falling behind the Soviet Union in military research and technology. Though fundamentalists had no shortage of anticommunist fervor, they opposed the teaching of evolution in post-Sputnik science curricula intended to help American students compete with their Soviet counterparts. Fundamentalist-sponsored antievolution rallies were held in Texas throughout much of the 1960s, including a large ecumenical conference devoted to that purpose in Houston in 1968.

Though the state legislature never passed an antievolution bill, fundamentalists managed to force the removal of discussions of evolution from state-adopted textbooks in 1925. Mel and Norma Gabler of Longview became nationally known in the 1970s and 1980s for their ability to win changes in or outright rejection of proposed Texas public schoolbooks they and others found offensive. But fundamentalist forebears pioneered their tactics in the 1920s. Despite the failure of antimodernist legislation in the state, Governor Miriam A. Ferguson and the state's textbook commission and board of education ensured that no biology texts would be adopted for Texas schools which mentioned evolution; they threatened teachers with dismissal from their jobs if they were discovered using textbooks that did so. Ma Ferguson's immediate predecessor as governor, the future president of Baylor University, Pat M. Neff, had made public assurances that the state would adopt no textbook that conflicted with biblical teaching. Sixty years later, the issue was still alive. The state Republican party called in 1988 for teaching of the origins of life in the schools to be "balanced" between creationist views and evolutionary ones. It seemed that the power of the Gablers and their allies might have diminished when the state's board of education approved guidelines in 1988 to provide for discussion of evolution in high school geology texts and in 1989 for inclusion in high school biology texts of "scientific evidence of evolution and reliable scientific theories, if any." But some interpreted such decisions as victories for antimodernist viewpoints because of precedents they set for control of evolutionary teaching.

Much of the fundamentalist energy directed toward politics, especially the crusade against communism and other threats to fundamentalist Christian views of society, transformed many apparently secular issues into religious ones. Communism came to be seen not just as a political and economic alternative to the capitalist democracy of the United States, but as a promoter of modernism and anti-Christian sentiments as well. Texas fundamentalists drew inspiration from the fact that one of the principal heroes of anticommunism, John Birch, had been a student for a time before World War II in the Fundamental Baptist Bible Institute, later renamed Bible Baptist Seminary, in Arlington. J. Frank Norris, one of the chief patrons of the fundamentalist seminary, helped solidify the ties between anticommunism and fundamentalism when he addressed the state legislature in 1949, calling for an end to tax-derived support for colleges and universities that had allowed their faculties to be infiltrated by communists. Prominent fundamentalists blamed communism for such progressive initiatives as desegregation and the civil-rights movement. Through much of the 1950s, many Texas fundamentalists supported efforts to resist racial integration and attacked such prointegration figures as Thomas B. Maston, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. Fundamentalists also provided much of the most loyal support of Martin Dies of Texas, the prominent chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1960 the national Christian Anti-Communist Crusade established one of its four regional offices in Houston. Similar organizations appeared in Dallas in the early 1960s.

Several denominational purges were attempted by fundamentalists during the 1920s. The Methodist Church lost members and congregations over the premillenialist doctrine, especially as it was questioned by professors at Methodist-sponsored institutions who had embraced the new methods of "higher criticism" in biblical scholarship. The church was attacked by militant Methodist evangelist William E. Hawkins in 1922 in connection with the teaching of evolution in Methodist schools. Southern Methodist University professor Mims Workman was dismissed from the school's faculty in 1925 because of his supposedly heterodox views. Moderate Methodists won a victory, however, in 1927, when William Hawkins's governing conference withdrew his ministerial credentials. Hawkins set up headquarters at the new fundamentalist seminary in Dallas, which came to be called Dallas Theological Seminary, and inaugurated a radio program. Texas Disciples of Christ made their own investigation of possible heterodoxy in their schools. Presbyterians' debates over biblical inerrancy heated up when controversial pastor William Caldwell moved from Baltimore to Fort Worth. Texas Episcopalians witnessed a controversy that broke out in 1923 over the modernist views of Fort Worth priest Lee W. Heaton, who was never tried for heresy but who was publicly rebuked by Bishop Co-adjutor Harry T. Moore of Dallas. Dallas Theological Seminary was symptomatic of a new strategy fundamentalists increasingly followed, both as groups and as individuals, of separation from the main bodies of churches they considered to have become irretrievably worldly. Much of the growth of such separatist groups as the Pentecostal churches and the Church of the Nazarene dates from this period. The new seminary in Dallas resulted in part from a split among Presbyterians in the 1920s over fundamentalist views and became a national center for dispensationalism, the belief that human history is divided into ages, or dispensations, and that the present one will be the last. It was also in part an outgrowth of the vision of Cyrus I. Scofield, an influential Congregationalist pastor in Dallas and editor of the renowned Scofield Reference Bible. Dallas Theological Seminary became widely noted through another reference Bible edited by one of its faculty members and oriented toward dispensational premillenialism, the Ryrie Study Bible.

From the 1930s until the 1970s, most mainstream denominational groups experienced relatively peaceful times, principally because of the departure from their ranks of unhappy militants. Many fundamentalist dissidents, including J. Frank Norris, left mainstream churches to join or form their own purist denominations, the principal exception being a sizable contingent within the Texas convention of Southern Baptists, who kept alive a tradition of fundamentalist dissent beginning in the teens. Militant fundamentalist Texas Baptists were led in large part after the 1950s by W. A. Criswell, longtime pastor of the gigantic First Baptist Church of Dallas, who burst onto the national scene as a result of highly publicized remarks critical of racial desegregation. Unlike Norris, Criswell never removed himself or his church from Southern Baptist affiliation, but his biblical literalism made him and his church the focal points around which emerged a growing movement that challenged the entire structure of Southern Baptist work in the 1970s. First Baptist Church, Dallas, furthermore, sponsored a separatist system of private schools, fostered a close relationship with Dallas Baptist University, and in 1971 started a seminary, the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies. In these schools, the children of church members and likeminded people could move from kindergarten through graduate study in school environments that they considered theologically safe, unlike those found in the public schools and universities and in denominationally affiliated schools they considered wayward, such as Southern Methodist University and Baylor University. Criswell's allies in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including James Robison and Jimmy Draper, helped promote an atmosphere of discontent with the moral drift they saw in modern society and put pressure on churches of various denominations to take stands on such issues as the changing roles of women, mandated prayers in public schools, and, with increasing importance, abortion. Robison's television ministry generated considerable controversy in the 1970s and 1980s because of his blistering attacks on nontraditional modes of life, especially homosexuality.

Much of the focus of Baptist disagreement in Texas has had to do with Baylor University. Promodernist views and opposition to American participation in World War I cost Baylor professor J. L. Kessler his job. Norris's tireless assaults caused the departure of Grove S. Dow from the faculty in 1923 because of his authorship of a book describing the social and biological aspects of human development. Criticisms of Baylor came not just from Norris. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary contributed somewhat to the fundamentalist critique of modernist scholarship at Baylor and elsewhere. Seminary faculty members J. J. Reeve and Charles B. Williams contributed articles to The Fundamentals, the national series of pamphlets that promoted adherence to the basic catalog of fundamentalist teachings. Though the seminary received a great deal of attention from Norris as well, several of its faculty members and President Lee R. Scarborough joined in occasional criticisms of Baylor faculty members suspected of unorthodox beliefs. Periodic attacks on Baylor faculty by conservative Baptists continued, and intensified during the 1970s and 1980s as the resurgent fundamentalist movement began to gain power in Southern Baptist life. The new attacks focused especially on Baylor's religion department and to a slightly lesser degree on the general direction of the university. In a dramatic surprise move to cut off the possibility of a fundamentalist takeover, a majority of Baylor trustees in 1991 voted to invoke charter privileges dating back to the nineteenth century and sever legal ties with the Texas Baptist Convention. For more than 100 years, the convention had exercised power to appoint the school's trustees, a growing minority of whom were in the fundamentalist camp by the time of the charter change.

During the last quarter of the twentieth century Texas Baptists showed in other ways as well how fundamentalist controversies had moved back where they began, within denominations rather than between them. The Southern Baptist Convention became a key arena in which Texas fundamentalist Baptists perfected a new strategy for altering church bodies they considered wayward, one of conquest from within. Two Texans, President Paige Patterson of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies and Judge Paul Pressler of Houston, orchestrated a long-range takeover attempt built around winning the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention, an office with the enormous power of appointing trustees of national Southern Baptist agencies and seminaries. On the strength of their superb organizational abilities and their claim to speak for the majority of Southern Baptists, the Pressler-Patterson faction won the first of a remarkable string of victories at the 1979 convention meeting in Houston and appeared to have assured control of the denomination by the 1985 meeting in Dallas. During the mid-1990s, the militant fundamentalist wing of Southern Baptists controlled virtually every aspect of national Southern Baptist life and vied with moderate forces for supremacy within the state conventions. In 1994 fundamentalist trustees of Southwestern Seminary consummated their takeover of the Fort Worth school when they fired moderate President Russell Dilday. Their action prompted an outcry from many Texas Baptists and increased interest in the moderate seminary Baylor was making moves to form.

Militant Texas fundamentalists offered key participation in the rise of the new "Religious Right," especially during the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Houston preacher Bob Thieme, whom a historian called "a bombastic, superpatriotic colonel...preaching an astoundingly militaristic gospel," gained attention as a friend and spiritual mentor of the families of Marilyn Tucker Quayle and Dan Quayle, George Bush's vice president. As part of a religious coalition that would have seemed impossible in earlier days, many Texas Baptist fundamentalists and other conservatives within mainstream Protestant and fundamentalist denominations worked to deliver evangelical votes to conservative candidates, especially those who, alongside Catholics, opposed abortion. Politically if not in religious doctrine, the antiabortion cause and attempts to change government policies toward church schools united fundamentalist Protestants, whose ancestors had nourished deep hostility toward Catholicism, with Catholics. Seeking to shed the "backwoods" image of fundamentalism, which had always been exaggerated, and to distance themselves from Pentecostals and Charismatics, Texas fundamentalists took pride in the educational attainments and modern tactics of their leadership and sought out kindred spirits in other parts of the religious landscape. As the twentieth century drew toward its close, they continued to help set much of the national agenda of the political crusade to reverse social and cultural changes that they did not want.

Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972). Randall Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). "Fundamentalism," "Modernism and Religion," "Politics and Religion," "Restorationist Christianity," in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989). Norman F. Furniss, The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918–1931 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954). Ray Ginger, Six Days or Forever?: Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (London: Oxford University Press, 1974). Robert T. Handy, A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971). Patsy Spencer Ledbetter, Crusade for the Faith: The Protestant Fundamentalist Movement in Texas (Ph.D. dissertation, North Texas State University, 1975). Patsy Spencer Ledbetter, "Texas Fundamentalism: Secular Phases of a Religious Conflict, 1920–1929," Red River Valley Historical Review 6 (Fall 1981). George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980). Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms Observed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). Howard Miller, "Texas," in Religion in the Southern States, ed. Samuel S. Hill (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1983). Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., Religious Fundamentalism and American Education (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990). C. Allyn Russell, Voices of American Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976). Clyde Wilcox, God's Warriors: The Christian Right in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990).

  • Religion
Time Periods:
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Fort Worth

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

David Stricklin, “Fundamentalism,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 1, 1995
October 22, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: