When it comes to responses to popular culture, it is common to read or hear people make a distinction between a classical fundamentalist and a cultural fundamentalist. People tend to describe a classical fundamentalist as someone concerned only with doctrine and they claim that classical fundamentalists of the early 20th century were concerned only with doctrine. Conversely, people tend to describe cultural fundamentalists as those who later added cultural taboos to doctrinal concerns. These people now exhort present-day fundamentalists to return to the days of classical fundamentalism, so that the focus is only on doctrine (actually, only five doctrines) with little to no concern for such cultural things as music, dancing, or drinking. Let’s take a look at a classical fundamentalist and see if these modern-day definitions and exhortations relative to the past are correct.
Reuben Archer Torrey was a writer, editorial committee member, and later chief editor of The Fundamentals in the early 20th century. By his own admission, R.A. Torrey had at one time espoused higher critical views of Scripture. He eventually denounced higher criticism and admitted he had been wrong. After doing so, he publicly countered liberal theology and later became involved in grassroots fundamentalism, not only by his writings in and editorship of The Fundamentals, but also through his involvement with W.B. Riley’s World Christian Fundamentals Association. R.A. Torrey was a classical fundamentalist.
Throughout his years of ministry, Torrey had the privilege of preaching across the United States and around the world. He became known not only for his plain, clear manner of preaching the gospel, but also for his unequivocal denouncement of the popular cultural enticements of his day.
“In no uncertain terms he denounced dancing, card-playing, theatre-going, drinking, and smoking, for he himself had once engaged in these worldly pleasures and he knew thoroughly their pernicious effect upon the spiritual life of the Christian. Again and again he was criticized for declaring the truth regarding these things, but . . . he did not hesitate to utter it” (Torrey and Alexander: the story of a world-wide revival, George Thompson Brown Davis, 248).
In his book On Prayer (found here and here), Torrey answered such questions as “Should Christians dance?” or “Should Christians go to the movies?” with the question “Will it please God more for me to go than for me to stay away?” He wrote that indulging in such things as dancing and movie going “does not please God, and therefore they rob prayer of power. . . . If there is anything, no matter how innocent it may be in itself, or how much can be said in its defense, that robs prayer of power, I am going to give it up.” Torrey continued, “The Christian who dances, goes to the theater, plays cards, attends movies, and does a multitude of other things that are not pleasing to God, cannot be a man or woman of power in prayer.” In that same book Torrey recognized that “None of us can be conscience for someone else. However, they are not at all difficult to decide if we decide on the Bible basis of doing things that would please our Father, and leaving undone those things that would not please Him.”
In a biography of R. A. Torrey (R.A. Torrey: Apostle of Certainty, Roger Martin) this issue of popular cultural taboos and personal conscience as it relates to classical fundamentalism is nicely summed up on page 147.
“Speaking on topics such as smoking, dancing, gambling, and drinking . . . met with considerable resistance, because a large share even of Christians engaged in at least some of these activities. The people regarded these as ‘conscience questions.’ Torrey agreed. And when questioners asked him, ‘Are not these things wholly a matter of the individual conscience?’ Torrey replied, ‘Yes, and that is where I am trying to put it – on your conscience’!”