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People and Ideas: Confronting Modernity/Progressive Era

Charles Briggs.

Charles Briggs

Briggs converted to evangelical Christianity between 1857 and 1858. After traveling to Germany, he eagerly embraced Historismus, a new, critical way of thinking about history and studying the Bible. Historismus postulated that all historical phenomena were the products of the culture -- the time and the place in which they were created. They could therefore be subject to critical study and analysis. These methods of critical study also applied to sacred texts, including the Bible. Biblical texts were no longer seen as the immutable word of God. Moreover, these texts contained errors and inconsistencies.

Briggs' critical readings of the Bible illustrated a broader modernist trend in American Protestant theological circles. Modernists taught for Christianity to survive, it must adapt to modern intellectual currents. Their faith in human progress -- a faith rooted in the belief that God was at work in and through developments in human culture -- allowed them to justify this adaptation. Modernists were confident that advances in areas of knowledge are the manifestation of God's truth. For conservatives, this thinking was anathema to true Christian teachings. They stood against the idea that God was immanent in human history and culture, and continually revealed his purpose through them. To them, God had revealed himself once, in the passion and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ. Truth, they believed, was not relative, but immutable, eternal and fixed.

Briggs hoped to mediate these two competing worldviews in a new journal, The Presbyterian Review. Briggs desperately wanted the Presbyterian Church to come together and saw the magazine as a forum to deliberate, explore and reconcile the opposing views that threatened its fragile unity. But the theological battle lines hardened. The magazine folded. Presbyterians argued over revisions in the Westminster Confession, the denomination's official creed. Briggs argued for a new creed. Conservatives became increasingly alarmed.

Briggs became convinced that conservative dogma, with its insistent preoccupation with the end-time, was undermining Christianity. Briggs, in an inaugural address, argued that all old, dead dogmas must be cut away to allow a new Christian age to commence. Offending conservative Presbyterian theologians, Briggs suggested that reason was a source of divine authority as much as Scripture. He attacked the doctrines of literal inerrancy, verbal inspiration and predictive prophecy by stating that there were factual errors in the Bible and that some biblical prophecies had been shown by history to be false. Within a year of his inaugural address, Briggs' enemies maneuvered to put him on trial for heresy. Briggs mounted a strong defense but ultimately lost and was excommunicated from the denomination he had hoped to save. 

Dorothy Day

In high school, Day was baptized an Episcopalian. As an undergraduate student, she decided that religion was an opiate for the masses. Later, she moved to New York City; wrote for a socialist magazine; attended the Anarchists Ball; and got thrown in jail for participating in a rally for women's suffrage. She then went to work for another socialist magazine, The Liberator, and spent time with Eugene O'Neill. She stumbled into St. Joseph's church, the oldest Catholic Church in Manhattan, and later recalled, "I seemed to feel the faith of those about me and I longed for their faith." Instead, she fell in love, got pregnant, had an abortion and worked as a nurse. Then she got married, went to Europe and got divorced. Hungry for the experience of life, her own existence seemed without direction.

Eventually she moved to Staten Island. Her biographer Paul Eli describes :"She felt something new and strange: a sudden, strong intuition about the presence of God." For her, God was intimately tied up in the unity and goodness of nature. She read The Imitation of Christ and realized her own life would be religious. She would imitate Christ by patterning herself after the Catholic masses. In December 1927, she returned to Staten Island and was baptized in the church where she had gone so often to pray. 

Day was a Catholic with a strong social conscience who identified with Catholic masses. Her religious and political convictions came together in The Catholic Worker, a newspaper she founded with Peter Maurin. The first issue came out on May Day as an alternative to the Communist Daily Worker. The paper caught on and was distributed across the country. Day herself wrote a column, "Day by Day." The paper soon launched a movement to provide food and shelter to the homeless; more than 30 Catholic Worker houses were established in major cities. But its forward momentum was set back by Day's pacifism during World War II. 

In the years that followed, Day supported farm workers organizer Cesar Chavez, sided with the Berrigan brothers against the Vietnam War, supported liberal intellectuals, challenged the conservative Catholic hierarchy and prodded the church on matters of poverty and social inequality. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal," wrote Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her 1848 Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. Revising Thomas Jefferson's famous words, Stanton, a vocal advocate for women's suffrage, abolition and social reform in the 19th century, reinterpreted America's longstanding commitment to equality, believing that both sexes deserved equal rights and privileges under the law.

A lively intellect and talented writer, Stanton was influenced by popular evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, who terrified her with his talk of sin and damnation. "Fear of the judgment seized my soul. Visions of the lost haunted my dreams," she wrote. But Stanton came to reject Finney's style of preaching -- it "worked incalculable harm to the very souls he sought to save" –- and organized Christianity. Stanton codified her views on religion in her most controversial work, The Woman's Bible. Referring to the Christian Bible, Stanton wrote: "I know no other books that so fully teach the subjection and degradation of woman. ... When our bishops, archbishops and ordained clergymen stand up in their pulpits and read selections from the Pentateuch with reverential voice, they make the women of their congregation believe that there really is some divine authority for their subjection." Convinced that progress on women's rights required a revised Christianity, Stanton assembled an international committee to reinterpret the Bible's message.

Upon its publication in 1895, however, The Woman's Bible fractured the women's rights movement. Stanton's longtime friend and supporter Susan B. Anthony did not think it expedient to push away religious persons from women's rights. Many others in the suffrage movement disavowed Stanton's religious radicalism. Stanton died in 1902, before the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote. Though too radical for many in the 19th century, Stanton's opinions continue to influence discourse on sex and faith today. 

Frances Willard

Born into a devout Methodist family, Willard believed that women's innate morality could save the nation, and, given the right to vote, women would demand an end to societal vices. Women, she claimed, could cleanse the nation of its sins. After graduating from college, Willard traveled the world with a friend and, upon returning to the United States, became the first president of the Evanston College for Ladies in 1871. The college opened to offer greater academic opportunities for women's higher education, but financial problems forced it to merge with Northwestern University in 1873.

Willard became increasingly engaged in social reform, linking two reform movements -- women's suffrage and temperance. In 1874, she became the president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). She traveled across both the United States and Europe speaking about the necessity of temperance reform and women's suffrage. Under Willard's leadership, the WCTU attacked not only alcohol but also a broad range of social issues including prison reform, the care of orphans, homelessness and prostitution. As historian Edward Blum has pointed out, Willard and her followers viewed the WCTU as "a new and holy army in a war for human liberation. To them, religion and politics could not be separated." Willard reassured her followers that "the Bible is the most political of books," adding that that the goal of the WCTU was to "recognize Christ as the great world-force for righteousness and purity, and enthrone him as King."

Isaac Mayer Wise

saac Mayer Wise was the father of Reform Judaism in the United States. Born in Bohemia, Wise emigrated to the U.S. in 1846. Appointed rabbi of a congregation in Albany, N.Y., Wise introduced changes in traditional Jewish rituals and practices. He replaced the male cantor with a mixed-sex choir; he advocated praying in English and German, instead of only in Hebrew; he encouraged men and women to sit together rather than apart. Wise embraced liberty alongside change, linking the idea of America's providential destiny with that of the Jews. Finding freedom in America, Wise said, allowed Jews to find their God-given destiny.

But not everyone shared his views. In Albany, Wise was dismissed by his congregation. He then founded a new congregation, Anshe Emeth -- the "People of Truth." Soon afterward, he traveled the East Coast to spread his vision of American Reform Judaism. In 1954, Wise became rabbi of the B'nai Yeshurun congregation in Cincinnati. Here he pursued his driving vision: the establishment of a theological seminary to train American rabbis in the Reform tradition. In 1875, Wise founded the Hebrew Union College; its first class was ordained in 1883. 

In 1885 Wise presided over a gathering of Reform rabbis who set forth their governing principles in a manifesto known as the Pittsburgh Platform. The platform addressed the three main challenges of modern thought. On the question of the Bible, the platform stated that Scripture reflected "the primitive ideas of its own age." The platform also declared that scientific advances such as evolution were not at odds with the doctrines of Judaism. On the question of other religions, the platform referred to Judaism as "the highest conception of the God-idea," but it also acknowledged every other religion as "an attempt to grasp the Infinite." Christianity and Islam were praised for aiding "in the spreading of monotheistic and moral truth." On the sensitive question of the Jewish homeland, Reform Jews concluded that the return was not literal, but eschatological.

Isaac Mayer Wise devoted his life to his deep-seated conviction that American Jews must not only accept change, they must also embrace it. He envisioned Judaism as a progressive religion that needed to be creatively adapted to modern culture.

Lucretia Mott

Lucretia Coffin was raised a Quaker. It was this faith that informed many of her early anti-slavery and women's equality beliefs and set her in opposition to those who believed that Christian Scripture condoned slavery and the inequality of the sexes. As she said in a speech: "The laws given on Mount Sinai for the government of man and woman were equal, the precepts of Jesus make no distinction. Those who read the Scriptures, and judge for themselves, not resting satisfied with the perverted application of the text, do not find the distinction, that theology and ecclesiastical authorities have made, in the condition of the sexes." Mott taught at the Quaker school after graduating from high school, but was paid three times less than her male colleagues. This disparity furthered her commitment to women's rights. At Nine Partners, Mott met her future husband, fellow social reformer James Mott, and began a lifelong friendship and correspondence with the renowned abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

In 1833 Lucretia founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, a group that attracted much controversy within the abolitionist community. Many male abolitionists objected to Mott, a woman, entering politics. This divisive issue would lead to the fracturing of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840. Yet Mott garnered attention for her powerful and moving speeches. In 1849, she delivered one of her best known speeches, "Discourse on Woman," in which she argued that men and women should receive equal standing in society.

Both Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton staunchly supported emancipation for slaves, but they were dismayed when the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution failed to guarantee voting and civil rights for women as well as blacks; to them, the struggles were intertwined. In response, they formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, an early leader in the movement for women's voting rights.

Robert Ingersoll

In the late 19th century, new and bold ideas from Europe, including biblical criticism and the theories of Charles Darwin, challenged traditional ways of thinking about religion. A small minority of people, concentrated in the intelligentsia, abandoned belief in God and became known as "free thinkers." Today their worldview is typically known as "secularism." In the United States, the foremost proponent of secularism was a former politician and lawyer named Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll barnstormed the country, a circuit rider for the secular set. 

Ingersoll's most famous lecture was a speech titled "The Gods," which he delivered in New York in 1880. This is how Ingersoll began:

Each nation has created a god, and the god has always resembled his creators. He hated and loved what they hated and loved, and he was invariably found on the side of those in power. Each god was intensely patriotic, and detested all nations but his own. All these gods demanded praise, flattery, and worship. Most of them were pleased with sacrifice, and the smell of innocent blood has ever been considered a divine perfume.

For Ingersoll, gods were the invention of the mind and imagination of man. They were not benign, but inherently destructive, dark and foreboding figures who demanded sacrifice, obedience and worship. Religions that arose in their name were relentless in their opposition to human progress. Only reason, intellectual freedom and the progress of science could overcome the destructive power of religion. Ingersoll paved the way for skeptics, humanists, freethinkers, agnostics, atheists and others who have dared to question the impact and influence of religion on society and culture.

Susan B. Anthony

Anthony was born into an activist Quaker family in Adams, Mass., in 1820; her father had spent years advocating for abolition, and he instilled a strong sense of moral and social justice in his daughter. A young Susan Anthony began advocating for abolition and temperance but was often barred from speaking out publicly for social reform because of her sex and began to champion women's rights with equal vigor. At age 30, Anthony fully devoted her energies to social reform. In 1848, she attended the first women's rights convention, the Seneca Falls Convention, and signed the "Declaration of Sentiments," which famously revised the Declaration of Independence, stating: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal." Along with her friend and fellow suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anthony co-founded the National Woman Suffrage Association.

Anthony aimed keep the movement as broad as possible, writing, "I have worked 40 years to make the [women's suffrage] platform broad enough for atheists and agnostics to stand upon, and now if need be I will fight the next 40 years to keep it Catholic enough to permit the straightest Orthodox religionist to pray and count her beads upon." Deeply faithful, Anthony refused to secularize the women's rights movement, knowing it would take both the religious and the irreligious to change society. After the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments guaranteed civil and voting rights for freed black males, Anthony argued that these same rights should extend to women. In 1872, she attempted to register a group of women in Rochester, N.Y., but she encountered opposition and was arrested for her efforts. Undeterred by resistance, Anthony traveled the nation speaking and agitating for temperance and women's rights.

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda was a Hindu monk who introduced Hinduism to the United States in the late 19th century. Vivekananda studied Western logic, philosophy, history, classical music and Indian Sanskrit scripture. His teachers considered him a prodigy.

Vivekananda first visited the United States in 1893 as a delegate to the World's Parliament of Religions. In his opening remarks, he greeted the assembled gathering with the words "Sisters and Brothers of America." Vivekananda proceeded to give a brief but eloquent speech that celebrated toleration and condemned fanaticism and its ills: "I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true."

Swathed in his orange turban, Vivekananda became the star of the Parliament. The New York Herald wrote: "Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation." Following the Parliament, Vivekananda continued to attract attention, delivering lectures on Hindu philosophy and popularizing the practice of yoga. He founded the Vedanta Society in New York and established chapters in Boston and San Francisco. 

Walter Rauschenbusch

Walter Rauschenbusch came of age in the late 19th century, an era marked by boundless energy and optimism undercut by fear and anxiety. Rauschenbusch, a seventh-generation minister whose father suffered from depression and alcoholism, became the pastor of the tiny Second German Baptist Church in New York City, on the edge of the crime-infested neighborhood Hell's Kitchen. Unlike Christian revivalists who preached a message of personal redemption, Rauschenbusch believed poverty, crime and corruption to be society's sins. To him, what the "present crisis" of the cities demanded was a new theology and a thorough restructuring of society. His thinking provided the underpinnings of the Social Gospel movement: religious belief must be put into practice to right society’s wrongs. 

Uncovering the true message of Christ was key to enacting the Social Gospel. Rauschenbusch believed that the authentic message of Jesus had been obscured by layers of literary accretions piled on by Gospel writers, Christian apologists and the apostle Paul. Rauschenbusch welcomed biblical criticism, a new and controversial intellectual phenomenon that he believed allowed scholars to recover the true message and real personality of the historical Jesus.

Faced with inequality and social injustice, Rauschenbusch's Jesus would not simply retreat into private piety and pray; he would fight. Like the Hebrew prophets, Jesus was less concerned with the individual's relationships with God or personal morality, and more concerned with the ethics of human relations and public morality. 

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

A pioneering social scientist, writer, activist and organizer, W.E.B. Du Bois (pronounced "Due Boyce") produced a prodigious body of writing -- sociological studies, essays, novels, poetry, political pamphlets and more -- that addressed the problem of race and its relationship to religion. 

Raised in New England, Du Bois first witnessed virulent racism when he moved South to teach at Atlanta University. Forty years after emancipation, blacks were still being lynched by white mobs and enduring relentless displays of raw, primal prejudice, hatred and contempt. He determined to fight it with all the power of his intellect and to connect the question of race to religion.

Du Bois' early works focused on the African American church, which he recognized stood at the center of the African American community. The Negro Church was the first major sociological study of the church that was based on empirical evidence. The result was a portrait of a vibrant institution with a multitude of voices. But Du Bois was not content with academic analysis; he wanted the church to become a transformative powerhouse of social, racial and economic uplift. He believed that ministers were essential to this uplift because they possessed the power to instill moral fiber and encourage moral virtue.

Du Bois challenged the ideology of white supremacy that linked race with concepts of the divine. Whiteness was seen to be biblically endowed with the sacred; blackness was associated with the devil. Black people were portrayed as soulless, sub-human animals. In the late 19th century, this malignant ideology had permeated mainstream American culture. Du Bois showed how the conflation of race and religion provided whites with a "psychological wage" to subjugate blacks, to justify violence and to legitimize injustice. Biographer Edward Blum has observed that he "suggested that the poor, downtrodden, the exploited were the true children of the Lord." Extolling the resilience and creativity of African Americans, he sought to imbue their aspirations with new spiritual energies. Anticipating the black liberation theology of the 1960s, he imagined a black God, a black Christ and even a black female God. 

In the chapter of The Souls of Black Folk titled "Of the Faith of the Fathers," Du Bois offered a compelling essay on the role of black ministers. He extolled his grandfather Alexander Crummell and eulogized Henry McNeal Turner, bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, as "a man of tremendous force and indomitable courage." Yet he did not hesitate to criticize other ministers for clinging to an old-fashioned faith that promised salvation in the "bye-and-bye" rather than progress in the here and now.

In 1905, Du Bois convened the Niagara Movement to combat the pervasive practice of lynching; in 1909 he was one of the founders of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

William Jennings Bryan

For many Americans, William Jennings Bryan is remembered for this defense of fundamentalist Christianity in the face of modern science, evolution and Darwinism. But Bryan's career and life spoke to a larger cause: the protection of the weakest and most vulnerable Americans from the powerful and often uncaring forces of modernity.

Bryan launched his political career as a populist Democrat, championing the interests of workers and farmers bypassed by industrialization. Bryan frequently linked Christian rhetoric with populism, believing his Presbyterian faith and his Democratic politics to be one and the same. He felt compelled to defend those he thought to be defenseless against the ravages of an unsympathetic modern world. Despite losing every three presidential races, he remained a popular national figure.

President Woodrow Wilson named Bryan secretary of state in 1912, but Bryan quickly found the position to be at odds with his faith. As Europe descended into war in 1914, he staunchly opposed American involvement in the conflict. Bryan watched the massacre of Europe's youth with horror; he could not send America's future to the same fate on foreign battlefields. Resigning, Bryan devoted himself to social reform. The greatest threat to America's spiritual and material future, he believed, was Darwinism and its offshoot, Social Darwinism. He believed that in America, Social Darwinism allowed rich and powerful capitalists to justify trampling on the poor and the weak. And it was the poor and weak whom Bryan was determined to protect from those who believed that "might makes right." His duty to the downtrodden and his innate sense of justice propelled Bryan on his crusade to save public schools from teaching Darwinian theory.

Shortly before his death, Bryan wrote: "Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can be perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of machinery. ... If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene."

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