The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900

Article excerpt

The Making of American Liberal Theology. Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900. By Gary Dorrien. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. xxv + 494 pp. $39.95 (paper).

In this first volume of a projected three-volume history, Gary Dorrien, an Episcopal priest who teaches at Kalamazoo College, examines the rise and development of American (mainly Protestant) theological liberalism in the nineteenth century. Dorrien's well-written, deeply researched narrative begins with the rejection of Calvinist thought and the emergence of Unitarianism out of the Congregational churches of New England in the 1810s. It focuses next on the lives and ideas of such major figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Bushnell, Henry Ward Beecher, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and it concludes with the deaths of the leading liberal thinkers of the Victorian era (Washington Gladden, Newman Smyth, Charles A. Briggs, and Borden Parker Bowne) after 1900. Dorrien defines liberal theology as a "third way" mediating between "the authority-based orthodoxies of traditional Christianity and the spiritless materialism of modern atheism" (p. xiii). Thus, in the minds of many of the people whom he studies, Christianity was assumed to be "a life, not a doctrine" (p. 405)-a religious stance that distinguished these men and women both from the proto-fundamentalist conservatives of their day and from those who rejected Christian beliefs and institutions altogether.

As Dorrien indicates in his astute comments on the ministerial career of Horace Bushnell, the liberal theologians of the nineteenth century were not only "ecclesiastically brave" but also veiy "culturally attuned" (p. 136). Seeking to liberate Christianity from the dogmatism of a benighted past, they envisioned the intellectual suppositions of their time as virtually equal in authority to the Bible and to the traditions of the church. As a consequence, while challenging the doctrinal standards of Christian orthodoxy, they also affirmed some of the worst aspects of American secular culture. Unable, for example, to escape the prejudices they held as members of the WASP elite, these Victorian "progressives" tended to project the bigoted social views of their class-anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and racism-onto the Christian faith. …