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Lecture One: Liberalism and Northern Baptists “Standing Firm”

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1 Lecture One: Liberalism and Northern Baptists “Standing Firm”

2 Where Are We Going? What was liberalism? Who were the liberals and where did they come from? How did liberals gain control of the Northern Baptist machinery? NOTE: Much of this lecture relies upon the research of Dr. Jeff Straub for his doctoral dissertation, “The Making of a Battle Royal” (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)

3 Where Did Liberalism Come From? Different varieties, but certain commonalities. Combined rationalism, materialism, pietism (experience above Scripture), higher criticism, Darwinian evolution. Early growth in German universities. Young American scholars brought it back from Germany. There was a homegrown side, tracing through the sentimentalism of Horace Bushnell to the anti- authoritarianism of Charles Finney. Liberalism was an attempt to save Christianity by accommodating it to current thought.

4 What Was Liberalism? God: primarily viewed as beneficent, kind. Fatherhood. Divine immanence rather than transcendence. Optimistic view of human nature. Humans divine. Religion a record of human pursuit of the divine. Doctrine of progress: evolution applied to society. Sin primarily structural, imperfections being overcome. Propitiation unnecessary; God not a God of wrath. Cross a demonstration of God’s love. Gospel is about revision of social structures.

5 What Was Liberalism? Kingdom a golden era of social perfection. Jesus a moral teacher with unusual God-consciousness. Jesus’ miracles nonexistent or unimportant. Jesus of history versus Christ of faith. Scripture a record of human encounter with divine. Neither inerrant nor infallible. Acceptance of destructive higher criticism (e.g., JEDP). IN SHORT a radical redefinition of virtually everything important about Christianity. A DIFFERENT RELIGION.

6 Why Could Liberalism Grow? Theologians of 1865 were poorly prepared to face the new theology. Some were transitional figures. Post-war aversion to conflict. Peace and catholicity. Rapidly changing Zeitgeist: difficulty sorting out the useful from the destructive. Liberals were the whiz kids. You wanted them on your faculty. Liberals cultivated the appearance of piety, used orthodox terms. Liberals were effective churchmen.

7 Thomas Fenner Curtis Taught at University of Lewisburg in PA. Moved to Harvard in mid-1860s. The Human Element in the Inspiration of Scripture (1867). Biblical authors mistaken even in some doctrinal teachings. Already out of Baptist circles. Limited influence, but opened the door.

8 Crawford Howell Toy Professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Accepted evolution and critical views during mid-1870s. Began to publish views in 1878. Dismissed from Southern, went to Harvard and drifted into Unitarianism. Trained younger men who became influential liberals (e.g. David Gordon Lyon).


10 Ezra Palmer Gould Professor at Newton since 1870. Complaints over liberalism in 1881. In 1881, the board voted to fire Gould in a split decision. Many calls for toleration, liberty, and diversity: these quickly became a liberal staple. Gould went on to become an Episcopalian. This was the only successful firing of a liberal professor from a Northern Baptist seminary. Gould continued to influence a younger generation of liberals such as W. H. P. Faunce and Albion Small.

11 William Newton Clarke Pastoral ministry in Newton Center, dissented from firing of Gould. Went to teach at McMaster in Toronto. Joined the faculty at Hamilton (later Colgate) in 1890. Outline of Christian Theology a liberal systematics. Uses of the Scriptures in Theology defined the liberal approach. Sixty Years with the Bible was his theological autobiography. Widely revered for his warm-hearted piety and gracious manner. The first liberal to “stick” in a Northern Baptist seminary.

12 Nathaniel Schmidt Swedish pastor in New York City, trained at Berlin. Professor at Hamilton (Colgate) from 1890. Openly liberal. Controversy in 1896, pressure from American Baptist Education Society. Board-pressured resignation in 1896. Severe public (Baptist and secular) backlash, calls for academic freedom and tolerance. Last attempt to force a liberal out of a Northern Baptist seminary.

13 Walter Rauschenbusch Pastored in NYC’s infamous Hell’s Kitchen, became preoccupied with social problems. Linked social work with the kingdom of God, developed the social gospel (1891-1892). Brought to Rochester by Strong in 1897. Became religious celebrity about 1907 with Christianity and the Social Crisis. Many books, became known as the “father of the social gospel.” Out of style after WWI, but continued to teach and write.


15 Baptist Congress Started out as Baptist Autumnal Conference in 1882. Annual meetings for the exchange of ideas among Baptists. Protected environment. Organizers were at least somewhat sympathetic to liberal views. Became a key venue for liberals to float their ideas without fear of reprisal.

16 Brotherhood of the Kingdom Organized in 1892 by Walter Rauschenbusch, Nathaniel Schmidt, Leighton Williams, and Samuel Batten. Met annually at Williams’s family estate near Marlborough- on-the-Hudson. Focused on developing the social gospel and encouraging each other in its implementation. Broadened into an opportunity for interchange between liberals of different denominations. Developed into a liberal strategy center.

17 William Rainey Harper Brilliant OT scholar. College graduate at 14, Ph.D. at 20. Came to Baptist Union Theological Seminary (Chicago) in 1879. Converted to liberalism during the 1880s. Taught at Yale, deeply involved in the development of Chautauqua Institution. Approached to head up the new University of Chicago in 1891. Demanded increased funding from Rockefeller. Incorporated the Baptist Union Seminary as the Divinity School of the new university. Opened in 1892.


19 New University of Chicago Organized in 1892, Baptists matching Rockefeller money. Divinity school packed with leading liberals: George Burman Foster, Ernest DeWitt Burton, Shirley Jackson Case, Gerald Birney Smith, Shailer Mathews. Aggressively evangelistic for the liberal cause. Summer schools and publications took liberalism to ordinary church members. Aggressively involved in denominational politics. Led the way in organizing the Northern Baptist Convention (1907).

20 Northern Baptists before 1907 Service Organizations: American Baptist Foreign Missions, Home Missions, Publication, Education societies, plus others. Colleges and Universities, some under state conventions. Seminaries: Newton, Hamilton (Colgate), Rochester, Crozer, Baptist Union (Chicago). Also Berkeley. State conventions and local associations. Anniversaries or May Meetings. Results: multiplied personnel, overhead; lack of coordination.

21 The Northern Baptist Convention The leading figure of Shailer Mathews of the University of Chicago Divinity School, a prominent liberal. 1906 – Chicago Baptist Association resolution called upon the secretaries of the big three agencies (foreign, home, publication) to call a meeting. The same resolution authorized the secretary of the Chicago Association to act if the secretaries did not. The three called for a meeting in 1907, Washington, D.C. Mathews was appointed chair of the steering committee and drafted the constitution.


23 NBC Important Dates 1908 – Constitution is adopted in Oklahoma City. 1911 – Convention executives are given the vote. 1911 – Creation of the Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board. 1911 – Merger with most of the “Randall Line” of Free Will Baptists, some of which permitted open membership. 1915 – The societies are subsumed under the convention. 1919 – Creation of the “General Board of Promotion,” a steering committee dominated by liberals and organization sympathizers.

24 Summary Before 1900, liberals were firmly entrenched in all of the seminaries. Liberals also held key administrative positions in the societies, the state conventions, and the local associations. After 1907, liberals were firmly in control of the Northern Baptist Convention and its machinery. Eventually, liberals would use the convention machinery to control the churches—even though the churches were overwhelmingly orthodox.

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