Conservative Protestantism

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Conservative Protestantism


Inerrancy. Liberal Protestants committed to progressive orthodoxy came into increasingly open conflict with the dominant conservative theological system of the day, a form of Calvinism that stressed the binding nature of creeds and the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. The center of conservative orthodoxy in late-nineteenth-century America was Princeton Theological Seminary, where Calvinist faculty had been building a sharply focused and unyielding school of theology for several decades. The Princeton faculty, who viewed the early-nineteenth-century theologian Archibald Alexander Charles Hodge as the founder and chief inspiration of their school, defended a series of propositions that they believed expressed the historic teachings of Protestantism. Princeton theology focused on two key matters, the centrality and permanence of doctrinal statements and the inerrancy of Scripture. While liberals increasingly viewed creedal statements as limited, imperfect, and transient documents, Princeton conservatives stressed that truth could be captured in precisely stated propositions, expressed in written language that could, in turn, convey the same message at all times. For American Calvinists, the most authoritative written summary of Christian doctrine had been the Westminster Confession of 1648, a creedal statement that Princeton theologians insisted would always remain the governing expression of Calvinist belief. Conservatives rejected the liberal claim that doctrines must be restated in different eras to express Gods continuing revelation and to reflect the interests and the growing intellectual sophistication of humanity. Hodges proudest boast was that a new idea had never originated at Princeton Theological Seminary. The conservative insistence on the inerrancy of Scripture, while it upheld longstanding Protestant ideas, also contained important elements of distinctly nineteenth-century thinking. Since the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, virtually all Protestants had held that the Bible was true and that most passages were meant to be interpreted literally. The American Calvinist defense of biblical inerrancy developed early in the nineteenth century but espoused a more aggressive and unequivocal doctrine that advanced the claim that every statement in the Scriptures was a statement of literal, scientific fact. Hodge, for example, asserted in the early 1870s that the Bible was a storehouse of facts.

Modern Science. Before the publication of Charles Darwins On the Origin of Species in 1859, few American Protestants, including the Princeton theologians, had found much conflict between scientific and religious truth. Most simply assumed that Christian faith, the human intellect, and science were harmonious. By the 1880s, however, most theological liberals had accepted Darwins evolutionary theory (with its implied rejection of the biblical story of creation as told in Genesis) and increasingly regarded the Bible as a collection of religious and ethical teachings, not as a uniform volume of historical and scientific facts. The inerrantists, however, refused to accommodate modern science. In 1881 Hodge and Benjamin Warfield published a critical essay called Inspiration, which reemphasized the absolute trustworthiness of the plain reading of Scripture and asked Christians to stand on the unshakable ground of a Bible that was literally true in every detail. In Presbyterianism, in particular, the inerrantists reasserted their dominance in the 1890s, and the Princeton formulation of inerrancy became a major component of the theological outlook of twentieth-century fundamentalism.

Heresy. As the conservative reaction against liberal innovations grew in strength, accusations of heresy cropped up in most Protestant denominations, although controversy centered on northern groups, particularly the Presbyterian Church. Formal church proceedings against liberal ministers, theologians, and biblical scholars on seminary faculties started in the late 1870s and peaked in the 1890s. In 1878 Alexander Winchell was forced from the faculty of Vanderbilt University after being accused of contradicting the biblical account of creation in Genesis. Winchell refused to resign, so the universitys trustees simply abolished his position. The next year Crawford H. Toy was forced to resign from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville after he was charged with undercutting the absolute authority of Scripture. The hottest disputation occurred, however, within the denominations most clearly committed to the Calvinist tradition: Congregationalism and Presbyterianism. In the late 1880s the Board of Overseers of Andover Theological Seminary, Massachusetts, the oldest American seminary and the most prestigious Congregational training facility for ministers, grew increasing disenchanted with the faculty, which had developed and popularized progressive orthodoxy. The board accused Egbert Smythe and three others of failing to keep their promise to teach within the boundaries of the seminarys creedal statement of 1808. The four men were dismissed from the faculty, but in 1892 the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled against the board and reinstated the professors.


With each religious sect advertising its own special road to salvation, camp meetings served an important role in the indoctrination of the laity. Gatherings of the faithful became even more popular with the post-Civil War moral slump and the rising tide of skepticism. Rural areas featured most of the camp meetings, which lasted on an average of seven to ten days. All services were held in a large tent, or brush arbor Families camped around the tent and lived out of their wagons or lean-tos. The day began at 6 A.M. with a prayer meeting; breakfast followed, and then the morning sermon. The afternoon was free for people to visit and to do camp chores. In the evening the big service occurred, with three or four ministers speaking in rotation. The service usually ended with the call for repentance and the walk to the mourners bench by those seeking salvation. In towns, camp meetings were known as annual revivals, or protracted meetings. Stores closed, and farmers came into town to hear the visiting evangelist and song leader. Services frequently lasted all day, with dinner being served to the listeners. In both the camp meeting and annual revival it was common for the audience to become supercharged with emotion and to shout and speak in unknown tongues.

Source: John Samuel Ezeli, The South Since 1865 (New York: Macmilko, 1963), p. 347.

Presbyterians. Conservative critics, however, were much more successful within the Presbyterian Church, where three prominent theologians were accused of heresy. The Presbyterian General Assemblys decision in 1893 to overturn Charles Augustus Briggss acquittal by the Presbytery of New York and to suspend Briggs from the Presbyterian ministry was the most famous heresy action of the period. The next year Henry Preserved Smith of Lane Presbyterian Seminary in Cincinnati was convicted of charges similar to those laid against Briggs and was dismissed. In 1896 the church historian Arthur Cushman McGiffert of Union Theological Seminary, New York, resigned from the Presbyterian ministry rather than contest heresy charges against him. While the influence of theological liberalism continued to grow in the 1890s, the heresy trials were a powerful symptom of conservative reaction, and they accelerated the process of polarization that would lead to more clear and decisive

divisions within Protestantism in the early decades of the twentieth century.


William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976);

George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980);

Mark Stephen Massa, Charles Augustus Briggs and the Crisis of Historical Criticism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990);

Jack B. Rogers and Donald K. McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of Scripture (San Francisco: Harper &, Row, 1970).

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Conservative Protestantism

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