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Modernism is an outdated philosophical movement and "artistic style or movement" (OED), which began in the Progressive Era of the late 19th century. Its historical background in terms of its development was the industrial revolution and growth of cities following World War I. Modernism is also a religious movement that began in the 19th century that advocated the need to harmonize religion with recent scientific developments.[1] Modernism was later replaced by post-modernism, which itself later also became outdated.

An online article at Miami Dade College on the history of modernism indicates:

Arising out of the rebellious mood at the beginning of the twentieth century, modernism was a radical approach that yearned to revitalize the way modern civilization viewed life, art, politics, and science. This rebellious attitude that flourished between 1900 and 1930 had, as its basis, the rejection of European culture for having become too corrupt, complacent and lethargic, ailing because it was bound by the artificialities of a society that was too preoccupied with image and too scared of change. This dissatisfaction with the moral bankruptcy of everything European led modern thinkers and artists to explore other alternatives, especially primitive cultures. For the Establishment, the result would be cataclysmic; the new emerging culture would undermine tradition and authority in the hopes of transforming contemporary society.

The first characteristic associated with modernism is nihilism, the rejection of all religious and moral principles as the only means of obtaining social progress. In other words, the modernists repudiated the moral codes of the society in which they were living in. The reason that they did so was not necessarily because they did not believe in God, although there was a great majority of them who were atheists, or that they experienced great doubt about the meaninglessness of life. Rather, their rejection of conventional morality was based on its arbitrariness, its conformity and its exertion of control over human feelings. In other words, the rules of conduct were a restrictive and limiting force over the human spirit. The modernists believed that for an individual to feel whole and a contributor to the re-vitalization of the social process, he or she needed to be free of all the encumbering baggage of hundreds of years of hypocrisy.

The rejection of moral and religious principles was compounded by the repudiation of all systems of beliefs, whether in the arts, politics, sciences or philosophy. Doubt was not necessarily the most significant reason why this questioning took place. One of the causes of this iconoclasm was the fact that early 20th-century culture was literally re-inventing itself on a daily basis.[2]

Modernism and liberal Christianity

In Christian theology, modernism is a hostile term used by its enemies to attack the tendency of liberal Christianity toward revision of certain Christian doctrines such as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Christ, or subjecting the Bible to the Higher Criticism. Modernism was the target of the Fundamentalists after 1910, and was an especially bitter issue in the 1920s. Like secular modernists, adherents of liberal theology often have lower standards of morality (for example, see: Liberal Christianity and higher prevalence of marital infidelity and other sexual immorality). However, not all modernists were opposed to religion and In 1927 the poet T.S. Eliot was baptized into the Church of England, became a subject of the king, began publishing essays by conservative thinkers, and proclaimed himself a "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion." [3] Novelist William Faulkner is another modernist for whom Christianity was important.[4]


Different views of the role of Christianity in the face of the growth of modern science and research methods fueled the conflict between the liberal modernist and conservative fundamentalist factions of the Presbyterian Church during the 1920s-30s. Modernists such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, Henry Sloane Coffin, and Robert E. Speer promoted inclusiveness and denied the inerrancy of scripture, while fundamentalists such as J. Gresham Machen, Clarence MacArtney, and William Jennings Bryan defended traditional doctrine. The fundamentalist cause, popularly identified with antievolutionism, was damaged during the trial in Tennessee of biology teacher John Scopes in 1925 for teaching evolution. In 1929, fundamentalist leaders Machen and Macartney left their positions at the Princeton Theological Seminary to found the Westminster Theological Seminary to defend the reformed faith.[5]

Southern Baptists

The fundamentalist-modernist controversy reached the Southern Baptist Convention about the same time as it did in the Presbyterian Church. Led by preachers such as J. Frank Norris (who railed against "liberalism" in SBC universities), many churches withdrew from the SBC, and sizable portions of churches remaining split off and formed new congregations. Though some smaller denominations (such as the American Baptist Association) would form, the majority of congregations would not align with another denomination; the Independent Baptist movement gained significant momentum as a result.

With the Conservative Resurgence of the 1980's and 1990's bringing some measure of conservatism back to the SBC, formerly independent churches either joined or returned to the SBC; Norris' own church (First Baptist Church of Fort Worth) would later rejoin the SBC and remains a member to this day.[6]

Disciples of Christ and Church of Christ

The break between the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ was due to much more than disagreements over the use of music in worship or over missionary societies; it was fundamentally a division between Stonite primitivism and Campbellian modernism. Alexander Campbell believed in progress toward the Kingdom of God and was both optimistic and not hostile toward the secular world. Barton Stone, on the other hand, wanted a radical separation from the world, was pessimistic about the human nature and prospects for progress, and looked toward restoring the authentic primitive church. From the end of the Civil War to 1917, David Lipscomb dominated the Churches of Christ and managed to balance the views of Campbell and Stone. After his death, the Churches of Christ moved away from the premillennialism of Stone and Lipscomb and embraced modernism. Foy Wallace, whose views prevailed among the Churches of Christ from the 1930s through the 1950s, led the movement away from the thought of Stone and Lipscomb.[7]

See also


  1. W. T. Conne, "Fundamentalism vs Modernism".Social Science, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Feb., Mar., Apr., 1927), pp. 101-106
  2. History of Modernism, online from Miami Dade College
  3. "Modernism & Conservatism". The American Conservative]
  4. John Sykes, "Faulkner, Calvinism, and Religion". The Journal of Presbyterian History, Vol. 75, No. 1 (SPRING 1997), pp. 43-53.
  5. Bradley J. Longfield, "For Church and Country: The Fundamentalist-Modernist Conflict in the Presbyterian Church". Journal of Presbyterian History 2000 78(1): 34-50. 0022-3883
  7. Richard T. Hughes, "The Apocalyptic Origins of Churches Of Christ and the Triumph of Modernism." Religion and American Culture 1992 2(2): 181-214. 1052-1151