The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism

By Edwards, Mark | The Christian Century, June 11, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism


Edwards, Mark, The Christian Century


The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism

By Matthew Bowman

Oxford University Press, 320 pp., $74 00

Since the 1970s, culture warriors have been inventing an irreparable break between liberal and evangelical churches. But Matthew Bowman transports us to a time when evangelicalism as a "style of being religious" was still up for grabs. His deeply researched and masterfully written new book invites readers to rediscover the once-powerful promise of liberal evangelicalism. Now that historians are returning to study liberal and ecumenical church leaders not named Niebuhr or Tillich, the question must be asked: What is there left to learn about these self-credentialed white male elites?

A lot, actually. For Bowman, liberal evangelicalism was a pastoral middle way between the secular city and fundamentalism. Liberal churchmen were at war with New York pluralism, commercialism, and social scientism as often as they accommodated to them. The term liberal evangelicalism itself was coined by Madison Avenue pastor and Union Theological Seminary president Henry Sloane Coffin, who claimed in 1915 that "we are liberals on behalf of our evangelicalism."

Coffin's faith conjoined the gothic, sacramental style of Henry van Dyke's Brick Church, the moral establishment of gowned crusader Charles Parkhurst, the experiential-over-doctrinal emphases of religious educator George Coe, and the comprehensive Christianity of Riverside Church's Harry Emerson Fosdick. "Theirs was the essential struggle of liberal religion more generally," Bowman observes--"the problem of simultaneous embrace of expansiveness and identity, the difficulty of maintaining a vitalizing connection to tradition while exploring change." The liberal evangelical embrace of new views of the Bible and human origins--of the conviction that everything is determined by its environment--led Bowman's men to double down on, not reject, long-standing determination to Christianize America and the world. Tolerance and inclusivity served liberal evangelicals' tough-minded desire to convert souls as well as social structures.

Bowman's strength is his thick description of liberal evangelicalism and the contentious cultural life of turn-of-the-century New York. His book is as much about the urban fundamentalism of Billy Sunday, John Roach Straton, and the Harlem Pentecostals as it is about the liberal mainline. That is because liberal evangelicals defined themselves by what they were against as often as by what they were for. Bowman's subjects never constituted a unified and self-confident Christian aristocracy. They were instead desperate to salvage the spiritual and moral power of evangelicalism in a time and place that seemed hostile to it. …

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