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Religious Liberalism: The Modern Era 

By Carman Bradley

After studying the intellectual crisis of Christianity in nineteenth century Canada (and abroad), historian and author, Ramsay Cook, concluded that so-called “Liberal Reformers,” he used the term “Regenerators,” had not brought Canadians closer to God’s Kingdom, but had accomplished the exact opposite, a major shift in Canadian society towards secularism.  Explaining the decay of traditional or orthodox religious belief during the late 1800s, Cook wrote:

…the religious crisis provoked by Darwinian science and historical criticism of the Bible led religious people to attempt to salvage Christianity by transforming it into an essentially social religion.  The orthodox Christian preoccupation with man’s salvation; the traditional Christian emphasis on man’s relationship with God shifted to a focus on man’s relationship with man.  This union of the sacred and the secular was followed, in my view, by the substitution of theology, the science of religion, with sociology, the science of society.  In theological terms the development I have analyzed is the emergence of a modernist theology, which insisted that Christianity was not separate from modern culture, but rather should be adapted to it.  That theology was founded upon a denial of God’s transcendence and an insistence upon his immanence in the world.  It followed that a society in which God was immanent was one that could eventually become the kingdom of God on earth.

This transformation may seem as the decline of traditional orthodoxy, a mere change in religious thinking, or it may be seen as part of something more radical, namely, secularization.  In my view the shift in beliefs and values that took place in English Canadian society, and in other related Protestant societies coincidentally, was so fundamental as to deserve to be called ‘secularization.’

And so my argument: the supreme irony of the regenerators was that the new birth to which they contributed was not, as they had hoped, the city of God on earth but rather a secular city.[i]

Most will agree that the outcome of the nineteenth century Modernist development was a huge shift towards a secularized society in Canada; however, further analysis of the factors contributing to this result is needed to truly measure the unique role played by liberal Christians (mostly Protestants) over the century.   That this rise of secularism should correspond to a decline in orthodox spirituality seems obvious.  Perhaps for this reason most research and analysis generally focuses on temporal issues at play; no one has asked the tough spiritual question - What was the source of burden for these Christian reformers?  It seems unequivocal that the Holy Spirit cannot be the architect of a secularization movement in Canada or elsewhere.  Three temporal categories of influence are: (1) social phenomena like urban-industrial growth, cultural, economic, racial, political and religious differences; (2); conflict between the worldviews of the Enlightenment  Era and traditional Christianity; and (3)  a rise in the role and influence of the democratic state (Note: This third category is the subject of a separate article under Christendom and the State.)

Sociologists and historians argue that secularization is the predicable result of urban-industrial growth where cultural, economic, racial and religious differences make consensus about social values difficult, if not impossible.  After all, there are so many gods, so many religions: Brahma, Vishnu, Siva and Chrishna, Osiris and Isis, Thor and Odin, Jupiter, Jove, Jehovah and Moloch.  There is the Deist’s God; the Theist’s God; the Pantheist’s God; the Materialist’s God (nature and science); the Gnostics’ God (exists but unknowable); the Positivist’s God (mass of humanity); the Spiritualist’s God (External Law) and so on, not to mention cleavages within Christendom – Calvinists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Quakers and Baptists etc.  However, the difficulty with this line of argument for the scientists of Modern secularism is that the nineteenth century was not the first era of urbanization, cultural variety, ethnic diversity nor religious plurality as a social reality.   Over two millennia before, King Solomon rightly declared: “…there is no new thing under the sun.  Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See this is new?  It hath been already of old time, which was before us.  There is no remembrance of former things…”[ii]  If it can be proven that in the past similar social realities did not lead to secularization of the society, then we might need to look elsewhere for the real influences silencing authentic Christian witness.

Consider Roman society in the time of the early Christian Church.  Was Rome not metropolitan and growing?  Was the Empire not a cultural and ethnic mosaic?  Was Rome not a center of religious and political plurality?  All the social preconditions cited for the “secularization” of Canadian society were manifest in Rome following the time of Christ, and yet the opposite phenomenon occurred, more and more of the citizenry was won to Christ without political revolution or imperial decree.  Christian influence grew not diminished in this intellectually and spiritually competitive market.  In the second century, a pagan and Epicurean named Celsus wrote of the impact Christianity was having on the modern Roman social fabric.  Historian Henry Chadwick says, “to call a person an Epicurean, from a Christian perspective was symbolic of the modern materialist, infidel or hedonist.”[iii]  The Geek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) believed the gods were not supernatural, and happiness and avoidance of pain were the chief ends in life.  In his treatise The True Doctrine, Celsus wrote of the Christian witness and its impact:

As all pagans knew, Moses was an expert magician.  And so, the goat herds and shepherds who followed Moses as their leader were deluded by clumsy deceits into thinking that there was only one God called the Most High…The Christians are even worse.  They reject the worship of daemons [other deities] and quote the saying of Jesus, ‘No man can serve two masters.’

[Christianity is]…a rebellious utterance of people who wall themselves off and break away from the rest of mankind.  What is more, the fantastic respect shown by the Christians for this Jew who was crucified a few years back shows just how seriously they take all their talk about serving one master.  If these men worshipped no other God but one, perhaps they would have had a valid argument against the others.  But in fact they worship to an extravagant degree this man who appeared recently, and yet think it is not inconsistent with monotheism.[iv]

Let the Christians return to take their stand upon the old paths and abandon this newly invented absurdity of worshipping a Jew recently crucified in disgraceful circumstances.  Let them return to the old polytheism, to the customs of their fathers.  Christianity is a dangerous modern innovation and if not checked it will be a disaster for the Roman Empire.[v]

What had significantly changed between Celsus’ time and the nineteenth century was not so much the social conditions, but the nature of Christian believers.  Apart from some Gnostic sects, that claimed the title “Christian” while at the same time denying Christ’s divinity, one did not see “liberal” Christians in Celsus’ day trying to coalesce with pagans, modernists, philosophers and intellectuals, trying to modify theology to popular cultural and prevailing political trends.  God’s negative view of this type of give and take, this kind of negotiation and manipulation of His Word, is clear from the Old Testament record.  Scripture gives a lucid account of God’s judgment upon Israel for succumbing to such temptations.  Isolation for the sake of holiness was the prescription in the early church for a wholesome walk with Christ and practical survival, not adaptation.

One should ask, where was the Holy Spirit’s leading amongst the nineteenth century regenerators?  Why was their witness so corrupted and spiritually impotent in comparison to those in the early Church?  Contrast the following testimony of a twenty-two-year-old Christian convert martyred at the time Celsus was writing The True Doctrine with the witness of Canadian reformers in the Modernist Era.  

The record of the death of Viva Perpetua is one of the great treasures of martyr literature, an authentic document preserved verbatim.  Viva was condemned for her devotion to Christ in the year 203, during the persecutions ordered by the Emperor Severus.  She was wife of a man in good position and mother of a small infant.  Her father was a pagan; her mother and two brothers were Christians.  Viva’s journal records:

While I was still with my companions, and my father in his affection for me was trying to turn me from my purpose by arguments and so weaken my faith, 'Father,' said I, 'do you see this vessel—water pot or whatever it may be?. . . Can it be called by any other name than what it is?" No,' he replied. 'So also I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am—a Christian.' Then my father, provoked by the word 'Christian,' threw himself on me as if he would pluck out my eyes, but he only shook me, and in fact was vanquished....Then I thanked God for the relief of being, for a few days, parted from my father . . . and during those few days we were baptized. The Holy Spirit bade me after the holy rite to pray for nothing but bodily endurance…

After a few days there was a report that we were to be examined. My father arrived from the city, worn with anxiety, and came up the hill hoping still to weaken my resolution. 'Daughter,' he said, 'pity my white hairs! Pity your father, if I deserve you should call me father, if I have brought you up to this your prime of life, if I have loved you more than your brothers! Make me not a reproach to mankind! Look on your mother and your mother's sister, look on your son who cannot live after you are gone. Forget your pride; do not make us all wretched! None of us will ever speak freely again if calamity strikes you.' So spoke my father in his love for me, kissing my hands and casting himself at my feet, and with tears calling me by the title not of 'daughter' but of 'lady.' And I grieved for my father's sake, because he alone of all my kindred would not have joy at my martyrdom. And I tried to comfort him, saying, 'What takes place on that platform will be as God shall choose, for assuredly we are not in our own power but in the power of God.' But he departed full of grief…

The following day, while we were at our dinner, we were suddenly summoned to be examined and went to the forum. The news of the trial spread fast and brought a huge crowd together in the forum. We were placed on a sort of platform before the judge, who was Hilarion, procurator of the province, since the proconsul had lately died. The others were questioned before me and confessed their faith. But when it came to my turn, my father appeared with my child, and drawing me down the steps besought me, 'Have pity on the child.' The judge Hilarion joined with my father and said: 'Spare your father's white hairs. Spare the tender years of your child. Offer sacrifice for the prosperity of the emperors.' I replied, 'No." Are you a Christian?' asked Hilarion, and I answered, 'Yes, I am.' My father then attempted to drag me down from the platform, at which Hilarion commanded that he should be beaten off, and he was struck with a rod. I felt this as much as if I myself had been struck, so deeply did I grieve to see my father treated thus in his old age. The judge then passed sentence on us all and condemned us to the wild beasts, and in great joy we returned to our prison. Then, as my baby was accustomed to the breast, I sent Pomponius the deacon to ask him of my father, who, however, refused to send him. And God so ordered it that the child no longer needed to nurse, nor did my milk incommode me.[vi]

The point with Viva Perpetua is not to suggest that a few martyred orthodox believers might have stopped the erosion of Christianity in the face of modernity.  Rather, Viva’s witness reminds us of the full measure of strength that can be drawn by a faithful believer filled with the Holy Spirit.  Her heartfelt conviction toward the basic tenets of Christianity – (likely) Christ’s divinity, redemption, salvation, and heaven; and her willingness to bear her Cross for Jesus Christ, marks an exemplary spiritual gifting and explains why so many other converts were won for Christ in her day.  As important, her testimony illustrates what Jesus likely meant when said: “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my father in heaven.  But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven…Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10: 32-33, 37-39).

The nineteenth century reformers had little in common with Viva Perpetua, certainly not our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.  Religious liberalism then and today purports a nearly universal denial of the divinity of Jesus Christ.  During the modernity debates in Canada, Christian reformers let intellectual adherences to Darwinism neuter all Christian semblances in their thinking.  The 1998 publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, described the proverbial upset “applecart” this way:

Published on November 24, 1859, the book forever demolished the premise that God had created the earth precisely at 9:00 A.M. on October 23, 4004 B.C. – and that all species of living creatures had been immutably produced during the following six days – as seventeenth-century churchmen had so carefully formulated.[vii]   

Typical of modernist Christian reformers, Goldwin Smith feel victim to the dictum, No man can serve two masters.”  He put greater credence in The Origin of Species, than in the Bible.  And although Smith held to the orthodox understanding that morality depended on religious belief; he had deduced that since “Darwin had proved that there was no fall of man, how can there have been an incarnation or a redemption,” and then “what becomes of the whole edifice of orthodox Christianity.”[viii]  Like most liberal-minded “Christians,” Smith’s religious beliefs had been eroded down to the barest minimum, a hollow shell in comparison to believers like Viva Perpetua.  Almost nothing stood between Smith and atheism except the “impenetrable mystery of existence,” and the example of what he frequently called “The Great Teacher of Humanity.”  [Note: In twenty-first century liberal parlance the label for a “dethroned” or “reimaged” Christ is “gifted sage” or the Jewish version of “Mahatma Gandhi.”]  All that had remained for the liberal-minded “reformer” was a spiritually bereft faith.  Smith put the demise this way:

If we must resign miracles, the Messianic prophecies and their supposed fulfillment in Christ, and the Trinitarian creed, what remains to us of the Gospel?  There remains to us the Character, the sayings, and the parables, which made and have sustained moral…Christendom…If there is a Supreme Being, and if he is anywhere manifested in human history, it is here. [my underlines]

What Modernist liberals wanted to accomplish was creation of a “reimaged” Christ, adapted and well suited to “enlightenment” wisdom; instead, what resulted from the half century coalescing scripture with the writings of Marx and Darwin, was a harvest of doubtful believers.

Secularists and humanists argue that the decline of religion during the Modern Era, and subsequently, was unavoidable, a consequence of religion’s inability to compete effectively in the free market of ideas.  Fortunately, the great benefit of reviewing modernity more than a century later is that we know better the actual truths from hindsight.  One would be well advised to place the “free market wisdom” of the Victorian Period in historical perspective.  The following is a list of Modernity Era theories, which reformers accepted as fact, that have either been proven to be outright hoaxes, unsustainable ideas in the face of new scientific evidence, or just false interpretations of the data available at the time:

Theory of the Universe: Steady-State Model (1800-1950)

Theory of Marxism (Communist Manifesto – 1848)

Theory of Darwinism (The Origin of Species – 1859)

Theory of Homology (1859)

Theory of Life on the Orgueil Meteorite (1864)

Theory of Recaptitulation (1866)

Theory of Spontaneous Generation (1876)

Theory of Life on Mars (1877)

Theory of Vestigial Body Parts (1895)

Theory of Mutation (1900)

Reductionist (Gradualist) Evolution of Man:

Neanderthals (1908)

Asoanthropus Dawsoni (Piltdown/Dawson’s Dawn man – 1908)


Three decades after release of The Origin of Species, Sir William Dawson, principal of McGill University, then Canada’s most eminent scientist, a geologist and a Presbyterian of unshakeable conviction, took up the defense of natural theology against the claims of scientific naturalism.   For Dawson, religion could no more be separated from science than it could be separated from life.  He recognized that Darwin’s determination to break science away from religion would almost certainly lead to separation of religion from life.[ix]  And as Darwin’s influence spread, Dawson’s prolific defense grew more hostile.  While his objections continued to be illustrated in geological evidence and interpretation, the essential argument was that the beauty, the math, and the physics of nature, result from the plans and works of the Almighty God, Creator of the Universe.  Moreover, he wrote that, “Men must know God as Creator, even before they seek him as benefactor and redeemer.”[x]  By the 1870s, he had become convinced that by expelling God from science, Darwin had opened the doors to faulty science and to undermining religion, society and humankind.  And history has proven him right.

Unfortunately, for every Dawson in the debate, there were many more liberals, socialists, secularists and humanists in noteworthy positions offering the same assaults upon scripture and religion that we still observe toady.  The 1884 annual convention of Socialists and Friends listed the following dances in honor of the association’s ideology of unbelief: Voltaire’s Waltz, Free Thought Polka, Ingersoll’s March, Evolution’s Waltz, Anti-clerical Propaganda Circle, Secularist Women’s Rockaway, the Atheist’s Joy Schottische and Infernal Reel of Heretics.[xi]  This convention concluded after approving a manifesto which demanded:

(1)  abolition of chaplains and prayers in Parliament;

(2)  removal of the Bible from public schools;

(3)  no public recognition of religious holidays;

(4)  removal of religious oaths from the courts;

(5)  recognition of civil (non-religious) marriage; and

(6)  repeal of the Lord’s day legislation.

Toronto secularists published Secular Thought to press their case and inform follow adherents.  The prolific and well traveled, Colonel R.G. Ingersoll, an American, extolled the virtues of liberalism, in an article for Secular Thought, January 8, 1887.  His essay addressed what a liberal newspaper should extol.  He wrote:

…by the word Liberal I mean, not only free, not only one who thinks for himself, not only one who has escaped from the prisons of customs and creed, but one who is candid, intelligent and kind -- that is to say, Liberal toward others…

To know that the Bible is the literature of a barbarous people, to know that it is uninspired, to be certain that the supernatural does not and cannot exist -- all this is but the beginning of wisdom. This only lays the foundation for unprejudiced observation… Intelligent people everywhere have given up most of the old superstitions…

Nothing should be asserted that is not known. Nothing should be denied, the falsity of which has not been, or cannot be, demonstrated. Opinions are simply given for what they are worth. They are guesses, and one guesser should give to another guesser all the right of guessing that he claims for himself. Upon the great questions of origin, of destiny, of immortality, of punishment and reward in other worlds, every honest man must say, "I do not know." Upon these questions, this is the creed of intelligence. Nothing is harder to bear than the egotism of ignorance and the arrogance of superstition. The man who has some knowledge of the difficulties surrounding these subjects, who knows something of the limitations of the human mind, must, of necessity, be mentally modest. And this condition of mental modesty is the only one consistent with individual progress.

Above all…teach the absolute freedom of the mind, the utter independence of the individual, the perfect liberty of speech.[xii]

Robert Chambliss Adams, son of a prominent New England Presbyterian minister, and founder of the Pioneer Free Thought Club of Montreal, became the arch activist for secularism in Canada during the 1880s.  Accepting of Darwinism and the writings of Ernst Haeckel, Adams continued to study biblical history, theology, comparative religion and social criticism.  He concluded that the bible was a purely human document and religious belief the product of human imagination.  In Adam’s view, “Science, and not religion, opened the secrets of the cosmos and pointed the way to human progress.”[xiii]  Adams was unimpressed by the efforts of theological liberals to rescue Christianity by declaring non-essential the orthodox dogmas that clashed with modernist thought.  The extent of reimaging needed to meet the modernist model of Jesus Christ, in Adam’s thinking, required admitting that for eighteen centuries the church had taught little more than lies.[xiv]  The Reverend G.M. Grant, who was principal at Queen’s University from 1877 to 1900, was a modernist.  His study The Religions of the World (1895), not only revealed a remarkable tolerance of non-Christian beliefs, but also highlighted the extent to which Grant identified Christianity with contemporary liberal civilization.  His message to the Christian church: “rise above the sectarianism which exhausts its strength, and go forward as one body to make the kingdoms of the world the Kingdom of God and His Christ.”[xv][my underline]  And at the turn of the century, John Scrimger, professor of exegesis at Presbyterian College, reflected the new modernist outlook when he argued for a revision to the Christian creed endorsing the fundamentals of liberalism.  He predicted:

The new creed will recognize that Christianity is more a life than a creed, and will acknowledge the real presence of the Spirit of God, in the hearts of many who are not disposed to trouble themselves much with creeds of any kind, but who are following in the footsteps of Christ, trying to do good as they have opportunity.[xvi]

The liberal proclamations of professor Gearge C. Workman, cost him his job in the faculty of theology at Victoria College in 1892.  The point of his contention – the Bible should not be taken literally.   He wrote:

While…the Scripture writers acted under a Divine impulse in apprehending and communicating their ideas, we must not assume that every part of the Bible contains a divinely inspired statement or expresses a divinely inspired sentiment…It is only the moral truths and spiritual principles of the Bible that are divinely inspired; and it is only these truths and principles taken together that constitute a trustworthy guide to life, and form a sufficient rule of practice.[xvii]

The assertions of Adams, Ingersoll, Grant, Scrimger, Workman, and their like, are liberal code for denial of the virgin birth, denial of the resurrection, denial of hell and heaven, denial of the day of judgment and so on.  And the frank verdict of Reverend W.S. Rainsford, in 1913, epitomized their liberal viewpoints.  He wrote in The Reasonableness of the Religion of Jesus:

By so much as Jesus is pronounced as supernatural by His birth, or death or rising from the dead, by so much are we robbed of our elder Brother, robbed of a real son of man who is a real practical guide and example; one we can follow and imitate down here on earth.[xviii]

One year after release of Rainsford’s book, John Watson professor of logic, metaphysics and ethics at Queen’s University, reduced the notion of church from a citadel for salvation and truth to an organization solely for social betterment.  He said:

No creed of any Church can be accepted, and I don’t think that a church can be based on belief except that it is an organization for making men better.[xix]

One could go on quoting religious liberals and secularists, and continuing their same liberal-secularist theme – “Jesus Christ must be dethroned and re-imaged because of the Darwinian ‘scientific’ theory of evolution.”  Instead, this review of the “Christian” reform movement in the nineteenth century ends with this scriptural warning.  The Apostle John spells out the reality for men and women who deny the divinity of Jesus Christ.  He wrote:

Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.  Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God.  And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is the spirit of the antichrist, whereof ye have heard it should come; and even now already is it in the world.  (1John 4:1-3)

Copyright © 2008 StandForGod.Org

[i] Ramsay Cook, The Regenerators: Social Criticism in Late Victorian English Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985, pp. 4 and 5.

[ii] Ecclesiastes 1:9-11.

[iii] Origen: Contra Celsum, trans. by Henry Chadwick, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1953, 1965), p.xxiv.

[iv] Ibid., p.xix.

[v] Ibid., p.xxi.

[vii] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, New York: Modern Library, 1998, p. ix.

[viii] Goldwin Smith, Guess at the Riddle of Existence, Toronto 1897, p.222; Smith to Lord Mount Stephen, 1 February 1902 in Goldwin Smith’s Correspondence, edited by Arnold Haultain, Toronto, n.d..

[ix] Ramsay Cook, p.10.

[x] Ibid., p.11.

[xi] Ibid., pp.57-58.

[xii] Robert Green Ingersoll, “Edit Liberal Paper,” Secular Thought, Toronto, January 8, 1887,, 7/02/08.

[xiii] Ibid., p.59.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid., taken from Grant Papers, undated review of George H. Towers, Studies in Comparative Theology.

[xvi] John, Moir, Enduring Witness, (n.p.p., n.d.) 174-5, Presbyterian College Journal 11 Febrary 1892, p.318; ibid. 21 January 1902, p.207, cited in Ramsay Cook, 20.

[xvii] George C. Workman, The Old Testament Vindicated as Christianity’s Foundation Stone, Toronto 1897, pp.39 and 85., cited in Ramsay Cook, p.21.

[xviii] W.S. Rainsford, the Story of a Varied Life: An Autobiography, New York, 1922, pp. 179, 187-95, 376, cited in Ramsay Cook, p. 24.

[xix] McKillop, A Disciplined Intelligence, cited at216, taken from Ramsay Cook, p. 24.