A Review: The Making of Battle Royal: The Rise of Liberalism in Northern Baptist Life, 1870–1920

What happened to northern Baptists as a movement—once an empire on the rise, now a marginal religious presence in America?

It was not always so. Once, the northeast pulsed with spiritual activity. Once, the gospel rang out from a thousand sound pulpits. Then the liberal theologians came. They took over churches. They infiltrated the seminaries. They won the battle royal. Through their church-weakening, Bible-undermining teaching, they wrote ICHABOD over the doorways of their schools and churches.

 

The Making of Battle Royal: The Rise of Liberalism in Northern Baptist Life, 1870–1920 byJeffrey P. Straub

The buildings are grand. In now-faded images, the trees are tall and blooming. The picture of Rochester Theological Seminary in the early twentieth-century is one of confidence, ambition, and solidity. Here is a school, the campus says, that will endure and make inroads for the kingdom of God. The northern Baptists were ascendant, and schools like Crozer, Colgate, and Chicago pursued a similarly heady course.

Fast forward 100 or so years. Today, neither Crozer, nor Rochester, nor Colgate stands on its own. In a strange twist of conglomeration, the three schools are one, though each seeks to preserve its unique heritage through the affiliate designation: Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. According to online sources, the school has about 90 students.

Curious minds can only wonder: what happened to northern Baptists as a movement—once an empire on the rise, now a marginal religious presence in America? We find many of the answers in The Making of a Battle Royal: The Rise of Liberalism in Northern Baptist Life, 1870–1920. Jeff Straub, professor of Historical Theology and registrar at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, built the present volume off of his doctoral research under historian Michael Haykin. Battle Royal fits well with ongoing scholarship on Protestant liberalism. Straub’s book stands alongside the previous publications of Gary Dorrien (with his trilogy on liberal theology), Richard Wightman Fox (particularly his work on Reinhold Niebuhr), and Gregory Wills (his history of Southern Seminary includes several essential chapters on C. H. Toy and others).

Battle Royal shows, in sum, that the pyrotechnics set off by Harry Emerson Fosdick in the 1920s were prepared decades before. They took shape in the place where ministry—sound or unsound—is often incubated: the seminary. Though this sturdy text is academic in tone and format, I was gripped in my own analysis of the text by how urgently missiological Straub’s academic scholarship is. Because of this modern-day relevance, I now list three principles I identified in Battle Royal that speak not only to the settled past, but the unsettled present.

First, everything depends upon the doctrine of Scripture. Over and over again, we see that the first doctrine the liberal leaders reenvisioned was that of bibliology. In the mind of this mold, the text is sacred but not inerrant. Witness William Newton Clarke, who made the sly argument that poring over the Bible led to just this view: “[T]he Bible itself, upon examination shows me that it is not a book infallible throughout, in which error does not exist” (p. 105). That is, the serious student of Scripture finds that Scripture does not want its students to be so theologically serious. Then as now, Christians were encouraged to doubt the Bible, but not to doubt those who doubt the Bible.

Bibliology was the first doctrinal domino to fall, but many fell after it—a propitiatory atonement, an exclusivistic call to Christ on the mission field, a commitment to expository preaching. The church became a social change agent, committed to a gently Marxist vision of economic uplift in the Rauschenbuschian form. “Soul salvation” was out; social betterment was in. Over time, the church’s mission mirrored that of progressive politics until the two essentially merged.

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