Review – The Making of a Battle Royal: The Rise of Liberalism in Northern Baptist Life

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This work by Jeff Straub, originally written as his doctoral dissertation, has finally been published as part of the “Monographs in Baptist History” series under the Pickwick Publications imprint. Written in a clear and compelling style, this book traces the rise of theological liberalism in Northern Baptist life, focusing especially on the seminaries. Straub’s main thesis is that liberalism was able to achieve such a “theological hegemony” in Northern Baptist life that “conscientious conservatives” had no choice but to separate if they wished to preserve an orthodox Baptist witness.

The book begins with a brief survey of American Unitarianism, which was the precursor to American liberalism. Unitarianism sought a synthesis between Christian theology and Enlightenment philosophy, and was a very attractive option to religious intellectuals. Unitarian ideas infiltrated the Baptist denomination in the nineteenth century through men like Thomas Curtis, Crawford Toy, and Ezra Gould. However, their unorthodox views eventually cost each of these men their teaching posts. At this point Straub offers an insightful, if tragic, commentary on these early dismissals: “Though there were those who opposed their views for theological reasons, in the final analysis, financial considerations played a key factor in the departure of both Toy and Gould. However attractive the new views might have been, the fragile financial stability of Baptist education meant that the new views could prevail only when the constituency would not penalize the institutions by withholding financial resources.”

A new era of tolerance toward liberalism came between the years 1885–1900, when Northern Baptists showed a desire to replace their “specter of ignorance” with “intellectual respectability.” This lead many Baptist intellectuals of the era to make their way to Europe, especially Germany, to receive advanced theological training from the leading thinkers of their age—men who also happened to be antisupernaturalists and higher critics. These Baptists then returned to America where they accepted teaching posts in Northern Baptist schools. Having learned from the mistakes of their predecessors, this new generation of Baptist liberals employed a more subtle strategy which allowed them to disseminate their views to sympathetic students while still managing to keep their schools’ all-important constituencies solidly behind them.

In the fourth chapter, Straub recounts another milestone in the rise of Baptist liberalism, which was the founding of the overtly liberal University of Chicago. Backed by the financial resources of John D. Rockefeller and led by the brilliant scholar William Rainey Harper, the University of Chicago Divinity School soon became the hub of liberal scholarship in Northern Baptist circles, and its graduates began populating the faculties of virtually every other Baptist seminary in the North.

By the early 1900s, liberalism had come to dominate Northern Baptist life. Liberals took control of the denominational machinery through the newly formed Northern Baptist Convention and solidified their control of the seminaries through a new and bold generation of enthusiastic liberal seminary presidents and professors.

Straub’s gift for storytelling keeps the reader engaged throughout the work as he offers both panoramic views of Northern Baptist life, as well as individual biographical sketches of key Northern Baptist leaders. His book also provides some important lessons for conservative believers today. First, those who wish to maintain orthodoxy in their associations must be attentive to the direction of their training institutions. As the seminaries go, so go the churches. Second, being vigilant means paying attention to the content of a professor’s lectures, not just to the vocabulary he employs. Many early liberals were able to spread their views by assigning new definitions to old terms. They were especially adept at protecting themselves through revised definitions of “freedom” and “soul liberty.” Third, orthodox leaders need to learn the difference between academic integrity and academic respectability. The former is essential for producing well-educated leaders, while the latter is a formula for theological disaster. Finally, they must beware of the power of money to turn an institution. Concerns about donations, tuition from enrollment, etc., can provide impetus for a school to maintain its orthodoxy, as it did when liberalism first began infiltrating the Baptist denomination; under different circumstances, however, financial considerations can actually hasten a school’s theological drift, as seen in the years following the formation of the Northern Baptist Convention.

In conclusion, Jeff Straub’s latest project is both a gift to the church and essential reading for any theologically orthodox Christian who wants to avoid seeing the history of the Northern Baptist Convention repeated in his own association.

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There are 13 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

If indeed Unitarianism was the "camel's nose in the tent" that led to theological liberalism, and Jeff's not the only source I've got for this claim, we might infer that we ought to have six Fundamentals, the last one being the Trinity.  I'd like to think that it could really be helpful in guiding pastors to know what's important.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture


I preached a 34 minute sermon on two-nature Christology from Philippians 2: 1-11 the other week. I think it's a miracle I managed to accomplish it in such a short period of time! Most folks had ever heard a sermon like that before; who on earth preaches about that!? It was great fun.  

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Philippians 2:1-11 is one of my favorite passages for sure.  I've probably preached it six or eight times over the last forty-five years.

G. N. Barkman

Donn R Arms's picture

This would be a fascinating read, but I hate reading on a Kindle. I fear I may have to make an exception as the hardbound version is $66 on Amazon.

Donn R Arms

TylerR's picture


You can buy it direct from Wipf for $38.40 ...

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Aaron Blumer's picture


I'm not sure I get the chronology and the Unitarianism factor. Theological liberalism came over from Europe where it followed behind philosophical movements there... various rationalisms (and later, post-rationalisms like existentialism -> neo-orthodoxy). So I suppose Unitarianism in the U.S. was arguably the beginning of the spread of European theological modernism over here.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

CAWatson's picture

He is a solid professor (he can be gruff if you don't get your work done on time!). I had him for History of Missions, Church History, Enlightenment History, and Fundamentalism (as well as one or two systematic theologies - but that was a long time ago). 

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron, I'm told from sources other than Jeff that Harvard College was basically run by the Unitarians from about 1800 on--we might wonder whether the "deism" said to be a big thing in the 1700s was a factor--and of course there have been Unitarians since the 17th century, I believe.  More or less when you cast out the errors of Rome, you can also end up casting out what they got right.

Tyler; I may have you tied.  I've taught junior high kids about the hypostatic union.  They called me "Mr. Vocabulary" in fun.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Rob Fall's picture

  • Considering the scars and missing limbs left by the battles with the convention hierarchy, suspicions of the path of the SBC by those coming out of the NBC should not be surprising.
  • Considering the destruction of the academic pipeline, it's not surprising it took so long (two generations) of it to be rebuilt.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

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