Chapter 14: Battles Over Beliefs

Protestantism in America: A Narrative History
by Jerald C. Brauer

Chapter 14: Battles Over Beliefs

In 1859 a bombshell burst in the field of world academic scholarship and scattered its fragments into every area of life. European reaction was immediate, and the American response came after the Civil War. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was important not only for scientists but also for all men interested in the origin, nature, and destiny of man. Not the least affected was theology.

No sooner had theology made a partial adjustment to the new theories of geology than it was confronted by a more serious threat concerning the very origin and descent of man. Through the patient work of Sir Charles Lyall and others, geology proved that the earth was millions of years old, and that it had been formed through a slow process. This was in direct contradiction to the Churches’ generally accepted beliefs based on a literal reading of certain books of the Bible.

For centuries the Churches had taught that the creation of the world occurred exactly as it was described in the book of Genesis. In six dramatic days packed with marvelous actions, the Creator had formed the world and placed all living beings in it. Furthermore, by adding up the ages of the various Biblical figures backward from Christ to Adam, and by adding that sum to the years since the birth of Christ, many Biblical scholars believed they could determine just how old the world actually was. Indeed, some thought they could fix the exact day and hour when the Creator began his work. On this basis they figured that the world was around six thousand years old.

Little wonder that clergymen were shocked by the geologists’ claims that the world was millions of years old, and that it had taken a long time to be formed. But not all was lost! Nobody could say how the process started and how the various adjustments during the process took place; therefore, the clergy seized upon the idea that the six "days" of the Genesis creation stories referred not to a literal day of twenty-four hours but to indeterminate periods of time. Did not Scripture say that "a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday"? They also maintained that the various changes in mineral, vegetable, and animal life were due to the invisible direct intervention of the Creator at different points in the process.

So the case rested until Charles Darwin. His was a theory that claimed to provide an answer to the how of creation as well as to the when. Building on the findings of geology that gathered specimens of various animal and vegetable forms that had been preserved in rock formations, Darwin had no difficulty in showing that the forms in the older rock formations were simpler than those preserved in the more recent formations; therefore it proved that there had beer a slow development from simpler to more complex forms, Also, there were definite resemblances between structures of various animals showing that there was a continuity from the more simple to the more complex types.

How then did these forms develop from the simple to the complex? Darwin argued that all depended upon the survival and adaptation of the most fit specimens. Those forms which proved most adaptable to their surroundings survived and made adjustments that enabled them to survive. These adjustments were passed on from generation to generation until the forms became ever more complex and better able to live in their surroundings.

Man stood at the apex of the movement. He was not created at a definite point in history. No, said Darwin, he evolved from the most simple form of life through the various stages of lower animal life, through the mammal form, until he arrived at where he now stands -- on two feet!

A wave of indignation swept through the Churches. How dare some little scholar dispute the statements of the Bible? If Adam was not created by God and if Eve was not taken from his rib, then the Bible was wrong. And if the Bible was wrong and full of errors, how could one believe that God’s nature and will was revealed in it? Charles Darwin was wrong because his theory explained the origin of life in a way contrary to Biblical revelation.

Within a short time his theory was labeled atheistic, that is, that it did not believe in God or have a place for God. The first call to the attack centered on that front. As one minister put it:

"Founded by atheism, claimed by atheism, supported by atheism, and exclusively in the interests of atheism, suppressing without mercy every jot of evidence for the divine existence, and so making a positive rational faith in God wholly impossible, the doctrine of evolution may well be set down as not only a foe to theism, but a foe of the most thoroughgoing sort."

This was what really bothered the fearful churchmen. If one destroyed the Genesis story of creation and substituted the gradual emergence of different forms as they struggled for survival in their environment, then one destroyed the entire argument for the proof of God from the evidence of creation. Where then did God fit in the picture? How could one speak of the magnificence of creation as it came from the hand of God? God as the great, wise creator was blotted out by a slow process of change.

The famous Dr. Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary pointed to this when he said that in Darwinism "species owe their origin, not to the original intention of the mind; not to the special acts of creation calling new forms into existence at certain epochs; not to the constant and everywhere operative efficiency of God, guiding physical causes in the production of intended effects; but the gradual accumulation of unintended variations of structure and instinct.

All the fears of the clergy were realized when in 1871 Darwin published The Descent of Man, in which he traced the origin and development not of the general forms of life but of man himself. Reaction was immediate! Now the battle was completely joined. The theologians sprang to the defense of man as having by birth the capacities and gifts of freedom, virtue, and immortality. But Darwin argued that there were no such spiritual inborn powers. Man had developed these as habits.

Some argued that Darwin tried to do away with God and to transform man into a gorilla or ape. As one put it, "The man of this philosophy is nothing but . . . a worm of the millionth generation, or a monkey with some enlargement of the brain, set upright, tail removed, the forearm shortened and the hand perfected by natural Selection."

Others insisted that such a theory meant the end of the Christian religion. One defender of the faith said, "If man and monkeys, magpies and mackerel, mosquitoes and moles are all alike the descendants of the earth and sea, then is our religion vain and we are without hope and without God in the world." The president of Princeton University said, "It logically involves an utter denial of Christianity and of all else properly styled religion."

Tempers were unleashed. Churchmen and scientists vied with each other to compose the most extreme denunciations. Both sides had much to be ashamed of. One of the great preachers in an outburst of wrath against the scientists was supposed to have said: "It makes me sick to see these literary folks coming down the aisle with Darwin under one arm and a case of transfixed grasshoppers and butterflies under the other arm, talking about Huxley’s protoplasm and natural selection . . . lithping with an exquithite lithp, and calling all common men fools."

The controversy grew in intensity and bitterness, but warning voices arose occasionally to remind the theologians that they had best let science alone or at least not despise it so completely. Many were worried over both the spirit and the method of the Christian defense. The ministers were reminded that the real problem was a genuine reconciliation of Christianity and science that would recognize the proper basis and spheres of each.

Many clergymen were astonished when President McCosh of Princeton University came out for a truce in the fight and suggested that the Church should not side in scientific disputes. Others followed with warnings. Henry Ward Beecher gradually came to adopt the theory of evolution. He insisted that men must be ready to meet God wherever he reveals himself, "where he moves in the providences of the world, where he is at work in natural laws, when he is living in philosophical atmospheres, when he is shining in great scientific disclosures . . . you are bound . . . to meet the Lord, to welcome him, to accept him in all the new garments that he wears."

Beecher called evolution "the teaching of the divine method of creation as gradual." It would be useless to "throw the Bible at it" because such action would accomplish nothing. He recognized that "a greater change has taken place within the last thirty years, probably than ever took place in any former period of five hundred consecutive years." That was due to the doctrine of evolution, which was a radical shift in the belief in creation. Beecher approved of it.

Slowly but surely numbers of clergymen swung about to accept and support the theory of evolution. They made another compromise. God was the one who established the process of evolution, set it into motion, guided it, and governed it. Only in that way, they argued, could one account for the origin of life and the direction that was evident in the unfolding forms of life. This was a new way of looking at God’s creative activity. Many accepted it gladly.

With Beecher setting the pace, a number of men not only made peace with the theory of evolution, they also used it as the basis for a new theological method. Lyman Abbott, Beecher’s successor at Plymouth Church, wrote and preached a theology that stressed evolution. God was no longer viewed as the one who created the universe by his will and was separate from it. Now God was a presence throughout all of nature, all of life, sustaining and constantly bringing forth new forms.

As Abbott put it, "My little grandchild sat next to me at the table one day, and said to me, ‘Grandfather, how can God be in Cornwall and in Newburgh at the same time?

Abbott touched him on the forehead and said, "Are you there?"


The minister touched the child on the shoulder and asked, "Are you there?"


Then he touched him on the knee and repeated, "Are you there?"

" Yes."

"That is the way that God can be in Cornwall and Newburgh at the same time."

God was a great soul present throughout the universe, giving it direction and meaning. Gone was the view of the Fall, of man’s sin, of the uniqueness of Jesus the Christ, and of God’s final judgment over history. In its place was the belief that man had been slowly brought forth from lower barbaric forms to higher, more spiritual, forms. Just as the bodily and animal forms were subject to a law of progress so were the spiritual qualities of life.

Sin was the blocking of the spiritual progress of man by a turning backward or downward to the lower physical things. As Beecher put it, sin was a conflict "between the lower element of human nature and the higher." Abbott called it a "downward tendency" which came from the subjection of man’s spiritual powers "to the lower elements of our being."

Thus the prophets of evolution had a new outlook on God, man, and history. Life was a struggle, to be sure, but the struggle pointed to the constant emergence of good as victor. Behind man lay the dark shroud of hundreds of centuries from the slimy ooze of the primeval forest to the first civilization. Ahead was a glorious future of ever greater development.

"Excelsior!" became the cry of the new theology -- ever onward and upward. Temporary defeat, slight backsliding, death, and all other hindrances were but temporary. Beginning in struggle and bondage, carried along by constant opposition, the brute animal nature of man had slowly been refined in the fires of history until the spiritual qualities emerged, slowly gaining ascendancy and control.

What then could stop this progression? Nothing! It was God himself working out his scheme of redemption in history. As one Christian thinker put it, man would be "indefinitely perfected and raised to a totally different plane than that on which all life had hitherto existed." The good of each generation was passed on to its children, so that each generation was morally superior to the previous one. Said Dr. Atterbury of Princeton University, "Men know more now, think better, have higher natures than those of earlier stages of civilization."

The peacemakers in the Churches were in the minority, however, and the proponents of a synthesis evolution and Christian faith were but a handful. Great names such as Beecher and Abbott had to be reckoned with, but the mass of the clergy and the vast preponderance of the laity remained hostile to the theory of Darwin.

Most believers still maintained that evolution denied the Christian religion, threw out the Bible, and did away with Christ. They wanted no part of Beecher or Darwin. In the South, stronghold of revivalism, the warfare against evolution continued unabated until the 1920’s, and among a majority of the Southern clergy and laity it is still unacceptable. Only the east and the university centers of the midwest were hospitable to the theory of evolution.

So it was that both sides appeared to present a part of the Christian faith. Somehow those opposing the evolutionists sensed that Christian faith was not simply the belief in a relentless upward climb of man toward a perfection on earth. Sin was something more than and different from a heritage from man’s barbaric origins.

But these opponents of evolution could not come to terms with the evidence for evolution, they could not reinterpret the Christian faith for the modern scientific mind. They could only stand firm on the old ramparts, in an attempt to hurl back the onslaught of the scientists. While they were busy repulsing the handful of scientists, the world quietly marched by the ramparts, not bothering with attack or defense. The average man either inconsistently accepted both the Genesis story and the Darwinian account, or he was indirectly influenced by the spirit of the age and succumbed to the common belief of the relentless progress of mankind. Why not? Was not America the peak of civilization at this point in history?

At the opening of the twentieth century German universities were pulsating with life. Great scholars probed and examined the history and literature of the Christian Church. Never before had so much been discovered about any religious movement in history. The finest minds of Europe were bent on discovering the exact text of the Bible. Men searched for new manuscripts, and by scientific analysis they helped to establish the most accurate version of Scripture.

Scholars were not satisfied only with producing the most accurate text of the Bible; they also wanted to know how the Bible came into being, when its various parts were written, the total surroundings in which the various books were written, and the consequence of all this for an understanding of the Christian faith.

The same tests applied to the date and authorship of Homer’s poems were applied to the Bible. The results were shocking for many Christians. Scholars such as the German professor Wellhausen pointed out that the various books of the Pentateuch exhibit different strands of writing, indicating that the present books were not written at one time by a single author such as Moses. Each is a collection of several earlier accounts. Other scholars worked on the dates and authorship of the books of the New Testament. Still others studied the early history of the Church, and applied the evolutionary idea of development to the Church long before Darwin worked out his theory.

As they produced magnificent pieces of research, the German universities drew students from all over the world. Shortly after the Civil War, American ministers and theologians beat a well-worn path to the German lecture halls. There they drank deeply from the well of scholarship. They filled themselves and their flagons and set out for the long trip home. In America they began to teach these new ideas.

Reaction was immediate! Here was another attack on the faith of the Church! Just as Darwin had undermined the belief in creation and in God, so these men destroyed faith in the Bible. How could one believe anything the Bible said if something in it was incorrect? Did not the Church teach at all times that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, that Matthew was the first Gospel written, and that Paul wrote the Epistles to Timothy?

In vain did the followers of the historical study of Scripture argue that the Bible nowhere says that it has no mistakes in it or that the usually accepted authors of the books of the Bible actually were such. Much of this had been traditional in the Church. But some sensed that this was an attack on the authority of the Christian faith. The Bible could not be touched.

On January 20, 1891, Rev. Dr. Charles A. Briggs was placed in the newly endowed chair of Biblical theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York. He delivered an address entitled "The Authority of Holy Scripture." As a consequence he was accused of being a heretic in the Presbyterian Church and charges were pressed against him. Dr. Briggs was found guilty in 1893 and suspended from the Presbyterian ministry, but he continued to teach at Union and became a clergyman in the Episcopal Church.

What did Dr. Briggs say that was so dangerous? He upheld the new discoveries of Biblical scholars and insisted that such a genuine and honest criticism of the text and authorship of the Bible could not damage the Christian faith. Furthermore, he insisted that the sources for divine authority were threefold -- the Bible, the Church, and reason.

This was what bothered many ministers. Not only did Briggs uphold Biblical criticism, he also argued that the authority for religious truth was not found in Scripture alone. This was not exactly new, and yet it was. Even those who insisted that Scripture alone was the basis of truth also interpreted it in light of their Church and their reason. To say that all three together were equally the source of authority was to some an attack on Scripture.

Dr. Briggs attacked this idolatry of the Bible as Bibliolatry. He said that such men treat the Bible "as if it were a baby, to be wrapped in swaddling clothes, nursed, and carefully guarded, lest it should be injured by heretics and skeptics." But the Bible needs no such protection. It is "the greatest treasure of the Church." No longer can the "self-constituted defenders . . . retain a monopoly of the Word of God and exact conditions of all who would use it. It has already been taken from them by Biblical criticism, and it is open to all mankind, without conditions."

He was not the only minister and teacher to defend the newly discovered scientific study of the Scriptures, nor was he the only one to be tried for it. The Presbyterian Church was the scene of many accusations of heresy and of several trials. Professor Henry Preserved Smith was found guilty of deviating from Presbyterian doctrine and became a Unitarian. Another Union Seminary professor, Dr. A. C. McGiffert, was hounded by his opponents until he found refuge in the Congregational Church. So the battle raged. One side felt they were defending the truth of God’s Word. The other side insisted that they were the genuine defenders of God’s Word because they freed it from all human idolatry so God could speak through it.

The shifting winds in the field of belief stirred up other new tendencies. While some great preachers, some students, and some professors made their peace with historical criticism and evolution, other developments in religion were taking place. All these new tendencies went under a common name -- liberalism. The various liberal movements were united in the belief that the old creeds and beliefs of the Church hindered modern man from understanding God’s nature and will. Changes were necessary in order to make Christianity meaningful for modern man.

Some wanted to do this by using the old language of the creeds and by pouring new meaning into them. Others wanted to use completely new language while trying to retain the same old concern as the creeds. They wanted to construct a new set of beliefs which grew out of an appreciation for the past. These more radical men were known as "modernists."

This was not without effect on the daily life of the Churches. Though such beliefs were not widely prevalent in the Churches, they won a new avenue of communication in the rapidly expanding field of religious education. The Sunday school movement was always strong in nineteenth century American Protestantism, but under the impact of liberal theology it was to be of even greater importance, especially after the First World War.

If the religious life is one of a gradual growth toward maturity in faith, then the various agencies of the Church should be used to promote such growth. No longer did most of the public schools have Bible-reading or religious instruction. How were the young to be guided in the growth of their religious convictions? Church schools and better programs in those schools was the answer of religious education.

So closer attention was paid to the teaching and the materials used in Sunday schools. Uniform lessons for all the Churches were advocated. National organizations were established to promote the development of good religious education in the Churches. Some Protestant groups, particularly the Lutheran Church of Missouri Synod and its affiliates, felt that such part-time training was insufficient, and they developed parochial schools.

While the Protestant Churches were facing mounting battles in beliefs and while many were attempting to reinterpret the faith in the light of modern demands, one thing continued to mark the American scene. A number of new religious groups developed in America or revolted in dissatisfaction from the older Churches.

Before genuine liberalism appeared on the scene or before Darwin made any impact on the American Churches, a vigorous new faith had developed in the face of a dissatisfaction with the general Protestant beliefs. Christian Science had its origin in the late 1860’s, but really did not make an important impact until the 1880’s and 1890’s.

In 1875, Mary Baker Glover Patterson, a New Englander who was to become known after her third marriage as Mary Baker Eddy, published Science and Health, the basis of the Christian Science movement. Having been healed of ill-health by one Phineas P. Quimby, a hypnotist and healer, Mrs. Eddy became a devotee of faith healing. She took lessons from him and received a copy of his writings called Questions and Answers.

In the 1860’s she became a teacher of the new principles and while writing her book she and a young assistant, Richard Kennedy, engaged in faith healing. Her book first made little impact on the American religious scene. It was not until she and her students moved from Lynn, Massachusetts, to Boston that she found a ready hearing and success.

In Boston she continued to teach her theories in her school, and in 1892 saw the Mother Church of Christian Science founded. It was by then another full-fledged religious group on the American scene. Based upon the absolute belief in the primacy of the spirit, it taught that only spirit is truly real; consequently such things as evil and pain really do not exist.

The tremendous appeal of Christian Science was to be found in its claim to healing power. No doctors or medicines were needed, only absolute trust and faith plus a full knowledge of the spiritual powers in life. As Mrs. Eddy said, "The physical healing of Christian Science results now, as in Jesus’ time, from the operation of divine principle, before which sin and disease lose their reality in human consciousness and disappear as naturally and as necessarily as darkness gives place to light and sin to reformation." Again she pointed out, "If one turns away from the body with such absorbed interest as to forget it, the body experiences no pain."

Here indeed was a strange doctrine. Its book was put forth as a new revelation supplementing and completing the Bible. While Darwin and others were discovering the very processes of life working through matter, Mrs. Eddy was insisting that matter was not real apart from mind which brings it into being. Most Christians of the day felt uneasy with both theories. One seemed to deny the Creator by divinizing matter and the forces of nature, and the other appeared to deny the Creator and the goodness of creation by insisting that only mind and spirit are good and real. This led some to say that the movement was neither science nor Christian. But under the leadership of the Mother Church in Boston local churches were founded throughout the nation. It was especially popular among women and the upper classes.

Around the turn of the century there arose a host of movements similar to Christian Science yet differing in several important respects. All of them emphasized the superiority of the spiritual and the necessity of suppressing, controlling, or denying the material side of life. Some advocated healing by spirit, all advocated control of mind over matter, and others spoke of the contact with the departed spirit world. None of them had close relations with the Christian Churches, and they attacked Protestantism as but a childish understanding of the religious life. The Churches accused these groups, such as Unity, New Thought, Theosophy, Spiritualism, and others, of gross distortion of the truth and a denial of Christianity. All these movements grew but never seriously threatened the position of the Christian Churches. Strangely enough, those groups which denied the importance of the material side of life, including Christian Science, appealed largely to people who were richly blessed with the world’s goods.

On all sides the Church, creeds, and beliefs were under serious attack during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Not only scientific thought and historical scholarship but also peculiar cults and leaders pressed the criticism. Men such as the famous lawyer Robert Ingersoll traveled about the nation preaching belief in no God and accusing the Bible of grave inconsistencies and numerous errors. His writings and lectures were to be found in a number of homes, indicating that this type of thinking was not uncommon.

Though under attack on what it felt to be the very heart of its faith, the Church was not a dying or a weak institution. On the contrary, this was one of the most vital periods in the history of American Christianity. This was the day of vigorous student volunteer activity and of unprecedented growth in foreign missions. It was the hour of expanding Indian missions and of new churches being opened in Alaska. Certainly the Churches were not disintegrating.

While many ministers argued that evolution had undermined the Bible as a source of Christian insight and practice and while others argued that the new historical critical approach destroyed all reverence for the Book, a history-making event occurred. In 1881 the first complete new translation of the Scriptures since the King James Version of 1611 appeared. The result of combined English and American scholarship, it was an immediate success.

In 1901 there appeared the complete American Standard Revision, embodying the preferences of American scholars who had worked on the 1881 edition. This was one of the fruits of the new interest in Biblical scholarship. It was an attempt to translate the Bible into modern language, using the additional manuscripts that had been discovered and employing the latest findings of scholars. Such activity could not have destroyed the value of Scriptures, for the new revision sold out its first printings and there was a tremendous demand for it.

In addition to the lively activity exhibited in Bible revision, in scholarship, and in translation, the Church did not slacken its interest in reaching the public through printed and spoken words. Though the camp meeting was still widely employed, it gradually became a means of education for Christian laity.

In 1874, Bishop John Vincent brought together a group of Sunday school teachers for a combined two weeks’ training course and recreational period at an old camp meeting ground on Lake Chautauqua in New York. So successful was this that it soon developed into a national institution offering lecture courses and correspondence courses on a variety of religious and cultural subjects. Each summer the greatest orators and teachers were brought there to lecture to thousands of people. Similar institutions, largely under the leadership of Churches, sprang up throughout the nation. They took the place of the old-fashioned revivalistic camp meetings and became the new nerve centers for reform activity.

Reform grew during this period. Especially important was the reorganization and strengthening of the prohibition movement. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union continued its activity, and through the Chautauqua meetings recruited ever larger numbers. In 1895 the Anti-Saloon League developed a national organization, and the Churches were organized in a great crusade against the use of alcoholic beverages. The Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian Churches provided the bulk of the leadership and membership for the fight. Politics became the arena in which the battles were to be fought. Law and indirect or direct pressure were the weapons whereby "demon rum" and the "evil-saloon" were to be destroyed.

During this period the Church caught the eye as well as the ear of the public. It continued to be an age of religious journalism. Weekly papers and monthly magazines of interdenominational origins were as common on millions of American tables as the national dailies and weeklies. As long as men such as Henry Ward Beecher, Lyman Abbott, and T. DeWitt Talmage wrote, they would have huge audiences. In these papers the Christian believers read opinions on politics, science, literature, and art. Through them the Churches and preachers made known their reactions to all the major issues of the day. In that way they served as a means of organizing and crystallizing Christian opinion on important questions.

So the Churches in America faced many battles in beliefs as well as struggles in the face of new social and economic conditions. Protestantism could not ignore the recent discoveries of science pertaining to the origin of the world, the nature and origin of man, and the operation of nature.

Uncertain in the midst of the swift-moving events, it first reacted defensively to the "religious revolution." On second thought, many adopted completely both the results and the methods of science. Their problem was how to remain identified with the Christian religion. In their eagerness to accept the new discoveries, they failed to remain critical of both method and results. So identified were they with the new cause, that they had difficulty both in relating themselves to the old and in pronouncing the ever-needed word of judgment on the new.

Those who reacted in a purely defensive way failed to grasp the truth in the new scientific discoveries and set the mind and heart of the Church against the truth recently discovered. They made it difficult for the Christian faith to relate itself in a word of judgment and redemption to the newly developing culture and intellectual life of America. They spent so much time and energy defending the indefensible that they failed to make truly relevant the deepest insights of the faith.

But the Churches did not wholly fail in this age. They were alive and vital, expanding, entrenching, inquiring, and proclaiming. Out of the battles in beliefs was to come a new spirit in many circles of Christianity -- a spirit of search and inquiry, a spirit of seeking more light yet in God’s Word.