Donovan Roberts Witmer '97
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Culturally engaged, fundamentally faithful
If you’ve ever wondered about the terms fundamentalist, evangelical, and neo-evangelical, an evening with religious historian George Marsden might help you sort things out. But,
if he’s unavailable, you might want
to spend an evening with Reforming Fundamentalism, his institutional history of Fuller Theological Seminary.
Fuller Seminary was founded in Pasadena, California, in 1947, but the heart of Marsden’s account lies in the 1950s. During this decade, the school gained its legs and confronted vexing questions of institutional identity.
The impetus for Fuller’s founding came from the fundamentalist-modernist debates of the 1920s, when religious conservatives expressed disdain for liberal theology by forming their own fundamentalist enclaves. But, the key players at Fuller had questions about fundamentalism’s tendency to separate itself from the cultural mainstream. Marsden’s narrative charts the twists and turns the seminary traveled as it sought to be a faithful, culturally engaged Christian institution.
In that sense, Reforming Fundamentalism tells a story about Protestant conservatives in post– World War II America. For a mix of reasons—evangelistic passion, social concern, and the human craving for cultural respectability—conservative Protestants in the 1950s sought to engage the larger world with more vigor than their parents.
Institutional histories can be
as dry as the dust balls in the library’s rare book room, but that’s certainly not the case with Reforming Fundamentalism. As Marsden notes in his preface, he was never denied permission to see any archival records, so he was free to write the most illuminating account he could. The result is a book filled with engaging personalities (some quite prickly), intriguing anecdotes (some unflattering), and a significant amount of conflict. The book reminds us that God’s treasure resides in jars of clay.