Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925

By George M. Marsden | Go to book overview

XX. The Offensive Stalled
and Breaking Apart: 1924-1925

Although the liberals now conceded that the issue of fundamentalism versus modernism was a most serious one, they were a long way from conceding defeat. During 1924 both press and public were eager for any contribution to the ongoing spectacle of clergymen at each other's throats. H. L. Mencken suggested building special stadia for these entertainments.1 In the spring of 1924 in New York City Charles Francis Potter, a Unitarian, debated John Roach Straton in a highly publicized series that added plausibility to such popular characterizations of the disputes. Certainly the liberals were not willing to let the fundamentalist charges go uncontested, and in 1924 a striking number of liberal spokesmen brought out strong defenses of their views.2

Probably the most influential of such statements was The Faith of Modernism by Shailer Mathews, Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School. While not presented as such, Mathews's book was clearly meant to answer Machen's Christianity and Liberalism. The antagonist throughout was a "confessional or dogmatic Christian" who held views closely resembling those of the Princeton professor.3 Although liberalism itself was too broad to have one standard view, Mathews's answer to Machen displays many characteristics of the movement at its height.

"The use of scientific, historical, and social method in understanding and applying evangelical Christianity to the needs of living persons," said Mathews, "is Modernism." When Mathews said that Christianity was scientific and empirical he had something vastly different in mind from what Machen meant when he said the same thing. The basic premise underlying all of Mathews's thought, as well as much of the scientific thought of the day, was that ideas and beliefs are not mirrors of external reality but products of the mind shaped by natural evolutionary and cultural developments. Thus religion was not based on static or standardized objective knowledge of God, but rather could best be understood as a social or historical development. Christians had faith that God indeed was acting in history, but they knew of him only through human religious experience which changed as society changed.

In Mathews's view, human religious experience provided the data for the scientific study of religion. The Bible, accordingly, was not a source of facts or true propositions about God, but "a trustworthy record of a developing experience of God which nourishes our faith." Similarly, the doctrines of the

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