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Theological Context of J. Allen Miller (1866-1935)

I’ve been asked to detail the climate in which J. Allen Miller (1866-1935) led. Understanding Miller’s climate (Fundamentalism and Liberalism) will help to better understand the importance of Miller’s witness. (You can find a brief biographical sketch on Miller here.)

Matthew Avery Sutton, in his analysis of American fundamentalism, maintains that the foundation of the movement was a pre-millennialism inspired by the many Bible and prophecy conferences of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such conferences produced a posture that was dictated by a reaction to postmillennialism that marked American Liberalism. Sutton writes:

Premillennialism shaped how the faithful engaged with Christians and non-Christians alike. To believe that humankind was careening toward Armageddon, that signs of the last days were embedded in social and political changes, that long-term reform was futile, that global war was inevitable, and that massive numbers of Jews were destined for Palestine had ramifications that extended far beyond the walls of their churches. As the implications of premillennialists’ beliefs became increasingly clear, they began to define their relationship to the rest of society.[1]

Sutton’s analysis reveals fundamentalism to be shaped by an apocalypticism that comes out of their eschatology. Such an apocalypticism provided fundamentalists “with a framework through which to interpret their lives, their communities, and the future, which in turn often inspired, influenced, and justified the choices they made…all the while making options more urgent and compromise unlikely.”[2]

World War I created a modern-day parable of fundamentalist concerns whereby evil, Armageddon, and the Antichrist were personified as global powers at war with America. Where other scholarship on fundamentalism has placed heavy causation with issues like evolution, Sutton argues that World War I moved the movement from theory to practice. Sutton notes:

The war pushed the premillennialist-liberal battle beyond questions of theology and on to questions of lived religion. Radical evangelicals and liberals passionately and brutally accused each other of inadequate patriotism and of undermining the American war effort. The social and political ramifications of their debates compelled the creation of a distinct fundamentalist movement.[3]

By the 1930s American Fundamentalism within the Brethren Church was thriving. Key personalities were Alva J. McClain, then Dean of Ashland Seminary, and Louis Bauman, pastor of the Brethren Church in Los Angeles and a nationally known fundamentalist writer, radio personality, and editor of the fundamentalist periodical “The King’s Business.” Their fear of liberal theology manifested in a strong paranoia that such a theological system was permeating the education of Ashland College.

On the other side of the spectrum were those who were open to certain aspects of liberal theology. (Side note: It is a caricature to believe the Brethrenists were liberals.) The belief of this faction was that conversation was necessary with this new theology. There were impulses within liberal theology that were similar to the concerns of the Progressive Brethren of the 1880s. This new theology, known now as American liberal theology, “flowed out of the Enlightenment and laid the enduring conceptual foundations of modern critical scholarship by appealing to the authority of critical rationality and religious experience.”[4]

Central theological developments were an emphasis on continuity in contrast to discontinuity in the world (stressing God’s immanence against the transcendence stressed by traditional theology), the autonomy of human reason and experience (against a sole emphasis on revelation), and an understanding of the nature of life and the world as dynamic rather than static (progress over and against unchanging propositional truths).[5]

Kenneth Cauthen argues, however, that to understand liberalism as a monolith is to misunderstand the movement entirely. An overarching understanding of liberalism, he argues, is to understand the three motifs—continuity, autonomy, and dynamism—mentioned above. “Wherever the combination of these three motifs became the determining principles of the thinking of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theologians in America, some type of liberal theology emerged.”[6]

However, Cauthen asserts, the general theology of liberalism manifested specifically into two dominant streams of the period—evangelical liberalism and modernistic liberalism. Almost all liberals, and modernistic liberals especially, believed in the potential of autonomous reason. Fundamentalists, in response to such a rationalistic outlook, developed a rational system to defend the Bible’s authority known as inerrancy. Into this debate was an attempted third way between modernists and fundamentalists. Citing Cauthen, Dale Stoffer expounds on evangelical liberalism:

Evangelical liberalism was denoted by a desire to maintain fidelity to the historic doctrinal and ecclesiastical traditions of Christianity except insofar as modern circumstances required adjustment or change.[7]

Liberals in this camp—such as theologians William Newton Clarke, William Adams Brown, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Walter Rauschenbusch—were thoroughly Christocentric, viewing Christ as God’s chief revelation of moral and religious truth. God’s revelation, however, was seen as in direct continuity with human reason and experience. As Cauthen explains, the Bible was not appealed to because of its authority but its truth validated itself “in experience by virtue of its own inherent reasonableness and practical value.”[8]

Modernistic liberalism, on the other hand, was more concerned with a modern outlook than historic faith. Such liberals took the “scientific method, scholarly discipline, empirical fact, and prevailing forms of contemporary philosophy as their point of departure.”[9] They therefore “approached religion as human phenomenon, the Bible as one great religious document among others, and the Christian faith as one major religion-ethical tradition among others.”[10] This viewpoint thrived at the University of Chicago in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries under theologians like Shailer Mathews, Shirley Jackson Case, E.S. Ames, and Henry Nielson Wieman.

The mediating voice of the Brethrenists, many who held sympathies with the project of evangelical liberalism, would not hold sway with the fury of the Fundamentalists. In 1939, a split between the two camps divided the Brethren Church. The Brethrenists would become the Ashland Brethren retaining Ashland College (later University) and Ashland Theological Seminary. The fundamentalists would become the Grace Brethren later founding their own school in Winona Lake, Indiana (Grace College and later Grace Seminary). The split occurred only four years after the death of one of the great mediating voices of the period. This voice held the two factions together by embodying the best of each camp. That man was J. Allen Miller—his posture is a prototypical Brethren theological witness.

[1] Matthew Avery Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 32.

[2] Ibid, 4.

[3] Ibid, xiii.

[4] Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), xvi.

[5] For more on these topics see Kenneth Cauthen. The Impact of American Religious Liberalism. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1983.

[6] Cauthen, American Religious Liberalism, 25.

[7] Dale Stoffer, Background and Development of Brethren Doctrines, 1650-1987 (Philadelphia, PA: The Brethren Encyclopedia, Inc., 1989), 180.

[8] Cauthen, American Religious Liberalism, 28.

[9] Sidney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 782-783.

[10] Ibid.

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