Modern scholars who study contemporary American Protestantism commonly divide the movement into two main groups. Mainline Protestantism is a broadly inclusive group of theologically liberal denominations such as the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). “Sideline” Protestants are members of smaller, breakaway denominations or independent churches that are “Bible believing.” This division is roughly a century old, and it reflects the outcome of what is commonly called the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy (modernism, in this context, is the equivalent of theological liberalism). The conflict began in the Northern Presbyterian church, officially known at the time as the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA); it was separated from Southern Presbyterians from 1861 to 1983. However, the controversy would ultimately disrupt every Protestant denomination in North America. As we survey this controversy, we will see that a proper assessment of the conflict suggests that the name of the controversy is misleading.
The Seeds of Division
The roots of the controversy extend at least as far back as 1869, when Old School and New School Northern Presbyterians, who had separated in 1837, reunited after the Civil War. Voices at Princeton Theological Seminary, the bastion of Old School Presbyterianism, which did not support revivalistic meetings and methods, were of two minds. A.A. Hodge was convinced of the essential orthodoxy of the New School, which supported the revivals in America, and was persuaded that Presbyterians could be a greater witness to a nation healing from the trauma of war through the strength of united numbers. His father, Charles Hodge, was skeptical, fearing that the merger would yield a “broad-churchism” that would erode the church’s confessional character.
The elder Hodge’s fears came true soon after his death in 1878. A growing number in the church lobbied to adapt to modern times. The greatest advocate for Presbyterian progress was Charles A. Briggs. As professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Briggs actively promoted the science of higher biblical criticism (although his views were mild compared to today’s expressions of higher criticism). Progress in religion lay at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, he claimed, and it is particularly demanded of a church that would witness in a scientific age. Briggs was tapping into a sentiment that sought to soften the hard edges of the Westminster Confession of Faith. In the words of one historian, “Some of the time-honored rigidity in the Westminster Confession seemed obsolete to many Presbyterians.”
B.B. Warfield, Charles Hodge’s successor at Princeton, refused to participate in endeavors to revise the standards of the church. “It is an inexpressible grief,” he lamented, to see the church “spending its energies in a vain attempt to lower its testimony to suit the ever-changing sentiment of the world around it.” In a progressive era when change was a sign of health, his dissent persuaded few. In the words of an opponent, it sounded like a call for “the harmony of standing still.”
The momentum for major revision of the Westminster Confession dissipated, however, when Briggs was tried for his higher-critical views. The 1891 General Assembly voted overwhelmingly (449–60) to veto Briggs’ appointment at Union, and the 1893 Assembly found him guilty of denying the authority of Scripture and removed him from the ministry. (Union refused to remove Briggs, citing academic freedom, and chose instead to withdraw from the denomination. Briggs eventually affiliated with the Episcopal Church.)
The Conflict Intensifies
The Northern Presbyterian Church approved modest doctrinal revisions in 1903, but this did not deter the ambition of liberal voices urging the church to adapt to modern times. Presbyterianism at its best, they argued, is malleable and capable of adjusting to new cultural and intellectual developments. One change that began to take place was the significant expansion of the bureaucracy of the church in the interests of greater organizational efficiency, especially with the growth in power of General Assembly moderators and the office of the denominational stated clerk.
Conservatives sought to reinforce denominational loyalty to the authority of the Word of God through General Assembly deliverances. The 1892 General Assembly, meeting in Portland, Ore., declared, “Our church holds that the inspired Word of God, as it came from God, is without error.” The 1910 assembly in Atlantic City, N.J., affirmed five doctrines as “essential and necessary”: the virgin birth of Christ, Christ’s vicarious atonement, Christ’s bodily resurrection, the reality of miracles, and the promise of Christ’s bodily return.
About this time, from 1910 to 1915, a series of twelve books were published, each containing articles defending orthodox Christian teaching against challenges from higher biblical criticism that was increasingly skeptical of the supernatural character of Christianity. Titled The Fundamentals, this series recruited a diverse collection of sixty-four authors, including many dispensationalist premillennialists and other respected scholars as well, such as Warfield and the Scottish theologian James Orr. It was not until 1920 that the term fundamentalist was first coined. It is credited to Curtis Lee Laws, who organized the Fundamentalist Fellowship within the Northern Baptists Convention, charging that liberals were abandoning the fundamentals of the gospel.