Timothy M. Haupt’s Review of THE MAKING OF A BATTLE ROYAL: THE RISE OF LIBERALISM IN NORTHERN BAPTIST LIFE, 1870-1920, by Jeffrey Paul Straub

Published on May 24, 2021 by Eugene Ho

Pickwick Publications, 2018 | 414 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by Timothy M. Haupt


Dr. Jeffrey Paul Straub’s The Making of a Battle Royal is a tragedy. The work itself is magnificent, but it chronicles the tragic demise of orthodoxy in Northern Baptist life. In his foreword, Dr. Tom Nettles writes, “This is a sad story – from my perspective. Others may find satisfaction in their confidence that it came out right. To me, though, there is too much loss, too much sadness, stakes too high to be lamented lightly” (Nettles, ix). Over and over again, Straub narrates the departure of individuals and institutions from historic Baptist orthodoxy until an entire denomination is left drowning in a sea of relativism. History has proven what late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century progressives failed to recognize, that once one untethers from the anchor of biblical authority, there is nothing left to stop the relentless drift toward unbelief. There is no happy harbor between orthodoxy and heresy.

The Making of a Battle Royal is the 2018 publication of Straub’s 2004 dissertation from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he studied under Dr. Nettles. After receiving his Ph.D. in Historical Theology (Baptist Studies), Dr. Straub served in various capacities at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, MN, including as Professor of Historical Theology (2009-2020) and Missions (2008-2020). In addition to his responsibilities at CBTS, Dr. Straub has also taught in an adjunct capacity throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The title of Straub’s book comes from a 1920 article by Northern Baptist conservative Curtis Lee Laws, who called for a “battle royal” for the fundamentals of historic Baptist orthodoxy, thus setting the stage for the fundamentalist-modernist controversy that would consume the Northern Baptist Convention for the next twenty-five years (2-3). How did a convention that traced its theological roots back to Isaac Backus, John Leland, and Adoniram Judson wind up producing men like William Newton Clarke, Walter Rauschenbush, and Henry Clay Vedder? Straub’s argument is that “the infiltration and strategy of liberal theology in the educational centers of Northern Baptist life between 1870 and 1920 created a theological hegemony that constrained . . . conscientious conservatives to choose separation rather than capitulate on key doctrinal affirmations to preserve denominational unity” (4).

The Making of a Battle Royal is comprised of six chapters. In a compelling narrative, Straub tells the end of the story first, relating how NBC conservatives lost the “battle royal.” Soon after Laws’ call to arms, conservatives pressed the NBC for an investigation into the doctrinal fidelity of its seminaries. A call two years earlier for the seminaries to publish their doctrinal positions had gone largely unheeded. Now, an investigatory committee was formed and charged to bring a report back to the Convention at the annual meeting in 1921. The committee found evidence of progressive doctrinal views, but the Convention proved impotent to effect any real change. The problem, it seemed, was that there was no doctrinal standard by which to measure the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of seminary professors.

Conservatives began to press for the adoption of a confession of faith, but their efforts stalled and eventually failed. With this defeat, the hope of returning the Northern Baptist Convention to its conservative roots was essentially dead. The only choice left was secession, leading to the formation of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) in 1933, and the Conservative Baptist Association (CBA) in 1946. Straub concludes, “By 1920, liberalism had attained a theological hegemony in Northern Baptist life. Liberal theology permeated the denominational schools, inhabited its pulpits, was defended in its papers, was fortified at its conferences, and helped to shape the missionary task. Conservatives made a valiant, if fragmented, effort to restore the denomination to historic Baptist orthodoxy. After repeated skirmishes, the ‘battle royal’ was lost” (37).

In the second chapter, Straub pursues three goals. First, he traces the rise of American liberalism, particularly as it developed out of American Unitarianism. It might be assumed that Protestant liberalism was imported to America from Germany, but this is too simplistic an explanation. Certainly, there was German influence, as scholar after scholar took the pilgrimage to Berlin or Halle or one of the other famed centers of German academia. But American liberalism had a homegrown quality as well. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Unitarianism was taking over American Congregationalism, as evidenced by the loss of Harvard College. Precursors to liberalism could also be found in the New England theology of Horace Bushnell and Henry Ward Beecher.

Second, Straub demonstrates that prior to 1880, Baptist orthodoxy held to an authoritative and infallible Bible. Straub cites as evidence the Philadelphia Confession, the New Hampshire Confession, and the works of Alvah Hovey, George Dana Boardman Pepper, and James M. Pendleton. Finally, Straub recounts the early Baptist reaction to the progressive views of three Baptist professors: Thomas Fenner Curtis, Crawford Howell Toy, and Ezra Palmer Gould. Curtis was no longer employed as a professor when he published his attack on biblical infallibility; therefore, reaction to his The Human Element in the Inspiration of the Sacred Scriptures was restricted to published critiques in Baptist periodicals. C. H. Toy, on the other hand, created a stir when his progressive views became known at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he resigned his post in 1878, finishing his career at Harvard and informally associating with Unitarianism. Toy’s impact upon Baptist life was perpetuated, however, by his student David Gordon Lyon, who remained a lifelong Baptist. Likewise, E. P. Gould was terminated by Newton Theological Seminary in 1882 over his heterodox views, though his impact upon Northern Baptists continued. Though Toy and Gould were fired from their posts, they proved to be harbingers of the emerging liberalism in Northern Baptist life.

Chapter three traces the ascendency of liberalism within Northern Baptist seminaries during the years 1885-1900, particularly through the lens of the seminaries at Colgate (Hamilton) and Rochester in New York, and the three foremost Baptist liberals of the period: William Newton Clarke, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Nathaniel Schmidt. William Newton Clarke is particularly relevant to Straub’s work for three reasons. First, Clarke left behind a detailed autobiography, Sixty Years with the Bible, that details his journey from orthodoxy to liberalism. Second, Clarke produced “the first systematic expression of liberalism in America, An Outline of Christian Theology (110). And finally, Clarke wrote The Use of the Scriptures in Theology, which detailed his mature view of the Scriptures. Following several pastorates, Clarke became a professor first at Toronto Baptist College, then at Colgate University, where he remained the rest of his career, influencing countless students to his progressive views, among them Harry Emerson Fosdick. According to Straub, “[Clarke’s] views were devastating to the Bible and at variance with historic Baptist doctrine” (123).

Rauschenbusch is best remembered as the “Prophet of the Social Gospel” (124). Though he studied at Rochester under the moderately conservative A. H. Strong and the staunchly conservative Howard Osgood, his time pastoring in New York City’s “Hell’s Kitchen” awakened him to the immense social needs of the day, and a sabbatical in Europe gave him time to further his studies. Rauschenbusch returned from Europe convinced that the call of the church was to bring society under the reign of the kingdom of God through social reconstruction. Rauschenbusch was instrumental in forming the Brotherhood of the Kingdom, which introduced the Social Gospel into Baptist life. In 1897, Rauschenbusch began his teaching career at Rochester, where he remained until his death in 1918. From this post, Rauschenbusch published several works, including his A Theology of the Social Gospel, in which he applied his social hermeneutic to theology.

To Nathaniel Schmidt belongs the distinction of being the “last ‘heretic’ [to be] identified and removed from the educational fold in an effort to resist the liberal influx and mitigate any financial repercussions which might be incurred” when he was terminated by the trustees of Colgate in 1896 (150). Straub concludes the chapter by remarking that “Baptist liberalism continued to grow, nurtured in the soil of a Baptist ‘soul liberty’ coupled with a plea for academic freedom. By the end of the nineteenth century, a liberal hegemony over Baptist academic life was beginning to form” (163).

Chapter four tells the story of the founding of the “new” University of Chicago and its emergence as the center of liberal theology in the Midwest. With financial backing from John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and leadership from William Rainey Harper, the University of Chicago attracted some of the best and brightest liberal scholars at the turn of the twentieth century. Most of chapter four is given to detailing the careers and views of the liberal professors of what became known as the “Chicago School,” particularly George Burman Foster, Ernest De Witt Burton, Shailer Mathews, Gerald Birney Smith, and Shirley Jackson Case. The unabashed liberalism of the University of Chicago Divinity School alarmed conservatives, leading to the formation of the Illinois Baptist State Association in 1906 and the Northern Baptist Seminary in 1913.

The fifth chapter tells the story of the final entrenchment of the liberal hegemony in Northern Baptist life from 1900-1920. Straub focuses attention on the four older Northern Baptist seminaries at Rochester, Colgate, Newton, and Crozer, before concluding with a look at some of the leading liberal professors, including George Cross, Richard Miner, Frank Aubrey Starratt, and Henry Clay Vedder, whom Straub calls “the quintessential example of a liberal educator who taught in the established Northern Baptist seminaries by 1920” (277). Two changes occurred during this period that cemented the liberal hegemony: the first was the forming of the Northern Baptist Convention, which from its inception was dominated by the liberal agenda; the second was a change in leadership at each of the four seminaries (George Edwin Horr at Newton, Milton G. Evans at Crozer, John Frederick Vichert at Colgate, J. W. A. Stewart and C. A. Barbour at Rochester).

The older leadership at the seminaries (Hovey, Weston, Strong) was at least moderately conservative. According to Straub, “The new leaders embraced the shifting theological sentiments and strengthened institutional commitments to the New Theology through their own teaching, and with the help of the faculty they hired” (237). It was the new cadre of leaders who resisted all attempts by the fundamentalists to impose creedal boundaries upon Baptist education. Straub concludes the chapter by outlining the common themes of Baptist liberalism, as expressed by Henry Clay Vedder in his 1922 lectures at the Unitarian Layman’s League of Boston on “The True Fundamentals of Christian History.” These themes include: the rejection of the Scriptures as inerrant, infallible, and authoritative; the replacement of salvation as the supernatural work of God in effecting the forgiveness of sins and granting eternal life with a social concept of salvation; a redefinition of sin as selfishness; a rejection of penal substitutionary atonement; and a redefinition of the mission of the church as social reconstruction.

In a concluding chapter, Straub highlights some contributing factors to the rise of the liberal hegemony over Northern Baptist life. The tolerant leadership of moderate conservatives like Ezekiel G. Robinson, Ebenezer Dodge, George W. Northrup, and Augustus H. Strong created fertile soil in which liberalism could grow. Straub writes that these men “created academically-friendly environments, overlooked avant-garde ideas, and invoked the Baptist principle of soul-liberty, coupled with academic freedom which allowed others more committed to progressive views to thrive. Finally, they defended professors under their care whose views were being scrutinized by the Baptist constituency” (281). Furthermore, liberal professors cultivated pious, reverent reputations and were cautious in the way they expressed their views from the pulpit and in print. By the time the fundamentalists called for a “battle royal,” the war had already been lost. “By 1920 [liberals] exerted enough influence or control over the entire denominational structure to prevent even a partial return to orthodoxy” (282).

Straub affixes three appendices to his work. Though the main portion of the monograph focuses on Northern Baptist seminaries, Appendix 1 provides a brief glance at three important liberal pastors (William C. Bitting, Cornelius Woelfkin, and Harry Emerson Fosdick), and three Baptist University presidents (William Herbert Perry Faunce of Brown University, David Jayne Hill and Rush Rhees of the University of Rochester). Appendix 2 gives a short overview of the Baptist involvement in the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions. Appendix 3 provides a transcript of Henry Clay Vedder’s My Theological Emancipation, which details Vedder’s journey from orthodoxy to liberalism.

The Making of a Battle Royal is a masterful example of sound historical scholarship. It accomplishes its purpose to chronicle the ascendency of liberalism within Northern Baptist life and demonstrates that it was the establishment of a liberal hegemony over Northern Baptist education by 1920 that decided the fundamentalist-modernist “battle royal” before it even began. Dr. Straub maintains scholarly objectivity while narrating the tragic demise of a once-vibrant theological tradition. He treats his subjects fairly and dispassionately, allowing them abundant space to speak for themselves and only rarely imputing to them motive or assigning blame. His work reveals tireless research in the primary sources of the era, including university, seminary, and historical society archives, as well as multiple collections of personal papers. As such, The Making of a Battle Royal is beneficial to scholars not only for its account of liberalism in Northern Baptist life between 1870-1920, but also for providing an invaluable repository of primary source documents that would otherwise be inaccessible to many scholars.

The structure and method of the book also prove effective. From a narrative standpoint, beginning with the end of the story (the fundamentalist defeat in the 1920s) creates interest. How did Northern Baptists arrive at this point? Whence came this liberal hegemony that proved so invincible? The subsequent chronological structure demonstrating the emergence of liberalism in the 1870s, its rise to prominence in the 1890s, and its eventual dominance in the early decades of the twentieth century provides for a coherent account. Straub’s choice to tell the story of a denomination by recounting the biographies of its leading scholars is likewise effective. Throughout the monograph, Straub relates the theological journeys of at least twenty Baptist scholars. In addition, Straub provides the theological autobiography of Henry Clay Vedder. The effect is startling; the journeys are eerily similar. What begins with the elevation of human reason over divine revelation ends in the rejection of every orthodox doctrine of the Christian faith.

Finally, Straub places his finger upon some of the underlying factors that led to this liberal ascendency in Northern Baptist life. For instance, Straub writes, “Baptists had often been considered among the most backward of the Protestant sects, minimizing education in favor of evangelism. But with the growth and development of Baptist centers of learning, that specter of ignorance was replaced with a quest for intellectual respectability” (91). Many liberals were driven by an existential desire for acceptance and respect within the halls of academia. The Nathaniel Schmidt affair brought to the fore another contributing factor, the supposed-Baptist principle of “soul liberty” and its attendant anti-creedalism. When Schmidt was questioned by Dean Burnham of Colgate Seminary about how he could remain on a Baptist faculty when he did not hold to Baptist views, Schmidt replied that as “Baptists had no creedal basis, he was still at liberty to hold his place in the Seminary” (153).

Rauschenbusch agreed, writing in Schmidt’s defense, “We have no authoritative creeds to which we pledge the teachers of our churches” (155). This anti-creedalism reached its apex when in 1922 the NBC voted 2-1 in favor of Cornelius Woelfkin’s anti-creedal credo, “The Northern Baptist Convention affirms that the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice, and we need no other statement” (25). The only perceived deficiency in Straub’s work is that one wishes he had synthesized and stated such underlying factors in his conclusion, rather than leaving them for the reader to discern.

The Making of a Battle Royal will prove a cautionary tale to evangelical readers, whether scholar, pastor, or layman. It abundantly demonstrates that there is “no medium between belief and unbelief” (Nettles, xiii). Orthodoxy rests entirely upon biblical authority, which itself rests upon biblical infallibility and inerrancy. One of the tragic figures in this story is Augustus H. Strong. According to Straub, “No educator did more to accommodate the doctrinal changes in the NBC than did Augustus H. Strong, as president of Rochester Theological Seminary” (227). Yet near the end of his career, Strong warned against the encroaching liberalism in Baptist life. In a 1904 denominational address, Strong warned against heterodox views of the atonement, open communion and open membership, and the loss of biblical authority. Strong declared, “When we cease to believe that men around us are lost, cease in private to urge them to come to Christ, the glory will depart from us. The church that ceases to be evangelistic will soon cease to be evangelical, and the church that ceases to be evangelical will soon cease to exist” (231-232). But by the time Strong sounded the alarm among Northern Baptists, it was too late. Northern Baptist life was taken over by the very liberalism Strong had helped to create. May today’s Baptists learn from this tragic tale terrifically told, and remain committed to biblical authority and Baptist orthodoxy.


Timothy M. Haupt

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

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Pickwick Publications, 2018 | 414 pages

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