The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation

The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation

by Richard M. Gamble

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497646797
Publisher: Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD)
Publication date: 05/06/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 300
Sales rank: 972,212
File size: 477 KB

About the Author

Richard M. Gamble is the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Professor of History and Political Science and Associate Professor of History at Hillsdale College. He formerly taught in the honors program at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

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The War for Righteousness

Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation

By Richard M. Gamble

ISI Books

Copyright © 2003 ISI Books
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-4679-7




ON A MILD MONDAY MORNING in early November 1897, Presbyterian clergy, scholars, and laymen gathered within the gothic nave of "Old First" Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue near Washington Square to observe the 250th anniversary of the Westminster Standards, Calvinism's venerated confession of faith and a principal source of America's Protestant heritage. Professor Benjamin Warfield, Princeton Seminary's forceful defender of Biblical authority and of Reformed theology, described the confession that day as "a notable monument of spiritual religion." Warfield, who also served as editor of the conservative Princeton Theological Review, spoke for historic Protestantism and its inherited doctrines and creeds. Continuing the festivities that evening, a much larger group assembled at the Madison Square Garden Concert Hall to honor their "notable monument" further with a service of music and preaching.

That same week in November 1897 witnessed a second commemoration as well. Eastward across the Brooklyn Bridge, in sight of lower Manhattan, an equally distinguished group convened a few days later at another prestigious urban church, the noted Plymouth Congregational Church. They came to celebrate Plymouth's fiftieth year of service in Brooklyn Heights and to remind themselves and the nation of that church's place at the forefront of progressive Christianity. The congregation sang the hymn "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord" in a sanctuary decorated with autumnal chrysanthemums and with banners reading "1857" and "1897." Plymouth Church had been the pulpit of Henry Ward Beecher, one of nineteenth-century America's preeminent liberal preachers, and its founding, therefore, represented quite a different achievement from the one celebrated in Manhattan. Plymouth Church, while linked by its very name to the Puritan heritage, had always, reported the New York Times that week, "held such advanced ground upon all questions concerning the social welfare of mankind." Indeed, the Reverend Beecher had championed such causes as modern theology, theistic evolution, social reform, and an activist, humanitarian mission for the modern church. This was, after all, the abolitionist congregation that had sent "Beecher's Bibles" to the Kansas Territory in 1855 to aid the Free-State cause. So, while the aging Westminster Confession symbolized a rooted, orthodox Protestantism, Plymouth Church's founding represented an activist, experimental, progressive Christianity.

Plymouth's current pastor, Lyman Abbott, had assembled a group of notable clergy to mark Plymouth's achievement, among them Washington Gladden and George A. Gordon, both prominent Congregational ministers and authors, and William Jewett Tucker, president of Dartmouth College. Each orator was famous for advocating both the "New Theology" and a socially defined gospel.

Abbott himself had achieved some distinction as a leader of reconstructed Christianity and a crusader for good government. Plymouth's pastor since 1888, he was also the respected editor of the Christian Union (soon to be renamed the Outlook) and a nascent Rooseveltian progressive. Abbott had begun his ministry in the Congregational Church on the eve of the Civil War, and would for over forty years edit the weekly Outlook, a magazine he transformed from a denominational paper into a national journal of fashionable liberal opinion in both religion and politics. He was well-known as a popularizer of modern theology, especially for his attempt to reconcile the Bible and evolution, to which cause he contributed The Evolution of Christianity (1892) and The Theology of an Evolutionist (1897). He was a popular essayist and conference speaker, and a tireless spokesman for international arbitration and world peace.

Fellow Congregationalist pastor Washington Gladden was a familiar figure at Plymouth Church. In the 1870s, he had been religion editor for Henry Ward Beecher's Independent, another widely read journal of current opinion. Gladden pastored several Congregational churches, beginning in Brooklyn in the 1860s and then in New York state and Massachusetts before settling in his nationally respected pulpit in Columbus, Ohio. By his own account, his theology was shaped by the teachings and close friendship of Horace Bushnell, New England's most renowned theologian since Jonathan Edwards. Bushnell had stressed an intuitive and experiential theology and thereby left a deep impression on the generation represented on the platform at Plymouth Church. Like his followers, Bushnell had been no stranger to controversy. He had doubted the Trinity, posited a gradualist theory of personal redemption, and promoted the dual revelation of science and theology as the "one system" of an immanent God in harmony with his creation. Gladden later declared him to have been "the greatest theological genius of the American church in the nineteenth century." Building on Bushnell's foundation for the social gospel, Gladden made his own mark by challenging the contemporary church to take up the collective task of social reconstruction in a troubled urbanizing and industrializing America. From 1900 to 1902, he even served on the Columbus, Ohio, city council, putting his social gospel into practice and working to realize the kingdom of God on earth.

The Reverend George A. Gordon was not destined to be as well remembered as Abbott and Gladden, but in the 1890s he was an esteemed spokesman for a modern, adaptive Christianity. He was born in Scotland to a strong Calvinist home and had immigrated to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. He attended Bangor Seminary and Harvard, and then pastored Boston's prominent Old South Church. Like Gladden, he credited his theological liberalism to Bushnell's pioneering work. As a Congregational minister, Gordon popularized the New Theology, which he preferred to call "Progressive Orthodoxy" and which valued experience over doctrine and confessions. At Charles Eliot's Harvard he had studied under William James and was deeply influence by that philosopher's pragmatism. He remained friends with his former professor, corresponding with James during his Boston ministry and later presiding at his mentor's funeral.

Joining these three theologians at Plymouth was William Jewett Tucker, Congregationalist minister, former Andover seminary professor, settlement worker, and, since 1893, the distinguished president of Dartmouth College. As one of the famous or — depending on one's theology — the notorious Andover Liberals, he had helped found the Andover Review, among the most important publications of Progressive Orthodoxy. While his essays for that journal had brought charges of heresy, his address at Plymouth was reportedly "listened to with the closest attention."

Abbott and his colleagues represented a distinct phase in America's complex religious history. They shared many formative experiences, emerged on the national scene together, flourished about the same time, and all died within a few years of each other and within the shadow of the Great War — Gladden in 1918, Abbott in 1922, Tucker in 1926, and Gordon in 1929. They were part of the same remarkable generation that had produced novelist William Dean Howells. With their passing, their progressive theology would seem as hopelessly old-fashioned as the orthodoxy they once criticized, their hopeful liberalism having been chastened by the spectacular contradiction of the First World War, by those "fearful convulsions of a dying civilization," as John Maynard Keynes would later describe the events of 1914 to 1918. For the moment, however, for the years leading up to their nation's great adventure in the World War, they helped shape and define a religious and political movement, and determined to a large degree how that movement would interpret the cataclysm of the Great War. Together with their spiritual heirs — the rising generation of such noted liberal clergy as Shailer Mathews, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Henry Churchill King, and William H. P. Faunce — they served as highly visible and quotable spokesmen of their day's adaptive, meliorist, optimistic Protestantism. Their names appeared frequently in the nation's leading journals. They contributed essays to the Atlantic Monthly and Current Opinion, while the Literary Digest, the Century magazine, and the Nation quoted their pronouncements on public issues. The New York Times and other metropolitan dailies followed their careers in New York, Boston, and Chicago. They counted local politicians, governors, and congressmen among their friends; hobnobbed with presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson; tapped the resources of business tycoons Carnegie and Rockefeller; and traveled the world for the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and numerous mission boards and even as foreign emissaries of the national government. These were the clergymen that progressive Americans consulted, quoted, and linked arms with in their efforts to define the new America and its expanding role in the world. Consequently, the progressive clergy, allied with the press, politicians, and big business, were positioned to influence far more than the nation's religious history. Nevertheless, despite the breadth of their political and social activism, their worldview and behavior during the war years was rooted in a particular theology.

Abbott's guests came to Plymouth Church to pay tribute to the Reverend Beecher's abiding influence in American theology, but they also intended to chart a course for their "new Puritanism." This "new Puritanism" was to achieve everything the old system of faith and practice had fallen short of. Traditional Christianity, with its biblical literalism and notions of eternal retribution and individual redemption, seemed dangerously illequipped for the modern world. Progressive Christianity, in contrast, was to be intellectually respectable, credible, relevant, and liberating. In short, it would be a suitable spiritual companion to modern man as he entered the twentieth century. At a preliminary meeting in May 1897 commemorating Beecher's first Sunday in his Brooklyn pulpit, Lyman Abbott had praised progressive Christianity for having cast off the combined weights of Calvinism, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the debilitating theology of Jonathan Edwards. Unlike the new theology, he declared, the old theology was "fatalistic in the very essence of its philosophy." Having liberated their faith from a supposedly dead orthodoxy, these champions of the new Christianity sought to conform their creed to the modern spirit. Boston's George Gordon explicitly rejected the old theology, claiming that orthodoxy had not kept pace with the modern age. "For all thinking men who are in any measure open to the new light and spirit of our time," he told the Plymouth congregation, "Calvinism as an adequate interpretation of the ways of God with men, or even as a working philosophy of life, is forever gone."

As a group, the progressive clergy found the Reformed theology of John Calvin much too narrow and harsh, and of limited use in remaking the world. They preferred instead the more benevolent, universalist, humanitarian conceptions of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man — doctrines ripe with social and political potential. In his memoirs published in 1915, Lyman Abbott reemphasized this progressive predilection. Recounting the changes in religion he had witnessed over sixty years, he rejoiced that "for the conception of God as King, the conception of God as Father [has replaced it]; for the conception of salvation as the rescue of the elect from a lost world, the conception of the transformation of the world itself into a human Brotherhood, a conception which is the inspiration of the great world-wide democratic movement." For Abbott, the spreading acceptance of the new doctrines signaled the triumph of progressive Christianity over historic Calvinism and even over regressive social systems. Significantly, Abbott blurred the distinction in his mind between theological and political progressivism to the point that they were a single movement, the joining of sacred and secular reconstruction that so largely defined the worldview of his fellow modernist theologians. Washington Gladden, for example, counted on the expansion of such ideas as the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, as well as the fusion of the sacred and secular and ideals of social solidarity, to bear tangible results in the reordering of society, to "greatly accelerate the progress of the kingdom," as he phrased it. As Abbott reminded his Plymouth congregation in 1897, "the heresy and the moral reform were going along together."

While progressive Christianity's skill at reconstructing institutions would become clear as it tackled first the church, then American society, and ultimately international affairs, its theology was grounded in a few elemental assumptions about the way the world worked. First among these assumptions was a belief in inherent, inevitable spiritual progress, in the gradual tendency of the physical universe and of human history toward the good, a process that determined the manner in which God achieved His will. For the progressives, the world was in motion. But this was not a random or inscrutable movement. Creation, humanity, and history were not merely changing; they were changing in a clear direction, toward a knowable goal, toward nothing less than the kingdom of God on earth. This idea of purposeful, teleological change dominated the intellectual world of the late nineteenth century. The law of evolution that was thought to control the natural world was presumed to direct the spiritual world as well. Plymouth's pastor Lyman Abbott believed that development in these two realms, the physical and the spiritual, was not merely analogous but also a synonymous, manifestation of a single force. "The law of progress," as he claimed, "is the same in both." Citing Herbert Spencer's belief in evolution as a unifying principle, he argued that "nothing is more certain than this, that we are ever in the presence of an Infinite and Eternal Energy from which all things proceed."

The progressive clergy detected what they thought to be a comprehensive, universal process at work and developed from this principle a system that embraced all of life and thought. As William Jewett Tucker observed about the spiritual temper of his colleagues, "Gradually the desire and struggle for progress became the unifying purpose of the generation." Nearly ten years after turning the presidency of Dartmouth College over to his more famous successor Ernest Hopkins, Tucker observed in his autobiography, My Generation, that the atmosphere of the late nineteenth century had been characterized by an awareness of undeniable progress and a sense of anticipation. "One felt all the while," he recalled, "that he was living in the region of undiscovered truth. He was constantly made aware of the presence of some unsatisfied opportunity." For the churches in particular, this longing for new truth drew modern Christianity away from orthodoxy and toward a progressive theology. As Tucker pointed out, "the term which best expressed the character of the modernizing process as it went on in the churches was the term 'progressive.' It was, in fact, actually in use as a theological term long before it found so conspicuous a place in politics."

The accuracy of Tucker's characterization of his times was reflected in comments from the pulpits and beyond near the turn of the century. The Reverend Newell Dwight Hillis — by 1900 successor to Abbott in the pulpit at Plymouth Church and, during the Great War, the most notoriously quotable of the progressive clergy — praised the emerging new day for the democratic spirit of cooperation and service, noting that "art, industry, invention, literature, learning, and government — all these are captives marching in Christ's triumphant procession up the hill of fame." Hillis linked all social progress ultimately to Christianity's reign in the world. No one less than Christ himself, the captain of a modern army, was leading a conquered world in a grand victory parade. In the same spirit, but from a secular perspective, the Encyclopedia Americana in 1903 claimed that progress governed the whole natural and moral universe. And this observable forward motion had given to modern philosophy its faith in "meliorism," a principle of the natural world that the encyclopedia accepted as "a doctrine so firmly based on fact that none can controvert it." In a world of inevitable social betterment, pessimism had become "a contradiction in terms," and the pervasive "optimism" that resulted from this observable scientific process had given to "the mind a philosophical creed that renders life tolerable." Progress, visible in every facet of life and ruling as the governing force behind existence, brought order to a world of change and moral purpose to a universe otherwise disturbingly random and meaningless. This faith in progress anchored the soul.


Excerpted from The War for Righteousness by Richard M. Gamble. Copyright © 2003 ISI Books. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
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Table of Contents


1 A Vast Spiritual Migration Tracing the Worldview of the Progressive Clergy,
2 Applied Christianity Implementing the Progressive Worldview,
3 Applied Christianity Abroad Foreign Missions, Internationalism, and the Expanding Circle of Progressive Reform to 1914,
4 Fit to Serve All Mankind The Progressive Clergy and the European War, 1914-1917,
5 With Battle Banners Furled The Varieties of Progressive Pacifism, 1914-1917,
6 A Righteous People in a Righteous Cause The Progressive Clergy and American Intervention, 1917-1918,
7 Soldiers of the Cross The Progressive Clergy's Redemptive War, 1917-1918,
8 A New World Order The Progressive Clergy and the Peace, 1918-1920,
9 Righteousness Postponed The Progressive Clergy's Enduring Worldview,

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