Fundamentalism only gradually gained a foothold in South Carolina, most likely because most South Carolina Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians thought of themselves as theologically orthodox evangelicals who were immune to dangers of modernism.
The designation “fundamentalists” is an umbrella term that takes in many theologically conservative, evangelical Protestants from several denominations and independent congregations. As a movement, fundamentalism emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a reaction to “modernist” currents that embraced historical-critical methods of studying the Bible and an openness to harmonizing scientific theory and religious faith. In time, fundamentalism came to represent a belief system that stressed a literal interpretation of the Scriptures, acceptance of miracles as historical and scientific facts, the virgin birth of Jesus, his actual physical resurrection, and an anticipated physical second coming of Christ at the end of time.
Fundamentalism gained popular currency nationally after the 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, which found a teacher guilty of violating state law prohibiting teaching theories of evolution in the public schools. Images of the South as the “Bible Belt” reinforced popular perception, although for several decades fundamentalism’s major inroads were in northern Presbyterian and Baptist denominations.
Fundamentalism only gradually gained a foothold in South Carolina, most likely because most South Carolina Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians thought of themselves as theologically orthodox evangelicals who were immune to dangers of modernism. However, in the 1920s some individuals who embraced fundamentalist thinking began to plant their message across denominational lines when they started schools and Bible colleges or spoke at special conferences and meetings in the state.
For example, Columbia Bible Institute (now Columbia International University) president Robert McQuilkin, although a Presbyterian by affiliation, was a committed fundamentalist and also a popular speaker in the late 1920s at annual youth conferences in Clinton, South Carolina, and elsewhere in the South. Bob Jones was a popular evangelist in South Carolina and throughout the South who zealously promoted the fundamentalist perspective long before he moved his college to Greenville in 1947. In some ways the institutions associated with McQuilkin and Jones became symbolic centers of fundamentalism in South Carolina. Graduates from both schools led their congregations into informal networks of churches and individuals committed to preserving strict orthodoxy in matters of belief and personal moral behavior.
For most fundamentalists, society or “the world” was the arena where sin and corruption prevailed, and so long as South Carolina was perceived to nurture a culture that gave more than lip service to orthodoxy, most fundamentalists remained aloof from political engagement. Even within the major Protestant denominations, fundamentalists remained on the sidelines until they believed that orthodoxy was threatened.
For the denominations, that threat came first among Methodists when there were talks of merger among the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, that culminated with the formation of the Methodist Church in 1939. Those Methodist bodies that were primarily northern were thought to be infected by modernist thought. No doubt there was also a racial dimension, for the northern bodies also had congregations that were predominantly African American. The (Methodist) Laymen’s Association, which opposed reunion, called a meeting in Columbia in 1940 that ultimately led to the founding of the fundamentalist-inclined Southern Methodist Church, a name taken in 1945. Similar currents caused division among South Carolina Presbyterians. Several congregations affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the United States left that body to help found the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973, more than a decade before the former group was reunited with its northern counterpart.
For the state’s largest white Protestant denomination, comprised of churches identified with the Southern Baptist Convention, divisions over fundamentalism began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s, when more conservative leaders became convinced that agencies affiliated with the denomination, such as Furman University, had been infected by liberal thought and secularism. As fundamentalists gained control of the denominational machinery at both national and state levels, many individual congregations that were loath to split from the denomination formally coalesced into the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which was more moderate in its theological posture.
The strength of fundamentalism in South Carolina remains the hundreds of independent congregations, many using the designation of Baptist or some variation of Gospel Fellowship in their names. Among these bodies, the last quarter of the twentieth century witnessed a shift from the earlier posture of remaining strictly separate from social and political involvement. Prompting that shift were the changes that came following the civil rights movement and the integration of public schools and other public facilities. Also vital were convictions that U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s, affecting such matters as prayer in the public schools, were undermining the religious base of South Carolina common life.
Fundamentalist leaders and churches, for example, rallied around Paul Ellwanger of Anderson in 1980 when he organized an effort, ultimately unsuccessful, to mandate the teaching of creation science in South Carolina public schools. Similar efforts in 1992, this time successful, helped put pressure on the state board of education to require a moment of silent meditation, not a formal prayer, at the start of each school day. Other debates involving schools centered on a curriculum that promoted critical thinking. In all these arenas, fundamentalists tended to become socially engaged in order to assure that orthodox moral values and practice remained foundational to common life in the state.
Glass, William R. Strangers in Zion: Fundamentalists in the South, 1900– 1950. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2001.