David Beale wrote In Pursuit of Purity in order to provide an historical record of American Fundamentalism since the 1850’s (p. xi), but in doing so, fails to see major problems within the movement and gives praise to a movement that in many ways does not deserve it. He defines the ideal 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” (p. 3). The roots of Fundamentalism, Beale claims, run deep, and among these roots are Moses and the prophets, along with Christ and the apostles and many of the early church fathers as well as more modern church leaders such as Wesley and Spurgeon (p. 3). All of these are claimed to have striven for “biblical purity” (p. 5).
Fundamentalism has never been a denomination but rather it “has always been interdenominational in character and fellowship” (p. 6). According to Beale, Fundamentalists are constantly either separating liberals from the church or separating from liberal churches, in order that they might pursue “their foremost concern” of ecclesiastical purity and therefore unite around “the whole counsel of God” (pp. 7-8). The birth of American Fundamentalism, Beale claims, came from the Prayer Meeting Revivals and the great revival in Ireland that occurred in the years around 1860 (p. 13). Conferences were key to the movement, and really were a major focal point of the movement since it was not connected with one local church or denomination. From the Old Niagara Bible Conference to the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, Fundamentalism saw itself to be a lifeline for the preservation of truth in a world of falsehood. They fought “militantly” for such doctrines as the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Jesus, the substitutionary death of Christ, and the premillennial return of Christ.
One of the main problems I had with Beale’s book is that he basically goes so far as to claim the Bible to have Fundamentalist leanings, and Biblical characters and Church fathers to be Fundamentalists (p. 3). This “freedom” of association seems to characterize Beale’s work and puts doubt into the reader’s mind to whether or not Beale can really be believed. Claiming J. Gresham Machen for the Fundamentalists does not seem to be fair, especially since Machen greatly disliked the term (pp. 316-317). Basically, Beale is claiming that all “true” Christians are really Fundamentalists, and if that’s true, then really there is no need for the extra-biblical term “Fundamentalist” rather, the word “Christian” would do just fine. Beale’s over-reaching only does his work a disservice.
Also, because of Beale’s obvious love for Fundamentalism, he fails to have a clear view to their faults. No movement is as pure as Beale makes Fundamentalism out to be, and while this truth is apparent from the content of his book, he fails to take a critical look into some of the problems that have occurred over the history of the movement. An example of this is in Beale’s recounting of T. T. Shield’s purchase of the Des Moines University (pp. 237-241). It seems from what Beale states that Shield had major problems. The first of which is that his church was known for its music not for its Bible teaching. He also seemed to have a fascination with the dangerous rise of modernism in the Northern Baptist Convention, and constantly reported it in his periodical The Gospel Witness. He established a seminary and led two organizations and when his church was kicked out of one organization, five days later he started a new one. Then when Shields organized the purchase of Des Moines University he left it in the hands of a woman because he was too busy with other things. And while Beale claims Shields attempted to reform the university from its liberal past, the only controversies that seemed to come up had to do with national background. It ended with the students revolting, not because they were having trouble being “Fundamentalists” but because Shields had created anti-Canadian sentiment on the campus by making fun of Americans. Beale’s response to all of this is weak: “The Des Moines University debacle should not overshadow the positive contributions that T. T. Shields made to classical Fundamentalism…It could have happened to any number of great men” (p. 241). Maybe Shields should have paid more attention to his own church, so that rather than the music be praised, it would have been a place known for the accurate preaching of the Word of God.
Shields’ seeming neglect of his church and militancy in regards to his own nationalistic tendencies brings me to a final critique of Beale’s work. Rather than call this movement Fundamentalism as it has been in the past, I submit a new term, “Conferencism”. It seems that Fundamentalists were consumed with conferences and institutions and Beale even admits these to be the “most important” bases of Fundamentalism (p. 251). But that does not seem to bother Beale. Nothing is really ever said of the local churches in his work, and many of those involved in the Fundamentalist movement seemed to be more concerned about having a conference than taking care of and shepherding their own people. Beale says they were seeking ecclesiastical purity at conferences, but ecclesiology has nothing to do with conferences, rather it has to do with the church (p. 7).
Machen had it right, “the term fundamentalism is distasteful…It seems to suggest that we are adherents of some strange new sect, whereas in point of fact we are conscious simply of maintaining the historic Christian faith and of moving in the great central current of Christian life” (pp. 316-317). And while Beale claims Machen for his Fundamentalists – Machen was not a Fundamentalist, but rather, he was a Christian, pursuing Christ, not purity.