The Making of a Battle Royal

The Rise of Liberalism in Northern Baptist Life, 1870-1920

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Jeffrey Paul Straub
Monographs in Baptist History
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , April
     414 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jeffrey Paul Straub has filled a gap in research charting the rise of liberalism in American Baptist life, particularly the Northern Baptist Convention (NBC) where, previously, scholars have been much more interested in the rise of fundamentalism. The book begins by addressing questions of definition (key terms such as orthodoxy, fundamentalism, liberalism, progressivism, etc.), then moves on to show how the “new theology” appeared, grew in the thinking of a few early minds, then flourished in the Northern Baptists. Straub focuses his study on the developments in key theologians (Clarke, Rauschenbusch, Schmidt), the University of Chicago, and the leadership of key seminaries. Straub offers an account that displays remarkable breadth of research. His research is simply top notch. However, Straub slides from a history of theology to a theology of that history. One may be content to merely say this is a conservative perspective of the history, but that will not do.

Straub reads the rise of liberalism as having very little merit beyond an infection of un-orthodox novelty. However, his own construction of what is “orthodox” is oddly novel. Orthodoxy is largely equated with the rather loaded term biblical inerrancy (5). But what does biblical inerrancy mean? What hermeneutics does it imply? Is it even taught in scripture or held by the early church that canonized the Bible? These questions are at best highly disputed, now as they were then. And it should be noted that there are Baptists that have historically never used that particular term. 

The Northern Baptists, as Straub points out, did not have a binding doctrinal statement as they formed, and yet he is content to assume that these Baptists should have followed the New Hampshire Confession, which echoed the Philadelphiaand Second London confessions before it. It would seem oddly un-Baptist to expect one era’s tradition to be binding on the other (and if one is a true biblicist, one should puzzle why the churches of Acts did not adopt the Second London Confession as their regulafidei or how the Apostles Creed has such obvious omissions). To oblige the NBC to these confessions is to impose a theory of confessions that it seems that this body did not come to hold. As Straub notes, the NBC voted largely against the adoption of the New Hampshire Confession, supplanting the motion with a simple affirmation of the New Testament as “the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice, and we need no other statement” (25). 

Straub explains that the North could have stayed conservative if conservatives had properly rallied. This is an overly romantic view. Implicit in this is an idea that rogue academics plotted a theological coup, from the top down. While the seminaries did resist (one should note that the role of the academy for the church can be just as unclear as the roles of church and state), that perspective does not properly take into account the failure of the conservative paradigm that had been mounting in preceding years in the churches. Straub does not even mention the Civil War. In the background of the war, the North championed less literalistic readings of scripture and a stronger commitment to liberty against the South regarding the treatment of slaves, where the South largely connected their pro-slavery stance with scripture itself. With the discovery of evolution, the focusing in on historical questions of the Bible regarding dates and authorship (many of the methods and conclusions of which, while branded “liberal” in this time, are now commonly accepted and even taught by conservatives today), or the tackling of controversies like the Millerite end-times literalism, there seems to have been a widespread awareness that a different approach to theology was needed and a growing principled commitment to offering churches and universities the liberty to explore that. This seems to better interpret the intention of key moderates like Robinson, Dodge, Northrup, and Strong (281), who saw liberty as a virtue. The fact that the convention voted against a totalized doctrinal definition in this travail by affirming a simple baseline commitment to the New Testament, a vote of 1264 to 637, speaks less to a liberal hegemony and more to a majority commitment to liberty. 

This does not mean, for instance, the doctrines of someone like Clarke or Rauschenbusch are preferable, but there is an inadequate definition of liberalism being advanced here. Theological liberalisms of various sorts certainly do have their problems, but there is a big difference between liberalism as an accommodation to culture (as defined on page 5) and a conviction that doctrines can and do change, develop, get revised and refined, ameliorating over time—the grammar of the Trinity (a term not found in scripture) took centuries to develop, and many conservatives are blissfully unaware that the Bible assumes a geo-centric universe and never offers a full-scale implementation of abolition. These matters were brought to the fore later, after the apostolic period, and had to be reflected on using derivative biblical principles. All theology, passed along in a tradition, is a series of innovations and retentions of the past, some helpful, others not. Straub is in many ways correct, and rightly concerned for preserving doctrine. That comes with the duty of protecting a free and unfearful doctrinal discourse. The liberals of this era made many modernistic errors, but they also made many positive contributions, such that dismissing them and their churches would have fundamentally impoverished the NBC more than purified it. That is liberty’s wager.

Theology is best seen as an ongoing conversation in Baptist churches, who are autonomous but fallible, rooted in the past but not bound by it, who partner together based on a set of shared convictions that they continue to sincerely explore together, passionately and at their best non-coercively. This makes for messy history, difficult unity, and an uncertain future, but, amidst all the doctrinal diversity and dynamism, if theologians cannot see another’s sincerity, or dialogue without polemics and assertions of power, then one thing can be certain: the “battle royal” will continue to everyone’s loss. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Spencer Miles Boersma is Assistant Professor of Theology at Acadia Divinity College.

Date of Review: 
November 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeffrey Paul Straub is Professor of Historical Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minneapolis. When he is not teaching in Minnesota, he is often teaching overseas in Africa, Asia, or Europe.


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