Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

The Best of Both Worlds: William Porcher DuBose among Liberals and Conservatives

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

The Best of Both Worlds: William Porcher DuBose among Liberals and Conservatives

Article excerpt

Something happened in American Christianity around 1900. In the decades before and after 1900, the contested theological issues of the nineteenth century gave way to a new set of oppositions between "liberals" or "modernists" and self-styled conservative "fundamentalists." At the heart of this emerging opposition were competing attitudes towards biblical interpretation and the nature of religious truth. On the liberal side stood those who presumed that God was immanent in human cultural development and who sought to adapt religious ideas to modern culture in order to help society progressively realize die kingdom of God on earth.1 Liberals typically found the insights of the historical criticism of scripture helpful in articulating their progressive vision. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, were suspicious of this kind of progressive vision, and the historical criticism on which it often relied, because it seemed to them to imply a dangerous historical relativism. Over against liberal immanence, fundamentalists therefore stressed God's transcendence. Over against the liberal adaptation of religious truths to modern culture, they defended the fundamentals of the faith as essentially unchanging. And over against liberal faith in human progress towards the kingdom of God, they emphasized human sin and the need for divine redemption.

The most important early rounds of this fight took place in northern cities, as Presbyterian and Baptist modernists and fundamentalists batded for control of their respective denominations. Southerners mosdy watched diese early rounds from the sidelines. Episcopalians from every region also largely stayed out of these early batdes, presumably because Episcopalians typically accepted the methods and findings of modern historical criticism, or at least tolerated those who did so.2 As a southem Episcopalian, William Porcher DuBose (1836-1918) would therefore seem an unlikely partisan in this fight3 And yet DuBose clearly followed these fights and commented on them from his own distinctive theological perspective, with die goal, as he later said, "to be [among the] standard-bearers of mediation, reconciliation, and unity."4 He worried that modernists, mose who pursued "the new, renewed, or revived side of die trudi," tended "to narrow [their] oudook and vision to the restricted field of its immediate interest and attention, and then to become exclusive, intolerant, and arrogant toward all other views." In reaction, conservatives too often viewed die "new side of the truth" with suspicion, "and then they proceed to lower their own life by becoming to the "parry" in progress an equally mere party in opposition."5 DuBose aimed to overcome this opposition by offering a synthesis of the new, liberal, critical spirit with conservative doctrinal affirmations in a single dynamic vision.

FINDING HIS VOICE

DuBose is sometimes portrayed as a largely self-taught sage, who developed a creative theology on his own and with his students, but without significandy engaging the theological world outside of Sewanee. This portrayal contains much truth, and DuBose himself contributed to it. He joined the faculty of the newly formed University of the South at Sewanee in 1871 as chaplain and professor of moral science, and for the rest of his professional life he devoted enormous energy to building up the school.6 By his own testimony, he developed his theology and ethics slowly, and he did so largely through his interactions with his students. In the introduction to his autobiographical Turning Points in My Life (1912), he claimed that "I was finding and making myself in and with and through and by, as well as upon, [students]." Much (though by no means all) of this work of finding and making himself took place in the classroom, which was for Dubose a place for ongoing theological exploration. Rather than using old notes for his classes, he began "every day and every year anew, without any help from the past through any records of my own. …

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