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The Methodology of the Modernists: Process in American Protestantism

  • Kathryn Lofton (a1)


Scholarship on early-twentieth-century American Protestant modernism appears to have arrived at an impasse. Although scholars continue to explore the biographical contours of modernist individuals, and theologians still review the capacity of modernist theologies, the body of analytical scholarship on the “modernist impulse” has failed to keep apace with the glut of materials addressing its fraternal twin, fundamentalism. Published in 1976, William Hutchison's The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism remains the last significant historical commentary on the cultural and intellectual dynamics of Protestant modernism. In that masterful exegesis, Hutchison supplied the classic definition of this impulse, arguing that despite the diversity of its participants and complexity of their thought, the modernist movement in America could be accurately summarized as a shared commitment to cultural adaptation, God's immanent role in human development, and a postmillennial progressivism. While this tripartite formulation still provides the authoritative elucidation of early-twentieth-century Protestant thought, a reappraisal of the modernist canon reveals that Christian liberals not only were invested in theological overhaul and intellectual malleability, but also persistently specified an elaborate methodological structure for belief. In works such as Minot Savage's Jesus and Modern Life (1898), Margaret Benson's The Venture of Rational Faith (1908), Douglas Clyde Macintosh's Theology as an Empirical Science (1919), J. Macbride Sterrett's Modernism in Religion (1922), and Henry Nelson Wieman's The Wrestle of Religion with Truth (1927), seminarians and ministers offered detailed descriptions of how Protestants should think in the modern era. These were not expansive tracts bent on exploring the fluid boundaries of faith in a plural culture; rather, these were precise, pointed exhortations on the virtue of scrupulous historical research, scriptural comparison, and relentless self-examination. Rather than continue to translate Protestant modernism as cultural acquiescence and enthusiastic historicism, this essay suggests that a recalibrated portrait of this movement is needed.



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1. Whitehead, Alfred North, “The Nineteenth Century,” in Science and the Modern World: Lowell Lectures, 1925 (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 96.

2. This essay deals with the literary production of self-proclaimed Christian modernists in an effort to complicate the primarily theological interpretation of this diverse movement. I rely heavily on the historical and theological expositions of the following bibliography: Arnold, Charles Harvey, Near the Edge of Battle: A Short History of the Divinity School and the “Chicago School of Theology,” 1886–1966 (Chicago: The Divinity School Association, 1966); Bebbington, D. W., “Evangelical Christianity and Modernism,” Crux 26:2 (06 1990): 29; Bowden, Henry Warner, Church History in an Age of Uncertainty: Historiographical Patterns in the United States, 1906–1990 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991); Bretell, Robert W., ed., The Empirical Theology of Henry Nelson Wieman (New York: Macmillan, 1963); Dorrien, Gary, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900–1950 (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2003); Dorrien, Gary, “Modernisms in Theology: Interpreting American Liberal Theology, 1805–1950,” American Journal of Philosophy and Theology 23:3 (09 2002): 200220; Green, Jay D., “A Creed for Modernism: Shirley Jackson Case and the Irony of Modern Approaches to ‘Faith and History,’Fides et Historia 29:3 (fall 1997): 3849; Handy, Robert T., “Fundamentalism and Modernism in Perspective,” Religion in Life 24:3 (summer 1955): 381–94; Hutchison, William R., “Cultural Strain and Protestant Liberalism,” American Historical Review 76:2 (04 1971): 386411; Hutchison, William R., “Getting to Know Modernism,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 2:2 (winter 1969): 13; Hutchison, William, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976); Lease, Gary, “Modernism and ‘Modernism’: Christianity as a Product of its Culture,” Journal for the Study of Religion 1 (09 1988): 323; Peden, Creighton, The Chicago School: Voices in Liberal Religious Thought (Bristol, Ind.: Wyndham Hall, 1987); Peden, W. Creighton and Stone, Jerome A., ed., The Chicago School of Theology—Pioneers in Religious Inquiry, Studies on American Religion, vol. 66a (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1996); Pierson, Samuel C., “The Cave Affair: Protestant Thought in the Gilded Age,” Encounter 41 (spring 1980): 179203; Sweet, Leonard I., “The University of Chicago Revisited: The Modernization of Theology, 1890–1940,” Foundations 22 (1012 1979): 324–51.

3. Key works on “fundamentalism” include Antes, Peter, “Fundamentalism: A Western Term With Consequences,” in Perspectives on Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, ed. Armin, Geertz and McCutcheon, Russell T. (Leiden: Brill, 2000); Carter, Paul A., “The Fundamentalist Defense of the Faith,” in Change and Continuity in Twentieth-Century America, ed. John, Braeman and others (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1968), 179214; Hart, D. G., “When Is A Fundamentalist a Modernist? J. Gresham Machen, Cultural Modernism, and Conservative Protestantism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65:3 (fall 1997): 605–33; Keddie, Nikki R., “The New Religious Politics: Where, When, and Why Do ‘Fundamentalisms’ Appear?,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 40:4 (10 1998): 696723; Kippenberg, Hans G., “Revolt Against Modernism: A Note on Some Recent Comparative Studies in Fundamentalism,” Numen 38:1 (01 1991): 128–33; Lawrence, Bruce B., “Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age,” Religious Studies Review 19:4 (10 1993): 287–97; Marsden, George M., Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); Portier, William L., “Fundamentalism in North America: A Modern Anti-Modernism,” Communio 28 (fall 2001): 581–98; Westerman, Pauline C., “The Modernity of Fundamentalism,” Journal of Religion 74:1 (01 1994): 7785.

4. The one exception to this statement is Dorrien's, GaryThe Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900–1950 (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2003). Dorrien dispenses with any definitional dilemmas in his introduction when he neatly divides “modernist” discourse from “liberal” thought and points to the general fusion of “evangelical” and “modernist” epistemologies. Dorrien's comprehensive investigation into early-twentieth-century Christian thinkers is a chapter in his longer saga of liberal theology, but it is not a chronologically contingent analysis of theological positioning. Although he provides a subtle survey of liberal Protestantism from 1900 to 1950, Dorrien never engages with the pronounced discourse of modernist self-definition to which this essay is devoted.

5. Hutchison, William, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism, 2.

6. Although movements in Catholicism and Buddhism have been interpreted as explicitly “modernist” developments, within synthetic narratives of American religious history, the term “modernist” refers exclusively to a particular cohort of theologians clustered at Yale and at the University of Chicago. These liberal Protestants offered, in the words of The Encyclopedia of American Religious History (1996), a “radical readjustment of Protestant theology in light of new intellectual and scientific developments.” Other dictionary and encyclopedia definitions of modernism only echo this Protestant particularity. For example, in his A Religious History of the American People (1972), Sydney Ahlstrom describes Catholic modernism only to note its swift condemnation by church authorities. According to Ahlstrom, the liberal theologies espoused at Chicago and Yale would persist well into the twentieth century; for that reason, he considered Protestant modernism to be the only intellectually consequential form of religious modernism. Regardless of the epistemological veracity of such a reduction, Protestant determinations will form the definitional center of any religious modernism. This essay uses the terms “Christian” and “Protestantism” interchangeably, paying no attention to the broad discourse of modernism within Roman Catholicism during this time. For more on Catholic modernism, see Gilkey, Langdon Brown, Catholicism Confronts Modernity: A Protestant View (New York: Seabury, 1975); Hill, Harvey, The Politics of Modernism: Alfred Loisy and the Scientific Study of Religion (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002); Darrell, Jodock, ed., Catholicism Contending with Modernity: Roman Catholic Modernism and Anti-Modernism in Historical Context (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Woods, Thomas E., The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

The choice to delete any Catholic modernists from this analysis was an intentioned choice: while I believe Catholic modernism posed important challenges to that particular tradition, I believe Protestant modernism has determined discussions of “modernism” within religious studies. This is an assertion that obviously deserves far greater substantiation and rebuttal by students of American Catholicism. For now, as endorsement I turn to Lewis Brastow, professor of practical theology at Yale University, who offers a typically modernist take on the unique relationship between Protestantism and the modern pulpit:

It is Protestantism only that in the fullest sense may be said to have, either in theory or in fact, a modern pulpit. The preaching of the Roman Catholic Church is not underestimated, nor its value minimized. It had notable merits of its own and is worthy of careful study…. But it has no time-spirit. It assumes to be superior to modern life. It would dominate the modern world, not be dominated by it. Of course it must adjust itself to what is temporal, and in much it is really as modern as the Protestant pulpit. But its claim to be superior to temporary influences is measurably justified, and it shares the fortune of a church that would be, like its founder, “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” [ Brastow, Lewis, The Modern Pulpit (New York: Macmillan, 1906), vii.]

Brastow, authored an analogous survey of “moderns” two years earlier in the form of Representative Modern Preachers (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1904), a volume that included profiles of Schleiermacher, Frederick William Robertson, Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Bushnell, Phillips Brooks, John Henry Newman, James Bowling Mozley, Thomas Guthrie, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

7. Haydon, A. Eustace, “Introduction,” in Modern Trends in World-Religions, ed. Haydon, A. Eustace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934), vii and ix.

8. Emmett, Cyril W., “The Modernist Movement in the Church of England,” Journal of Religion 2 (11 1922): 562.

9. Merrill, William Pierson, “Protestantism at the Crossroads,” World's Work 47 (02 1924): 419.

10. This is perhaps best illustrated by Hutchison's Modernist Impulse, which includes a rich portrait of the complex social networks and cultural ambitions of the Protestant modernists. It would be impossible to deny the detailed curricular focus of Christian activist and Northwestern University professor George A. Coe, or the passionate ecumenical efforts of Newman Smyth. Hutchison's profile of these modernists poses countless examples of consequential liberal campaigning and, moreover, provides a clear view of the modernists' substantive social interconnectivity. Even their joint vacationing practices demonstrated the high premium placed on public ritual and interactive Christian fellowship by Protestant modernists.

11. The scholarship on cultural modernism is vast; works underlining this particular emphasis include Beebe, Maurice, “Introduction: What Modernism Was,” Journal of Modern Literature 3:5 (07 1974): 1065–84; Jameson, Fredric, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of Present (London: Verso, 2002); Ross, Dorothy, “Introduction: Modernism Reconsidered,” in Modernist Impulses in the Human Sciences, 1870–1930, ed. Dorothy, Ross (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). For documentary evidence underlining this assertion, see Malcolm, Bradbury and James, McFarlane, ed., Modernism: 1890–1930 (New York: Penguin, 1976); Charles, Harrison and Fred, Orton, ed., Modernism, Criticism, Realism (London: Harper and Row, 1984).

12. Harrison, Charles, “Modernism,” in Critical Terms for Art History, ed. Robert, Nelson and Richard, Shiff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 145.

13. Greenberg, Clement, “Modernist Painting,” in Forum Lectures (Washington, D.C.: Voice of America, 1960), 86; Harrison, Charles, “Modernism,” 146.

14. Harrison, Charles, “Modernism,” 147.

15. Chapman, Edward Mortimer, The Dynamic of Christianity: A Study of the Vital and Permanent Element in the Christian Religion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904).

16. Chapman, Edward M., A Modernist and His Creed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1926), 98.

17. Chapman, , A Modernist and His Creed, 100.

18. Ibid., 245.

19. Ibid., 247.

20. Ibid., 345.

21. Davies, William Walter, “Modernism,” Methodist Review 90 (05 1908): 477.

22. Cooke, Richard Joseph, “What Is Modernism,” Methodist Review 112 (03 1929): 187.

23. Glenn, Edgar Massilon, “Is Modernism Made-Out or Made-Up,” Methodist Quarterly Review 78:2 (04 1929): 346.

24. Snowden, James Henry, “Modernism in the Bible,” Methodist Review 111 (07 1928): 487.

25. Sterrett, J. Macbride, Modernism in Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1922), 2.

26. It is tempting to force this analogy between sixteenth-century and early-twentieth-century reformers. However, the scientific and technological innovations of the nineteenth century distinguish this era of crisis. In section V of this essay I explore further the modernists' understandings of their present age. It is useful to keep in mind, however, the lengthy tradition of method and methodology in the history of Protestantism From John Calvin's “new devotion” to John Wesley's “second blessing,” Protestants had defined their multifarious offshoots by the particularity of their tactical revisions. The protests of one Protestant against another were inevitably premised on methodological critique; the resultant sectarianism was determined by the chosen methodological correctives of the protesting parties. The modernists profiled here simply took the cycle of Protestant protestations to their practical extreme: now, their practice of religious criticism would define their Christianity.

27. Little, Charles Joseph, “The Place of Christ in Modern Thought,” Methodist Review 81 (03 1899): 191.

28. Ibid., 190.

29. Sterrett, J. Macbride, Modernism in Religion, x.

30. Mathews, Shailer, The Faith of Modernism (New York: Macmillan, 1924), 23.

31. Cooke, Richard Joseph, “What Is Modernism,” 186.

32. Benson, Margaret, The Venture of Rational Faith (London: Macmillan, 1908); Fosdick, Harry Emerson, The Modern Use of the Bible (New York: Macmillan, 1924).

33. Wieman, Henry Nelson, The Wrestle of Religion with Truth (New York: Macmillan, 1927), v.

34. Sterrett, J. Macbride, Modernism in Religion, 16 and 17.

35. Little, Charles Joseph, “The Place of Christ in Modern Thought,” 191.

36. Brown, Oswald Eugene, “Modernism: A Calm Survey,” Methodist Quarterly Review 74:3 (07 1925): 402.

37. Wieman, Henry Nelson, The Issues of Life (New York: Abingdon, 1930), 136 and 197.

38. Clarke, William Newton, The Use of Scriptures in Theology (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1905), vii.

39. Wieman, Henry Nelson, The Issues of Life, 187.

40. Jefferson, Charles Edward, Things Fundamental: A Course of Thirteen Discourses in Modern Apologetics (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1903), 38.

41. Wieman, Henry Nelson, Religious Experience and Scientific Method (New York: Macmillan, 1927), 23.

42. Macintosh, Douglas Clyde, Theology As An Empirical Science (New York: Macmillan, 1919), 27.

43. Ibid., 26.

44. Clarke, William Newton, The Use of Scriptures in Theology, 127.

45. Snowden, James Henry, “Modernism in the Bible,” 487.

46. Ames, Edward Scribner, “Christianity and Modern Scientific Thinking,” in Modern Trends in World-Religions, ed. Haydon, A. Eustace, 25.

47. Ames, Edward Scribner, “Theory in Practice,” in Contemporary American Theology: Theological Autobiographies, ed. Ferm, Vergilius (New York: Round Table, 1933), 12.

48. Modernists deploy “faith” and “belief” somewhat differently, using “belief” to stipulate a hypothesis or idea, whereas “faith” is a constancy built from the persistent weighing of asserted beliefs.

49. Woolf, Virginia, “Phases of Fiction,” in Collected Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1967), 4:56102.

50. Beebe, Maurice, “Ulysses and the Age of Modernism,” James Joyce Quarterly 10 (fall 1972): 175.

51. Mathews, Shailer and Smith, Gerald Birney, “Formalism,” in A Dictionary of Religion and Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1921), 171.

52. Savage, Minot, Jesus and Modern Life (Boston: G. H. Ellis, 1898), 212.

53. Quoted in Little, Charles Joseph, “The Place of Christ in Modern Thought,” 203.

54. Baille, John, The Place of Jesus Christ in Modern Christianity (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929); Clarke, William Newton, The Ideal of Jesus (New York: Scribner's, 1911); Fairbairn, A. M., The Place of Christ in Modern Theology (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902); Hillis, Newell Dwight, The Influence of Christ in Modern Life: Being a Study of the New Problems of the Church in American Society (New York: Macmillan, 1900); Knox, George, The Gospel of Jesus the Son of God, An Interpretation for the Modern Man (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1909); Mathews, Shailer, The Message of Jesus to Our Modern Life (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1915).

55. Clarke, William Newton, The Ideal of Jesus, 3.

56. Fairbairn, A. M., The Place of Christ in Modern Theology, 381.

57. Schweitzer, Albert, Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (New York: Macmillan, 1968), 6. See also Brown, Jerry Wayne, The Rise of Biblical Criticism in America, 1800–1870 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1969); and Hatch, Nathan O. and Noll, Mark A., ed., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

58. Some historians have interpreted American Protestant modernism as an apologetic response to German biblical criticism; I see no proof of such an implication.

59. Van Dyke, Henry, The Gospel for an Age of Doubt (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1896), xv and 58.

60. Snowden, James Henry, “Modernism in the Bible,” 492 and 493.

61. Ibid., 494.

62. Mathews, Shailer, The Faith of Modernism, 124.

63. Baille, John, The Place of Jesus Christ in Modern Christianity, 201.

64. Faulkner, Peter, Modernism (London: Methuen, 1977), 15.

65. Merrill, William Pierson, “Protestantism at the Crossroads,” 420 and 421.

66. The modernists espoused an extremely low Christology, one countered constantly in the public sphere by the rampant advocacies of the nascent pentecostals and touring Protestant evangelicals.

67. Jarrell, Randall, “The Obscurity of the Poet,” in Poetry and the Age (New York: Vintage, 1953), 12.

68. Diepeveen, Leonard, The Difficulties of Modernism (New York: Routledge, 2003), xi. See also Steiner, George, On Difficulty and Other Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

69. Merrill, William Pierson, The Way: Meditations on the Way of Life According to Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1933), v.

70. Kent, Charles Foster and Jenks, Jeremiah Whipple, Jesus' Principals of Living (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920), v.

71. Clarke, William Newton, The Use of Scriptures in Theology, 140.

72. Gladden, Washington, Plain Thoughts on the Art of Living (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1871), 111. These manuals might be usefully compared to analogous handbooks for businessmen written during this era. For summations of this genre, see Meyer, Donald, The Positive Thinkers: A Study of the American Quest for Health, Wealth and Personal Power from Mary Baker Eddy to Norman Vincent Peale (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965).

73. Gladden, Washington, Live and Learn (New York: Macmillan, 1914), 9.

74. Knox, George, The Gospel of Jesus the Son of God, xix.

75. King, Henry Churchill, The Moral and Religious Challenge of Our Times: The Guiding Principle in Human Development, Reverence for Personality (New York: Macmillan, 1911).

76. Van Dyke, Henry, The Gospel for an Age of Doubt, 6.

77. Ibid., 8.

78. Fosdick, Harry, Christianity and Progress (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1922), 60.

79. Van Dyke, Henry, The Gospel for an Age of Doubt, 8.

80. Nearing, Scott, Social Religion: An Interpretation of Christianity in Terms of Modern Life (New York: Macmillan, 1913), vii. An analogous argument is presented twenty years later in Macintosh, Douglas Clyde, Social Religion (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939).

81. Fosdick, Harry, Christianity and Progress, 58.

82. Ames, Edward Scribner, The Higher Individualism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915), 112.

83. Edward Scribner Ames offered this ideal version of religious belief, suggesting that once the natural history of religion in human experience is fully understood through methodical examination

Religion might then consciously develop ideologies in place of creeds, social values and ideals in place of supernatural commands, dramatic ceremonials in place of ordinances and sacraments, history in place of myth, and reasonably-planned social institutions instead of apocalyptic visions, and the recognition of order, intelligence, and beauty as marks of the sacred and divine qualities of the world at its best. [ Ames, Edward Scribner, “Christianity and Modern Scientific Thinking,” in Modern Trends in World-Religions, ed. Haydon, A. Eustace, 33.]

84. Haydon, A. Eustace, “Introduction,” in Modern Trends in World-Religions, ed. Haydon, A. Eustace, x.

85. Bower, William Clayton, ed., The Church at Work in the Modern World (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1935), 2.

86. By 1938, Henry Nelson Wieman and Walter Marshall Horton, leading inheritors of the modernist tradition, were arguing for this diagnosis of religious behavior, embodying both the methodological intensity of their forbears and the Protestant pursuit of a nonindividuated religious individuality: The “three main elements that will be found in varying proportions in all religions … (1) A scale of values, or ideal of the highest good, which defines the goal toward which religion drives; (2) an idea of a higher power (or powers) which may or may not be called God, and may be purely human and social … but must at least represent something above and beyond the individual, to which he gives himself loyally and on which he depends; (3) a method of adjustment, whereby the religious devotee gets in touch with the higher power so as to become a channel through which its energies flow out towards the goal of the highest good”: Wieman, Henry Nelson and Horton, Walter Marshal, The Growth of Religion (Chicago: Willett, Clark, 1938), xii.

87. Latour, Bruno, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 76.

88. Calinescu, Matei, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1987), 62.

89. Weber, Max, “Science as Vocation,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 139.

90. Simmel, Georg, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in On Individuality and Social Forms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 327.

91. Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage, 1979), 202.


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