American Protestantism split in two during the 1920s and has not been the same since. In denominational controversies, especially among Presbyterians and Baptists, and in courtroom debates over teaching evolution in public schools, the once unified front of mainline Protestantism, a constituency that included Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, Disciples, with some Lutherans on the fringes, divided into evangelical and liberal halves. Not until the 1940s, with the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals, would the more conservative side achieve the institutional coherence that characterized the mainline through the Federal Council of Churches (which in 1951 became the National Council of Churches). Still, ever since the 1920s the shorthand way of distinguishing evangelical from mainline Protestants has been the standard way of making sense of American Protestantism. For that reason it is possible to say that the fundamentalist-modernist controversy has not ended.
Yet, as important as the division in American Protestantism was and still is, the so‑called “two‑party” paradigm of evangelical vs. mainline Protestants is also misleading. The debates that divided Protestants during the 1920s were real and built upon developments within the Protestant denominations extending back to the decade just after the Civil War. But the tendency to lump conservatives and liberals into competing camps since the 1920s also obscures as much as it clarifies. A more accurate assessment is to recognize at least four different Protestant groups: denominational conservatives, conservative evangelicals, moderate evangelicals, and liberal Protestants.
These different voices drew upon different conceptions of the church and its chief tasks, as well as diverse estimates of the role Christianity should play in American public life.
American Protestantism United
In most histories of American Protestantism, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy stemmed from a constellation of intellectual novelties that arose in the second half of the nineteenth century, beginning with Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). Not only did Darwin’s understanding of natural selection undermine God’s role in creation and providence, but new approaches to the study of ancient texts also raised doubts about the divine character of the Bible. If Darwin’s study of the various mechanisms of nature that might account for the variety of species seemed to make God unnecessary for the beginning and preservation of the natural world, so too did the examination of the Bible’s literary and historical qualities tend to play down the necessity of divine inspiration for the composition of Scripture. In both cases, the problems raised by evolutionary theory and by higher criticism, which emphasized the natural, or human, aspects of human and biblical origins, meant that the divine contribution either to creation or the inspiration of the Bible became marginal or even doubtful. Instead of God creating man and woman by divine fiat, and instead of the Holy Spirit inspiring the prophets and apostles to write the canonical texts, the new scholarship in biology and biblical studies taught that science could explain the uniqueness of man or the Bible on grounds that were observable or quantifiable — as any good science did.
These intellectual challenges, aided and abetted by new academic institutions such as the research university and graduate programs that generated specialized scholarship, were important factors that would eventually pull Protestants into rival camps. On the one side, the modernists attempted to accommodate the new science so that the churches would not look like obstacles to progress and the advance of knowledge. As cowardly as this motive might seem, it also sprang genuinely from a desire to defend Christian truth. The way modernists embraced the new ideas was to downplay the supernatural and miraculous aspects of Christianity as matters that were peripheral to the faith’s ethical and spiritual core. In effect, modernists attempted to naturalize Christianity so that it would not conflict with the new science and the social progress it appeared to beckon. On the other side, fundamentalists dug in their heels (rightly so) on the supernatural and miraculous character of Christianity and especially the person and work of Christ. Practically any list of the so‑called fundamentals, the list of essential doctrines from which fundamentalists took their name, featured the virgin birth, miraculous deeds, vicarious death, and resurrection of Christ, along with affirmations of the inerrancy of the Bible because of its divine authorship, as well as the miraculous nature of regeneration or the new birth. It is not an overstatement to say that the new science drove Protestants into natural and supernatural camps, with only a few such as Princeton Seminary’s Benjamin B. Warfield trying to hold on to the importance of both the human and the divine components of the Bible, as well as the divine and natural qualities of creation. For most Protestants, the human‑divine continuum was a zero‑sum game with either the one or the other side taking all winnings.
Still, despite the obvious theological disagreements that the new scholarship provoked, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy did not occur in the 1870s or 1880s but had to wait almost another half‑century until the 1920s. The timing of the conflict, consequently, requires any historical explanation to take into account factors other than the ideas and doctrines that would divide liberal and conservative Protestants. Here the rise of Protestant ecumenism is key, as a dynamic that postponed the most heated disagreements and eventually polarized Protestants into even bolder antagonism.
Soon after the Civil War, a number of Protestant leaders created and promoted organizations that were designed to draw the denominations into greater cooperation and unanimity. One was the Evangelical Alliance, an agency founded in London in 1846 and that gained in 1867 an American branch. Within a decade, Presbyterians had created the Presbyterian Alliance, an organization started in 1877 to include those Reformed denominations that balked at the theological inclusiveness of the Evangelical Alliance. The latter and broader agency enlisted Reformed, Arminian, and Baptist denominations and individuals into a cooperative venture designed to unite Protestants against the multitude of “isms” that were threatening the Christian character of the United States — namely, materialism, atheism, Roman Catholicism, the violation of the Christian Sabbath, the consumption of alcoholic beverages, and various other social ills that posed dangers to the Christian family. A reiteration of Roman Catholic vigor, first in the pope’s Syllabus of Errors (1864) and second in the First Vatican Council (1869–1870), which asserted papal infallibility, and then with the increasing number of Roman Catholic immigrants in America’s cities, alarmed Protestants into feeling that the religious influences that had contributed to the United States’ political institutions and stable culture were under siege. Denominational leaders especially hoped that forming a united Protestant front against the apparent unity of Rome was crucial to protecting America’s Christian way of life. The Presbyterian Alliance was designed to involve in this show of Protestant strength those Reformed denominations with second thoughts about joining an association like the Evangelical Alliance that consisted of denominations that were neither Calvinistic in doctrine nor Presbyterian in church government. The motivation that led American Protestants to create and join these cooperative ventures helped to minimize the intellectual disagreements that were becoming increasingly apparent as the new scholarship dominated colleges, universities, and seminaries. The most notable achievement of Protestant ecumenism between the Civil War and World War I was the Federal Council of Churches, founded in 1908 as a federation of the largest Protestant denominations with the mission of building ties that would insure Protestants were working together rather than at cross purposes. The Federal Council, however, was not the end of these ecumenical impulses. Just after World War I, a time in which the denominations cooperated extensively to provide spiritual and physical assistance to the soldiers in Europe and to rally support for the war among church members at home, Protestant leaders unveiled plans for an “organic” union of those same denominations who were members of the Federal Council. Although the plan failed, its design was a “united” Protestant Church in the United States that would join all of its member denominations under a larger and more generic Protestant umbrella to carry on the work of the church and to promote the goal of Christianizing the nation. From 1870 to 1920, then, at the same time that Darwinism and higher criticism were dividing Protestants into competing theological camps, a drive for Protestant unity was also at work to keep those rivalries together within the same denominations and interdenominational agencies.
The Tie That Divides
During the 1920s both the ecumenical and intellectual dynamics of American Protestants teamed up not to cancel each other out, as they had for almost a half century, but to make the differences between liberal and conservative Protestants even more glaring. The modernist‑fundamentalist controversy proceeded along two fronts, first in denominational skirmishes and second along cultural antagonisms. Many of the Protestant denominations experienced these conflicts in varying degrees, from Episcopalians to Methodists. For the sake of greater specificity the case of northern Presbyterians, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., will help to illuminate how these developments in American Protestantism played out in the life of one denomination.
The theological controversy within the Presbyterian Church went through three phases. The first ran from roughly 1922 to 1925 and involved conservatives opposing the bold expressions of liberal Protestantism. In 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick preached what was in effect the opening shot in the controversy with his provocative sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” The liberal Baptist, who was stated supply at New York’s First Presbyterian Church, accused fundamentalists of intolerance and called their essential doctrines, such as inerrancy and premillennialism, minor matters in the scope of world events. The Presbytery in New York also added to the conservative alarm when it ordained two men who would not affirm the virgin birth. Conservatives believed that these were ample signs of liberalism infecting the church, and they tried to discipline the Presbyterians in New York. But in several successive General Assemblies, the denomination showed no willingness to be divisive and chose instead administrative solutions that were designed to lessen the tensions. One of these measures involved a study committee whose report blamed conservatives for the contentiousness in the church, and it called for all sides, especially conservatives, to stop their public criticisms of liberals. The drive for unity had supplanted a concern for correct doctrine.
Administrative solutions to the controversy also characterized the second phase of the Presbyterian controversy. Here the warning to conservatives that they should cease their opposition played out directly at Princeton Seminary, the school where the leading conservatives, such as J. Gresham Machen, taught. Between 1927 and 1929 the General Assembly appointed a committee whose task it was to explore the nature of antagonisms at Princeton. The committee eventually recommended a reorganization of the school that took the conservative majority on the board and turned it into a minority. At that point, Machen left Princeton to found Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia because he believed the school had been forced to toe the party line of church unity, which in turn meant the avoidance of any significant disagreement.
The last phase of the Presbyterian controversy was unexpected and again involved an administrative effort to preserve unity at the expense of theological clarity. In 1932, an interdenominational report on foreign missions, called “Re‑Thinking Missions,” exposed a serious weakness in the witness of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, which was one of the agencies sponsoring the study. The report found that the old motive for missions, namely, salvation from sin and death, was gone, and that a new rationale needed to be found, one that involved cooperation with other religions in the civilization of non‑Western nations and peoples. Again, conservatives tried to apply some discipline to the officials in charge but also failed. In response, Machen established an independent agency for foreign missions. The Presbyterian hierarchy ruled that this independent institution was unconstitutional and ordered that Machen’s presbytery bring him to trial. In 1935 he and several other board members of the independent missions agency were convicted, and in 1936 they lost their appeal, which led them to form a new Presbyterian denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
What stands out in the denominational part of the fundamentalist controversy is that the ecumenical drive that had dominated Protestant agencies since 1870 had cultivated an organizational ethos that made theological disagreement anathema. In effect, Protestants, as the Presbyterian example makes clear, never had a real chance to hear or debate the new ideas that were being taught or critiqued in the seminaries because of the need to avoid problems that might divide the churches organizationally. Some conservatives were able to make their concerns known, and did so in response to outright provocation by liberals. But when conservatives did criticize, they were branded as divisive and unloving, if not deceitful. The slogan of the era fittingly was “doctrine divides, ministry unites.” With that mindset, the answer to Fosdick’s question, “Shall the fundamentalists win?,” was virtually inevitable. It was emphatically, “NO!”
The other front in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy was cultural, and its chief exhibit was the Scopes Trial, a highly orchestrated event in Dayton, Tennessee, that did little to reveal the Bible’s teaching about creation, Darwin’s understanding of evolution, or the way American democracy might legitimately handle different points of view in public institutions. As much as William Jennings Bryan, the best‑known Presbyterian layman of the era, saw the trial as an opportunity to vindicate the Bible and the people’s belief in the good book, folks in Dayton saw it as a chance to put a small struggling town on the map, while the leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union saw the trial as the moment to expose the backwardness of fundamentalist beliefs. Although John T. Scopes, the biology teacher charged with violating state law, was convicted and fined $100, the real loser at Dayton was Bryan who within a few days of the trial died, thus adding ignominy to the humiliation of being ridiculed in court and by the press.
Why Two Parties Won’t Work
The Scopes Trial was actually several steps removed from the Presbyterian controversy, even though Bryan was a Presbyterian and even though he invited Machen to testify in Dayton (which he declined). Because the churches and school boards and legislatures were fighting over religion at the same time, observers then, and academics since, have lumped the two conflicts together to comprise the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. But in fact, closer inspection of the Scopes Trial and church disputes like the Presbyterian controversy reveal that the issues were actually different and that the opposition to liberalism, whether theological or cultural, reflected a diverse set of convictions.
Bryan and Machen, for instance, though opposed to liberalism, did so for different reasons. For Bryan, liberalism was threatening Christian civilization in the United States, hence the need to expurgate evolution from the public schools. But Bryan gave little support to the efforts that Machen initiated in the Presbyterian Church. As Machen explained in his most popular book, Christianity and Liberalism (1923), the real cause for alarm in the church was not how God created or in what way Christ would return, as important as these teachings might be. Something far more basic was at stake, namely, the doctrines of sin and grace. As compelling as Machen’s argument was, it not only failed to persuade fundamentalists like Bryan but it alienated evangelicals like Machen’s colleague at Princeton Charles Erdman who was a professor of practical theology, devotee of Dwight L. Moody, and a premillennialist. Although an evangelical, Erdman did believe that liberals should be tolerated in the church as part of an expression of Christian unity and charity. For this reason, merely to call the disputes of the 1920s a “fundamentalist-modernist” controversy, as if there were clearly one modernist outlook and one fundamentalist outlook, is to miss the substantial disagreements among conservatives, the real issues at stake in the contest, and even why the churches avoided grappling with those issues.
Still, the point here is more than simply a call for greater historical accuracy. Instead, it is to try to learn from the past and understand the threat that liberalism posed to the church and why her response was inadequate. Liberalism was a valiant but misguided effort to preserve the influence of Christianity within American culture at a time when science and new scholarship threatened to render the Christian faith implausible. But to maintain Christianity’s intellectual respectability, liberals also gutted the faith of what was both most offensive and most essential, namely, the person and work of Christ. Some conservatives tried to hold on to their positions within the mainline churches in order to continue to use those institutional resources on behalf of the Gospel. Others hoped to establish rival institutions to the mainline churches that would retain both the essential teachings of Christianity and the historic influence of Protestantism on the American nation. Still, others recognized that a choice needed to be made between the Gospel and the culture because of the inherent tension between the folly of the cross and the wisdom of the world.
What was at stake in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy was not the secularization of America but the secularization of the church. During the 1920s and 1930s, Protestants faced a choice between retaining either the status of the church or the message of the Gospel. This is a decision that has confronted the church in every age. But in the particular instance of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, the choices made continue to affect America’s Protestants.