Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900

This is the first of a three-volume history of American liberal theology. The second volume will deal with the social gospel and its Niebuhrian heyday, rightly describing Niebuhr’s view as a chastened species of liberal theology, and the third deals with American liberalism since Niebuhr. Liberal theology is “the idea that Christian theology can be genuinely Christian without being based upon external authority” (p. xiii). Since the 18th century, liberal Christian thinkers have argued that religion should be modern and progressive and that the meaning of Christianity should be interpreted from the standpoint of modern knowledge and experience. The book tells the story of the making of American liberal Christianity from the beginning of the Unitarian revolt to the beginning of its enfranchisement in many of America’s elite universities and seminaries. Dorrien, who is at Kalzmazoo College, has an engaging writing style that makes the book easy to read. A time or two he provides more detail on a person or subject than I would care to know, but I found his biographical descriptions of William E. Channing, Theodore Parker, Horace Bushnell, Henry Ward Beecher, Washington Gladden, Charles A. Briggs, and Bordon Parker Bowne interesting and at times fascinating.

Dorrien finds liberal theology to be an ongoing and still-important tradition of religious reflection, and notes the liberal origin of several ideas now taken for granted by most theologians. “I believe that liberal theology has been and remains the most creative and influential tradition of theological reflection since the Reformation” (p. xv). He adds that liberal theology continues as a vital and creative religious tradition.

Liberal tradition flowed out of the Enlightenment and appealed to the authority of critical rationality and religious experience. Its founders were German philospphers and theologians: German scholars laid most of the groundwork of modern Biblical criticism, and Dorrien often mentions American thinkers who studied in Germany.

Thoughtful Americans had to deal with Darwinist evolutionary theory, German biblical criticism, and a rapidly industrializing social order. In the late 19th century, they thought through a convergence between Christianity and evolution, the value of modern historical criticism, the spiritual union between God and humanity, and the kingdom-building social mission of the church (p. xviii).

Liberal Christianity is defined by its openness to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially the natural and social sciences; its commitment to the authority of individual reason and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life, its favoring of moral concepts of atonement; and its commitment to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to modern people (p. xxiii).

If there is one city that has been the center of American theological liberalism, it would be Boston. Congregationalist pastors in that city called for a rational, freedom-affirming religion as early as Charles Chauncy in 1727. He argued that human beings are meant by God to employ their God-given natural powers, and rejected the doctrine of eternal punishment (p. 3). Important beginnings for liberal theology were made by Unitarians from the Boston area.

The most important early Unitarian was William Ellery Channing, who opposed slavery and believed in social progress. The heart of his faith was the spiritual nature of consciousness. “Religion is another name for happiness, and I am most cheerful when I am most religious” (p. 15). The human perception of the attributes of God is surely fallible, he noted. He sought a genuinely biblical Christianity that was not polluted by external creeds and dogmatic systems. Actually, Channing was rather conservative by today’s standards. He remained a supernaturalist and a believer in a personal God throughout his life. It was interesting to note that Channing loved to preach on John 5: 19: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (p. 399) (!). Yet Channing was the liberal movement’s unrivaled spiritual leader through the 1830s. His riveting moral and spiritual sincerity was the source of his singular power (p. 39). Further, he was that rare figure who became more progressive and outspoken with age.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a product of Boston Unitarianism. He claimed that “God in us worships God,” and felt that to reflect is to receive truth immediately from God without any medium (p. 61). Christianity is a rule of life, not a rule of faith. Emerson thought early Christianity turned Jesus into a demigod and covered him with official titles, thereby violating the memory of Jesus and the spirit of true religion. He urged young ministers to go off on their own and think their own thoughts.

Theodore Parker, a voracious reader who knew the German tradition firsthand, felt all religions are “only specific variations of one and the same genus” (p. 83). Dorrien argues (rightfully, in my view) for “the reconsideration of Parker as an important figure in the history of American religious thought” (p. xvii). One of my favorite quotes from Parker is “God save Christianity from its friends” (p. 84). Anticipating Bultmann much later, Parker claimed that even if historical criticism were to prove that the gospels are total fabrications and that Jesus never lived, the truth of Christianity would not be affected (p. 87), a statement that offended even many Unitarians.

Scriptural narrative, said Parker, meets none of the tests for serious historical writing. All of the Gospels mix fact and fiction pervasively, and the fourth Gospel has “scarcely any historical value” (p. 99). The Apostles and Evangelists were greatly mistaken on some points. He opposed all religious authorities save the authority of reason and spiritual intuition. “Each man must be his own Christ, or he is no Christian” (p. 100).

Parker was an abolitionist, favored women’s rights, labor organizing, educational reform, and self-government. He was an orator who ranked with Emerson, Daniel Webster, Wendell Phillips, and Abraham Lincoln. A possible weakness of Parker is that he had no appreciation at all of religious symbolism, metaphor, or myth (p. 104).

There is a brief discussion of the struggle of Unitarianism with liberal Christians and with secular humanists. “Free Religion” called for religionists and humanists to break free of Unitarianism and create a more advanced religious society (p. 105). All liberals agreed that theology had to be carried out differently in the age of Darwin and historical criticism (p. 110).

Dorrien believes that Horace Bushnell should be “deservedly remembered as the theological founder of mainstream American liberal Protestantism” (p. 111). Bushnell viewed nature as a type or figure of God’s mind (p. 125). He opposed what he called the oppressive regime of dogma and ritual. In resisting most revival preaching, which he termed too individualistic, he suggested that children should grow up as Christians and never know themselves as anything else (p. 135).

Bushnell was also the first American to theorize about the metaphorical nature of religious language. (Later, p. 400, Dorrien claims that Bushnell’s emphasis on this broke the power of orthodox exegesis and their claim to scriptural necessity.) Words, he argued, are necessarily falsifying with respect to the truth they are meant to express. Words are mere signs of images of realities that have no sensible quality. The Bible is loaded with paradoxes and outright contradictions. The kind of truth claimed by the Bible is spiritual and poetic, not appealing to reasons, rational proofs, or historical evidence. All theology, he wrote, consists of the relative interpretation of symbols (pp. 145-147). Bushnell opposed Scriptural infallibility, but oddly rejected historical criticism, and held out against Darwinism. He was at least somewhat anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. Even though Bushnell was widely rejected during his lifetime, not long afterwards his books became required reading at major seminaries, and he had an influence on later liberal Christian thought, including the social gospel (p. 175).

Famed preacher Henry Ward Beecher made a singular contribution to the development and legitimization of American liberal Protestantism as a whole. “The essence of religion is love to God and love to man” (p. 209). Christianity is to be tried, not believed. Beecher took up the cause of slavery about the same time as his sister Harriet. He spoke out for temperance, political reform, abolition of poverty and disease, and in the 1860s he added women’s rights. While he was not active in the social gospel, he keenly sensed the importance of evolution for the next generation of Christian thought.

Dorrien spends some time with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who devoured the writings of Theodore Parker. She accepted the religion of the liberal Jesus, but not the Christianity of the churches. Along with others, Stanton wrote The Women’s Bible to criticize the primitive, narrow spirit of Hebrew religion (pp. 256-258). Dorrien sees her as a forerunner of 20th century feminist theology.

An aside: Anna Julie Cooper’s A Voice From the South (1892) offered a model of black feminist engagement with the Bible that advocated sexual equality, racial equality, and the social gospel (p. 257).

A lover of literature, Theodore Munger read Bushnell and renounced traditional supernaturalism. He helped lift Bushnell to a place of honor in American theology. Christianity, he said, is not a theory but a life and a living process. He correlated reason and revelation, giving first place to reason. Any theology that denigrates reason ultimately denigrates faith and revelation. The Bible is a history of, or witness to, revelation, not revelation itself (p. 284; this theme was picked up later by neo-orthodox thinkers).

My favorite person discussed in this book was Washington Gladden, an outstanding preacher, prophet, commentator on the issues of the day, hymn-writer (“O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee”), and social gospel advocate. He felt that religion laid hold upon him and proposed to realize the Kingdom of God in this world (p. 268). He had a knack for explaining religious issues in everyday language. The heart of religion, he felt, is its effect on personal character, not its ritual forms or dogmas.

Gladden, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Columbus, Ohio, favored collective bargaining, took the workingman’s view, thought the railroad companies were “gigantic instruments of oppression,” offered a cooperativist critique of the wage system, and even sought equality for blacks. He believed in a theology of social salvation. Repentance, he said, is intrinsically connected to the presence of God’s kingdom (pp. 268-312).

Gladden was one of the founders of the American Economic Association, helped start the Chautauqua Society, spoke out against anti-Catholic prejudice, and was deeply involved in ecumenical concerns. He argued effectively that liberal theology and the social gospel movements belonged together (pp. 313-315).

By the 1880s, a handful of liberal academics gained a foothold at several schools. The most important was Charles A. Briggs, who had studied in Germany. The inerrancy doctrine, he claimed, is a form of idolatry. Briggs helped create an American tradition of biblical criticism, and made a compelling case for this approach as a disturbing prod to freedom (pp. 344-347).

He gave no reliance to miracles and predictive prophecy as “evidence” of Christian truth, deemphasized appeals to authority in general, and destroyed the doctrine of divine inspiration. Briggs argued that nothing essential would be lost to Christianity if all the biblical miracles were to be explained on naturalistic grounds (p. 358).

Briggs faced heresy charges in 1881, in what Dorrien calls the most significant heresy controversy in modern American religious history (p. 354). Although his school, Union Seminary, supported him and he won the first round or two, Briggs was convicted by the General Assembly and later became an Episcopalian. Most of his later work was in behalf of the ecumenical movement. He remained at Union and witnessed the liberalization of the seminary; soon, schools such as Oberlin, the University of Chicago, and Boston University joined (p. 371).

As a Methodist myself, I was quite interested in the career and influence of Bordon Parker Bowne, who expounded personalist philosophical idealism with brilliance. He chaired the philosophy department at Boston for 35 years, and gave American Methodism a new philosophical framework. Reason, he said, is obliged to make sense of the human experience. He believed in purpose, self-conscious intelligence, and pragmatism. He also welcomed a truly comparative approach to religion (pp. 373-383).

Bowne argued against inerrancy and other conservative doctrines. The liberalization of the church occurred much too slowly for him. Only Hocking came close to having similar influence as a Christian philosopher of religion. Virtually all liberal Protestant thinkers of his time looked to him for intellectual leadership. After his death, Bowne became a towering figure in the Methodist Church, with Boston personalism exercising an immense influence over later Methodism, and keeping alive one of the few profound and inspiriting schools of progressive American Christianity (pp. 390-392). While almost all of the book deals with Protestant thinkers, mention is made of some Catholics who spoke out for liberal Christianity, such as Alfred Loisy and Isaac Hecker. Hecker felt that Roman Catholicism was potentially compatible with modern science, American political democracy, and American-style religious liberty (pp. 394-397).

As the 20th century began, the old orthodoxy was discredited, liberal theology became a powerful movement, and key Protestant institutions became liberalized. From the beginning, according to Dorrien, liberal theology was a third way. It was not radical or atheist, though it was routinely called both (p. 389). In the social gospel, liberalism was the first Christian movement to imagine the progressive transformation of society (p. 407).

Dorrien seems somewhat critical of the social gospel movement in that it seemed to imply that sin is something that could be outgrown (p. 403), though I did not find this in the major leaders like Rauschenbusch. Dorrien also notes that the social gospel was somewhat timid in the areas of race, women’s rights, and foreign affairs. In my view, these are cultural weaknesses that can be forgiven when we think of how the social gospel stood boldly for the social application of Christian thought, and faced squarely at least some of the evils of its time (like economic oppression).

My assessment is that this is a comprehensive and readable account of 19th century American thelogical liberalism. Present-day liberals should know the names discussed in this book. I eagerly await volumes two and three.

Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Resource Types: Books.

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