In Pursuit of Purity is a book on the history of Fundamentalism in the United States. David O. Beale spends 37 chapters laying out this history from a scholarly view point. This paper will give an overview of the chapter content of the book, followed by a summation of the book’s strengths and weakness.
Overview of the Book
This book is divided into five parts. Part one is “The Fountainheads of Fundamentalism.” In seven chapters, Beal attempts to define Fundamentalism, and then to describe the early stages of the movement, including the controversy of the day and the need for such a movement. Beal is content to define the ideal 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). He further elaborates by stating that the essence of Fundamentalism as “the unqualified acceptance of and obedience to the Scriptures.” These are the definitions that will govern the entire rest of the book.
The remainder of the first section is spent in tracing the roots of Fundamentalism. Beal goes into great detail mentioning the people and events that elicited a need for this movement. Chapter seven is titled, “Transdenominational Responses to Liberalism”, which sums the purpose and aim of early fundamentalism in forming conferences that brought together those who wished to respond to liberalism. These conferences and the subsequent cooperation of those wishing to identify liberalism within the denominations resulted in the formulations of works such as The Fundamentals and The Scofield Reference Bible.
The second section titled “Presbyterian Fundamentalism to 1930” gives a history of Presbyterianism in America. Starting with theological controversies in the first chapter of this section, the second chapter moves through the establishment of schools of theology such as Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, McCormick Theological Seminary, Lane Theological Seminary, and Union Theological Seminary. An entire chapter is given to a discussion of the rise of Princeton and its champion, B.B Warfield. Another chapter is dedicated to the fall of Princeton and the subsequent establishment of Westminster Theological Seminary. This section also covers heresy trials within the denomination over liberalism and the controversy the tolerance of modernists such as Harry Emerson Fosdick brought to the table.
The third section is devoted to the rise of fundamentalism among the Baptists in America. Much of the controversy revolved around liberalism within the Northern Baptist Convention which seemed to be doomed from its inception. Some of the Baptists withdrew from the convention, while others stayed in an attempt to purge the convention. Beale points out how eschatological views were not an issue of separation in early Baptist fundamentalism.
Some of the results of Baptist fundamentalism were several fellowships and conferences that were organized to bring unity to the Fundamentalists. It seems that the Baptists considered fellowships and conferences their primary weapon in contending with Modernism. These had their start in the National Federation of Fundamentalists of the Northern Baptists which was started in Buffalo, New York. In these meetings, men attempted to identify modernism and combat it. Subsequent to these meetings were many other gatherings intent on girding the commitment to the movement. This section does take the time to mention the controversial actions of J. Frank Norris, and the poor eye from the public that Fundamentalism received subsequently.
The fourth section is dedicated to a shift in the Fundamentalist movement that began in the 1930’s. Separation was the key doctrine that governed this time period. Apparently, up to this point, Fundamentalist were considered to be non-conformists who remained within their denominations. But after this, they felt the need to make a clear and definitive separation from all they considered to be unholy. Beale does point out that many of the Bible conferences of this time were transdenominational. These moves resulted in associations such as the National Association of Evangelicals. Beale also mentions the rise of New Evangelicalism, a response to the separatism of Fundamentalism. Beale states that there are factions of this that are essentially identical to the historical expression of fundamentalism in theology, but who “refuse to regard the militant defense of the faith and the full doctrine and practice of holiness as intrinsically fundamental” (268). Some of these at the time were Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, John MacArthur, Jay Adams, Charles Ryrie, Charles Feinberg, and others.
Beale also uses this section to describe the rise of the General Association of Regular Baptists and the part that Robert Ketcham played in its founding. This section also covers the life of W.B. Riley and his contribution in founding the Minnesota Baptist Convention which led to the establishment of schools such as Pillsbury Bible College and Central Baptist Theological Seminary. This section also covers the founding of the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship, considered still the major Fundamentalist voice, and Methodist Fundamentalism.
The last section is titled “Fundamentalism Today.” This section goes into some detail in describing the Christian School movement, which is considered to be one of the most effective tools for continued Fundamentalist discipleship. This section clearly reveals Beales sympathies and devotion. In this section he also makes an appeal to the fundamentalist of the future to continue to pursue purity and holiness, which is the holy ideal and light of Fundamentalism (359).
Strengths of the Book
This book finds its strength in three areas. First it is historically thorough. Beale goes to great lengths to show the different sections of Fundamentalism’s part in the battles that were fought. He goes into the not just the fundamentalist history, but the American history of the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists to show their roots. He speaks of the impact the awakenings had on the controversy from the revival era of Finney and its watered down Calvinism that gave way to the entrance of Liberalism. Beale approaches the early historicity of the movement in a very scholarly fashion that shows the depth of study he has put into this subject.
Along with the book’s historical thoroughness comes a second strength; Beale documents his work very well. The reader is inundated with a flood of resources that provide pathways for future study. These resources may prove to be the value of the book.
Finally, Beale’s historical thoroughness sets up the fact that there was a need for the movement in its early stages. He presents the material in such a way as to show the danger of the rise of liberalism and the consequences it would have held for Christianity. In this way, the reader is able to come to a true and better appreciation for the work and tenacity of the early fundamentalists.
Weakness of the Book
While the scholarly strength of this book represents itself easily in the thoroughness and accuracy of the research, the weakness comes more from the inherent writing presuppositions that Beale very clearly communicates as his book unfolds. The first weakness that can be observed is that Beale gives Fundamentalism a faulty premise. He reveals this in his very first chapter in which he attempts to define fundamentalism and gives a pathway for his book to follow. Regarding his theme, Beale states, “The second and central theme of this study is that, while Fundamentalism has always embraced and defended the cardinal doctrines of traditional Christianity, the movement has been characterized by an emphasis on the doctrine and practice of holiness.” He goes on to state, “In both the Hebrew and Greek languages, the word holiness, or sanctification, carries the basic idea of separation” (6). Apparently, Beale feels that these statements validate his presupposition of holiness without the need for a textual argument. From here, Beale equates holiness, sanctification, and separation without regard to the context of the passages that would give a biblical theology of holiness and sanctification. This is the attitude that governs the rest of the unsavory light in which Fundamentalism is cast. A biblical theology of holiness throughout Scripture would reveal that holiness is more about a relationship with God that produces an image of Christ, which will be very distinct. But it is not about placing the “sword into the enemies’ bosoms” (357).
Flowing out of this first weakness is a second, Beale is very one-sided. He does not present the issues and problems of infighting over petty issues with the later generations of Fundamentalism. He does not even mention these. A book such as this needs to give an accurate representation of these. Rather, much of his language sounds rather like a fundamentalist propaganda presenting the movement as perfect. This is particularly true in chapter 36. The whole movement, warts and all, needs to be presented for proper evaluation.
A third weakness is that this book is dated. It is twenty years old, and the face of fundamentalism has changed much in the last twenty years. It may be helpful for someone to do a scholarly updating of this book with a chapter evaluating the last twenty years of fundamentalism with the new problems the current generation is facing.
This book is a good read for any who need to know about the early roots of Fundamentalism. It is thorough and mentions many of the men who were instrumental in standing up for the truth of orthodox Christianity. However, the reader must be cautioned that the presuppositions that Beal reveals in his first chapter are to govern the rest of the book. With this in mind, the reader can benefit from this book and come to a greater appreciate of the work that was done in the struggle against a liberal ideal.
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