Credit Where Credit Is Due, Part 1
Kevin T. Bauder
When I was a teenager, the most visible fundamentalists in America were Carl McIntire and Lester Roloff. McIntire was feuding with the American Council of Christian Churches, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, several leaders within his own Bible Presbyterian Synod, and the federal government of the United States—virtually simultaneously. Lester Roloff was feuding with the state of Texas. I can remember him sending life-size cardboard cutout pictures of himself to our church in Iowa. He was trying hard to get enough public support to force the Texas regulators to back away from his ministry. The impression that I had of fundamentalist leaders was that they were hard-bitten, bellicose, and arrogant.
This impression had been reinforced through the years by the traveling preachers to whom I had been exposed. These men usually called themselves evangelists, but they were essentially hired guns whose job was to inflame the fears and the sense of shame of the faithful. They could be very personable, laughing and joking one moment, but then the next moment they would be screaming at you because the Communists were going to take over the United States before 1972 unless you went to the altar RIGHT NOW.
I would never have dreamed of criticizing any of these men. Were they not paragons of spiritual insight? Were they not models of Christian virtue? Who was I to call them into account?
Because of their influence, however, I was quite sure that I did not want to be a fundamentalist. Even after experiencing a call to vocational ministry and returning to a fundamentalist Bible oollege for training, I remained unpersuaded of the value of fundamentalism. During my early years as a college student, it seemed to me that the main activity of fundamentalism was to manufacture unreasonable ways of regulating personal conduct.
This was my frame of mind when I found myself in George Houghton’s summer module on the history of fundamentalism. I had signed up for the course only because nothing else was available to fill the hours. Within a week, Houghton completely reoriented my thinking.
The process began during a break at mid-morning on the first day of class. Sitting across the table from Houghton, I opined that I really didn’t think that I wanted to be a fundamentalist. He asked me why, and I gave him my impression of people like McIntire and Roloff. His response still echoes in my mind: “If that is what fundamentalism is, then I don’t want to be one, either.” I was floored. It had never occurred to me that the word fundamentalism might stand for more than one thing.
Once that distinction had been suggested, I became aware of the many fundamentalists in my life whom I had never really thought of as fundamentalists. For example, my boyhood pastor was a kind and prayerful man who invested hours upon hours in my wellbeing. My own parents had lived sacrificially for several years when my father left a successful career in management to train for the pastorate. Yet my mind had never registered that these people might represent fundamentalism as genuinely as public figures like McIntire and Roloff.
During the remainder of the class, Houghton did the best thing for me. He told the truth. He talked about the leaders of fundamentalism as real people, not as anointed archetypes. He allowed me to glimpse their virtues and their vices, both of which they displayed in abundance.
Most importantly, Houghton helped me to grasp the idea of fundamentalism. Having this category in my mental furniture proved crucial, for I could now measure the worth of any leader by the idea of fundamentalism rather than measuring the worth of fundamentalism by its leaders. Houghton himself began this process during the week of class, explaining where some leaders had been faithful to the idea while other leaders had subverted it.
Along these lines, Houghton introduced the category that I now call hyper-fundamentalism. He called it fundamentalism plus. The idea is simple: some self-identified fundamentalists attempt to front-load the term so as to gain standing for their persons, organizations, theological peculiarities, practical idiosyncrasies, aberrant attitudes, or ethical inconsistencies. The message that I carried away from class was that I did not have to identify with those people in order to be a consistent fundamentalist.
Coming away from that class, I could see fundamentalism and fundamentalists in a different light. For example, I had known both the past president (John L. Patten) and the current president (David Nettleton) of my college since I was about thirteen. I had never really thought of them as fundamentalist figures. Now, however, I could see in Patten a kindly and pious gentleman, and I found in Nettleton a model of broad learning and humanity.
For me, Nettleton came to typify balanced fundamentalism. He strongly emphasized expository preaching at a time when many fundamentalists were noted for storytelling or pulpit rants. He was aligned with the more separatistic wing of the Regular Baptist movement, but he could still invite chapel speakers like Peter Masters (an amillennialist) or Lehman Strauss (a conservative evangelical radio preacher). Engrossed with theology, he also took a delighted interest in the broad range of human learning. He was a decent amateur astronomer and a good enough sailor that he once planned a voyage through the Bermuda triangle (circumstances intervened to curtail the excursion). A prominent figure among Regular Baptists, he led as a statesman and not as a politician.
Ranged alongside Nettleton and Houghton was a teacher who breathed pastoral vision: Robert Domokos. He was a man of compassion who gave himself to ministry—indeed, he was my pastor for a short while. Domokos exuded a love for people and for the task of shepherding. He began to teach me the importance of a pliable heart as well as an active mind.