Which of the two "controversies" involving fundamentalist Protestants and more liberal mainline Protestants left a more lasting presence on the American religious landscape: the urbanization and social gospel dispute, or the fundamentalist/modernist controversy?
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While the urbanization and social gospel dispute in Christianity was important, the fundamentalist/modernist controversy has left a more lasting presence on the American religious landscape.
At the center of Protestantism at the turn of the twentieth century was the essential need to win new believers to their faith. Urbanization had an enormous effect in slowing down this effort. One example of the effects of urbanization on Christianity can be found in Chicago:
The city’s ethnic diversity made communication, much less evangelization, difficult for native-born Protestant ministers.
It is understandably difficult to minister to others when a common language is not shared. Additionally, overcrowding of migrant housing, as well as the swift appearance of saloons and brothels, proved challenging to Protestant ministers. The goal appears to have been the same among all those attempting to carry out the Great Commission.
In terms of social gospel, central to the Protestant cause was the belief to see to the needs of those one wished to bring into the faith, but here one sees the controversy. First, the movement attempted to...
...apply Christian ethics…to issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war.
There were two schools of thought in preaching about social issues. While some believed it would draw believers, others (such as Dwight Moody) felt that attention paid to social issues would draw the focus away from "the life saving message of the Gospel." At the same time, Walter Rauschenbusch, another proponent of social justice believed in the development of labor unions to aid the poor, but his brand of "Christian socialism" put off members of the middle class: those who financially supported the effort.
The controversy between urbanization and social gospel concentrated more on aspects of society that needed to be addressed to spread the gospel. Though the endeavors looked different, the basic theology of both movements was not an issue.
However, when basic Christian theology becomes controversial, there can be no doubt that there will be a more lasting presence on the American religious landscape.
The Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy was a religious controversy in the 1920s and '30s within the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America that later created divisions in most Christian denominations as well.
Whereas there were concerns within the urbanization and social gospel movements, there was nothing that caused division within the theological core of the Christian faith. However, with regard to the Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy, it was a very different story.
First, there was debate regarding the part Christianity should play culturally and how that role was to be manifested. Second, and perhaps more impactful (even today) was the desire for some to take a more scientific [modern] approach that the Bible should not be taken literally, but was—rather—made up of "myths, legends, folklore" that might have a "kernel" of historical veracity. Very similar to political concerns regarding conservatives and liberals, this controversy focused on the belief by the fundamentalists that their theological tenets remain pure and unchanged, not only frowning upon liberalism, but also attempting to remove it completely from the church. With dissension among the believers, new denominations began to split off.
While this controversy took place first within the Presbyterian denomination, the ramifications of this separation were felt in the other major Protestant groups.
The original schism occurred in the 1920s and continued well into the 1930s, but the split in the Presbyterian Church was not the end of the controversy. Ultimately, the Presbyterian factions were finally united in 1983; most of the other major denominations adapted to some part of the modernist viewpoint, with the exception of the Southern Baptist denomination, which settled firmly behind the fundamentalist view in the 1970s.
The social tensions and prejudices created by the Fundamentalist-Modernist split would remain very active within American Christianity into the twenty-first century, with modernists seeing fundamentalists as intolerant, and fundamentalists seeing modernists as overly willing to compromise with the forces of secularism, abandoning authentic Christianity in the process.
The idea of separation within Christianity is nothing new: it began in 1517 when Martin Luther, a monk within the Roman Catholic Church, nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. His desire was simply to open a dialogue with leaders of the Catholic Church regarding his theological concerns, but this would begin what ultimately became the Protestant Reformation—something that forever changed Christianity.
Certainly urbanization and social gospel had an impact, but the struggle between the fundamental Protestants and the more mainline liberal Protestants has been far-reaching and has, as Luther before, changed Christianity even into modern society.
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