Book Review of In Pursuit of Purity American Fundamentalism Since 1850

Dr. David O. Beale, author of In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850, is the pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Franklin, Virginia and a professor of church history at Bob Jones University. Beale is a Fundamental Baptist Pastor and professor, but he writes as a historian committed to preserving the record of the fundamentalist fight against the infiltration of liberalism in American Christianity in both the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century through articles and books like In Pursuit of Purity published by Bob Jones University Press, 1986. Beale begins by defining Fundamentalism and then progressively works through periods of time in a logical and well-defined manner with short well-documented chapters focused on specific issues and denominations. Beale’s work provides any evangelical Christian with a single volume resource to gain a clear appreciation of why Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalist and other Bible believing Christians united to fight those who sought to undermine and ultimately destroy a believer’s confidence in the Word of God and the person and work of the Son of God.

After defining a Christian Fundamentalist as “one who desires to reach out in love and compassion to people, believes and defends the whole Bible as the absolute inerrant, and authoritative Word of God, and stands committed to the doctrine and practice of holiness,” (3) Beale gets to work by establishing that fundamentalism is not some new phenomena in Chapter one but merely an extension and continuation of a long line of dissenting groups who have always stood strong for Orthodox Christianity. Beale assumes that his reader has very limited understanding of what fundamentalists were fighting for; therefore, he systematically explains the issues and communicates well-documented facts in short, easy-to-read chapters. Beale’s organization makes his work valuable as both a single read for clarity and a lifelong reference work for further information on specific topics like “The Fall of Princeton Theological Seminary.” (165) Beale’s opening sentence in chapter thirty-one provides a good flavor of his writing style and focus; he writes, “There have been several notable Fundamentalists who sounded a clarion warning of Methodism’s drift into modernism.” (309) Then Beale goes on to provide names, incidents, points of reference, articles and such all relating to fundamental Methodists and their either individual or collective impact.

At times, Beale writes with “rose colored glasses” as he opens his final chapter with “Fundamentalism has shown a desire to reach out in love and compassion to people.” (353) This is exceptionally difficult to completely substantiate. In fact, Beale seems to contradict himself as he presents men like J. Frank Norris as those who tremendously impacted fundamentalism in a positive manner. Although it was true that Norris impacted fundamentalism, he does not have a reputation of reaching out to people in love or compassion. Beale makes specific reference to Norris as the “Texas Tornado,” a Baptist that would use his pulpit to attack people and at one point shot a person in what was later determined to be “justifiable homicide” as self-defense. (235)

The greatest strength of Beale’s work is the manner in which it is trans-denominational. Beale’s Baptist association does not affect his ability to present an inclusive work showing that it was not just one particular denomination that was concerned about the fundamentals of the faith. Beale’s reader will gain a much greater understanding of the complexity and depth of the fundamental movement. He or she will learn of Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and other denominations that were active in fighting against the negative effects of liberalism. Some chapters are exclusively dedicated to particular denominations while other chapters show how denominations came together in associations like the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. (97)

Perhaps one weakness of Pursuit of Purity is Beale’s failure to help the reader understand the relationship between Evangelical and Fundamental churches and seminaries. Beale would have done well to address the differences and similarities between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. He briefly mentions churches that include “evangelical” in their name but does not devote any time in educating his reader in what makes a person or a church evangelical or fundamental. Maybe the lines are not clear enough in Beale’s mind to identify a distinction, but he does not communicate that either. Evangelical churches are too large of a constituency in the body of Christ to ignore in a work whose readership is theologically conservative but not fundamentalist.

Pursuit of Purity needs to be mandatory reading for pastors, teachers, trustees, directors and any lay person involved in the leadership of an evangelical or fundamental Christian institution like a church, college or seminary. The manner in which Beale shows his reader the importance of five key fundamentals of the faith in a non-theological work is exceptionally compelling. Anyone who questions the importance of “earnestly contending for the faith once delivered” will be encouraged by the historical examples Beale provides in a well–written, easy-to-read record of over one hundred years of American Christian Fundamentalism.

1 comment:

  1. You have written that Dr. Beale "Beale seems to contradict himself as he presents men like J. Frank Norris as those who tremendously impacted fundamentalism in a positive manner." I do not believe this is what he did. I was a student of Dr. Beale at Bob Jones University and I know from personal knowledge of him that he is no fan of Dr. Norris. Beale was trying to write as a historian, aside from his personal feelings, and I think he did a fine job of presenting an objective, non-biased historical account of Dr. Norris.