Liberal Protestantism

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Liberal Protestantism


A New Approach. The most dramatic and fastest-growing intellectual movement of the late nineteenth century originated as a response to two European trends: the rise of evolutionary science and the development of biblical criticism. By the early 1870s a section of American Protestant leadership was beginning to advocate the reconstruction of Christian theology in response to the rapid changes and developments of the period. Several key factors played a role. One of the most important was the overpowering sense of progress and liberation felt by many people as the nineteenth century closed. Progress seemed more and more inevitable as science and technology were harnessed to solve ancient problems. Some people even thought that humanity was evolving into the millennial Kingdom of God. Adaptation was the watchword. As early as 1871 Henry Ward Beecher, the most famous American minister of the period, warned divinity students at Yale Theological Seminary that the Protestant ministry was in danger, and in great danger, of going under, and of working effectively only among the relatively less informed and intelligent of the community; of being borne with, in a kind of contemptuous charity, or altogether neglected, by the men of culture who have been strongly developed on their moral sidenot their moral side as connected with revealed religion, but as connected with human knowledge and worldly wisdom.

Staying with the Times. One of the most basic traits of the emerging liberal movement in theology was its willingness to concede the accuracy of Charles Darwins principle of evolution that only the fittest survive. Liberals began to stress that Christians throughout history had to address the conditions and realities of their own time. They conceded that the Bible and the historic Christian creeds were cast in the language and worldview of their times and had to be interpreted critically in that light. The purpose of modern theology was to excavate below relative truths in order to discover what was pure, true, and eternal. Theological orthodoxy, so far as man is concerned, is relative and defective; it is measured by the knowledge he has of the truth, the leading liberal theologian and Old Testament scholar Charles Augustus Briggs wrote in 1889. It varies in different men, in different nations and societies, and still more in different epochs of time.


One of the most significant and permanent social changes that occurred in the South after 1878 was the establishment of separate African American churches and the growth of independent black denominational organizations. The most important denominations with African American membership were the Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Colored Methodist Episcopal, Reformed Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Protestant Episcopal. By 1900 the Baptists outnumbered all other black denominations combined. The typical African American church was a small, unpainted or whitewashed wooden structure. Its interior was sparse, with a few wooden benches and a homemade pulpit. The cemetery flanked the building and had either wooden boards or small stone markers. In contrast to the drab appearance of the church, its services were lively and enthusiastic, featuring participation of the congregation in songs, prayers, and sermons. Preachers focused on sin, the Devil, loose sex, and drink. The Reverend Alexander Bettis said that excitement, shouting, and hallelujahs were a regular part of his services. A white observer in 1898 noted that black congregations would sing and shout, and dance the holy dance, and jump over the benches, and have a regular jubilee time.

Source: George Brown Tindall, South Carolina Negroes 1877-1900 I (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1952).

German Tradition. The chief centers of the liberal movement in theology were the nations Protestant seminaries, seats of learning where the complex developments of the higher critical movement in scriptural studies could take hold. Many professors were recent graduates

of German universities, known throughout the world for both the rigorous academic study of religion and their theological liberalism. The Congregational theologian Newman Smythe, for example, had studied at the universities of Berlin and Halle in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Smythe was deeply influenced by the teaching of Isaak Dorner, whose ideas about the development of Christian doctrine made historical criticism one of the foundations for theological discussion. Like many thinkers influenced by evolutionary thought, Dorner argued that religious truth evolved over centuries and that knowledge of God was possible through the scientific study of historical records.

Beliefs. Although the liberal Protestantism of the late nineteenth century was far from uniform, liberals as a group shared basic beliefs. Perhaps the most significant belief was the need to modify the insistence on Scripture as the sole source of Protestant religious authority and teaching. The sacred Scriptures do not decide for us all questions of orthodoxy, Briggs argued.

They do not answer the problems of science, of philosophy or history. They do not cover the whole ground of theology. There are important matters in which the Christian religion enters into the spheres of science, philosophy, and history where the divine revelation given in these departments of knowledge is either presupposed by the sacred Scriptures, or else has been left by them for mankind to investigate and use in successive constructions of Christian theology, which have gone on since the apostolic age and which will continue until the end of the world.

Liberals also rejected biblical literalism and embraced scientific tools of investigation. They put considerable faith in human ability, rejecting the inherited Calvinist insistence on humanitys sinfulness and depravity. Few believed that a loving God would damn anyone to eternal punishment. Liberals typically portrayed sin as a limitation or error that might be remedied by education and, most of all, by the moral example of the life of Jesus. While few liberals of this period denied the divinity of Christ, many of them virtually ignored it in favor of an emphasis on Christs accomplishments as the man who best revealed Gods will for humanity. They preferred titles like Master or Teacher when speaking of Christ. For them the most important aspect of Gods activity was his immanence, or involvement in the world, not the majestic, judgmental transcendence emphasized by Calvinism. Ethics emerged as the central theological concern. Liberals, especially those who stressed the historical continuity of Christian doctrinal and institutional experience, insisted that Christianity had to meet the challenge of demonstrating that it was true by the standards of its own day. Most Gilded Age liberals aimed to adapt Christian doctrine, but to do so as little as possible and with as strong a sense of the historical experience of the church as possible. Captured in the phrase progressive orthodoxy, this group formed the liberal mainstream, and its optimism attracted an enormous popular following. A smaller group, often described as modernists, took an uncompromising stand on modern science and culture. They took the scientific method, scholarly detachment, empirical reasoning, and the prevailing philosophical skepticism of the day as their necessary starting point. The most advanced of them viewed the Bible as only one of many human religious documents and Christianity as one religious and ethical tradition among many.


Sydney Ahlstrom, Theology in America: The Major Protestant Voices from Puritanism to Neoorthodoxy (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967);

William R. Hutchison, American Protestant Thought in the Liberal Era (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1981).

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Liberal Protestantism

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