5 Factors Leading to Protestant Theological Liberalism

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The rise of theological liberalism within Methodism and Protestant America cannot be understood apart from an understanding of the socio-economic changes that took place in America during the last half of the nineteenth century. No one event alone can explain the change as America was being transformed from a predominantly agrarian to an industrialized society.

Here we will consider some of the forces that converged at this time to provide the social, economic, and intellectual setting out of which came theological liberalism as well as the accompanying social gospel movement. A brief look at the intellectual currents of this period risks oversimplification. However, I hope it will, without belaboring the matter, provide the needed context to understand the turbulent era and intellectual ferment out of which these ideas were emerged.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution, which took place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, brought a profound change in the lives of men and women in America. It brought about the dominance of power-driven machinery so that the work of many skilled hands could be done much more rapidly and more cheaply by steam-driven machines. (1)

The morale of the nation was affected. Formerly, a craft or trade gave people status and security with no great hostility toward the employer. But gradually the center of emphasis moved from the worker to equipment and capital, and the individual worker was in danger of feeling like a mere accessory. (2) Thus, a divide between owner and worker appeared and steadily deepened. Household labor shifted to factory labor with not only the tools, but often the workers’ homes being owned by industry, while the worker remained a mere tenant.

For many workers, an open and inviting frontier had vanished, to be replaced by the routine of factory work, and the moral and spiritual results were devastating.

One of the problems of this revolution is that it was unforeseen in America, so there was little preparation. George Vincent wrote early in the twentieth century:

This movement has not been spectacular; it has been for the most part unforeseen, unplanned, and only slightly guided by human reason; it has radically changed the conditions of life, has redistributed populations, drawn all mankind together, and raised problems many and complex . . . The family, the state, science, education, morality, and religion are often baffled in trying to maintain vital and fruitful relations with the new order of things. (3)

Growth of Cities

One of the most immediate results of industrialization was the growth of the cities in America. Industrialization and the factory system inevitably drew people to the industrial centers, where employment was to be found. Also, the labor-saving machinery manufactured in towns and cities was sent out to the farms to take the place of field hands. This resulted in a redistribution of labor and a drawing of the populace into the industrial towns.(4)

Charles H. Hopkins brought into perspective the rate of urban growth by pointing out that during the decades of the 1880s, Chicago’s population increased more than 100 percent! (5) This mushrooming of large cities destroyed the almost undisputed supremacy of the rural regions that had characterized America until this time.

The severity and complexity of urban problems are difficult to appreciate fully. Aaron I. Abell described this sweeping phenomenon that was taking place:

During the forty-year period, 1860–1900, the number of cities of eight thousand or more inhabitants increased from 141 to 547, and the proportion of townsfolk from a sixth to nearly a third. . . . The city was the hot-house of every cancerous growth—of new evils like industrial war and class hatred and of the older evils of pauperism and crime, of intemperance and vice. (6)

Closely related to this growth of cities was the rapid diffusion of new ideas and standards as the cities became centers of change. Moral standards, which had been adjusted to earlier, moral rural conditions, were yielding to new situations, and the entire nation was affected. “Half the people live in cities and the other half are powerfully influenced by urban ideals,” wrote George Vincent. Noting how rapidly the rural areas were being caught up in the change, he wrote, “There was a time when the garments rejected by a fickle city fashion could be sold to confiding rural people, but nowadays the country subscribers to daily papers . . . are as exacting as city shoppers.” (7)

This shifting of population and the new concentration of the populace brought great changes to two of the most important American institutions: the family and the church. The former closeness of family and community ties was broken amid the flow of humanity to the cities. These ties were replaced by the new and less-secure experience of living in a highly transient society surrounded by a crowd of aliens and strangers. The slums, dark tenements, factories, long hours, low wages, lawlessness, and delinquency were a tragic discovery for eager migrants moving into the “opportunities” of the metropolitan areas.


Another factor in the social turbulence of the latter part of the nineteenth century was the mass immigration to America of Europeans, who were viewed as a threat to the plans and dreams that most Protestants held for America. From the end of the Civil War until 1900, some 14 million immigrants came to the United States. In 1900, one-third of the nation’s population of 75 million people were either foreign-born or the children of those who were foreign-born. (8)

This great influx of people to America compounded the growing problem of the cities by creating even more barriers between the city and rural populace. The more recent immigrants came from southern and eastern Europe, bringing greater linguistic, cultural, educational, and religious differences than the earlier immigrants. A majority of these new Americans-to-be were Roman Catholics. They tended to settle in the large cities, near the port areas, and provided some of the toughest, low-paid, unskilled labor for the factories. (9) The religious, sociological, and psychological barriers between these people and most American Protestants, especially Methodists, were profound.

American Protestants were deeply apprehensive about the immigrants who had been flooding onto American soil. The latter were charged with bringing new and unhealthy views about the use of liquor and Sabbath observance. American Protestantism, Methodists not excepted, felt strongly that these newcomers to American society composed a real and immediate threat to America’s Christian civilization.

The New Science and Social Darwinism

Another critical ingredient in the forces influencing American thought in the early 1900s was the thought of the new science and social Darwinism. These two factors were an important part of the general incoming tide of more secular intellectual and social thought eroding traditional American ideas.

First, a widespread and growing acceptance of the scientific or empirical method brought new stress on observation and experimentation in the determination of truth. Customary appeals to authority or normally accepted tradition were challenged in nearly every discipline.

A new worldview was developing that was mechanistic in nature, with heavy reliance on the search for cause and effect. (10) It would be impossible to overstate the impact of this development. The enthusiasm and excitement about the new scientific methodology were sweeping the country, and it was devastating for Christian theology and the orthodoxy of the day.

With growing emphasis on natural causation, there was little or no room for special divine act or revelation. The idea of miracles and the supernatural were brought into question in a way they had never been before. The new scientific approach challenged the Bible as a whole and proved to be devastating to theological orthodoxy in America. The new science left virtually no room for such biblical themes as miracles, a virgin birth, a bodily resurrection, or a second coming of Christ to culminate history. Thomas C. Reeves, in his book The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity, wrote aptly that “science tends to stress the all-sufficiency of the human intellect, to be scornful of the past, and to dismiss or at least distrust the value of anything beyond its rigorous examination, including the supernatural.” (11)

Coupled with the rising popularity of scientific methodology was the powerful penetration into American intellectual life of Darwinian evolution in all of its different manifestations. C. H. Hopkins noted the broad sweep of this influence: “The last decade of the nineteenth century witnessed the wholehearted acceptance of the Darwinian theory of evolution by progressive American theologians.” (12) Those of the Darwinian school held that since humans were developing from more elementary to more complex forms of life and thought, that early or primitive Christianity—which served an earlier age of humanity adequately —could be put aside for the more advanced views of scientific empiricism.

Many writers believe that Darwin’s evolutionary thought is the key to understanding religious liberalism as it developed during this period. The doctrine of evolution, along with the emphasis on scientific methodology, helped to narrow the gap between man and nature, emphasizing that the whole natural world was characterized by a unity of process and development. (13) Lloyd Averill, in fact, pointed out that this concept is the main thrust of Daniel Day Williams’s definition of liberal theology and quoted Williams, who said:

By liberal theology I mean the movement in modern Protestantism which during the nineteenth century tried to bring Christian thought into organic unity with the evolutionary world view, the movements for social reconstruction, and the expectations of “a better world” which dominated the general mind. (14)

Averill added further emphasis to the influence of Darwinism, noting that in the profile of religious liberalism, every characteristic has an evolutionary reference, either direct or indirect. He concluded that “the formative influence of the evolutionary outlook was such that, before the impact of Darwinism, theological liberalism cannot properly be said to have appeared, however much other elements in the liberal profile may be present.” (15)

Without question there were various types and variations of liberal theology. Yet characteristics found in nearly all of these variations included the continuity of all life, the immanence of God, optimism about man and society, a modified (or denied) supernaturalism, ethicized religion, and a rational test for religious doctrine.

All of these characteristics can be related in one way or another to Darwinian theories. The point here is simply to understand something of the widespread acceptance of Darwinian evolutionary thought and the new science and its impact on America’s intellectual life as well as on the Christian churches in America.

German Thought

Another influence on the social and religious thought of the early 1900s was the growing number of American religious leaders who were traveling to Germany to study in the universities under German philosophers. It has been noted that of the seven hundred scholars listed in America’s Who’s Who in 1900, more than three hundred had studied in Germany. (16) Many who went to Germany were theologians who would return to challenge and change the traditional views of the evangelical church in America. The German approach was to study religion from a rational and scientific worldview, reinterpreting it according to modern scientific perspectives.

In 1891, Walter Rauschenbusch, usually considered the leading exponent of the social gospel in America, went to Germany for the second time and studied under Adolf von Harnack, one of the leading spokesmen of the Ritschlian school of theology. (17) Ritschlian thought strongly influenced Rauschenbusch at the point of a solidaristic view of sin and of the ethical importance of the kingdom of God. (18)

Though critical of Ritschl at the point of his sociology, Rauschenbusch became a forceful expositor of the Ritschlian theology, which during his lifetime was at the height of its influence throughout the Protestant world. (19)

Methodist theologians were also influenced by German thought. Increased acceptance of the historical-critical study of the Bible and the discovery of the Jesus of history gave new impetus to the already emerging liberal theology and the growing social gospel movement, with the attempt in both to build the kingdom of God on earth, based on the social teachings of Jesus. (20)

With German influence came a very different understanding and approach to reading and understanding the Bible. Reeves noted that “higher criticism sought to trace the literary methods and sources used by biblical authors.” (21) What made the approach so destructive for the church was that the underlying assumption of these scholars was that “the Bible was another piece of ancient literature, the product of many different people over many centuries, reflecting myths and folklore current at the time of authorship.” (22) Reeves added that “the miraculous in Scripture was, of course, minimized or eliminated altogether in this process . . . Reason and experience decreed that miracles did not happen and thus had never happened.” (23)

The influx of German thought into Methodism during this era was strong enough that John Alfred Faulkner, professor of church history at Drew Theological Seminary, in his book Modernism and the Christian Faith, titled one of his chapters “Ritschl or Wesley?” (24) In it he asks rhetorically: “But why do we bring Wesley and Ritschl together? For the best of reasons. The latter is threatening to drive the former out of business.” (25)

It needs to be said that Faulkner did not consider himself a fundamentalist, but rather would have referred to himself as an orthodox believer or an essentialist. He was a respected professor at a Methodist seminary but was deeply concerned about the influence of German thought upon his beloved Methodist Church. He spoke of “a seachange in the beliefs of evangelical ministers” and the threat of teaching that he believed would “emasculate evangelical Christianity, especially the Methodist branch of it.” (26) His words reflect a concern about major substantive changes taking place due to these various influences upon American society.

Clearly, the social and intellectual forces at work in American society during this era mark the emergence of a new era, one that was challenging the traditional and the established, posing new questions and bringing about a very different worldview. It was, indeed, an era of dramatic and unprecedented change, more so than most of us would imagine. And as was noted earlier by Professor Faulkner, it was a time of significant change in Methodist theology, and for that matter, for all of Protestant theology in America.

Important questions to keep in mind as we consider how these changes affected Methodism during this era are: How, exactly, did Methodist doctrine and theology change during this period? How was this change received across the church? Was this change widely accepted among the people called Methodists?

Are you interested in learning more about theological liberalism and its impact on the American church? Jim Heidinger wrote a book titled, The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism. Preorder your copy from our store now.

1. F. Ernest Johnson and Arthur E. Holt, Christian Ideals in Industry (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1924), 12.
2. Ibid., 13.
3. George E. Vincent, “The Industrial Revolution,” in Social Ministry, ed. Harry F. Ward (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1910), 81.
4. Ibid., 91.
5. Charles Howard Hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1940), 99.
6. Aaron Ignatius Abell, The Urban Impact on American Protestantism, 1865–1900 (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1962), 3.
7. Vincent, “The Industrial Revolution,” 94.
8. Robert Moats Miller, “Methodism and American Society, 1900–1939,” in The History of American Methodism, ed. Emory Stevens Bucke, 3 vols. (New York: Abingdon, 1964), 346. Notes 251
9. Ibid., 347.
10. Kenneth Cauthen, The Impact of American Religious Liberalism (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 13.
11. Thomas C. Reeves, The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity (New York: Free Press, 1996), 81.
12. Hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 123.
13. Cauthen, The Impact of American Religious Liberalism, 7.
14. Lloyd J. Averill, American Theology in the Liberal Tradition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967), 69.
15. Ibid., 23.
16. This remarkable statistic comes from “Old Path Methodism” in a Modern World: Henry Clay Morrison’s Campaign for the Evangelical Option in the Modern Period, an unpublished doctoral dissertation by Ronald E. Smith for Drew University, June 2005, 289.
17. Albrecht Ritschl was a German systematic theologian who taught at Bonn and Gottingen. He was one of the most influential continental Protestant theologians during the period of 1875–1930, which was the formative period for liberal Protestantism.
18. Averill, American Theology in the Liberal Tradition, 32.
19. Sydney E. Ahlstrom, ed., Theology in America: The Major Protestant Voices from Puritanism to Neo-Orthodoxy (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), 532.
20. Hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 206.
21. Reeves, The Empty Church, 86.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid.
24. John Alfred Faulkner, Modernism and the Christian Faith (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1921).
25. Ibid., 218.
26. Ibid.


Dr. James V. Heidinger II served as president and publisher of Good News, an evangelical renewal ministry within the United Methodist Church, from 1981 to 2009. He is a retired clergy member of the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. Heidinger received the Doctor of Ministry degree from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.


  1. It would be interesting to see these factors compared and contrasted with what was happening in Wesley’s 18th century England. How did personal holiness spring to life in Wesley’s time when it died in late 18th to early 19th century America?