Will history repeat itself? Is the evangelical movement doomed? The cry of the day seems to be: “Doctrine Divides!” The early 21st century church is full of such statements, and they closely parallel the kinds of statements being made in the early years of the 20th Century. The lessons of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the last century within the Northern Baptist Convention seem to be playing out almost according to script in many evangelical movements and institutions today.
Ridicule Hides Compromise
Liberals stole the schools: The evangelical Seminaries of the Convention (including Newton/Andover, Colgate and Crozer) shifted from conservative to liberal orientation by the turn of the century. Rochester, was especially noticeable. Under the presidency of A.H. Strong (of Exhausting Concordance fame) Walter Rauschenbusch, the father of the social gospel was hired on the faculty, and was soft on inerrancy and Virgin birth. U of Chicago Divinity School was founded on liberalism, and the counter-founded Northern soon began to compromise.
Compromise Results in Crises
Liberals stole the missions: Fundamentalism, in this early period, was primarily a doctrinal movement rallying around the spread of the gospel, and as George Marsden notes, “Mission work was a crucial factor in the emergence of fundamentalism as an organized movement” (167). A. H. Strong retired. He toured the Baptist missionary outposts around the world and came back a changed man… Liberalism was leading to a wholesale abandonment of the gospel! But was it already too late?
In 1920 conservatives held a special meeting to address the issues of liberalization in the schools and the mission field. This meeting would give birth to an organization that was a broad coalition of conservatives, traditional baptists, along with the new fundamentalists, whether premillennialists or amillennialists, but who all agreed on the core truths of the faith: the Fundamentalist Fellowship. The Northern Baptist Conference that followed disappointed them by appointing the outspoken liberal Cecil D. Felder to a missionary post.
In 1921 a special committee looking into the denominational schools, concluded that some men were falling away from the Christian faith, in their schools, but nothing could be done about it. Compromise was urged, “Agree to differ, but resolve to love”.
In 1923 the Conservative leaders where mocked and ridiculed when they spoke up, and laughed off the floor.
Doctrine surely does divide. The great question for conservative Baptists was what to do, once the liberals had divided themselves from the faith, and divided the conservatives from having any voice in the denomination?
Crises leads to Cleavage
Liberals expelled their opponents: For the Northern Baptists, the Baptist Bible Union and Fundamentalist Fellowship which had been formed independent of denominational ties to encourage the Bible believing conservatives, became mechanisms for perusing new separatist associations. Despite their best efforts to stem the tide, in the end the denominational liberals forced the conservatives to separate and form new structures and new schools. As J. Gresham Machen observed Christianity and Liberalism were two different religions, not points on a spectrum. They could not co-exist.
Can evangelicalism today survive its doctrinal decline? Can the conflict of the 1920’s be avoided in today’s conservative denominations? If conflict comes, what does the decline and expulsion of conservatives in the past encourage the conservatives of today to do? The main lesson must be to never compromise on fundamental truth, specifically the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.
If Scripture’s authority and sufficiency are allowed to slip (as they were at Rochester under Strong), then as Strong himself discovered, the decline and fall appears inevitable.
George Marsden, Fundamentalism and the American Culture (New York New York: Oxford Press, 2006)