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In 1900, the German church historian Adolph von Harnack gave a series of lectures that were later published as What Is Christianity? (1901). He argued that the kernel of the gospel is the commandment to love and the establishment of a just social order based on the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man. Harnack was following the lead of the German theologian Albrecht Ritschl, who had argued that ethics are the core of Christianity and called for a just and moral society that emulates Christ’s example and thus realizes the “kingdom of God.” This “social gospel” understanding of Christianity was advocated in the United States by the Baptist minister Walter Rauschen­busch, who critiqued laissez-faire capitalism as the culprit of the growing gap between rich and poor in America.

The foundation of social gospel redefinitions of Christianity was the modern historical-critical method of biblical study, which argued that the virgin birth, miracles, and the resurrection were myths used by the biblical writers to express how Jesus had influenced their lives. Critical scholars in the nineteenth century had challenged the reliability of the Gospel accounts, declaring that Jesus was an ordinary human being who became the subject of legend. Theological liberals in Europe and the United States embraced these critical presuppositions because they believed Christianity was actually about human experience and morality, not outdated dogmas incompatible with modern science.

This questioning of historic Christianity made its way into many American universities and seminaries, leading to tensions between liberals and conservatives in several Protestant denominations. The term used by conservatives to describe this drift from traditional orthodoxy was modernism. The fundamentalist movement was born in reaction to inroads of liberal theology into American Protestant denominations. A burgeoning alliance of Protestant evangelicals across denominational lines opposed the increasing liberal threat with the publication of a series of books known as The Fundamentals (1910–15). The essays espoused traditional Protestantism by defending a high view of Scripture and offering an apologetic for evangelical doctrine and practice.

World War I

While theologians were defending the faith, evangelist Billy Sunday sought to reach the masses, preaching to more people than any American preacher before Billy Graham. After his conversion, Sunday left his career as a Major League Baseball player in 1896 to become an itinerant evangelist. He led preaching campaigns in more than two hundred major U.S. cities. Known for his unconventional, energetic preaching style, Sunday proclaimed the gospel to several million people. He became very involved in social issues, supporting Prohibition and women’s rights and helping raise millions of dollars to support the American military in World War I.

Woodrow Wilson, son of a Presbyterian minister from Georgia, became the president of Princeton University, entered politics, and was elected the twenty-eighth president of the United States in 1912. His two terms were consumed with the devastations of World War I (1914–18), which redrew the world map and claimed the lives of nine million soldiers and seven million civilians.

A prominent assault on traditional Christianity occurred in the Scopes Trial of 1925. Charles Darwin’s 1859 On the Origin of Species theorized, in a rejection of the Genesis account of special creation, that life on earth was the product of natural selection over millions of years. William Jennings Bryan, who had served as secretary of state in the Wilson administration, participated in the prosecution during the trial. Bryan had attacked evolution by arguing that the theory undermined morality, which must be based on religious commitments. Teaching evolution was illegal in Tennessee public schools, and John Scopes, a biology teacher in Dayton, was tried for violating the statute. He was defended by Clarence Darrow, who put Bryan on the stand, asking him scientific questions that Bryan could not answer. While state law was upheld, Bryan and the “fundamentalist” cause suffered harsh ridicule in the press and were thus dealt a severe blow. Bryan died just five days after the trial concluded.

The foundation of social gospel redefinitions of Christianity was the historical-critical method of biblical study.

In the wake of World War I, a new theological movement emerged in Germany known as Neoorthodoxy. It is identified with the work of Karl Barth (1886–1968), Emil Brunner (1889–1966), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1904–45), and Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). Barth’s commentary on Romans (1919) marked a break with culture-affirming German liberalism and charged old liberals with subverting the gospel by trying to make it respectable. In the 1930s, he became part of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church in Germany and helped write the Barmen Declaration, a protest against the Nazi German church. Barth emphasized human sinfulness and God’s grace in Jesus Christ, but his understanding of election implied universalism—Christ is the only elect One, and all will be saved in Him. Barth accepted the results of higher criticism—a technique that sought to identify the sources behind the biblical texts and that rejected the traditional understanding of biblical authorship—and accentuated God’s subjective revelation to individuals through Scripture rather than His objective revelation in Scripture as the written Word of God. His scathing attack on liberalism was welcomed, but many conservatives were skeptical, considering Barth’s theology a new version of modernism. Barthi­anism permeated mainline seminaries throughout the twentieth century.


Christian commitment to taking seriously the supernatural in Scripture received a fresh burst of support in the emergence of the Pentecostal movement. In 1906, a major revival began on Asuza Street in Los Angeles under Holiness preacher William J. Seymour, a son of former slaves. While the revival would become associated with the controversial practice of speaking in tongues, the message of forgiveness through the cross was central. Under Seymour’s leadership, hundreds were converted as Hispanics, Asians, blacks, and whites worshiped together daily at an old warehouse. As one eyewitness declared, “The ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.” As a result of the Asuza Street Revival, numerous new denominations were established, including the Church of God in Christ (1907), the Assemblies of God (1914), and famed evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson’s International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (1927).

Pentecostalism advanced rapidly, spreading into Latin America, Africa, and Asia and becoming the fastest-growing segment of the global church in the twentieth century. The charismatic renewal movement of the 1960s and ’70s saw some Pentecostal theology and practice cross over into mainline and Roman Catholic churches, producing heightened awareness of the work of the Holy Spirit among believers.

The Pentecostal and charismatic movements produced division within Protestantism as some advocates urged believers to seek the “baptism of the Spirit,” a second work of grace in the believer’s life that is accompanied by speaking in tongues. Other charismatics did not push the experience of tongues but viewed tongues as one spiritual gift among many. Some radical Pentecostal leaders taught a “health and wealth” version of the faith, promising earthly blessing to those with sufficient faith. Many Christians have condemned this “health and wealth” gospel as unbiblical teaching.

In the early part of the twentieth century, a heretical oneness (Jesus Only) Pentecostalism separated from the Trinitarians by claiming that God is one person, Jesus Christ, and that baptism must be “in the name of Jesus.” Despite aberrant versions of Pentecostalism and some high-profile extremists, many evangelicals have acknowledged the conversions and zeal for missionary service found in the movement. Nevertheless, Protestants from cessationist traditions remain skeptical about the biblical foundations of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements.

Roman Catholic Developments

In 1864, Pope Pius IX issued the Syllabus of Errors, which decried separation of church and state, religious tolerance, secular education, Marxism, and democratic government. Soon thereafter, the First Vatican Council (1869–70) dogmatically declared the doctrine of papal infallibility. Critical views of the Bible began to infect Roman Catholic scholars in late-nineteenth-century Europe, moving Pope Pius X to condemn modernism by papal decree in 1907, excommunicating modernists and requiring an anti-modernist oath of clerics. To counter modernist errors, the renewed study of Thomism (the doctrines of Thomas Aquinas) was encouraged among Roman Catholics.

The Roman Catholic Church in the early twentieth century stood firmly against both doctrinal innovation and non-Roman Catholics. However, these attitudes dramatically changed after the Second Vatican Council, which was convened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII and carried on by Pope Paul VI through 1965. Vatican II was an attempt to engage with the issues of the modern world and to bring the church out of its isolation. It focused on church renewal and Christian unity.

As a result of the council, Roman Catholics initiated ongoing dialogue with numerous Protestant and Eastern Orthodox bodies. Popes after Vatican II sent representatives to the World Council of Churches and dialogued with non-Christian religious leaders. There was more recognition of bishops’ shared role in leadership with the pope, with a permanent Synod of Bishops being established. Clergymen from developing nations were elevated to posts as bishops and cardinals as well. Vatican II modernized the liturgy into the vernacular, replacing the traditional Latin Mass. Lay Catholics were encouraged to read the Bible, but historical-critical biblical scholarship became the norm in Roman Catholic educational institutions.

In 1978, the Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope since 1523. John Paul II traveled extensively during his long papacy, highlighting global Roman Catholicism and the ecumenical principles of Vatican II. He was nonetheless a conservative who resisted the idea of married priests, and he commissioned twelve cardinals to prepare a new catechism for teaching traditional faith. The commission, chaired by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005), in 1992 produced the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which articulates historic Roman Catholic theology and ethics. The catechism condemned abortion as a “moral evil” and described homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered.”

In a bold ecumenical step, the mainline Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church issued a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999, claiming a common understanding of justification by faith. While conservative Lutherans rejected the declaration as inadequate, it was a significant attitudinal shift from the blistering mutual anathemas of the sixteenth century. Evangelicals have had differing attitudes toward Roman Catholics throughout the twentieth century. Those with historic Protestant roots in the sixteenth century typically will not rebaptize former Roman Catholics, following the pattern of the Reformers, while other evangelicals practice rebaptism of former Roman Catholics who join a Protestant congregation. There has been some cooperation between Roman Catholics and evangelicals on social concerns such as abortion.

Evangelicalism And Billy Graham

The Second World War (1939–45) was a period of horrific global destruction. Eighty million soldiers and civilians were killed, including six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust conducted by Nazi Germany. When hostilities ceased, the world map was again redrawn, and international awareness became a staple of Western societies. A postwar ecumenical spirit led to the formation of the World Council of Churches (1948) and National Council of Churches in the United States (1950).

The years after World War II were a time of remarkable change for the world and the church, featuring the beginnings of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, the Korean War, the space race, the sexual revolution, and the Vietnam War. Mainline Protestant seminaries advocated adjustments to the Christian faith in order to address current issues while evangelicals remained firm in their attachment to historic Christianity. At this point, the neoevangelical movement began. Where fundamentalists in the early part of the century had tended toward separatism from society and mainline denominations, the neoevangelicals were often members of mainline churches who were eager for renewing the mainline and for ecumenical ministry with like-minded believers who affirmed biblical authority.

The neoevangelicals were committed to spreading the good news and to engaging the needs of contemporary society. A number of collaborative organizations emerged, attracting participants from across the evangelical spectrum: the National Association of Evangelicals (1942), Fuller Theological Seminary (1947), the Evangelical Theological Society (1949), and World Vision (1950). It was hoped that these organizations and institutions would strengthen the evangelical voice in America, stand firm for orthodox Christianity, and make a difference for good in the nation. In 1956, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today was founded in order to support evangelical perspectives on theology, Christian living, evangelism, and cultural engagement.

The neoevangelicals were committed to spreading the good news and to engaging the needs of contemporary society.

Billy Graham’s 1949 evangelistic crusade in Los Angeles ignited a revived evangelical presence in America. Graham’s mass evangelism campaigns received significant press coverage. Thousands were converted, and church membership steadily increased, with 65 percent of the population claiming church affiliation by 1960. Graham took his crusades to every continent but Antarctica during the following decades, preaching to millions.

Graham’s worldwide ministry highlighted the importance of global Christianity and the ongoing urgency of reaching the lost around the world. In 1974, Graham convened an international gathering of Christians from 150 countries in Lau­sanne, Switzerland. The ten-day gathering, called the International Congress on World Evangelization, drew 2,700 participants and launched the Lausanne Movement, which produced a fifteen-point document known as the Lausanne Covenant. The Lausanne Covenant was a major evangelical document; it affirmed the “inspiration, truthfulness, and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures” and that “evangelism and sociopolitical involvement are both part of our Christian duty.” The document acknowledged the key role of the non-Western churches in world evangelization, calling for a “growing partnership of churches” in the urgent task of proclaiming Christ to the millions of men, women, and children in unreached people groups. Another significant evangelical document was the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978), which became an evangelical standard for affirming the plenary (full) divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures.

Theologies of Liberation

The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) calling for the speedy desegregation of American public education was a catalyst for confronting the racial divide in the United States. Peaceful protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. in Southern cities were resisted by “white moderates” as well as by some black churches and ministers. Mainline churches backed the Civil Rights Movement, while Billy Graham led the way among evangelicals, desegregating his crusades and showing his support for the movement by sharing the platform with King at a 1957 crusade in New York. Graham’s 1964 crusade in Birmingham, Ala., was the most-integrated meeting in the city’s history. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, was a significant step forward for racial equality in American society.

James Cone, professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, reinterpreted historic Christianity, arguing in his book A Black Theology of Liberation (1970) that only an oppressed community could adequately express the gospel. The Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, mixed Black Power ideas and Islamic doctrines, appealing to parts of the black community that preferred black separatism. Before the close of the 1960s, Malcolm X (1965) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1968) were both assassinated. Racial reconciliation became a priority in mainline churches especially, and there was increasing purposefulness about integrating local congregations. For the most part, however, the color line remained in place on Sunday mornings.

The twentieth century was a time of changing roles for women. By 1920, the United States ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Women entered the workforce in multitudes during World War II, and by the end of the century they were CEOs, members of Congress, secretaries of state, attorneys general, and Supreme Court justices. All of these were fruits of the early “feminist” movement, whose early leaders were pro-life. The modern feminist movement, however, tends to have extreme views regarding gender roles and also unequivocally supports the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade (1973), which legalized the killing of unwanted babies in the womb.

The years after World War II were a time of remarkable change for the world and the church.

Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and evangelicals condemned this license to kill, while mainline Protestant denominations supported abortion rights. Battle lines were drawn both politically and ecclesiastically over this volatile issue. Roman Catholics and evangelicals organized to fight abortion and support adoption agencies as an alternative. This was an issue for the global church as more nations would legalize abortion as the decades passed. The intensity of the issue has only increased, and every new seat on the Supreme Court since the 1980s has been hotly contested as pro-life Americans have pushed for overturning Roe v. Wade and pro-abortion Americans have striven to remove all remaining restrictions on abortion.

The twentieth century witnessed a long battle over women’s ordination. Mainline denominations accepted women’s ordination and feminist theology, which argued for social justice for oppressed women. Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, as well as some evangelical denominations, have maintained the historic Christian tradition of a male-only clergy. Other evangelicals, such as the Assemblies of God, state that all women’s gifts should be fully utilized in the church, including gifts of preaching and church leadership. Global Pentecostalism is divided on the issue, and a few denominations allow freedom of practice, though most Christians continue to take a firm position.

The beginning of the gay rights movement in America is associated with the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. Demonstrators against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn were arrested, eliciting sympathy, and the gay community commenced organized efforts to achieve legal and social rights. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of psychiatric illnesses, bolstering gay activists’ efforts to aggressively pursue public approval of homosexuality. To achieve this goal, gay advocates began talking about gayness through every available venue of the mainstream media. The strategy was to make gays look good and to vilify opponents. There was pushback from the public, and in 1996, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Alongside political efforts, a “queer theology” and “gay Christian” movement emerged with the similar goal of gaining approval in American churches. The strategy was to infiltrate denominations and to seek full gay inclusion in church membership and leadership. All the mainline denominations have had ongoing battles over homosexuality, most of them moving toward full approval of the LGBTQ community in the church. In 1972, the United Church of Christ became the first denomination to ordain an openly gay minister, and five years later it ordained the first lesbian minister.

End of the Century

For good and for ill, the global church was shaped irreversibly by these events and others during the twentieth century. By the end of the century in the United States, evangelical denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America continued to grow, but the mainline denominations were in a steep decline that continues today. The largest segment of American evangelicalism was represented by tens of thousands of small independent congregations, as well as by megachurches (Protestant churches that have a regular weekly attendance of at least two thousand people). More evangelical congregations were “seeker-sensitive,” focusing their ministry on reaching the unchurched through preaching on hot topics and utilizing contemporary music and mass media. Globally, Pentecostalism continued its advance in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and evangelical churches on those continents even began sending missionaries to post-Christian Europe and America.

But Pentecostalism was not the only evangelical tradition experiencing growth. Calvinist theology spread its influence in late-twentieth-century American Christianity through the establishment of more Presbyterian and Reformed congregations, the resurgence of Calvinism among Southern Baptists, the founding and expansion of Reformed Theological Seminary, and the teaching ministries of James Montgomery Boice, J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, and other evangelical Reformed thinkers.

The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail

The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy

Keep Reading The Twentieth Century

From the May 2020 Issue
May 2020 Issue