"More Catholic Than Protestant": Walter Marshall Horton and the Faith of Evangelical Catholicism

By Edwards, Mark | Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2009 | Go to article overview

"More Catholic Than Protestant": Walter Marshall Horton and the Faith of Evangelical Catholicism


Edwards, Mark, Anglican and Episcopal History


"Most Protestants do not stand as far from Rome as they are accustomed to think of themselves as standing," complained world religions professor Floyd Ross in 1950. Ross was frustrated by American theologians' unwillingness to adopt a more radical experimental approach to faith. He accused them of upholding religious authoritarianism - which Protestants had long associated with Roman Catholicism. Ross's insinuation, however fair in light of Vatican II, still serves as an invitation to rethink the study of the Anglo-American liberal evangelicals who were his chief targets. The ideological aspect of liberal Protestantism - the spread of Unitarian and German idealist philosophy, Biblical criticism, and Darwinism among clergy in England and America - is well known. The socio-cultural dimension of liberal belief and practice remains relatively unexplored territory, however. Ross's comment suggests a greater continuity between old and new world spirituality than scholars have yet appreciated.

While tendencies toward anti-Roman Catholic nativismi infected liberal no less than conservative Protestants during the nineteenth century, it was the former who nevertheless coveted "roads to Rome." As Jenny Franchot has detailed, the "visual splendors" of Catholicism were captivating to many liberal Christians forced to endure the "ascetic Protestant spirituality" of Victorianism. Horace Bushneil, the Adamic evangelical liberal, would register approval of Roman liturgical strategy while standing amidst the cathedrals of Italy. That should not be surprising, as Bushnell had been one of the first American theologians to stress the centrality of environment in making both godly character and a good republic. Accounting for the resilient psychological appeal of ancient forms of Christian nurture, William James explained that Catholicism "offers a so much richer pasturage and shade to the fancy, has so many cells with so many kinds of honey, is so indulgent in its multiform appeals to human nature, that Protestantism will always show to Catholic eyes the almshouse physiognomy."2

As early liberals hoped to secure what one of their contemporary apologists has termed a "commitment beyond belief," many came to appreciate the efficacy of high church traditions in general. Before the Civil War, northeastern Episcopalians had offered Americans a church and sacrament-centered alternative to revivalist evangelicals' worldly, activist piety. As Episcopal practice became more eclectic after the Civil War - at which time the feud between tractarians and evangelicals gave way to an inclusive "broad church" party - so, too, did borrowing of it by low church Methodists, Baptists, and others become more frequent. The use of gothic styles in American church construction after 1840 paralleled a growing "liturgicalism" in Protestant worship services, including a new emphasis on the mystical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Between 1880 and 1920, urban Protestants turned in noticeable numbers to the Anglo-Catholic thought and practice of the Oxford Movement as it was then being instituted by Episcopalians (the number of Episcopal churches doubled to over eight thousand and membership tripled to one million). "Perhaps we Puritans have reacted too far from the sacerdotalism of medaevalism and need to retrace our steps," Bushnell's fellow liberal Congregationalism Lyman Abbott, mused following his tour of European churches.3

Liberal Protestant interest in universalist Christian cultures, notably Anglicanism and Anglo-Catholicism, continued well into the twentieth century in America, culminating in numerous personal testimonies to "Evangelical Catholic" faith. One such confession was made by the liberal Baptist theologian Walter Marshall Horton. Despite his once-popular stature as an articulate, mediating theologian, a leading voice in the Protestant ecumenical movement, and an influential chronicler of the world religious situation, Horton has been the main subject of few dissertations and no publications. …

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