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Culture-Changers: Mainline Denominations Losing Members but Making Their Mark

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U. C. Berkeley professor David Hollinger tried to put wind in the sails of liberal Protestants in his recent presidential address for the Organization of American Historians. Not having read the address, I can only refer to the interview that recently arrived in my in-box from the Christian Century.

According to Professor Hollinger, mainline Protestantism may have lost its members in droves, but at least it has decisively shaped American culture—especially politics. So cheer up, heirs of Harry Emerson Fosdick! Funded by parishioner John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Fosdick’s campaign especially targeted the scholarly defense of historic Christianity by the likes of J. Gresham Machen. Fosdick’s 1922 sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” upped the ante in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and in this interview Professor Hollinger holds him up as a model for a reinvigorated social gospel.

It’s always interesting to hear partisans describe their own defeats as victories. However, Professor Hollinger includes himself among the “Post-Protestants”: secularists who hope that liberal Protestants will revive their spirit enough to combat evangelicals. In so doing, they might still lose their own members, but they will at least win the respect of urban intellectuals like himself and perhaps stay in the game of shaping high culture.

There is a lot that could be said about the views expressed in the interview. If anyone is looking for a good example of Machen’s claim that liberalism equals secularization, they will find it here. What I want to challenge is a historical point.

Professor Hollinger is no mean encourager of the downcast. A historian of American intellectual culture, he has contributed an impressive body of work. Nevertheless, one of the central points he makes in this interview is worth a little push-back, even from a non-specialist such as myself. It is the claim that while evangelicalism hails from the sticks–a coalition of fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and Holiness folks who were basically racist, sexist, and with “Red State” political agendas– liberal (he prefers “ecumenical”) Protestantism paved the way for racial, gender, and economic equality. Mainliners, Hollinger believes, need to have more face-time in the media, exposing America to the latest biblical scholarship—which, ostensibly, debunks the Bible. (Never mind the fact that evangelicals are among the leading biblical scholars in the Society of Biblical Literature and have arguably injected new life into New Testament studies in recent decades.) The Christian Century needs to get back its groove to go head-to-head with Christianity Today.

If I am aware of it, I’m sure that Professor Hollinger knows that the Social Gospel movement at the turn of the twentieth century was a mixed bag—even from a twenty-first-century secularist’s perspective.

First, evangelicalism was American Protestantism until the turn of the 20th century. Second, it’s also anachronistic to project backwards today’s liberal-conservative profiles. Evangelicals in Britain and America did more to bring down modern slavery and the industrial exploitation of women and children than any other group—certainly more than latitudinarian Anglicans (overwhelmingly Tory) and American Unitarians.

I’m not exactly cheering when I say that the Social Gospel movement arose largely out of the evangelical movement—in particular, the Second Great Awakening.

Washington Gladden (1836-1918), a founding father of the movement, at first opposed local workers who went on strikes. Fellow Congregationalist pastor Charles M. Sheldon (author of In His Steps, which coined the famous query, “What would Jesus do?”) changed his mind on the subject. The German Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), author of Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), joined forces with Unitarian minister Francis Greenwood Peabody. So far, so good on the claim that theological and political liberalism go hand-in-hand.

However, the most popular sermon of the movement—and indeed the decade—was Russell H. Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds”: “Because to make money honestly is to preach the Gospel…You ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich…Ninety-eight out of one hundred of the rich men in America are honest. That is why they are rich….The number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong.” This distinctively American message was heard on both sides of the theological and political aisle. The conservative evangelist D. L. Moody was at least as energetic as the others in extending concern to the poor and needy (founding scores of rescue missions, not to mention the YMCA). Yet he too said, “Show me a business man who has accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior and I’ll show you a successful business man.” Both the Social Gospellers and their critics in American Protestantism remained fluid on how exactly to restructure the world’s economy. Socialism, however, was not a live option for either camp, as it certainly was for evangelicals as well as others in Europe at the time.

Nor were Social Gospellers less racist or imperialistic, by and large. Many were in the vanguard of those who defended the Spanish-American War. The Reverend William Rainsford, a Social Gospel Episcopalian, opined, “This war has not been cunningly devised by strategists. America is being used to carry on the work of God in this war, which no politician could create, control, or gainsay.”

Following Charles Finney, New School Presbyterians and Congregationalists were, ironically, the fountainhead of both wings of Protestantism before the fundamentalist-modernist split. In an Oberlin address, “A Perfect State of Society,” Wheaton president Jonathan Blanchard was hardly less serious in his postmillennial vigor when he said, “What John the Baptist and the Savior meant when they preached the kingdom of God was a perfect state of society.” Lyman Beecher, whose trial over denying original sin and the substitutionary atonement finally split the Presbyterian Church in 1835, was a staunch abolitionist as well as defender of prohibition and the restriction of Roman Catholic immigration. Beecher unflinchingly supported America’s “manifest destiny” in conquering the natives in the West.

An especially peculiar figure, both an evangelical and social gospel advocate, was Josiah Strong (1847-1916). A Congregationalist minister, Strong argued in Our Country: Its Promises and Its Crisis (1885), that Anglo-Saxons have a duty from God to “civilize and Christianize the rest of the world.” There are Seven Perils, he announced: Catholicism, Mormonism, Socialism, Alcohol, Wealth, Urbanization, and Immigration. Unlike other European races, whose religion is bound up with external rites and institutions (Rome and state Protestantism), Anglo-Saxon religion is “pure spiritual Christianity.” Thus, the Anglo-Saxon (especially American) race is “destined to be for all men its brother’s keeper.” Missions brings development: “Commerce follows the missionary.” “Christianizing talent on a wide scale,” including “the money power,” will bring enormous gains, along with prohibition of alcohol. Yet this strength of Anglo-Saxon America, uncorrupted even by British monarchism, cannot be limited to one continent. We are about to see “the final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled.” His chilling words continue:
Long before the thousand millions of immigrants are here, the mighty centrifugal tendency, inherent in this stock and strengthened in the United States, will assert itself. Then this race of unequaled energy, with all the majesty of numbers and the might of wealth behind it—the representation, let us hope, of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization—having developed peculiarly aggressive traits calculated to impress its institutions upon mankind, will spread itself over the earth. If I read not amiss, this powerful race will move down upon Mexico, down upon Central and South America, out upon the islands of the sea, over upon Africa and beyond. And can anyone doubt that the result of this competition of races will be the ‘survival of the fittest’?…The United States is destined to dispossess many weaker races, assimilate others, and mold the remainder until, in a very true and important sense, it has Anglo-Saxonized mankind.

This will lead to “God’s final and complete solution of the dark problem of heathenism among many inferior peoples” (392).

After Our Country, Strong was made General Secretary of the American Evangelical Alliance, then founded his own League for Social Service with its magazine, The Gospel of the Kingdom. He also wrote The New Era (1893), where he coined the terms “Christian socialism” and “the Social Gospel,” and continued his vision in The Next Great Awakening (1902). Strong became a pioneer of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ, forerunner of the National Council of Churches—which, once again, shows that any talk of a clear divide between evangelicals and social gospel advocates at the turn of the century is anachronistic. (By the way, a note to Emergent brothers and sisters: all of this was called “modernism,” not “postmodernism.”)

Lyman Abbott (1835-1922) was another liberal evangelical, whose central message was “What Jesus saw, humanity is becoming.” He too called for the conquest of the native Americans “and other inferior peoples.” “Barbarism has no rights which civilization is bound to respect. In the history of the human race, nothing is more certain than that civilization must conquer and barbarism must be subdued.” President McKinley, an evangelical Presbyterian close to Abbott, spoke in an interview of the “benevolent assimilation” of the Philippines—but it was an atrocious and bloody war with Spain. McKinley told the interviewer, “I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me…that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.” Not to be outdone, even Pope Leo XIII endorsed the war, while Mark Twain wrote, “I fail to understand how the Filipino has been lifted up by the Gospel that was rammed into him with bayonets.”

Although Abbott was an outspoken liberal (basically, Unitarian), when the aged Charles Finney published his self-congratulatory Memoirs, it bore this endorsement from Abbott: “This is the most fascinating religious biography that I ever read. It is as dramatic, full of surprises, almost as marvelous in its manifestation of divine power, as the Book of Acts. It is coming out at just the right time.”

If Professor Hollinger’s historical narrative is open to question, his simplistic portrait of evangelicals and “ecumenical Protestants” is as black-and-white (or “Red” and “Blue”) as that of any fundamentalist. Readily available, a host of recent studies show that evangelical Protestants give far more of their income per capita than their neighbors, including mainline Protestants. And they give not only to missions but also to myriad causes for the relief of human suffering around the world. Organizations like World Vision continue a long history of pioneering benevolent work by evangelicals. Nor can evangelicals, who helped to elect Jimmy Carter as well as Ronald Reagan, be considered a predictably Republican voting block.

I get the secularist narrative, and why its proponents find it persuasive—indeed, need it to be persuasive. But this interview illustrates how history can be the hottest resource and the greatest casualty when you’re engaged in a culture war.
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