Gary Dorrien. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion (1805-1900). Louisville, London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. See here to purchase the book.
taught at Kalamazoo College when he wrote this book. This book is the
first of three volumes about American liberal theology. This first
volume focuses on the years 1805-1900, but the chapter on the Social
Gospel also discusses events in the early twentieth century. On page
xxiii, Dorrien attempts to identify features of liberal theology:
“Specifically, liberal theology is defined by its openness to the
verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially the natural and
social sciences; its commitment to the authority of individual reason
and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of
life; its favoring of moral concepts of atonement; and its commitment to
make Christianity credible and socially relevant to people.”
In this Book Write-Up, I will comment on each chapter, then I will
offer a general assessment of the book. This Book Write-Up will not be
comprehensive, but I will comment on details that interested me.
Chapter 1: Unitarian Beginnings: William Ellery Channing and the Divine Likeness.
The Unitarians were actually rather conservative, as many of them
were as concerned that German higher-criticism of the Bible negatively
challenged Christianity. They believed that it undermined the authority
of the Bible, and they did not care for the biblical stories being
treated as old-wives’ tales in classes.
This chapter tells the story of William Ellery Channing, an
influential Unitarian preacher. It covers the intellectual influences
on him, such as Hume, who would also influence other liberal thinkers in
this book. Some liberal thinkers would embrace German idealism (i.e.,
the outside world is all in one’s head, or knowledge of the outside
world is inaccurate) as a justification for a personal or rational inner
religion, whereas other liberal thinkers would reject it. A related
issue is whether miracles can divinely-authenticate the Christian
message, or if the Christian message can stand on its own weight, on
Although Channing was impressive in the pulpit, he was personally
reclusive, and I could identify with the latter. Channing was
sympathetic towards the anti-slavery agenda of the abolitionists, yet he
felt that they were uneducated and self-righteous. I often feel the
same about the Left (the self-righteous part, not the uneducated part).
My favorite passage in this book is on page 49:
“[For Channing, t]rue religion is not about trembling in terror
before an inscrutable transcendent sovereign…To honor God ‘is to
approach God as an inexhaustible fountain of light, power, and purity.
It is to feel the quickening and transforming energy of his
perfections. It is to thirst for the growth and invigoration of the
divine principle within us. It is to seek the very spirit of God.”
Chapter 2: Subversive Intuitions: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and the Transcendentalist Revolt.
Because the Unitarians were rather conservative and biblicist, the
transcendentalists revolted against them. Ralph Waldo Emerson would
deliver his controversial Harvard Divinity School address, in which he
criticized religious ritualism, encouraged people to find God by looking
within, exalted nature, and treated Jesus primarily as a human being in
tune with the divine rather than as a divine or exalted being. Emerson
was much more radical in his personal journal, however. On page 72,
Dorrien quotes Emerson’s critique of Jesus:
“I do not see in [Jesus] cheerfulness: I do not see in him the love
of Natural Science: I see in him no kindness for Art; I see in him
nothing of Socrates, of Laplace, of Shakespeare.”
Speaking for myself, I believe that I encounter wisdom when I read
Jesus’ statements in the Gospels. Still, I can somewhat empathize with
Emerson. The Gospels are rather sparse when they talk about Jesus:
Jesus does and says things in the Gospels, but what was he really like
personally? Evangelicals talk about “knowing Jesus,” but there are
times when I read the Gospels and wonder if they are helping me truly to
Chapter 3: Imagination Wording Forth: Horace Bushnell and the Metaphors of Imagination.
Horace Bushnell treated language, especially religious language, as
metaphorical for a deep religious and spiritual experience. For
Bushnell, religious language was limited, since people understand terms
in different ways. This was consistent with liberal theology’s tendency
to emphasize spiritual experience or the spiritual life rather than
Bushnell also wrote about the atonement. He preferred a subjective
model of the atonement, one that emphasized people’s moral or spiritual
response to Jesus’ death, rather than seeing the atonement as a legal
transaction that objectively removed guilt. Still, Bushnell believed
that Jesus’ death was vicarious, in a sense: God was assuming the burden
of being human, the experiences of those who sinned (which is not to
say that Jesus sinned), since that was a significant aspect of
reconciliation. Bushnell’s stance not only alienated conservatives but
also fellow liberals, who thought that it reflected an anthropomorphic
view of God. Bushnell’s discussion of the atonement sheds light on
liberal stances towards sin. Whereas some might think that liberals
trivialize or downplay sin, this book demonstrates that there were many
liberals who did the exact opposite, and Dorrien argues that liberal
emphases on subordinating the flesh was consistent with Victorian ideas.
The chapter also explores the thought of Nathaniel Taylor, who
contributed to the New Haven theology. New Haven theology sought to be a
liberal Reformed theology. Taylor believed, for instance, that humans
had an inclination towards sin, yet he rejected the Reformed concept of
total depravity. For Bushnell, people still had a choice not to sin.
My favorite passage in this chapter concerned Henry James, Sr.’s
negative reaction to Bushnell’s view on love. On page 172, Dorrien
“…Henry James Sr. pronounced Bushnell’s construal of Christian love
ridiculous. Love is neither heedless nor essentially sacrificial, he
lectured; it has nothing to do with pretending to care for bad people;
it pays attention to consequences and is always proportionate to merit.
To claim that love responds to evil with self-sacrificing care was a
perverse ‘outrage upon all love. Divine as well as human.'”
James’ critique took me aback. He had the same reservations that I
do about what is commonly portrayed as “Christian love”: sacrificing
oneself, pretending to like those one despises, etc. Still, if love is
to be a response to merit, does that not undermine grace, which we all
need? Wouldn’t we prefer a belief in unconditional love, even if we
struggle to live up to that?
Chapter 4: Victorianism in Question: Henry Ward Beecher, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the Religion of Reform.
Henry Ward Beecher was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the famous anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Beecher was a renowned preacher and abolitionist in his own right, but
he ran into scandal when he slept with a friend’s wife. Beecher
recovered from the scandal, whereas the friend retreated into obscurity,
left Christianity, and focused on playing chess. Sad story!
This chapter discusses the divisions between African-Americans and
feminists. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was appalled that uneducated
African-Americans were getting the franchise whereas women were not,
whereas Friedrich Douglas thought that African-Americans were in a worse
position than women and thus needed the franchise more urgently.
Chapter 5: Progressivism Ascending: Theodore Munger, Washington Gladden, Newman Smith, the New Theology, and the Social Gospel.
This chapter covered interesting territory.
First, the chapter quotes a profound statement by liberal Anglican
preacher Frederick Robertson: that “man is God’s child and the sin of
man consists in perpetually living as if it were false.”
Second, the chapter summarizes Theodore Munger’s attempts to
harmonize evolution with Christianity. For Munger, evolution was
consistent with monotheism, since the same natural laws apply to all
natural living things; under polytheism, by contrast, different
principles operate, as gods compete with each other and have their own
agendas. Munger also highlighted religious and moral progress that
occurred throughout history.
Third, the chapter set forth Washington Gladden’s Social Gospel.
Gladden was skeptical of socialism. His hope was that business-leaders
could be persuaded to follow the Christian path and to share their
profits more equitably with their employees.
The chapter also explored the “Manifest Destiny” attitude among many
Social Gospel advocates, as they believed that Anglo culture could
civilize the rest of the world. While a number of Social Gospel
advocates were initially isolationist about American entry into World
War I, they came to embrace Woodrow Wilson’s professed desire to make
the world safe for democracy.
Chapter 6: Enter the Academics: Charles A. Briggs, Borden Parker Browne, Biblical Criticism, and the Personalist Idea.
This chapter talked a lot about the inspiration of Scripture. Rather
than regarding the Bible as inerrant in all details, including history
and science, some of the prominent liberal thinkers in this chapter had
alternative conceptions of inspiration: that God inspired the authors of
Scripture by elevating their religious insights and perceptivity, even
though they still reflected the prejudices of their time; that the
Scripture is infallible on how to be saved, not history and science; and
that historical-criticism can highlight God’s activity through the
vicissitudes of history. On page 347, we see Briggs’ view that such
ideas were actually more faithful to the Puritan beliefs than were the
inerrantist ideas of Warfield and many Princetonians.
Chapter 7 offers a concise summary and effectively ties together the trends discussed in the book.
The book was a compelling read, especially because it described
liberal thinkers’ lives and ideas. I felt a kinship with them, as they
wrestled with the same religious topics with which I wrestle (e.g., the
character of God, the inspiration of Scripture, etc.). Often, the
origin or development of trends was not adequately explored or
explained, but the book was effective in describing how specific people
responded to the trends and participated in the discussions. The book
was rather lacking in explaining how liberal thinkers justified their
views with Scripture, particularly when it came to a belief in
post-mortem opportunities for salvation. Dorrien said that Channing
offered exhaustive Scriptural defenses for his positions, yet Dorrien
did not share what those defenses were.
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