The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism

The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism

by William R. Hutchison

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The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism by William R. Hutchison

This landmark study of American religion, recipient of the National Religious Book Award in 1976, is being brought back into print with an updated bibliography. The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism traces the history of American Protestant thought from the early part of the nineteenth century to the present. William R. Hutchison deals especially with the "modernist" movement that flourished in the years around 1900, and with the colorful personalities and disputes associated with that movement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822382287
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/30/1992
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 914,199
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

William R. Hutchison is the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard University.

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The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism

By William R. Hutchison

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8228-7


The Unitarian Movement and "the Spirit of the Age"

The life of the time appoints the creed of the time and modifies the establishment of the time.


David Swing, a celebrated Presbyterian preacher in the last third of the nineteenth century, was fond of suggesting to his Chicago audiences that "we are ... all more than willing to give our hearts to the spirit of our own times." He proposed, repeatedly and eloquently, that the doctrines of the church be submitted to transformation by this same modern spirit. Because of such utterances, Swing in 1874 was tried for heresy.

At that same time in the East a leader of the radical wing of Unitarianism was being called old-fashioned for expressing views much like Swing's. Octavius B. Frothingham's Religion of Humanity, published in 1873, began with declarations that "the interior spirit of any age is the spirit of God," and that the life of the time must therefore appoint the creed of the time. Frothingham went on to describe at length and in detail what the new creed would be. His whole proposal—from the introductory effusions about spirit through what he thought were tough, "naturalistic" revisions of old Christian doctrines—seemed dreamy and reactionary to certain of his colleagues in religious radicalism. The scientific theist Francis Abbot acknowledged that Frothingham's book could charm many readers, "like a lovely landscape seen through ever-shifting and dissolving mists." But it would scarcely serve, Abbot thought, as a guidebook for "one who simply wants to find his way to the next town."

To see in such occurrences a symbolic passing-of-the-torch from Unitarian to evangelical liberals is not to use too extravagant a metaphor. These were not isolated events. Both of them—Frothingham's publication and Swing's trial—achieved national celebrity. And because Swing won his case, his ordeal and triumph served to announce the existence not only of liberalism but of a modernist version thereof within the great body of American evangelical Protestantism.

Though that infusion derived from many sources, none had been more powerful nor more clearly influential than the nineteenth-century Unitarianism to which Frothingham's work provided one culmination. Unitarians, in their role as pathbreakers for a wider liberalism, had never been unequivocal celebrants of the modern. But the Unitarian movement, in its successive rationalistic, romantic, and scientific stages, had provided far and away the most potent ground for the growth of a rationale justifying religious adaptation to culture.

Channing Unitarianism: "Humble, yet unfaltering hope"

In Protestant thought, as a recent writer has remarked, the eighteenth century lasted somewhat longer in America than in Europe. Theological conversation in New England, both among the followers of Jonathan Edwards and between Edward-seans and liberals, continued during the early nineteenth century to be centered upon the issues raised by eighteenth-century rationalism. Preachers and theologians persisted, that is, in arguing the relative weight to be given to reason and to the literal word of scripture in assessing particular points of inherited Calvinist doctrine. They rarely referred in any but the most abstract terms to the visibility of the work of the Holy Spirit in modern thought or current human progress. The modernist question, in other words, was seldom explicitly raised.

For many of the early liberals, this was not a matter of aversion to modernity—to which they might show sympathy in other contexts—but a question of the theologian or preacher sticking to his last. Scripture, for liberals as well as for the orthodox, remained the preeminent source and criterion for religious truth. To be sure, the more advanced thought of the eighteenth century had added (or restored) a God-given, timeless reason as a mighty criterion. But the notion that modernity itself might convey religious meanings was, among most of those advocating theological change, simply an idea whose time had not come.

Rationalistic liberalism was likely to exhibit at least two kinds of inhibition against anything resembling a modernist formula for religious change. One of these was an equivocal or even hostile attitude toward modernity. The other was a negative rather than constructive or reconstructive outlook upon the institutions or doctrines that a religious modernist would seek to reform. Thomas Jefferson, though an enthusiast for "the progress of science in all its branches," was sufficiently troubled about "the perils of metaphysics" to doubt the usefulness even of modern philosophy in the work of restoring the pure message of Jesus. Greek philosophy had distorted that message, with disastrous results, and little better was to be expected from the work of the metaphysicians and other formalists in these latter days. At the same time, and for some of the same reasons, Jefferson placed little stock in the reform of Christian doctrine or of institutional Christianity. He would "as soon think of writing for the reformation of Bedlam," he told Charles Clay, "as of the world of religious sects ... I consider reformation and redress as desperate, and abandon them to the Quixotism of more enthusiastic minds." The office of reason was essentially negative—a work of defoliation—in relation to systems and institutions. This was so whether one spoke of the ecclesiastical and philosophical systems that had subverted humanity and reason in the past or of the structures that some considered the glory of contemporary human society.

Neither Jefferson nor other rationalistic liberals were fully consistent in their expressions on these points; yet Jeffersonian liberalism promoted an influential pattern of thought that constituted virtually a denial of the possibility of religious modernism. Instead of an affirmative use of the secular culture in the reform of religion, rationalistic liberalism commonly promoted a severe skepticism about their usefulness to each other. Rationalists with more than the Jeffersonians' faith in modernity were likely to be even less sanguine about the reform—as opposed to the extirpation—of current religious institutions and theologies. Theodore Parker, the great Unitarian radical of mid-century, would declare with characteristic passion that "the new literature of our time, the new science of our time, the new philanthropy of our time, have no relation to the popular theology, but that of hate and warfare."

Yet from the beginning, from as far back as the proto-Unitarian days of Jefferson and Thomas Paine, a rather different tradition also found expression within rationalistic liberalism. The same enthusiasm for essential religious values that animated Jefferson and Parker could issue in more affirmative attitudes both toward modern institutions and toward the reform of Christianity.

Among the deists who reached an American audience, for example, Thomas Paine was one whose view of the relations between religion and culture often, and in important ways, sounded more like Schleiermacher's version of Enlightenment thinking than like Jefferson's. Paine's Age of Reason was a book that for millions too frightened to read it made his name a byword for irreligion; but the author's professed purpose was to avert the threatened destruction of religion and theology. The French Revolution, he said, with its necessarily destructive impact upon all "compulsive systems/* had created an imminent danger that "in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology," men would lose sight "of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true." Though deism, with its remote "clockmaker" God, often seemed the ultimate transcendentism, Paine's thought veered toward immanentist conceptions of the continuing presence and agency of God in nature and culture. Under the pressure of his own hostility to the church's constricted definition of revelation, Paine was led to insist upon the common origins of religion and the sciences—not, indeed, in what romantics were calling religious feeling or the sense of dependence, but in "the power and wisdom of God."

Such depictions of the workings of divine power and wisdom bespoke at least incipient cultural immanentism. Paine, for example, chided the Christian theologians for insufficient belief in God's pervasive action throughout his creation. The crowning apostasy had been the church's attempt to depreciate the sciences as mere "human invention." That practice had originated, he contended, with obscurantists who had feared the effects of scientific discoveries upon their own dogmatic fabrications, and who therefore had sought to depict science as the work of the devil. The "true theology" could be restored only by the overthrow of all such attempts to depict God and his creation as alien to each other.

Among New England Unitarians, a similarly affirmative method, now applied to a more specific form of religion than Paine had cared to reform or defend, began to show itself in the 1820s as the first battles against the Edwardsean theology came to an end. Appeals to the twin authorities of scripture and reason did not disappear from Unitarian polemics, certainly not in this early generation, but they came to be supplemented by wider and bolder appeals to the spirit of the age—a tutelary authority perceived as a projection of individual reason, yet increasingly spoken of as something palpable and identifiable in itself.

The preaching and lecturing of William Ellery Channing, minister of Federal Street Church in Boston and the most influential of the first-generation spokesmen, began especially to develop such an emphasis. "The Demands of the Age on the Ministry," an ordination sermon that Channing preached in 1824, started with a simple plea, similar to that of earlier Channing discourses, that ministers must do their cultural homework. "Religion," he asserted, "must be dispensed by men who at least keep pace with the intellect of the age in which they live." And Channing acknowledged that the liberal preacher must continue to busy himself with the negative work of purging theology and the church of cherished corruptions. But the bulk of this discourse was given over to an attempt to define the leading intellectual and social imperatives of the age and to state their implications for religious reform.

Religion, Channing said, had always been required somehow to come to terms with the wider thought of its time. But the present age was making unprecedented demands, simply because its peculiar illumination was a more spiritual and generally superior one than that of previous ages. The new element was society's recognition of mind, in place of bodily strength or military prowess, as the arbiter of society and as "sovereign of the world."

Among the resulting demands placed upon religion, the foremost was a demand for engagement. Channing expressed satisfaction with religion's current emergence "from the cell of the monk, and the school of the verbal disputant, into life and society." He appeared, in fact, to be anxious to do penance for his own participation, however necessary that had been, in the rationalistic disputations of the early Unitarian controversy. Seeking to minimize the claims made for a negative or destructive use of reason, he warned liberals not to suppose that the recently achieved modifications in doctrine had come about because of the devastating logic of Unitarian polemicists. "All these changes are owing, not to theological controversy so much as to the general progress of the human mind."

In the same vein, Channing saw the age as demanding a fervor and sense of immediacy in religion which he thought (fourteen years before Emerson's Divinity School remarks to the same effect) had been inadequately represented up to then in Unitarian liberalism. Religion, he said, must be presented in more exciting form; it must concentrate upon affirming rather than denying; and it must become more inward, must concern itself less with mechanical proofs or confessions and more with the testimony of the spirit.

Excitement and inwardness, which at first might seem antithetical, were linked by Channing's explanation of what he meant by excitement. "Religion," he said, must not be presented "in the dry, pedantic divisions of a scholastic theology ... No; it must come from the soul in the language of earnest conviction and strong feeling." Persons of religious sensitivity, he added somewhat ominously, "will not now be trifled with." If Unitarianism proved unexciting, then it would, "and still more, it ought, to fall." For in that case it would not suit "the spirit of our times."

Characteristically, Channing's admiring reference at this point to the spirit of the age was balanced by an equivalent or perhaps stronger sign of reliance upon "the essential and abiding spirit of human nature." Despite his conviction about the superior illumination of the current age, he remained cautious on both theoretical and empirical grounds. Like Theodore Parker a generation later—but with more skepticism than Parker would express about modernity—he advised teachers of Christianity to separate "what is of universal and everlasting application, from the local and the temporary."

The moral actualities of the age, as distinct from its aspirations, were not entirely reassuring. Improvement was a fact, and moral optimism was a need and requirement to which the preacher must respond. But Channing warned against "romantic anticipations." He called his society corrupt, "not because I consider it as falling below the purity of past times, but because it is obviously and grossly defective, when measured by the Christian standard," His discourse on "The Present Age," given just a year before his death in 1842, left expectations for the future of civilization wrapped in mystery:

As yet ... we are encompassed with darkness. The issues of our time how obscure! The future into which it opens who of us can foresee? To the Father of all Ages I commit this future with humble, yet courageous and unfaltering hope.

Even Channing Unitarianism expressed the modernist synthesis only in rudimentary form. Partly because Unitarians felt they had solved doctrinal issues for the present, and were weary of discussing them, the doctrinal implications of attentiveness to the spirit of the age were offered as general admonitions about method more than as prescriptions about content. Yet Channing and his generation had constructed some parts of the modernist mold. The original rationalistic critique of orthodoxy had served to clear the ground for the more positive theology that developed in the 1820s. And Channing's later search for cultural sources of religious affirmation—a search provoked partly by stirring times and partly, no doubt, by a realignment of Channing's method with the demands of an affirming temperament—advanced the notion that contemporary culture might be called upon to guide theological reform.

Transcendentalism: The Times and the Eternities

Transcendentalist or romantic Unitarianism in some ways was even less friendly to modernity than the rationalism of the elders had been. Henry David Thoreau was not atypical in reacting adversely to railroads and similar products of the modernizing spirit. Nor was Thoreau unique in perceiving the spirit of the age as something that supported slavery and unjust wars—as something, therefore, that the individual was bound to resist.

More broadly, the romantic mode of thought, bolstered by philosophical idealism, lent itself readily to a minimizing of modern culture, or at least to a principled neutrality toward the claims of the modern. The past and its traditions might not be controlling, and in American religious romanticism they almost never were; but in romantic or idealist theory, modern culture could not be controlling either. Past and present were equally under judgment; and if this judgment was now construed, in a transcendentalized Christianity, as issuing from the spiritual laws or from a humanized Christ rather than from the edicts of a stern Jehovah, it still could issue in sharp rejections of modernity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Lecture on the Times," given in 1841, depicted the times as "the masquerade of the Eternities," and treated the traditional and the modern as almost equally culpable in their offenses against the moral laws that govern the universe. Similarly, the Divinity School Address of 1838, Emerson's most notable exposition of ideas on religious reform, took a stance quite above any dependence upon models either past or present. What Emerson called historical Christianity was unmistakably the villain of this piece, but the corrective did not lie in accommodation to any part of modern culture. The values of the culture, Emerson said, simply would not suffice: "We easily come up to the standard of goodness in society." The arts offered little guidance, he said, and learning was not an ultimate. "The compositions we call wiser and wisest" were superior only by "little shades and gradations of intelligence." "The orators, the poets, the commanders encroach on us only ... by our allowance and homage." The remedy for the ills of religion, in his view, lay no more in modern times than in any other epoch of human culture. On the contrary, the remedy was timeless: "first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul." The deformities of religion would be corrected only by a faith like Christ's in the infinitude of man.


Excerpted from The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism by William R. Hutchison. Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Faith and Force Enough
1 The Unitarian Movement and “the Spirit of the Age”
2 The Evangelical Groundwork
3 The New Theology and the Wider Christian Nurture
4 But Why Christianity? Liberal Extension and Apologetics in the 1890s
5 A Prophetic Minority: Liberal Perceptions of Cultural Crisis, 1900-1914
6 The Emergence of a Critique: Liberalism Under Scrutiny, 1891-1913
7 The Great War and the Logic of Modernism
8 The Odd Couple: Fundamentalism and Humanism in the Twenties
9 Epilogue: The Decline of Cultural Faith
A. Reviews of selected liberal works in representative journals and newspapers, 1877-1891
B. Reviews of selected liberal works in representative journals and newspapers, 1891-1908
C. Reviews of selected neo-orthodox works in representative journals and newspapers, 1928-1935
Selected Bibliography

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