Religious Liberalism

The tradition of theological liberalism is a long one (Luker 1991:12-14 & 244). Originating in the American Missionary Association, it was organized as a protest against cooperation with slaveholders in the missions and helped in relief in the South. After the war, theological liberals was the focus of much of the northern missionary effort in the education of postwar freedmen. It may have been the most important vehicle of the social gospel prior to the organization of the Federal Council of Churches in 1909. One of the outstanding ministers in this tradition was Henry Ward Beecher. Other key evangelical neoabolitionist spokesmen were Washington Gladden, Amory Bradford, Charles Cuthbert Hall (president of Union Theological Seminary), and Henry Churchill King. They were all leaders of the American Missionary Association and appealed to theological personalism for values in race relations.

Social Gospel: The Progressive Spirit in Religion

The Social Gospel stressed that religious people in the church should be involved in practical affairs to improve both the larger society and the lives of individuals. The Social Gospel (Ahlstrom:785-786) was a submovement within the larger tradition of religious liberalism. And as progressives, they wanted America's unregulated industrialism to be modified by Christian faith.

The last two decades of the 19th century the movement deepened its intellectual foundations, broadened its focus, vastly increased its following, and began to make a positive impact in some theological schools and on the prevailing opinions of churchgoing America. Some of the thinkers in this tradition were Washington Gladden (1836- 1918), Francis Greenwood Peabody (1847-1936), and Josiah Strong (1847-1916) as well as the social scientists Richard T. Ely (1854- 1943) and Albion W. Small (1854-1926).

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) of Rochester Seminary probably best represented the Social Gospel movement (Ahlstrom 1972:801). He was well known as a Social Gospel leader even before the century's turn, but in 1907 he published his Christianity and the Social Crisis. He also maintained that people must gain control over social forces.


Personalism (Barnard 1969:115&117) built on the notion that the personal experience of Christians was the basis for religious experience. They often took Jesus Christ as the exemplar of this. The personalists saw Jesus Christ "as the supreme person of history." The turn toward social redemption was graphically illustrated in the new, social purpose of organizations and practices which had earlier served as agencies of the old evangelicalism. After 1900, the YMCA and the YWCA, for example, emphasized social service. They initiated a host of activities designed to aid in establishing the Kingdom of God on earth.

The founder of personalism was the Boston Personalist, Borden Parker Bowne, and his successors, Edgar Sheffield Brightman and his disciple L. Harold DeWolf. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Lischer 1995:54,57-58) studied personalism under Brightman at Boston University. Popular nineteenth-century preachers like Henry Ward Beecher and Phillips Brooks promoted the social relevance of Christianity by brilliantly bringing to life the personality of Jesus and showing how his love ethic could be applied to personal and social relationships. In liberal thought Jesus accomplishes God's will by exercising the moral influence of his person on society. The Social Gospel had maintained an evangelical approach to God and Christ, but Boston Personalism stressed that God is the ideal personality.

The personalists (Lischer 1995:58-59) answered Darwinian evolutionism and modern society "by locating moral value exclusively in human personality. The essential human being was not subject to the laws and vicissitudes of nature. The human being occupied a privileged realm of spirit that scientific naturalism could not touch."

Henry Churchill King

One of the country's foremost Personalist was Henry Churchill King (b. 1858). He was the president of Oberlin College and author of a half-dozen treatises on rational living. When President King (Mayer 1993:21) had a cold he told the students that its cause was his failure to live rationally. He found it possible to equate evolution with the biblical version of creation (Ashmore 1989; Foster 1969).

King was a graduate of Oberlin from both college and seminary, was thoroughly known by his colleagues, and possessed their entire confidence. He had been a professor in the college since 1884, and had latterly occupied the chair of philosophy . . .He had a year at Harvard where he took the degree of A.M.

"As Oberlin entered the twentieth century, the old evangelical faith, with its emphasis on individual salvation and personal moral codes, was giving way to a new faith combining reverence for the worth of the individual with social redemption. . . . As a formal doctrine, it was primarily the work of Henry Churchill King" (Barnard 1969:114).

The change from the old evangelical system to the new system proceeded smoothly. When President Fairchild (Foster 1969:172) resigned the professorship of theology in 1897, his place was filled by the appointment of Henry Churchill King, under whom the transition was effected quietly and without friction.

At the time of King's accession to the theological chair, Oberlin was ripe for the change. Professor Ballantine, under the pressure of the new elective system, had been compelled to give fresh attention to the higher criticism of the Old Testament, and had gradually yielded to its arguments. Professor Bosworth had succeeded to the New Testament chair and had also come under the influence of the new movement in theology. So there were no members of the faculty likely to resist vigorously a modernization of the theology of the school (Foster 1939 reprinted 1969: 173).

In 1901 Henry King (Foster 1969: 173) published Reconstruction in Theology. His aim was not to create a great and final theological system, but "to make real to his own generation the great abiding truths of Christianity." King believe that all reality, human and divine, must be interpreted in personal terms (Luker 1991:249).

Foster (Foster 1969: 185) refers to King as a great theologian, saying that King was the first in the New England succession to put the principle of love, presented in a new phrasing as "reverence for personality," into application to well-nigh the whole range of theology.

King (Foster 1969:178) defined religion itself as personal. "The God with whom we come into personal relation is not the God of mere religious fancy or mystical experience, nor the God of philosophical speculation, but the God revealed concretely, unmistakably, in the ethical and spiritual personality of Jesus Christ. He alone is the supreme and religiously adequate revelation of God." He might have accomplished much more in theology but shortly after the publication of Theology and the Social Consciousness in 1902, he was elected President of Oberlin College (Foster 1969:185).

Oberlin impressed many national leaders of the reform movement with the strength of its commitment to social Christianity. Walter Rauschenbusch and Josiah Strong sent their children to the College (Barnard 1969:121-122).

In the early twentieth century the College sponsored the propagation of social gospel tenets in other ways. A steady stream of speakers from outside enlightened undergraduates. Washington Gladden, an old favorite, made almost regular lecture appearances, always stressing social responsibility and reform. Other speakers included Walter Rauschenbusch, Graham Taylor, Florence Kelly, Lincoln Steffens, Shailer Mathews, Sophonisba Breckinridge, Charles M. Sheldon, Charles A. Beard, Joseph W. Folk, Robert M. La Follette, and socialist author Jack London.

Until 1917 King's efforts to hold fast to traditional principles were substantially successful (Barnard 1969:110&123). The disillusionment created by the horrors of World War I disclosed some of the weaknesses in the religious education and genteel culture at Oberlin as elsewhere. Prewar leaders, such as King, were never comfortable in the postwar world. The Oberlin Socialism Discussion Club was founded in 1915 by Herbert A. Miller, professor of sociology. Winifred Rauschenbusch, daughter of Walter, was its first president. The club was affiliated with the Intercollegiate Socialist Society and brought such socialist writers and lecturers as John Spargo and Rose Pastor Stokes to Oberlin to address large audiences.

Harry Emerson Fosdick

According to the great Reinhold Niebuhr, in his time Harry Emerson Fosdick became the most celebrated preacher of his day. In 1895 as an eighteen-year-old who possessed a near-photographic memory, he went to Hamilton, New York to attend Colgate University, a small Baptist school (Miller 1985:29&35).

Like black theologian Howard Thurman, he was influenced by the Quaker mystic, Rufus Jones, and became a member in the Wider Quaker Fellowship (Miller 1985:37&52). Rufus Jones must be seen as one of the romantic absolute idealists. Fosdick read his 1904 Social Law in the Spiritual World and it was a memorable event for him. The authority of personal experience was for Fosdick forever to be the primary authority. He also liked the personalistic idealism of the Methodist theologian, Borden Parker Bowne, whose 1908 volume Personalism became virtually the "party line" of American Methodism as well as the work of William James in his 1902 The Varieties of Religious Experience.

At Colgate he was greatly influenced by the theological liberal William Newton Clarke (Miller 1985:38&40). Clarke published An Outline of Christian Theology in 1898. It became the Bible of evangelical liberalism. Another influence was John Fiske, whose writings tamed the idea of evolution by combining it with an optimistic theism.

In 1901 Fosdick went to New York City to attend Union Theological Seminary. The president, Charles Cuthbert Hall, virtually adopted Fosdick (Miller 1985:41,43, 88&100). Fosdick served as pastor in Montclair, New Jersey for some fifteen years. During this time he published six books that established his reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. His sales ran into the millions. His preaching seemed to many reminiscent of Henry Ward Beecher and Phillips Brooks in their days of glory.

And then the great evolutionary crisis arose. The fundamentalists in the Presbyterian camp included William Jennings Bryan, J. Gresham Machen, the popular revivalist William A. (Billy) Sunday; the wealthy, pious merchant John Wanamaker and pulpit giants Clarence Edward Macartney in Philadelphia and Mark A. Matthews in Seattle (Miller 1985:112).

Events in 1922 thrust Fosdick into the center of the controversy. The controversy started when Fosdick published a rebuttal to Bryan's article "God and Evolution" that appeared in the New York Times. He also preached the sermon "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" and the battle was on. The liberals supporting Fosdick included his friend Henry Sloane Coffin and William P. Merrill, George A. Buttrick, Robert Hastings Nichols, John A. MacCallum, Murray Shipley Howland, Canada's Richard Roberts, and Scotland's John Kelman, among others (Miller 1985:115&123).

The showdown was brought forth by the fundamentalists over the issue of evolution. In 1925 Fosdick was forced from the pulpit of New York's First Presbyterian Church because he refused to assent to the Presbyterian creedal requirement.

In 1926 he gave his first sermon as pastor of the Park Avenue Baptist Church. In 1927 the cornerstone for Riverside Church was laid with a flourish, the ceremonies beginning at Union Seminary and ending at the site (Miller 1985:208). It was not until 1931 that the Riverside Church was dedicated.

The Social Gospel and the University of Chicago

After John D. Rockefeller's princely contribution to the University of Chicago, its Divinity School (Baptist) quickly became a great Midwestern center of liberalism, around which Congregational, Disciples, and Unitarian faculties were also gathered. Its dynamic and accomplished faculty made it possible for the school to remain throughout the first third of the twentieth century as the country's most powerful center of Protestant liberalism. Henry Nelson Wieman (b. 1884) was perhaps the dominant figure at Chicago from 1927 to 1947. Edward Scribner Ames, chairman of the Chicago philosophy department and minister to the University Disciples Church, became the country's most widely read psychologist of religion. Shirley Jackson Case carried positivistic methods into scholarship on the New Testament and the early church (Ahlstrom 1972: 775-776,906). Chicago was famed as an institute of modernism. From the surrounding seminaries came a long line of distinguished parish ministers. The movement lasted for more than two long generations. For a brief time, one of these distinguished ministers was Vernon Johns.

The University of Chicago was a very progressive school. From the end of World War I until the middle 1930s, under the leadership of Robert E. Park and others, the University of Chicago's department of sociology dominated the field (Bracey et. al. 1971:5). One of Park's major interests was in race relations, and it was the University of Chicago that produced those five distinguished students of American blacks -- Charles S. Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, Bertram W. Doyle, St. Clair Drake, and Horace Cayton. All of these men, except Drake, were students of Park.

Park, after a decade in journalism, had pursued graduate training and taken his Ph.D. at Heidelberg in 1904. He came to know Booker T. Washington, principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (Bracey et. al. 1971:5). At Washington's invitation, Park made his headquarters at Tuskegee, spending several years investigating the race problem in the South. In 1914, at the age of fifty, Park joined Albion Small and W. I. Thomas in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago. As a leading figure in the most influential sociology department in the nation, Park enjoyed an unusual opportunity to advance the sociological study of the black man in America. While sociologists like E. a. Ross of the University of Wisconsin were still upholding Anglo-Saxon purity and inveighing against blacks or Orientals, Park demanded that sociology cast off bias and emotional agitation and study race relations in varied societal contexts.

Park (Bracey et. al. 1971:6) was a mild reformist. He was the first president of the Chicago Urban League. His research orientation included a strong interest in social problems. Much of the work of the Chicago school was directed toward studying the subject of urban social disorganization and urban pathology.

Conservative Social Gospel in Montgomery: Edgar Gardner Murphy

Edgar Gardner Murphy developed a conservative version of the social gospel fit for the more restrictive society of the South. Born in 1869 in Arkansas his father abandoned the family when Edgar was only five years old. The family moved to San Antonio, Texas, where Murphy came under the influence of the Reverend Walter Richardson, rector of the local Episcopal Church.

Murphy graduated from the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, in 1889. At the university he was influenced by William Porcher DuBose, who embodied the university's lingering commitment to the values of the Old South. Then he studied for a year at New York's General Theological Seminary (Luker 1984:289 and Luker 1991:282).

He returned to San Antonio, Texas and served as assistant to the Reverend Charles Richardson. Later he took charge of Christ Church in the border town of Laredo, Texas. In 1893 he took a post with St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chillicothe, Ohio. While there he published two books in 1897. These were the start of his conservative social gospel. It was a theology he had largely learned from William Porcher DuBose and James Warley Miles (Luker 1984:290-294).

In 1898 he accepted a call to St. John's Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was drawn ever more deeply into a social ministry (Luker 1984: 311&316-317). When he arrived in Montgomery, he found that the Episcopal Church had no ministry to the black community. In 1899 he invited interested blacks to meet with him at St. John's Church to consider the organization of a black congregation. He helped established the Church of the Good Shepherd as a black Episcopal congregation.

Within a year, Murphy gathered a group of Montgomery's leading white citizens to plan a forum to coordinate the efforts of the more "liberal" forces in Southern race relations (Luker 1984:318). In 1900 this "Southern Society for the Promotion of the Study of Race Conditions and Problems in the South" called its first annual conference on race relations to meet in Montgomery. He and other members of the organization were invited to the Tuskegee Institute for the dedication of the school's new trade school building. There he met Booker T. Washington and addressed the students and faculty.

In 1901 he resigned his position at St. John's church in order to devote himself more completely to social improvements (Luker 1984:352). He became Executive Secretary of the Southern Education Board. Booker T. Washington was one of the board's field agents. The board organized a propaganda campaign to win increased state and local support of public schools throughout the South. He resigned from the ministry in 1903.

In 1909 he published The Basis of Ascendancy in which he tried to establish himself as a new John C. Calhoun to the South but a Calhoun who was a little kinder on race relations (Luker 1984:370-371). He wrote that the church and religion had to apply to today's society, but the book itself was largely an accommodationist tract. It was a Southern "liberal" social gospel, but This means that it largely accepted white dominance over the blacks. He rejected both social equality and universal manhood suffrage. He talked of a new South of industrial hope, where blacks would find opportunity to work, but the races would develop separately.

He died in 1913 in New York City. Just how weak "liberalism" was at this time can be seen in the words of praise for Murphy by liberals of the time (Luker 1991:282). None of the theologians of race relations was more widely respected than Murphy. Lyman Abbott, Washington Gladden, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Francis Greenwood Peabody, and Josiah Strong praised his "brave" and "statesman-like" work in race relations. Black conservatives Robert Russa Moton and Booker T. Washington, Southern white moderate Willis Duke Weatherford, and Northern white liberal Mary White Ovington all paid him tribute. He was a conservative separatist that made him the era's foremost spokesman for a genteel American racism.


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