Evangelicals and the Golden Calf, pt. V

by Randall S. Frederick

Arriving at the 20th Century, Evangelicals were faced with an internal crisis. The rifts that had formed during the prior century were now coming to the forefront of denominational discourse and individuation for larger shares of the declining (and disinterested) churchgoing market were become a financial necessity. Doctrinal differences were changing from differences in emphasis to exclusive and divisive rocks upon which the denominations were founded.

Southern Baptists, the largest evangelical Protestant group in the United States, descended from the Baptists who settled in the American colonies during the 17th century. They formed their own denomination in 1845, following a rift with their northern counterparts over slavery. Rightly named for their location as much as their social views on race, believed that since slavery existed in the Bible (always negatively and a condition that God abhorred), then God intended for it to continue to exist (again, despite slavery being abhorrent and a condition from which God repeatedly had to deliver the People of God). God had, the Southern Baptists argued, always intended for more advanced races (always of European descent) to rule over lesser races (conveniently, the people group they were already oppressing). Curiously, Southern Baptists argeud that white slavery of the Irish and impoverished fell outside of God’s providence and was a condition good Christians must rectify. Slavery of dark-colored people, their ministers argued during the years leading into the Civil War, was not only a condition God intended but had originated with the “curse of Ham” and even before that with the “curse of Cain”.

Other denominations, especially the Mainline denominations of the North like the Presbyterians and many Methodists, felt that this perversion of theology could not rightly be dismissed as a difference of opinion, politic, or theology. It was anathema and must be set right by every means necessary. Only the Quakers and Mennonites felt that physical violence – the Civil War – must be resisted. In a way, the Civil War allowed theological differences to be settled finally and manifestly but what many historians fail to recognize is that even along the arbitrary borderline of North and South, Evangelicals found themselves on the side of slavery. It would prove an ironic origin point which they have never been able to shake – a conservative pretense blurring the lines of religion and state even as they call for a violence they will inevitably lose both on Earth and, as it is, in Heaven.

During the Reconstruction, the myth of a New South allowed racists to continue a rhetoric of hate and violence from the pulpit. Salvation, Evangelicals argued, had once been extended to lesser races but now God had revealed to Evangelicals a new understanding of John Calvin’s teachings on election and predestination. At the start of the 20th Century, Evangelicals became fascinated with “recovering” Calvin from the academic and stuffy, downright smug Reformed tradition present among Presbyterians and Episcopals. They too, like their Northern neighbors, wanted to resist corruption of scripture and witness. The increasingly loose and permissive Unitarians (who believed God was one being, not a Trinity as was commonly taught) were too heavily influenced by Continental Philosophy along the Eastern seaboard and this demanded the recapturing the capital-T Truth from the Mainline denominations. Southern Baptists took the teachings of the Presbyterians and Methodists on a broad (but not universal) salvation from them and began to emphasize not the teachings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox but instead their inheritors who had emphasized the doctrine of election as an assurance of salvation. God would not save everyone, but those who God saved were always intended to be saved. The people of God failed, even sinned, regularly but their salvation was assured by a loving and faithful God.

Luther and Calvin reached back to Augustine on this teaching, believing both that God “predestined” the “elect” for salvation and that, conversely, Hell was a place of eternal misery and punishment meant for the evil forces in the created order, embodied in Satan but sometimes manifested through those who knowingly and willfully lived outside of the ways of God as Satan had done in eternity past. Hell, for the Reformers, was a footnote to larger issues, a terminal end for those who defied God like the leaders of the Catholic Church (not the ignorant, for after all Luther held that he was a Catholic for many years after he had been put into exile, translating the Bible into common German) which held the Truth and refused to abide by it, preferring to instead follow “perverse doctrines.” It is ironic then that Evangelicals weaponized Hell when so little attention had been given to it, but then again, as we have already seen, Evangelicals were seeking doctrines that would help define them as seperate and distinct from the larger and increasingly educated “unbelievers” in the universal Church. Evangelicals, from their awkward and shaky origins, have always been a faith community that damns those around them while claiming an exclusive truth, a claim only made possible by their revision of Luther and Calvin, who would surely be aghast at the ways they have been misinterepreted by Evangelicals in support of individual exceptionalism and the dismissal of social responsibility.

At the turn to the Twentieth Century, no issue exemplifies this greater than the relabeling of Historical Christianity as a modern trend, the “social gospel.”

“Affective individualism” is the term coined by Lawrence Stone to name the shift in social relationships during the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. His book, The Family: Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (1977), describes the increase in feeling or emotion (that is, affect) in family relationships from the 16th to 19th Centuries. Stone chronicles the advent of the idea that the individual’s fulfillment is the end of life itself (221-69) and how this new set of values “placed the individual above the kin, the family, the society and even, in some eighteenth-century judicial pronouncements, the state” (224). Called “freedom” or “liberty” by contemporaries, these values “modified and mitigated the rigidities of a society whose fundamental cohesion was preserved by habits of obedience to legitimate authority, two of the most important aspects of which were the subordination of children to parents and of women to men” (223). Individualism, even to the neglect and banishment of the family, increasingly defined Evangelicals who took Jesus’ teaching from Luke 14:26, and Matthew 10:37 to be literal. To accomplish this, Evangelicals emphasized a literal reading of scripture without commentary or denominational emphasis for a “pure” reading without context or guidance. This kind of reading, without context or meaning, led the Puritans to burn witches and publicly shame those who violated local norms. The tragedy is that nothing can be read apart from context. No artist paints without context, and no mathematician works out a formula without prior knowledge and understanding. And with the rise of both Continental Philosophy and Biblical Interpretation among seminaries, Evangelicals, with their emphasis on autonomy and individualism, instead otherwise. Their knowledge came directly from God, not man, and the teachings of the world should be ignored, including scholarship on the Bible which they believed required no insight outside of the personal experience and demanded no criticism or questioning. The Bible, for the Evangelical, was absolute.

It is this kind of thinking that, to return to it, writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne expressed were not working for Americans, philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson challenged point by point, and Herman Melville openly ridiculed. It was left to Walt Whitman to rhapsodize that another way of life was possible which saw beauty in nature and comfort in the collective. Within the Church, the contrarianism of Evangelicals was becoming louder and more divisive. Writing on the history of Christian scholarship regarding the Hebrew Bible, James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible (2008) offers a short contextual story of a heresy trial at the end of the 19th Century.

On a warm May afternoon in 1893, a man stood on trial for heresy in Washington, D.C. This circumstance might in itself appear surprising. The defendant was being tried by the Presbyterian Church, which had always prided itself on its tradition of intellectualism and an educated clergy/ While disagreements about church teachings were not rare in the denomination, going as far as putting a man on trial for his beliefs was certainly an extreme step. Such a trial might also appear ill-suited to the end of the nineteenth century, a time of great openness to new ideas. Darwin’s Origins of Species had been published a full three decades earlier and Einstein’s first writings on the theory of relativity were only twelve years away. American itself was a country of electric-powered machines and newfangled telephones, a rising economic and political center with its own burgeoning literary and intellectual avant-garde. Across the Atlantic, Sigmund Freud was working our his ideas on sexuality and the unconscious; Pablo Picasso was twelve years old, James Joyce was eleven, and D.H. Lawrence was eight. Heresy?

Still more surprising was the man in the dock; Charles Augustus Briggs hardly seemed fitted to the role of heretic. In his youth, he had been an altogether traditional Presbyterian, distinguished only by the fervor of his belief. In his sophomore year at the University of Virginia, he presented himself for formal membership at the First Presbyterian Church of Charlottesville, and thereafter he became a committed evangelical Christian… So great was Briggs’s sense of calling that he soon abandoned plans to go into his father’s highly prosperous business – Alanson Briggs, known as the “barrel king,” owned and operated the largest barrel factory in the United States – in order to devote himself entirely to a life of Christian preaching and teaching.

Briggs proved to be a gifted student of biblical Hebrew and ancient history, and he was soon ordained a Presbyterian minister. After having served as pastor to a small congregation in New Jersey for a time, he accepted a teaching post at one of the mainline seminaries of his day, the Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he lectured on Hebrew grammar and various biblical themes. He became, by all accounts, a highly respected scholar, acclaimed at a relatively young age as already belonging to “the foremost rank among the scholars of his day.” Today, a century later, one of Briggs’s books is still in print (a rare feat among academics!), a dictionary of biblical Hebrew that he coauthored with Francis Brown and S.R. Driver in 1906. Indeed, “BDB”, as this dictionary is commonly known for the initials of its three authors’ last names, is still a required purchase for any graduate student undertaking serious work on the Hebrew Bible.

What, then, was this son of the Establishment, an expert in Hebrew lexicography and biblical theology doing on trial? It all had to do with a speech he had made two years earlier, on the occasion of his being named to a prestigious new chair at Union Seminary. Briggs’ inaugural address, delivered on the evening of January 20, 1891, went on for well more than an hour. It began innocuously enough; as required of all such appointees at Presbyterian seminaries, he opened with a public declaration of his faith in the Bible and the church’s system of governance… But as Briggs went on, he touched on some of the more controversial issues facing Presbyterians in his day, particularly those matters having to do with his specialty, the Hebrew Bible. What he had to say – new, disturbing ideas about how the Bible came to be written and the nature of its authority, as well as its place in the life of the church – shocked some of his listeners. He said that, contrary to what was claimed by many of his coreligionists, the Bible was not verbally inspired – that is, there was no reason to think that each and every word of it came from God. In fact, he said, it was obvious that the Bible contained numerous errors. What is more, he stated that it was not quite certain that the supposed authors of various books of the Bible – Moses and David and Solomon and Ezra and the others – did not, in fact, write them; these books were the work of people whose true names would never be known. He asserted that the things described as miracles in the Old and New Testaments could not actually have “violate[d] the laws of nature or distub[ed] its harmonies” – thus they were not, at least in the usual sense, miracles at all. In particular, he suggested, the supposedly miraculous acts of healing recounted in the Old and New Testaments might merely have been the result of “mind cure, or hypnotism, or [some] other occult power.” Finally, he pointed out that whole the Bible’s prophets frequently announced what God was to do in the future, many of their predictions had failed to come true; in fact, he said (a most surprising assertion for a Christian), most of the things predicted in the Old Testament about the coming of a Messiah had “not only never been fulfilled, but cannot now be fulfilled, for the reason that [their] own time has passed forever.”

What happened to Charles A. Briggs to cause him to say such things? The short answer is: he had become acquainted with modern biblical scholarship. Following his initial calling to ministry, Briggs began to study the Bible in earnest, first in the United States and later in Germany, which was then the very center of modern biblical science. Once back in the United States, he had continued the line of his teachers’ research with his own; during his years as a professor and scholar, he had published widely on various topics connected with the Hebrew Bible and biblical theology. Many of the things Briggs proclaimed out loud in his inaugural address were thus not altogether new; they had been building up over decades of intensive research and publication.

Still, that hardly made Briggs’s assertions acceptable to everyone in the audience on that evening. Some of his listeners resented the confident, often aggressive tone of his remarks, and they liked even less his apparent endorsement of these new ideas. Despite the orthodox cast of his opening confession of faith, they found that most of his speech was anything but orthodox. Briggs seemed, they felt, out to undermine the Bible’s place as the very heart of Protestant belief and practice.

The evening ended with handshakes and congratulations, but as news of Briggs’s speech spread throughout the Presbyterian Church, his conservative opponents felt called upon to take action. They instituted formal proceedings within the church to have him suspended as a minister and removed from the academic chair to which he had just been appointed. No one who said such things could be considered a proper teacher for future Presbyterian ministers! The ensuing deliberations were long and complicated, moving from one judicial instance to the next. At first Briggs had been hopeful, believing that he could count on support from within the liberal wing of American Presbyterians; but he had underestimated the strength and determination of his opponents. They pressed forward, and it was thus that Charles A. Briggs eventually found himself a defendant at the church’s 1893 General Assembly in Washington, D.C., his future in the hands of the more than five hundred delegates gathered there.

The heresy trial was headline news across the country, closely followed by Americans of all faiths. (Indeed, according to one press report, a clergyman visiting India in 1892 was greeted with the query, “What is the latest phase of the Briggs case?”) Charles A. Briggs may have been the immediate defendant in the proceeding, but in a larger sense it was the Bible itself that stood accused. What was it, really? Was it a special book unlike any other, the very word of God? Or was it, as Briggs seemed to suggest, principally (though not exclusively) the product of human industry, indeed, the work of men who lived in a time and place far removed from our own? Are its stories really true? If they are, was not even questioning their accuracy a sacrilege – a heresy, as Briggs’s accusers charged? Or was it perfectly proper for biblical scholars, like all other university-trained researchers, to pursue their own theories untrammeled, looking deeply into every aspect of the Bibleand letting the chips fall where they may?

As the delegates rose one by one to cast their votes at the General Assembly, many of them must have felt that they were taking a stand on the Bible’s own future. What are we to believe about it from now on? And how had it happened that this basically decent man, a professing Protestant deeply committed to his church, ended up espousing beliefs that so profoundly clashed with traditional faith?

James Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (2008), pgs. 2-5

It should not come as a surprise that the General Assembly both defrocked and excommunicated Briggs from the Presbyterian Church in 1893. By then, the cult of Evangelicalism had already taken root within Christianity and many Christians accepted the devotional religion of John Wesley with its dogmatic radicalism over the demands of historical context. For the Evangelical, with their revisionist history, Martin Luther was an iconoclast whose witness they were to follow. Ecumenical discourse and theological insight was supreflous and contradictory. God was to be found in the simplicity of nationalism and truculence. God, for the Evangelical, spoke to all “true” Christians through personal revelation, as with Martin Luther, and the inner witness, as Wesley had intimated. It was no longer conceivable that God could be found in progressive illumination and, rewriting where they could not disregard entirely, Evangelicalism supplanted historical Christianity and began masquerading as the very thing it denounced, creating an incongruence that lasted well beyond the debate over biblical scholarship. Evangelicals were able to accomplish this easily not because of their superior claim to origin but because, as a grassroots disestablishmentarianistic effort toward “the Northern religions” they were faster and more ready to use the tents of Modernity – like personal authority and a proto-humanist conviviality that empowered the individual, especially with claims of personal revelation and inner witness. The aftermath of the Civil War allowed Evangelicals to not only rewrite their accounts of the war and thus local history, but religious history which increasingly favored their now developed views on dispensationalism (a strong tool in the restructuring of history), biblioatry (emphasis of the literal reading of scripture without context), personal witness (dismissing historical witness and the teachings of the Church, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant), emphasis on Hell (creating a divisive “us and them” rhetoric still being played out in American politics), and society.

Here, we return to the idea of the Social Gospel. The Social Gospel was a movement in Protestantism that applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, lack of unionization, poor schools, and the dangers of war. It was most prominent in the early-20th-century United States and Canada. Theologically, the Social Gospelers sought to put into practice the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:10): “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. They typically were postmillennialist; that is, they believed the Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort. The Social Gospel was more popular among clergy than laity. Its leaders were predominantly associated with the liberal wing of the progressive movement, and most were theologically liberal, although a few were also conservative when it came to their views on social issues. Important leaders included Richard T. Ely, Josiah Strong, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch. In the United States prior to the First World War, the Social Gospel was the religious wing of the progressive movement which had the aim of combating injustice, suffering and poverty in society. Denver, Colorado, was a center of Social Gospel activism. Thomas Uzzel led the Methodist People’s Tabernacle from 1885 to 1910. He established a free dispensary for medical emergencies, an employment bureau for job seekers, a summer camp for children, night schools for extended learning, and English language classes for immigrants. Myron Reed of the First Congregational Church became a spokesman, 1884 to 1894 for labor unions on issues such as worker’s compensation. His middle-class congregation encouraged Reed to move on when he became a socialist, and he organized a nondenominational church. The Baptist minister Jim Goodhart set up an employment bureau, and provided food and lodging for tramps and hobos at the mission he ran. He became city chaplain and director of public welfare of Denver in 1918. Besides these Protestants, Reform Jews and Catholics helped build Denver’s social welfare system in the early 20th century.

Mark A. Matthews (1867–1940) of Seattle’s First Presbyterian Church was a leading city reformer, who investigated red light districts and crime scenes, denouncing corrupt politicians, businessmen, and saloon keepers. With 10,000 members, his was the largest Presbyterian Church in the country, and he was selected the national moderator in 1912. He built a model church, with night schools, unemployment bureaus, kindergarten, an anti-tuberculosis clinic, and the nation’s first church-owned radio station. Matthews was the most influential clergymen in the Pacific Northwest, and one of the most active Social Gospelers in America.

The American South had its own version of the Social Gospel, focusing especially on Prohibition. Other reforms included protecting young wage-earning women from the sex trade, outlawing public swearing, boxing, dogfights and similar affronts to their moral sensibilities. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, took on new responsibilities with the enlargement and professionalization of missionary women’s roles starting in 1886 with the Southern Methodist Woman’s Parsonage and Home Mission Society. By 1900, says historian Edward Ayers, the white Baptists, although they were the most conservative of all the denominations in the South, became steadily more concerned with social issues, taking stands on “temperance, gambling, illegal corruption, public morality, orphans and the elderly.”

We see in the Social Gospel not only an effort to reform society, but the desire to take responsibility for one’s community. To some, this surely felt paternalistic, but recent historians have discovered that the agencies that funded anti-progressive campaigns often relied on pastors and other ministers who could be encouraged to support factories and industry. Indeed, the confluence of capitalism, nationalism, and Evangelicalism has long been so carefully threaded together as to me suspiciously unanimous in their messages. Specifically, the writings of Lyman Stewart provide insight into the divide within Christendom at the start of the 20th Century.

The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth (generally referred to simply as The Fundamentals) is a set of ninety essays published between 1910 and 1915 by the Testimony Publishing Company of Chicago. It was initially published quarterly in twelve volumes, then republished in 1917 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles as a four-volume set. According to its foreword, the publication was designed to be “a new statement of the fundamentals of Christianity.” However, its contents reflect a concern with certain theological innovations related to liberal Christianity, especially biblical higher criticism and social responsibility. It is widely considered to be the foundation of modern Christian fundamentalism and a denunciation of social responsibility for Christians. Once again, Evangelicals were emphasizing personal salvation, responsibility, and a new ethical construct centered around the self even as it denounced everything it found in society that did cohere with strict pietism and a self-focused orientation.

The project was conceived in 1909 by California businessman Lyman Stewart, the founder of Union Oil who was also a devout Presbyterian and dispensationalist (again, someone who believed time should be understood according to epochs and not a progressive or linear event.

Stewart and his brother Milton anonymously provided funds for composing, printing, and distributing the publication with essays written by sixty-four different authors, representing most of the major Protestant Christian denominations. It was mailed free of charge to ministers, missionaries, professors of theology, YMCA and YWCA secretaries, Sunday school superintendents, and other Protestant religious workers in the United States and other English-speaking countries. Over three million volumes (250,000 sets) were sent out and the arrangement of the original 12-volume set is as follows.

  • Volume I:
    • The Virgin Birth of Christ – James Orr
    • The Deity of Christ – Benjamin B. Warfield
    • The Purposes of the Incarnation – G. Campbell Morgan
    • The Personality and Deity of the Holy Spirit – R. A. Torrey
    • The Proof of the Living God – Arthur T. Pierson
    • History of the Higher Criticism – Dyson Hague
    • A Personal Testimony – Howard A. Kelly
  • Volume II:
    • The Testimony of the Monuments to the Truth of the Scriptures – George Frederick Wright
    • The Recent Testimony of Archaeology to the Scriptures – Melvin Grove Kyle
    • Fallacies of the Higher Criticism – Franklin Johnson
    • Christ and Criticism – Robert Anderson
    • Modern Philosophy – Philip Mauro
    • Justification by Faith – Handley Carr Glyn Moule
    • Tributes to Christ and the Bible by Brainy Men not Known as Active Christians
  • Volume III:
    • Inspiration of the Bible—Definition, Extent, and Proof – James M. Gray
    • The Moral Glory of Jesus Christ a Proof of Inspiration – William G. Moorehead
    • God in Christ the Only Revelation of the Fatherhood of God – Robert E. Speer
    • The Testimony of Christian Experience – E. Y. Mullins
    • Christianity No Fable – Thomas Whitelaw
    • My Personal Experience with the Higher Criticism – James J. Reeve
    • The Personal Testimony of Charles T. Studd
  • Volume IV:
    • The Tabernacle in the Wilderness: Did it Exist? – David Heagle
    • The Testimony of Christ to the Old Testament – William Caven
    • The Bible and Modern Criticism – F. Bettex
    • Science and Christian Faith – James Orr
    • A Personal Testimony – Philip Mauro
  • Volume V:
    • Life in the Word – Philip Mauro
    • The Scriptures – A. C. Dixon
    • The Certainty and Importance of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the Dead – R. A. Torrey
    • Observations of the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul – Lord Lyttleton (analyzed and condensed by J. L. Campbell)
    • A Personal Testimony – H. W. Webb-Peploe
  • Volume VI:
    • The Testimony of Foreign Missions to the Superintending Providence of God – Arthur T. Pierson
    • Is There a God? – Thomas Whitelaw
    • Sin and Judgment to Come – Robert Anderson
    • The Atonement – Franklin Johnson
    • The God-Man – John Stock
    • The Early Narratives of Genesis – James Orr
    • The Person and Work of Jesus Christ – John L. Nuelsen
    • The Hope of the Church – John McNicol
  • Volume VII:
    • The Passing of Evolution – George Frederick Wright
    • Inspiration – L. W. Munhall
    • The Testimony of the Scriptures to Themselves – George S. Bishop
    • Testimony of the Organic Unity of the Bible to its Inspiration – Arthur T. Pierson
    • One Isaiah – George L. Robinson
    • The Book of Daniel – Joseph D. Wilson
    • Three Peculiarities of the Pentateuch – Andrew Craig Robinson
    • Millennial Dawn: A Counterfeit of Christianity – William G. Moorehead
  • Volume VIII:
    • Old Testament Criticism and New Testament Christianity – W. H. Griffith Thomas
    • Evolutionism in the Pulpit – Anonymous
    • Decadence of Darwinism – Henry H. Beach
    • Paul’s Testimony to the Doctrine of Sin – Charles B. Williams
    • The Science of Conversion – H. M. Sydenstricker
    • The Doctrinal Value of the First Chapters of Genesis – Dyson Hague
    • The Knowledge of God – James Burrell
    • “Preach the Word” – Howard Crosby
    • Mormonism: Its Origin, Characteristics, and Doctrines – R. G. McNiece
  • Volume IX:
    • The True Church – Bishop Ryle
    • The Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch – George Frederick Wright
    • The Wisdom of this World – A. W. Pitzer
    • Holy Scripture and Modern Negations – James Orr
    • Salvation by Grace – Thomas Spurgeon
    • Divine Efficacy of Prayer – Arthur T. Pierson
    • What Christ Teaches Concerning Future Retribution – William C. Procter
    • A Message from Missions – Charles A. Bowen
    • Eddyism: Commonly Called Christian Science – Maurice E. Wilson
  • Volume X:
    • Why Save the Lord’s Day? – Daniel Hoffman Martin
    • The Internal Evidence of the Fourth Gospel – Canon G. Osborne Troop
    • The Nature of Regeneration – Thomas Boston
    • Regeneration—Conversion—Reformation – George W. Lasher
    • Our Lord’s Teachings About Money – Arthur T. Pierson
    • Satan and His Kingdom – Mrs. Jessie Penn-Lewis
    • The Holy Spirit and the Sons of God – W. J. Erdman
    • Consecration – Henry W. Frost
    • The Apologetic Value of Paul’s Epistles – E.J. Stobo
    • What the Bible Contains for the Believer – George F. Pentecost
    • Modern Spiritualism Briefly Tested by Scripture – Algernon J. Pollock
  • Volume XI:
    • The Biblical Conception of Sin – Thomas Whitelaw
    • At-One-Ment by Propitiation – Dyson Hague
    • The Grace of God – C. I. Scofield
    • Fulfilled Prophecy A Potent Argument for the Bible – Arno C. Gaebelein
    • The Coming of Christ – Charles R. Erdman
    • Is Romanism Christianity? – T. W. Medhurst
    • Rome, The Antagonist of the Nation – J. M. Foster
  • Volume XII:
    • Doctrines that Must be Emphasized in Successful Evangelism – L. W. Munhall
    • Pastoral and Personal Evangelism, or Winning Men to Christ One-by-One – John Timothy Stone
    • The Sunday School’s True Evangelism – Charles Gallaudet Trumbull
    • Foreign Missions or World-Wide Evangelism – Robert E. Speer
    • What Missionary Motives Should Prevail? – Henry W. Frost
    • The Place of Prayer in Evangelism – R. A. Torrey
    • The Church and Socialism – Charles R. Erdman
    • The Fifteen Books Most Indispensable for the Minister or the Christian Worker

While the scope and breadth of the project is commendable, the work defended orthodox Protestant beliefs and attacked as not only unbiblical (without scriptural precedent) but anathema to the Gospel (that is, counter to the teachings of Jesus Christ) anything that was deemed not beneficial to America, such as

  • higher criticism
  • liberal theology
  • Roman Catholicism (called Romanism by many Protestants of the time)
  • Socialism
  • Modernism
  • Atheism
  • Christian Science
  • Mormonism
  • Millennial Dawn (whose members were sometimes known as Russellites, but which later adopted the name Jehovah’s Witnesses)
  • spiritualism, and
  • the teaching of evolution.

Clearly, this is simply incorrect. Jesus was, after all, killed by the religious leaders of his own time for encouraging the setting aside of national loyalties, teaching a more welcoming approach from God to the people of God, a social responsibility for one’s neighbors, and for challenging those ties between religion and state. Conversely, Jesus follows the example of John the Baptist in that both men were killed by political leaders for naming the ways in which they exploited the people of God, directly lied about their misconduct and in some sense creating a false reality, and maintained that order was more important than personal character. Jesus’s denunciation of the Jewish leaders in the city of Jerusalem and his broad acceptance throughout Israel was the impetus for a mock trial that expediently put him to death before his supporters even knew he had been arrested. Paul, writing the majority of the New Testament, picks up where Jesus and, before him, John the Baptist leave off. Paul’s letters address personal conduct and ethics, the liberation of slaves, and define a new social order for the recently-named “Christians” or Christ-followers that is deeply at odds with social order and religious orthodoxy. Peter, one of the 12 teachers closely aligned with Jesus, claims that shortly after JEsus died, he was visited by God to not only articulate a new language, but a broad and universal welcoming approach to the non-religious. James, the brother of Jesus, oversees the first Christian church in Jerusalem where his greatest conviction was to care for widows, orphans, the sick, and those in need.

Which is to say, The Fundamentals was a broad effort by Evangelicals to rewrite theology in favor of “orthodoxy” and weaponize Christianity. The reason the publication still reads with such urgency is because Evangelicalism, funded first by Union Oil and later by corporations who wanted to divest their interests in social concerns for personal profit, had a revenue stream strong enough to burst forth.

Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic magazine, suggests in her June 2020 article, “Nothing Can Stop What is Coming” that apocalyptic views are a kind of conspiracy theory. Along with Adventism under the leadership of Baptist founder William Miller, Evangelicalism operates with a perpetual sense of conspiracy thinking, offering “a polemic to empower those who feel adrift.”

In his classic 1957 book, The Pursuit of the Millenium, the historian Norman Cohn examined the emergence of apocalyptic thinking over many centuries. He found one common condition: This way of thinking consistently emerged in regions where rapid social and economic change was taking place and at period of time when displays of spectacular wealth were highly visible but unavailable to most people. This was true in Europe during the Crusades in the 11th century, during the Black Death in the 14th century, and in the Rhine Valley in the 16th century, and in William Miller’s New York in the 19th Century. It is true in America in the 21st century.

Adrienne LaFrance, “Nothing Can Stop What is Coming” The Atlantic, June 2020, p. 38

LaFrance interviewed Joseph Uscinski, a political science professor at the Univesity of Miami, for her piece. Uscinski’s research in recent years has concerned conspiracy theories, which Evangelicals exploited at the start of the 20th Century. She writes,

I have known Uscinski for years and his views are nuanced, deeply informed, and far from anything you would consider knee-jerk partisanship. Many people assume, he told me, that a propensity for conspiracy thinking is predictable along ideological lines. That’s wrong, he explained. It’s better to think of conspiracy thinking as independent of party politics. It’s a particular form of mind-wiring. And it’s generally characterized by acceptance of the following propositions: Our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret places. Although we ostensibly live in a democracy, a small group of people run everything, but we don’t know who they are. When big events occur – pandemics, recessions, wars, terrorist attacks – it is because that secretive group is working against the rest of us… Many of the people most prone to believing conspiracy theories see themselves as victim-warriors fighting against corrupt and powerful forces. They share a hatred of mainstream elites. That helps explain why cycles of populism and conspiracy thinking seem to rise and fall together.

Adrienne LaFrance, “Nothing Can Stop What is Coming” The Atlantic, June 2020, p. 37

The start of the 20th Century was rife with such views, inheriting and expanding the new religious movements like Mormonism in 1830, the Millerites in 1831 who would become Adventists in 1844 after their “Great Disappointment”, and the Pentecostals in 1901. It is no surprise that, like the Adventists and Mormons, Evangelicals would claim they were the true church – evidenced by miracles, visions, healings, and various other “signs” which validated their claims to divine authority. But unlike Mormons who were continually persecuted for their polygamous social groupings and “translations” of a “new revelation” found in the bottom of a tophat, or the Pentecostals whose gibberish, fainting spells, and racial inclusion excluded them from homogeneity with mainline Christianity, Evangelicals turned their attention outward. Their doctrinal foundations were almost exclusively defined by what they were against rather than common traits like inner witness (and authority), familiarity with scripture (turning from reading and knowledge to devotional application to daily life), or heirarchy (which allowed them to supplant trained theologians). Using conspiratorial thinking, they could direct their antagonism toward faceless and nameless Jews, the suspected disloyalty to America rampant among “the Papists”, the educated leadership of Presbyterians and Methodists, and speak of “reclaiming” or “recovering” True Christianity from the “wolves in sheep clothing preying upon the pure of heart.”

In this way, Evangelicals both undermined and redefined what it meant to be Christian: by discrediting credibility, emphasizing conspiratorial thinking, and uniting with corporations who were able to fund a message that suited their financial interests.

Continued in pt. VI. (coming soon)

One thought on “Evangelicals and the Golden Calf, pt. V

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