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

By Sinitiere, Phillip Luke | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2003 | Go to article overview

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


Sinitiere, Phillip Luke, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


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

In the first of three volumes set to chronicle the liberal Protestant tradition in America, Gary Dorrien's The Making of American Liberal Theology artfully demonstrates that nineteenth-century Protestant liberals occupied a "middle way" between ardent conservatism and dry rationalism. Such ministers, theologians, and thinkers were shaped by Darwinist thought, German theology, and an increasingly progressive social order. Dorrien carefully points out that despite the eventual influence of German liberal theology, American theological liberals are best described as "honest Victorians." According to these liberals, best typified by Horace Bushnell, theology was not to be overly rationalistic or academic nor was it to be nauseatingly dogmatic; rather, theology was to be a transformative social force.

Dorrien defines liberal theology as "the idea that Christian theology can be genuinely Christian without being based upon external authority" (p. xiii). The first distinctly American group to embrace this view was the Unitarians, the subject of the opening chapter. Ministers like Charles Chauncy, Jonathan Mayhew, and Theodore Parker clearly embody this type of Christian, but William Ellery Channing captures best the Unitarian spirit. Dorrien indicates that the definitive moment for early American Unitarian Christianity came in 1819 at the ordination of Baltimore minister Jared Sparks, for this is when Channing defined a movement. After he upheld the Unitarian principle of Scripture as "God's revelation," Channing highlighted the importance of using reason to discern this revelation. The Unitarians's aim was, in Channing's words, to "spiritualize the mind" so that contemplation of God's moral perfection might produce righteous actions. Also within this framework, Channing questioned the reasonableness of the Trinity and forcefully discarded the folly of Calvinism. Gaining staunch popularity after his Baltimore sermon, Channing made a foray into literary criticism and objectified the "moral" impulse in Unitarian Christianity by remaining socially progressive throughout his lifetime.

The second chapter introduces the transcendentalist wing of liberal American Christianity. Dorrien effectively observes that the Transcendentalists valued spiritual experience over any creedal formula and thereby rejected outdated Lockean empiricism. This allows him to describe the Transcendentalists as "intuitionists" and "romantics." Dorrien convincingly presents Theodore Parker as the perennial Transcendentalist whose liberal Christian impulse was stirred by Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Divinity School Address" at Harvard in 1838. A number of Parker's sermons and lectures, such as "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity" (1841) and "A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion" (1841-42) transformed his anti-historical theology into decidedly historical action, evidenced by Parker's sympathy toward temperance, women's rights, and abolitionism. Dorrien clearly shows that Parker's perceived "radicalism" of the 1840s paved the way for an inclusive Unitarianism that supported theology and social action and called for Christianity to make ample use of the "dawning" scientific age created by Charles Darwin's Origin of Species.

Dorrien then presents the life and thought of Horace Bushnell and demonstrates masterfully that Bushnell represents the sine qua non of liberal theology in nineteenth-century America for his penchant to "theorize about the metaphorical nature of religious language" (p. 111). Eventually discarding stuffy Calvinistic theology, Bushnell focused on "words" as conveyers of spiritual truth, and his God in Christ: Three Discourses proclaimed a decidedly liberal theology of language. Other works such as Christ in Theology, Christian Nurture, The Vicarious Sacrifice, and Nature and the Supernatural established Bushnell's ability to present the validity of uncovering the intricacies of religious language, what Dorrien cleverly calls "imagination wording forth. …

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