After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History

By Williams, Jeffrey | The Catholic Historical Review, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History


Williams, Jeffrey, The Catholic Historical Review


After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History. By David A. Hollinger. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2013. Pp. xvi, 228. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-691-15842-6.)

Intellectual historian David Hollinger gathers together his previously published essays on Protestant liberalism in the twentieth century to fashion After Cloven Tongues of Fire. Whereas declining membership roles, dwindling financial resources, and diminishing social authority often become the fodder for assessing the liberal Protestant movement that once held sway over large swaths of the nation's faithful and enjoyed even greater cultural capital in the mid-twentieth century, Hollinger offers a more nuanced picture. He simultaneously recognizes that "liberalizers did lose the institutional control of Protestantism they once had, but in return they furthered the causes in the national arena to which they were the most deeply connected," particularly pluralism, tolerance, civil rights, and rational inquiry (pp. xii, 14).

Although the term liberalism carries a set of contested definitions in relation to Protestantism, Hollinger identifies it most closely with "ecumenical" as evident in the movement's creation of trans-denominational partnerships such as the World Council of Churches and in championing theological pluralism and social activism (p. xiii). Some of Hollinger's most intriguing analysis appears in the middle chapters devoted first to the Realist-Pacifist summit meeting in 1942 in which these two competing groups allied with a confidence in their capacity and cultural authority to articulate a public agenda for the postwar years deeply rooted in their own liberalizing understanding of Christian principles. The cultural influence reflected in this meeting manifests itself in a very different form in the following chapter as Hollinger identifies a deeply Protestant "mentality" among the champions of science in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Hollinger then digs more deeply into the important relation between Protestant liberalism and science with two chapters that give prominent attention to William James's shift from seeking more delimited domains for science and religion to a commitment to weigh religious belief more strictly within the bounds of scientific inquiry (p. …

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