The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism

The Modernist Impulse in American ProtestantismHutchison provides for the reader a concise, if not easily readable, summary of the history of modernism within American Protestantism. He traces the earliest modernist impulse back to the old Unitarians. His narrative maintains a distinction between liberalism and modernism. All modernists are liberals, but not all liberals are modernists. Liberalism could make headway within religion without the input of modernity. Modernism, however, made use of the modern Zeitgeist. Of course, this does not mean that liberalism and modernism are sealed off from one another. Very early on liberalism and modernism would become subsumed under the single referent, modernism. Hutchison primarily traces the American form of modernist Protestantism beginning with the Unitarians and ending with the Niebuhrs. As such, it makes a tacit statement that the modernist form of religious liberalism is primarily a bygone thing. Hutchison offers barely a hint of Process Theology or the ethnic-gender-socio-economic theologies. His scope seems limited when compared to Gary Dorrien’s ponderously exhaustive three volume history of religious liberalism. Hutchison’s treatment, however, seems to be an improvement on Kenneth Cauthen’s seminal work on American religious liberalism. I hope to be able to examine both of these works in the future. As such, Hutchison’s work stands prospective to Cauthen and retrospective to Dorrien.

Hutchison finds early religious modernism taking root under the auspices of what Marsden would call old evangelicalism. The denial of biblical authority in any orthodox sense and the entertaining of higher critical views with respect to the Bible first occur, in any lasting sense, within the fold of evangelicalism. The evangelical desire to affect culture not only connects it to the Social Gospel, but also aids in disguising a significant renovation of theology that was going on just beneath the surface of its social piety. This could, perhaps, explain why so many fundamentalists are still wary of any social component in the gospel or related to the gospel, and why later evangelicals would confess an uneasy conscience with respect to its neglect of the same. Hutchison relates the usual sordid details of the altercation. He relates events from the Presbyterian heresy trials to the slow takeover by modernists of all the mainline denominations and their service organizations. First individual pulpits, then seminaries, then mission boards file successively into the modernist fold. Hutchison takes time to differentiate between types of modernists. He demonstrates how different liberals may present their views. A particularly disheartening narrative is Hutchison’s depiction of the reaction of modernists to the fundamentalist uprising. Despite evangelicals and fundamentalists opining about the disruption brought about by the fight, Hutchison develops a narrative that leaves the fundamentalists as largely ignored. He does not deny that they had talent and that they had valid arguments, but by the time they mounted any real offence, modernists had largely moved on. I tend to think that those living at the flashpoints of the debate probably saw more than mere disinterest by liberals in the fundamentalists’ contentions, but Hutchison’s broad sweep of the events in retrospective does seem to provide a procrustean bed for his assertion. For all of this, Hutchison lacks interest in providing an ample description of the roots of American modernism within Europe. That seems to be his point. American modernism, to a certain extent, was a domestic brand. European thought may have influenced it, but American modernism was unique in its own right. In like manner, Hutchison depicts the next stage of religious theology

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