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They Believed Too Much in Man

Henry Clarke Wright served a Congregational church in Massachusetts until 1833 when he changed course to devote himself to reforming public education. Morality was Wright’s passion, and with the zeal of a revival preacher he soon hit the lecture tour and fought for abolition, peace, temperance, and happiness. His talks touched on topics ranging from bodily hygiene and diet to sex and childrearing. Although the former pastor considered himself a Christian, references to God were noticeably absent from his instruction: “religious moralism led Wright smoothly by degrees into purely secular morality, which substituted for his original religious commitment.”1 In principle, Wright aligned himself with Christ; in practice, Christianity was little more than a pretext for moral reform.

Wright lived during a turning point in American religious history—the age of the moral crusade. In 1813, activists founded the Connecticut Society for the Reformation of Morals. Boston formed the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance in 1826. These are only two of a myriad of organizations committed to the notion that with a little elbow grease America could become a shining city on a hill. Even as the revivalists of the Second Great Awakening preached for the conversion of souls, these social revolutionaries worked for the transformation of the soul of a nation. By the late 1830s, the religious fervor of revivalism had been replaced by the din of “progress.”2 However—and herein lies the tragedy—benevolence was increasingly severed from its evangelical roots.3 The nineteenth century is littered with men who claimed to represent God but who satisfied themselves with the doctrine of man. Indeed, they believed too much in man.

Take, for example, Jonathan Harrison. Like Wright, Harrison started with a conservative pedigree. An itinerant preacher, he served several Methodist congregations in the Old Northwest in the 1850s, until he chose morality over theology. He quit to edit a newspaper, but eventually he returned to the ministry—if one can call it that—serving in liberal churches and “ending as the fuzziest sort of Unitarian . . . Oddly for a minister, Harrison seems almost never to have mentioned God; he preached morality instead. It is not entirely clear that he believed in God as anything more than an idealization of nature, perhaps of human aspiration.”4

Sadly, Wright and Harrison were not aberrations; they represent the trajectory of nineteenth-century American Protestantism. By the turn of the century, their philosophies had blossomed into the Social Gospel.5 Why is this important, because the very men who should have been safeguarding the gospel and guiding the country into holiness, the pastors are the ones who pushed piety without doctrine. In the cutting and compelling argument of historian James Turner, it is America’s religious leaders who actually made unbelief possible: “The natural parents of modern unbelief turn out to have been the guardians of belief . . . Having made God more and more like man—intellectually, morally, emotionally—the shapers of religion made it feasible to abandon God, to believe simply in man.”6 In other words, when America’s religious leaders merely professed Christ with their lips but abandoned the preaching of His gospel, they doomed the country to several generations of religious poverty.

The Apostle Paul was very clear that young Timothy must watch his life and his doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16). To do anything less was to jeopardize his salvation and the salvation of his hearers. This is the instruction many of America’s nineteenth-century pastors ignored. Today’s pastors and church leaders know better. They know both from Scripture and, now, from history that real Christianity requires a vibrant confession of faith and a vital walk with the Lord. To sacrifice either is to bid farewell to the health and future of the Church.


James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 228.


For a summary of the reform movements of this period, see Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 425-428.


“Picking their way through these disturbances, ministers and theologians had to decide what they meant for the church, what role moralism was to play in religion. The answer was not unambiguous; but the general impulse was to push morality nearer the center of religion, to make it the really living core of belief. More precisely, a growing number of ministers made moral guidance through the shoals of social change the vital principle of religion. Lay activists, particularly Evangelicals, commonly did the same.” Turner, 129.


Ibid., 228.


“The new social Christianity proclaimed not simply that society must be saved but that this goal could be attained by collective or directly environmental modes of action, and in fact could not be reached if the church continued to fix its attention on saving sinners one by one. The strongest animus of the movement, therefore, lay against the individualistic, primarily revivalistic Protestantism that was also a major target of theological liberalism.” William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), 164-165.


Turner, 261. “The crucial ingredient, then, in the mix that produced an enduring unbelief was the choices of believers. More precisely, unbelief resulted from the decision that influential church leaders—lay writers, theologians, ministers—made about how to confront modern pressures upon religious belief. . . . They forgot, in short, that their God was—as any God had to be to command belief over the long term—radically other than man.” Ibid., 266-267.