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A sociological account of liberal protestantism

  • Steve Bruce (a1)

Any list of important changes in Western religion in the last hundred years would mention the rise ofliberal Protestantism (and the associated ecumenical movement), and the decline in size and influence of the Protestant churches. What has been less obvious is the partial operation of secularization; in Britain and America liberal Protestant churches have declined more than their conservative rivals. In summary one could speak of the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries as an era in which liberal Protestantism rose and then declined. This essay will attempt to synthesize, from a variety of sociological ideas, a suggested outline for a comprehensive explanation of that rise and fall. Such an ambitious and necessarily speculative project will require the argument to be conducted at a high level of abstraction but at various junctures details from the biographies of individuals and the careers of organizations will be introduced to illustrate and exemplify the points being made.

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page 401 note 1 I would like to thank the British Academy, the Social Science Research Council and the Queen's University of Belfast, who have at various times supported my research. I would also like to thank Professor Roy Wallis of the Queen's University, Belfast, and Professor David Martin of the L.S.E. for comments on the research that informs this essay.

page 401 note 2 For evidence of this trend see Kelley, Dean, Why the Conservative Churches Are Growing (New York: Harper and Row, 1972) and Bruce, S., ‘The persistence of religion: conservative Protestantism in the United Kingdom’, Sociological Review, XXXI, 3 (1983).

page 402 note 1 The thesis is expounded in a number of places: Berger, P. L., ‘A Sociological View of the Secularization of Theology’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, VI, 1 (1967), 316; ‘A Market Model for the Analysis of Ecumenicity’, Social Research, XXX, I (1983), 77–93; and The Social Reality of Religion, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973).

page 403 note 1 Berger, Peter L., The Heretical Imperative (London: Collins, 1980), pp. 131.

page 403 note 2 Berger, P. L., Berger, B. and Kellner, H., The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974).

page 404 note 1 Ibid. p. 32.

page 405 note 1 Tatlow, T., The Story of The Student Christian Movement (London: SCM Press, 1933), pp. 921; Moody, W. R., The Life of Dwight L. Moody (Kilmarnock: John Ritchie, 1937), pp. 164–86.

page 406 note 1 The terms ‘sectarian’ and ‘denominational’ are used in the sense developed by Wallis, R., The Road to Total Freedom: A Sociological Analysis of Scientology (London: Heinemann, 1976), ch. I.

page 407 note 1 Niebuhr, H. Richard, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (Cleveland and New York: Meridian Books, 1968).

page 407 note 2 The dynamics of social movement development, especially those of radical movements becoming ‘compromised’ and institutionalized, have been extensively researched. For a summary of the literature see Wilson, J., Introduction to Social Movements (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

page 407 note 3 Weber, M., The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1976), Tawney, R. H., Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1948).

page 409 note 1 Pollock, John, Billy Graham: Evangelist to the World (London: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 207.

page 409 note 2 Ibid.

page 409 note 3 See Capon, J., Evangelicals Tomorrow: a Popular Report of Nottingham '77 – the National Evangelical Anglican Congress (London: Collins, 1977).

page 410 note 1 Berger, Peter L., op. cit. 1967.

page 410 note 2 Budd, S., ‘The Humanist Societies: the consequences of a diffuse belief system’ in Wilson, B. R. (ed.), Patterns of Sectarianism (London: Heinemann, 1967), Wallis, R., ‘Sociological reflections on the demise of the Irish Humanist Association’, Scottish journal of Sociology IV, 2 (1980), 125–39.

page 411 note 1 SCM Staff Reports, Scottish Secretary, 1946. Selly Oak Colleges Central Library Archives.

page 413 note 1 Barbour, G. F., The Life of Alexander Whyte (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1924).

page 413 note 2 Smith, G. A., The Life of Henry Drummond (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902).

page 414 note 1 Bruce, S., op. cit. 1983.

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Religious Studies
  • ISSN: 0034-4125
  • EISSN: 1469-901X
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