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Study Guide: A New Light (Episode 4)
During the 19th century, the forces of modernity challenged traditional faith and drove a wedge between liberal and conservative believers. Bohemian immigrant Isaac Mayer Wise embraced change and established Reform Judaism in America while his opponents adhered to Old World traditions. In New York, Presbyterian biblical scholar Charles Briggs sought to wed his evangelical faith with modern biblical scholarship, leading to his trial for heresy. In the 1925 Scopes evolution trial, Christian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan faced off against freethinker Clarence Darrow in a battle between scientific and religious truth.
Israel in America
As American Protestants struggled to come to terms with modernity in the 19th century, Jewish immigrants also fashioned their own response to the modern world. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise led a movement for change and developed a Reform Judaism that closely linked the destiny of the Jewish people to the destiny of America. "Liberty," he said, "is our place in history, our national destiny, our ideal, the very soul of our existence." He embraced with enthusiasm America's freedom of religion and encouraged Jews to welcome the new possibilities America offered. "He saw no reason to import all of Europe's problems and all of Europe's religious divisions into the United States," as one historian has observed. The European Jew must become an American Jew "aroused to self-consciousness" and "independent thought," wrote Rabbi Wise, and "in order to gain the proud self-consciousness of the free-born man. … I began to Americanize with all my might." Men and women sat together at services conducted not just in Hebrew but in German and English. Choirs were introduced in the synagogue. Dietary laws and regulations were relinquished.
An important effort at Americanizing took place in 1885, when a group of Reform rabbis set forth their basic principles in a defining document known as the Pittsburgh Platform. Rabbi Wise described it as a Declaration of Independence, and it closely allied Reform Judaism with the spirit of modern times:
We hold that the modern discoveries of scientific researches in the domain of nature and history are not antagonistic to the doctrines of Judaism, the Bible reflecting the primitive ideas of its own age. … We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation. ... We deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.
Rabbi Wise saw reform and modernization as ways to revitalize Judaism and unify it in a new land. Although the goal of unifying American Jews eluded him, in the midst of great religious and cultural change he succeeded in advancing a very American kind of Judaism.
Heresy, Higher Criticism and Holy Scripture
Originating in German academic circles in the early 19th century, higher criticism emphasized that the Bible was the product of different authors, cultures, times and places. It approached the Bible not as revered Scripture, but rather as literature to be investigated. Applying the tools of literary analysis, scholars examined texts to determine when, where and by whom they were composed. They also evaluated the theological agendas of the different authors of these texts. Their findings shattered familiar assumptions and advanced new hypotheses: Moses had not written the first five books of the Bible; the book of Genesis contained two different accounts of creation and was likely composed by two different authors; David did not write all the psalms attributed to him. Nearly 2,000 years had passed since the Gospels of the New Testament had been written, and the books of the Old Testament were even older. Meanwhile, modern biblical scholars said, civilization had marched forward, and many of the assumptions, values and beliefs in the Bible had become outmoded.
By the 1870s, the battle over modernism reached a fever pitch. Some conservative scholars insisted on the inerrancy of the Bible and waged war against new liberal interpretations and Darwin's theory of evolution. Other scholars who embraced higher criticism, however, no longer understood theology as a fixed body of eternal truths, but rather as "an evolutionary development that should adjust to the standards and needs of the modern culture."
During the 1880s and 1890s, this new understanding of theology spread into many strongholds of American Protestantism. In 1891, liberal and conservative Protestants clashed openly in the heresy trials of Charles Briggs, a devout Presbyterian who had studied in Germany and who was appointed to a prestigious chair in scriptural studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York. In his inaugural lecture on "The Authority of Holy Scripture," Briggs attempted to fuse evangelical piety with modern biblical criticism. He hoped to recover "the real Bible," he said, and he explained that his insights came to him "with the force of divine revelation." He described himself as "blessed with a new divine light" and the Bible as "lit up with a new light." Briggs's address and his subsequent trials for heresy raised serious questions about religious and biblical authority in America. Supporters viewed the lecture as "a blazing call to battle for the triumph of a genuinely modern Christianity." Outraged opponents asked, "Can human beings really get along without God?" and "Is nothing sacred?" A wedge was being driven into the major Protestant groups, and the resulting fractures divided members of the same denominations into progressive and traditional, liberal and conservative camps.
In his book How to Read the Bible, James Kugel, a specialist in the Hebrew Bible and biblical interpretation, sums up the essential issues raised by the story of Charles Briggs and the heresy proceedings against him:
Charles A. Briggs may have been the immediate defendant in the proceeding, but in a larger sense it was the Bible itself that stood accused. What was it, really? Was it a special book unlike any other, the very word of God? Or was it, as Briggs seemed to suggest, principally (though not exclusively) the product of human industry, indeed, the work of men who lived in a time and place far removed from our own? Are its stories really true? If they are, was not even questioning their accuracy a sacrilege -- a heresy, as Briggs accusers charged? Or was it perfectly proper for biblical scholars, like all other university-trained researchers, to pursue their theories untrammeled, looking deeply into every aspect of the Bible and letting the chips fall where they may?
The Age of Fundamentalism
The savagery of World War I challenged liberal faith in human progress and the ability of mankind to realize the kingdom of God on earth. Before the war, there was a loose array of conservative groups with little interest in political and social issues. But in the postwar climate they coalesced into an anti-modernist movement known as fundamentalism. Fundamentalists were a subset of a broader evangelicalism that traces its roots back to the First Great Awakening of the 1740s. No longer aloof from politics, in the 1920s fundamentalists acquired a militancy that set them apart from other evangelicals. Historian George Marsden has famously observed that "a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something."
Conservative Protestants who opposed modernizing trends and believed the Bible to be the word of God -- that it "means what it says and says what it means," as history and theology professor Mark Massa observes in this episode -- found a powerful advocate in Williams Jennings Bryan, the progressive Democratic politician and orator known as "the Great Commoner." Bryan has also been described as "the last great exemplar of 19th-century evangelical political activism." He was convinced that an offshoot theory of Darwinism, known as Social Darwinism, had allowed rich and powerful capitalists to justify trampling on the poor and the weak. He proclaimed that "all the ills from which America suffers can be traced to the teaching of evolution," and the antidote to social ills was the Bible. "I am now engaged in the biggest reform of my life," said Bryan. "I am trying to save the Christian Church from those who are trying to destroy her faith." He also aimed to restore America's special relationship with God.
At the Scopes Trial in 1925, Bryan faced off against attorney Clarence Darrow, a self-proclaimed agnostic who argued that "the origin of what we call civilization is not due to religion but to skepticism … the modern world is the child of doubt and inquiry, as the ancient world was the child of fear and faith." For days the two men sparred in the sweltering summer heat in Dayton, Tenn. Darrow appeared to be losing. Then he called Bryan to the stand to defend the Bible. He backed Bryan into a corner. Bryan's side won on a technicality, but Darrow won in the court of public opinion. The liberal mainline Protestant magazine The Christian Century gloated that "the whole fundamentalist movement was hollow and artificial. ... It is henceforth to be a disappearing quantity in American religious life, while our churches go on to larger issues." Journalist H.L. Mencken linked the fundamentalist cause to rural backwardness. He called country people "gaping primates of the upland valleys" and labeled followers of Bryan as "yokels," "morons" and "hillbillies." Fundamentalism had run its course, or so it seemed. The fundamentalists went into retreat, but they did not disappear. In time, they would re-emerge as part of a larger evangelical movement that transformed American religion and politics in the 20th century.
Jewish history professor Jeffrey Gurock says some Jewish immigrants to America wanted "to act and look and behave like the Protestant majority without abandoning their faith." In what ways did 19th-century America alter the religious identity of immigrants, and in what ways did immigrants alter the American religious landscape?
Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise saw America as a perfect setting for both the preservation and the reform of traditional Judaism, says historian Hasia Diner. He wanted "to sustain Judaism and to change it," Jonathan Sarna has written. Rabbi Wise's dilemma was how far to change Judaism in order for it to thrive, how much to negotiate. What particular American ideas and ideals influenced his alterations of religious rituals, customs, language and observances?
Do you agree with Randall Balmer that there is something about America that "seems to encourage particular expressions of the faith rather than any one unified expression of the faith"? Why might this be so? What other examples of this trend toward fragmentation in American religion have you seen in the series?
America raised questions about religious authority and leadership for immigrant religions as "faith pulled in one direction, America in the other," according to Jonathan Sarna. How did Rabbi Wise try to incorporate American values into his understanding of his Jewish identity? What did he mean when he said "in religion only we are Jews, in all other respects we are American citizens"?
Jeffrey Gurock calls the story of Rabbi Wise not just a Jewish story but an American religious story. What makes it so? Hasia Diner pinpoints the American quality of the story when she says in American religion if you don't like something "you leave and you start your own congregation" -- a very Protestant characteristic of American religious history.
Modernists, writes historian Mark Noll, "were Protestants who felt it was important to adjust Christianity to new science, new economic expansion, and new ideals of human progress." They believed God was best understood as "a force working within human society and within human nature" and "the evolving shape of modern life amounted to a revelation of God's ways with the world." Most fundamentalists, he writes, "were not intellectuals working out careful theological positions. Instead, they responded to modernist theology by rallying ordinary believers. Mostly they favored vigorous preaching, stem-winding debate, and popular writing aimed at moving the heart more than swaying the mind." Based on the examples in the series, describe what happens when religious groups confront what Stephen Prothero calls "the onslaught of modernity" and must choose either to embrace it or reject it.
At the end of the 19th century, people were reading the Bible differently than they had during the time of the Civil War. What forces in society and the culture at large contributed to this change? Why was what Charles Briggs said and did considered to be so dangerous?
What is heresy? What is orthodoxy? What was the revolution among American Protestants that Charles Briggs began? What were the "new truths" he espoused?
Why might some Protestants have thought that Briggs's new interpretation of the Bible threatened the nation's special relationship with God?
Who really won the Scopes Trial? The trial is described as representing "one of the deepest and most persistent conflicts of modern American culture." How does the 1925 conflict compare to current religion and science divides in American culture?
The response to modernism and the Scopes Trial also forced a split between liberals and conservatives, and created divisions and quarrels among Protestants themselves, as well as among Catholics and Jews, that still persist. What impact have those ideological fissures within religious groups had on them and on religion in America, and in what ways are the divisions still manifest in current debates over social issues?
How was America's special relationship with God at stake in the Scopes Trial? Cynthia Lyerly suggests, "America's covenant relationship with God was in peril." How did the wreckage of World War I contribute to this fear? What other threats loomed? Do you agree with the suggestion that "Darwinism undermined the notion of what it means to be an American"?
How would you compare Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan religiously, temperamentally, politically?
While Darrow put fundamentalist Christianity itself on trial in Dayton, Tenn., fundamentalists felt, as Randall Balmer says, that "the integrity of the Bible" was on trial. What issues would you say were at stake in the Scopes Trial?
Two trials are featured in this episode of God in America. In both of them, questions about authority and truth -- divine, human, biblical, religious, scientific -- are important. In both of them, it could be said, "the Bible itself stood accused." Compare the Briggs and Scopes trials with the issues raised in another trial featured in the series, the trial of Anne Hutchinson in Puritan New England.
Why did religious conservatives withdraw from American culture and politics after the Scopes Trial? What happened to fundamentalism? What were the great divides that dominated the country at the conclusion of the trial?
How did the meaning and definition of "fundamentalist" change after World War I and after the Scopes Trial?
Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War by Harry S. Stout
American Judaism: A History by Jonathan D. Sarna
Isaac Mayer Wise: The Founder of American Judaism by Max May
Isaac Mayer Wise: Shaping American Judaism by Sefton Temkin
The Jews of the United States by Hasia Diner
American Jewish History edited by Jeffrey Gurock
History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage by Beth S. Wenger
Charles Augustus Briggs and the Crisis of Historical Criticism by Mark Massa
How to Read the Bible by James S. Kugel
The Divided Mind of Protestant America, 1880-1930 by Ferenc Morton Szasz
Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson
When All the Gods Trembled: Darwinism, Scopes, and American Intellectuals by Paul K. Conkin
A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan by Michael Kazin
Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast by Andrew Kersten
Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth Miller
Fundamentalism and American Culture by George M. Marsden
Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism by George M. Marsden
Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism by Joel Carpenter
The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism by William R. Hutchinson
PBS: The Jewish Americans
American Jewish Historical Society
Library of Congress: "From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America"
National Museum of American Jewish History
Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: US Religious Landscape Survey
National Humanities Center: The Scopes Trial
Published October 11, 2010