Consistent with these developments, new critical methods of studying Old and New Testament texts challenged long-accepted views of the Bible’s authenticity. Biblical criticism would proceed by presupposing modern reason’s superiority over previous dogmatic orthodoxy. Julius Wellhausen questioned the unity of the Pentateuch. He hypothesized a number of documentary sources collected over many centuries instead of a single Mosaic authorship centuries earlier. He argued that various names of God and styles of writing and the development of Jewish history showed the patchwork nature of the Pentateuch. New Testament scholars posited late dates for the Gospels and questioned Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles.
Thus, German universities dominated the rise of liberal theology. In America before the nineteenth century, variant diversions from orthodoxy—deism, Unitarianism, and Transcendentalism—had infiltrated small segments of the population. Well into the 1800s, theological scholarship in America lagged a generation behind that in Germany. As the decades unfolded, Calvinism declined among Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregational denominations. Sharp controversies erupted as pastors and seminary professors debated whether earlier confessions and ordination requirements ought to be modified to allow for more diverse theological views.
Congregationalist minister Horace Bushnell became a founder of American liberal theology. He challenged the emphasis on individual conversion propagated by the Second Great Awakening. He advocated the moral view of the atonement. And he probed whether the complexity of religious language was an adequate vehicle to express theological truth.
Later in the century, the social gospel movement embodied an evangelical liberalism. Congregationalist pastor Washington Gladden and Baptist pastor Walter Rauschenbusch demanded that Christianity be socialized. They campaigned for workers’ rights to organize unions. Echoing German liberalism’s emphasis on implementing the kingdom of God, social gospelers insisted that Christianity is inherently revolutionary. Evangelicals previously insisted that social action follows individual conversion and is subordinate to correct theological belief. But liberal leaders insisted that transformation of American culture be given higher priority.
Between 1870 and World War I, seemingly endless disputes between progressives and conservatives dragged out over a wide range of topics: biblical authority, the deity of Christ, the atonement, and how to view Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory. The differences between the Chicago School of Theology’s pragmatism, Boston University School of Theology’s personalist theology, and Union Theological Seminary’s practical, experiential teaching illustrated the remarkable variety in liberal theological training.
Highly publicized heresy trials proliferated in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, with prominent pastors and seminary professors charged with violating confessional standards. The most famous trial involved Charles A. Briggs of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In his inaugural address as professor of biblical theology, Briggs resolutely defended radical results of biblical criticism. He denied the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, vigorously attacked the low moral quality of Old Testament characters, and insisted on the existence of numerous biblical errors. He was defrocked for his views by the PCUSA in 1893.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the status of theology in America was anything but resolved. Instead, the rising tide of liberalism and resistance by evangelicals set the scene for major future confrontations in American denominationalism.