Origins of Independent Fundamental Baptists

by MBG

Something that has interested me for some time has been the origins of the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement. It seems that this area has been long neglected as it is next to impossible to find material about it. In a few short paragraphs, I hope I can address this and lay the groundwork for future study on the subject.

Baptists themselves have a history dating back to the Book of Acts. Some deny this and claim that Baptists have only existed for about four hundred years, but history does show many groups have existed that believed Baptist principles. The foundation for the IFB movement is deeply rooted in its Baptist heritage, especially concerning the autonomy of the local church and sole authority of the Scriptures.

The beginnings of the IFB movement I believe can be traced to the mid 1800's in America. Events such as the beginnings of the Church of Christ and the growing threat of "higher criticism" caused many Christians to rally around their core doctrines. Baptists were not alone in this, as many other groups did the same.

An example of this emphasis on key doctrines is the Landmark movement. Led by J.R. Graves, these Baptists held tenaciously to Baptist doctrine and practice. I have talked with many people who doubt a connection between the Landmark movement and Independent Baptists. Personally, I do see many similarities in the two though Landmarkers take many of their positions further.

In the years leading up the twentieth century, "higher criticism" turned into "modernism" as liberal theology spread. In response to this a new movement began to counter this trend by focusing on the fundamentals of Christianity. These "Fundamentalists" were from many denominations, but all shared a desire to preserve Christian doctrine. Not many of the early Fundamentalists were Baptist from what I can tell, but by the 1920's and 30's names such as W.B. Riley, T.T. Shields, and J. Frank Norris worked their way into prominence.

It is with J. Frank Norris that all these trails of history converge. In his battles with state and national Baptist conventions, he led the way for Independent Baptist thought and practice. His influence is credited with bringing Fundamentalism into Baptist circles.

Most of the leaders of the IFB movement of the 20th century have direct ties to Norris. John R. Rice allied with Norris for a few years, though eventually would severe ties. Tom Malone was offered the pastorate of Norris' First Baptist Church in Fort Worth which did not happen assumably because he wanted control Norris wouldn't relinquish. If not in direct ties, every other IFB leader has embraced thought and practice pioneered by Norris.