Prologue: A Mid-Nineteenth-Century Preacher
The mid- nineteenth century brought with it intellectual developments that challenged and sometimes shattered the spiritual foundations of American culture. Science was more and more replacing concepts of divine intervention with natural laws. The new science demanded an exacting methodology for deriving truth, a method calling for observation, experiment, and verification, in place of unchallenged revelation. A climate of opinion arose in several quarters in which materialism, naturalism, and skepticism flourished. Some even began to announce that the age of science had replaced the age of faith. These emerging forces were at best indifferent to religion, at worst openly hostile. Religion was on the defensive as the gap widened between static creeds and a dynamic changing world view. A critical scientific method challenged uncritical religious dogma.
Clergymen differed as to how to respond to these new challenges. Some chose to ignore the challenges, not wanting to draw attention to anything that questioned the unquestionable. Other clergymen chose to fight back by declaring the new discoveries and methodologies as being anti-God, anti-Bible, and antispiritual. A third type of clerical response declared that religion must adjust and change in order to incorporate the findings of science into religious truth. Theodore Parker was among the most prominent of American preachers to be found in this latter group. It was time, declared Parker, if religion was to be preserved, to re-examine all religious dogma and to raise questions about those matters thought to be beyond questioning; the Church and its teachings, the scriptures, and even the divinity of Christ. Other noteworthy preachers of the era found different means of accommodation. Henry Ward Beecher, the most popular preacher in mid-nineteenth centuryAmerica, was instrumental in the declaration of ways to reconcile the new science and the old faith. The famous evangelist, Charles G. Finney, introduced a new theology and methodology into revivalism. Phillips Brooks, the gifted Episcopal rector, made dogma and sectarianism