Modernists, Protestant

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MODERNISTS, PROTESTANT. Protestant modernism, or the conscious adaptation of the Christian religion to modern conditions of life, has a long lineage in American history. It shares many important features with the ideas more generally known as liberal Christianity—notably the belief that God acts in the world and a conviction that history is progressing ever upwards toward the Kingdom of God. Modernist Christianity, however, differed from liberal Protestantism in that it grappled directly with issues that previously fell outside the traditional scope of American churches. Modernists were not content to simply update doctrine but made sustained and explicit efforts to "modernize" Christianity by applying it to the most pressing political and social concerns of the day. Accordingly, the high tide of Protestant modernism in the United States came during the 1890s through 1920s, when the country transformed itself from an agricultural nation into an industrial powerhouse and global political leader. Although its pervasive optimism was dealt a severe blow by the horrors of World War I, and its influence was eroded by the continued de-Christianization of American life, modernist Christianity retained considerable cultural and political power well into the twentieth century.

Nineteenth-Century Background

The religious impulses that flowered into modernist Christianity found their antecedents in the liberal Christianity of the early nineteenth century, particularly in New England. The development of Unitarianism, a liberal denomination formally organized in 1825, moved a subset of highly educated and influential Protestants away from the dogmatism of their Puritan ancestors, and toward a more flexible, rational Christianity. Unitarianism provided a cerebral alternative to the more emotional, evangelistic denominations that were gathering strength in the South during this time, such as the Baptists and the Methodists. Although Unitarians were most notably successful in the Boston area, their influence was felt throughout the country, because so many of the nineteenth century's preeminent religious leaders and theologians hailed from the Harvard–Boston–New England cultural nexus.

Although he was a Congregationalist minister, Horace Bushnell provides a good example of this liberal tendency, for he harmonized many long-standing tensions in New England religion. Bushnell exerted an influence far beyond his local Connecticut parish due to the success of his books, including Christian Nurture (1847) and God in Christ (1849). In Christian Nurture, Bushnell outlined a specific program of childrearing and religious education that proved popular throughout the century. In God in Christ, he argued that language (and by extension, Scripture) was best understood on a symbolic, organic, or poetic level, rather than literally. Bushnell's theology drew upon currents of German Romanticism that were becoming increasingly influential among educated Americans; his ideas were often controversial but seldom ignored. With his emphasis on the social and corporate nature of religious belief, Bushnell paved the way for widespread Christian engagement with social problems in the latter part of the century.

Social Gospel

In the decades following the Civil War, the leaders of the Protestant establishment participated in a movement known as the social gospel and brought their religious perspective to bear on the problems of a dawning industrial age. According to the movement's foremost proponents—ministers such as Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, and Josiah Strong—Christians were obligated to address pressing social problems such as labor exploitation, factory conditions, and urban poverty. In his influential Christianity and the Social Crisis (1908), Rauschenbusch argued that Christians must take control of social forces in order to promote harmony and defeat evil. Primarily a city-based movement, the social gospelers exhorted their congregations to recognize the Christian fellowship that tied them to the new immigrants who were pouring into the United States. In the widespread social disorder, disease, and apparent immorality of the immigrant slums, social gospelers heard a clarion call to Christian action. Committed reformers like Jane Addams started settlement houses in the blighted neighborhoods, while others advocated legislation to blunt the impact of industrialization.

The same impetus behind the social gospel movement led to increased interest in overseas missionary work and proselytization, which peaked in the first decades of the twentieth century. Liberal Protestants, influenced by the doctrine of postmillennialism—which taught that human effort could help inaugurate a 1,000-year golden age after which Christ would return to earth—remained convinced that the kingdom of God could be achieved in this world. The social gospel might hasten this process by addressing problems in America, while missionary work spread the light of Christ across the globe. To advance this agenda, Protestants formed organizations such as the Student Volunteer Movement (1888) and the Intercollegiate Young Men's Christian Association (1877). Despite their enthusiasm and effort, these organizations failed to achieve their stated goal of "The Evangelization of the World in This Generation"; while they met with some success, they by no means converted even a majority of the foreign peoples they encountered. Missionary work, however, did lead to a cosmopolitan outlook that would later help the Protestant elite achieve significant political power in a century focused on international affairs.

The social gospel and missionary movements were the most obvious demonstrations of Protestantism's refocusing toward modernity. Neither sought to escape from the complexities and troubles of modern life but claimed instead that Christianity would be a central part of any new order. Their firm belief in progress helped alleviate the anxieties of industrialization. According to this religious perspective, uneven economic development, with all its hardships, was only a temporary stage on the way to greater social equality and prosperity.

The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy

Potentially more serious threats to Christianity than industrialization were developments in science, particularly the growing popularity of Darwinian theories. By providing a convincing alternative to the Biblical creation narrative, the theory of evolution expounded by Charles Darwin in 1859 threatened to undermine a central basis of the Christian faith. However, Protestant modernizers were not daunted by the new science and remained convinced that evolution could be easily accommodated to religious belief. These thinkers found it easy to interpret biblical accounts of Genesis as providing rough metaphors for the process of evolution. Furthermore, they saw no reason why God could not act as the driving force behind the processes Darwin described. But the advent of evolution created sharp divisions between those Christians who thought it possible to reconcile religion to modernity and the new science, and those who rejected the new intellectual developments outright. While men such as Harvard biologist As a Gray, Princeton President James McCosh, or New York minister Lyman Abbott were quite content to call themselves both Darwinists and Christians, others would vehemently reject the new scientific theories and call for the strengthening of traditional Protestantism. Christians who rejected the conclusions of Darwin were known as "fundamentalists," after a series of pamphlets published in 1910–1915, The Fundamentals. This countervailing current burst onto the American scene in 1925 with the Scopes trial, the most famous by-product of what would be known as the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. Regardless of who "won" this conflict, the very existence of such a public battle pointed to growing fissures in American Christian identity.

World War I and After

World War I was a watershed event for liberal Christians because it challenged their underlying belief in progress and human goodness. If God were truly present in history, then what explained the bloody clash that had just over-taken and nearly destroyed European civilization? A young generation of Christian students became firmly committed to pacifism but continued to support missionary work, albeit in a slightly chastened form.

From his perch at the Chicago School of Divinity, Shailer Mathews became one of the country's most important modernizers in the 1920s. He firmly rebutted the fundamentalist claim to true Christianity, arguing instead that liberalism was closer to the animating spirit of Christ. According to Mathews, liberals alone accepted the true spiritual essence of Christianity. They were also the only hope and future of Christianity, for unless religion learned to adapt itself to the modern age, it would perish. Mathews was influential, yet feared by some Christians who saw him as a dire threat to their faith.

The fundamentalist-modernist controversy also continued to simmer in the career of Harry Emerson Fosdick, who advanced ideas similar to those of Mathews. Ousted from his original pulpit for his liberal views, by 1931 Fosdick was triumphantly installed in New York City's grand new interdenominational center, Riverside Church, which had been funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr. Over the next fifteen years, Fosdick became the most famous and oft-quoted preacher of the age. Yet at the same time, members of his denomination, the Northern Baptists, were energetic organizers of numerous fundamentalist groups and seminaries.

World War I devastated the assumptions of Protestant liberalism but created several advantages for Protestant modernizers. Shorn of their unrealistic optimism, in the 1930s a new generation of theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr were able to make Christianity relevant to modern times by drawing connections between current events and traditional Christian ideas of sin. Drawing upon the international infrastructure created by missions and employing the considerable cultural capital of Christianity, these thinkers came to prominence in the years before and after World War II.

While the Protestant establishment that had nourished modernism began to wane in the 1960s and 1970s, it continued to exercise episodic influence, as seen in the case of Harvey Cox, who published his best-selling The Secular City in 1965. In this work, Cox argued that the secular world—particularly its urban spaces—was not a place Christians should flee but rather a vital locus they should understand, accept, and learn to engage. Cox's conclusion, in which he suggested Christians wait for the next manifestation of the spirit, adumbrated later radical religious movements such as liberation and feminist theology.

Other new social and political currents, however, threatened to sweep the theology of Protestant modernizers to the periphery. Postmodernism, decolonization of the Third World, and multiculturalism, combined with the electoral resurgence of fundamentalism, suggested that liberalism's strength at midcentury had perhaps been illusory. Regardless of the complexity involved, however, it was clear that the project of adapting Protestant Christianity to the modern world remained vitally important to many Americans.


Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972. See especially chapters 24–25, 46–47.

Carpenter, Joel A., and Wilbert R. Shenk, eds. Earthen Vessels: American Evangelicals and Foreign Missions, 1880–1980. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1990.

Handy, Robert T., ed. The Social Gospel in America, 1870–1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Hutchison, William R. The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism. 2d rev. ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992.

Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

May, Henry F. The End of American Innocence: A Study of the First Years of Our Time, 1912–1917. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Warren, Heather A. Theologians of a New World Order: Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian Realists, 1920–1948. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.


See alsoFundamentalism ; Protestantism ; Social Gospel .