New York Pulpits and the Fate of American Protestantism: A Conversation with Historian Matthew Bowman

May 4, 2015

Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.

Matthew Bowman teaches history at Bowling Green State University. He’s the author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, and he holds a PhD in American History from Georgetown University. His most recent work is The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism. Matthew Bowman, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Mohler:  Professor Bowman, your new book, The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism, raises an interesting question.  I think it would be really important for you to define what you mean by your subtitle.  What is the liberal evangelicalism that you are writing about in this book?

Bowman:  Sure. “Liberal evangelical” is a term I use because it’s a term they use themselves.  I take the term from Henry Sloane Coffin, who was a pastor in New York for many years and President of Union Theological Seminary.  In 1915, he gave a speech called “The Practical Aims of a Liberal Evangelicalism.”  And what he seems to have wanted to do – he and also his fellows, who are mostly pastors – was to find a middle way between this emerging fundamentalist movement, who they saw over to their right, but also, away from an increasingly technocratic, progressive movement of social and cultural reformers, who were relying on things like sociology and social work.  Coffin wanted to blend the two.  He wanted to find the sense of social reform and activism of the relevance of Christianity in the modern world.  But also, on the other hand, he wanted to avoid what Harry Emerson Fosdick later called “the outworn sectarianisms” of fundamentalism.

They wanted to preserve this vitalizing, personal power of Christ, but also make it relevant for the modern world.  This was an America that was polarized then and is polarized now.  There was a hard middle ground to find, but it was something they fought for.

Mohler:  I found the book really interesting.  I’ve recommended it to many people, by the way, and it’s being discussed in places I hope that would encourage you.  But I’ll be honest, I understood, I think, what you meant by “liberal evangelicalism” more at the end of the book than at the beginning.  I’ll get to that in a moment, because you end it in a way that really helps to put it into perspective.  On the way, one of the strengths of your book is that you tell an incredible story.  It’s a story that involves New York, as a city, as much as the other developments.  So, how did you get onto this?  How did you decide at Georgetown University doing a Ph.D. to write about these figures of institutional Christianity in New York City at this time?  What caught your attention?

Bowman:  I started with a sermon.  A sermon that I began the book with that Harry Emerson Fosdick delivered at Riverside Church in 1931.  It was a very interesting sermon, I think.  There was a whole generation of scholarship on Christianity in America in this period, the late nineteenth to early twentieth century and it tended to fall into this two-party thesis.  That is, there are liberals and there are fundamentalists and they are war with each other and so on.  Yet, in this sermon that Fosdick gave in 1931, it was very much an elegy for fundamentalism.  It was – to borrow a term from Krister Stendahl – it was a sermon that had a great deal of holy envy in it.  Here’s Harry Fosdick is the dean of the Protestant left, liberal Protestantism in America, saying that he envies the fundamentalists.  He lambasted his own people, whom he called Liberals or Modernists.  He criticized them for defining themselves by what they did not believe.  And he said, “The fundamentalists did not join so many committees as we do, but they understood better the meaning of prayer.  Sometimes in consequence there emerged a personal spiritual power that put us to shame.”

That really caught my attention, because I think so much of what’s been written about Protestantism in America in the twentieth century falls into the trap of being really political history told simply through a religious lens.  I wanted to get at what it meant to these people to be religious and what it meant it meant to them to worship, what it meant to them to be Christian in the world and in New York City, as they found themselves. So that drew me both into the city, but also – I hope – into the religious lives of these people.  I found there that the lines were much more blurred on the ground than scholars tend to think they are.

Mohler:  Well, as tempting as it would be right now to jump into a figure as interesting as Fosdick, and we’ll get to him, I want to go back to the earlier section of your story where you began with the period immediately after the Dutch era of New York.  When you’re talking about the nineteenth century, and you even talk about how the churches, given the changes in the city, had to start moving – or chose to – progressively northward, which honestly explains a lot of the historic church buildings in New York City.  When I read your book, I said, ‘Ok, I understand now.’  Explain that.  Why were these churches moving progressively northward in the city?

Bowman: By the mid to late-nineteenth century, many many pastors in New York felt that they were in a crisis.  It was a particularly galling crisis to them, because early on, they believed that they had conquered the city.  There are all sorts of denominational histories and congregational histories written in the mid-nineteenth century praising Protestants for subduing the city, for making New York this ideal evangelical location.  What begins to happen in the mid-nineteenth century are a number of things. But I think most pressing is increasing waves of immigration.  There had always been immigration, certainly.  Even though Protestants thought they had conquered the city, they were never even a majority of the population of it.  But they really had believed that they had subdued it.  Now, suddenly there are hordes upon hordes of Catholics, Jews, and even non-church people moving into the city.  They are finding increasingly –  these old Protestant churches – that the people who are supporting them, the people who are paying their pew rents, who are sitting in their pews are moving north to get away from the poverty on the southern ends of Manhattan.  To get away from these neighborhoods that are increasingly unfamiliar to them.  They’re finding new homes up toward increasingly where Central Park is today.

So these churches and minister are in a real behind, because their pews are increasingly empty.  People do not want to travel all the way down Manhattan.  So over and over, they have to close their churches.  They end up selling their churches to Roman Catholics, which galls them, to move north. To build new church houses up there.  This really creates in them a sense of crisis.  There is a sense that they had thought they had it all together, that we’d won this city but now we don’t really know what to do.

Mohler:  When you talk about these churches moving north, you mention that some tried to remain.  As they move north, they are clearly keeping track (so to speak) with these population movements.  But you also, as you just did point out, the waves of immigration were overwhelmingly Irish and Italian by the time you get to the second half of the nineteenth century.  You raise something, which is one of the things I really enjoy about reading a book like yours, cause I’ve  tried to get everything I can get my hands on for almost 35 years in this era, and I always learn something new.  For instance, I had not been aware that these Lord’s Days Associations were fueled by an anti-Catholicism.  You tell that story really well.  It was trying to shut down Catholic Sunday parades.

Bowman:  Yes, certainly. You know, and I think this gets to the deeper issue that I see in what’s going on in Protestantism generally at the nineteenth century – it’s this real discomfort with liturgy, with ritual, and high church rites, and certainlyl that’s what the Catholics are doing.  There are many many Catholic associations, fraternal associations, who hold parades on Sundays, which they take to be honoring the saints, honoring Mary, honroing Christ.  Many churches host them as well.  The Protestants see this, and they see garish blasphemy.  There’s a really reallylarge clash here and discomfort with what these Catholics are doing, but more with what their city is becoming.

You know, the landscape of the city is very important to these Protestants.  They imagined that a hundred years prior to this that every block would be dotted with a Presbyterian, Baptist, or Methodist church, the streets would be quiet on Sundays, and now they aren’t.  The city is becoming a foreign place, and that really distresses them.

Mohler:  One thing I thought of when I was reading those chapters of your book was particularly the fact that the form of Protestantism that really marked the earliest eras of New York were Dutch Calvinism and then a rather Puritan informed form of Congregationalism and Anglicanism.  You had a very Puritan understanding of the Lord’s Day running into a head on collision with the Catholic pageantry of Sunday.  That must have been a real strain there in that era of New York City.

Bowman: Precisely, precisely. And it’s interesting that Protestants are thinking of the city as their own.  They’re thinking that it’s their responsibility to maintain the public morals of the city.  It’s their responsibility to ensure that the cultural life of the city is righteous.  They certainly have their own public displays, most notably in the revivals that many of them trace their ancestry to back in the First Great Awakening, and then certainly the Second Great Awakening and by the late nineteenth century, Dwight Moody and others.  What the Catholics are doing seems to them very strange.

Mohler:  There are a couple of chapters in which you deal with things that also surprised me somewhat., and I was glad to read.  One of them was your explanation of how many of these tensions were transformed into church architecture.  So that you had a shift from the more meeting house shape, that although rather large in a lot of New York City churches was still recognizable in terms of a congregational church in New England. And then, all of a sudden, you get the Romanesque and you get the quite theatrical.  You end up eventually with urban cathedrals, even evangelical cathedrals, like Calvary Baptist Church there in Manhattan.

Bowman: Yeah, absolutely.  I should credit Jeane Halgren Kilde’s wonderful book When Church Became Theaters for this. But I looked particularly at two churches: the Brick Presbyterian Church, which was then pastored by Henry VanDyke, and as you say, Calvary Baptist, which was then led by Robert MacArthur.  They do renovations at almost precisely the same time.  Or I should say that Calvary Baptist builds a new building at the same time that VanDyke is renovating his church.  I found these parallel stories interesting, because they’re doing their renovations for very similar reasons, but they go in different directions.  Both of them are concerned with the landscape of the city.  They want a new church that will allow them to maintain a foothold where they are.  And as MacArthur puts it, “to proclaim the Word” to the city by virtue of the building.  They do go in very different styles.  VanDyke and Brick Church, of course, becomes very very Byzantine.  He consciously is trying to imitate the art of the Christian past.  He’s trying to evoke the Christian past, and thus, planting his church and his congregation in this great history of Christianity that goes back to the Middle Ages and before.  There’s a very strong sense of community for VanDyke. He wants his church to be warm, inviting. He uses deep, rich colors, dark gold coffering and so on and so forth.

MacArthur, on the other hand, is a Baptist.  And as a Baptist, he was very interested in the Word.  The thing that struck me about Calvary Baptist as I went up there and looked at the church, I took some pictures of it, is how Word-covered it is – quite literally.  Above the door are emblazoned the words, “We preach Christ crucified.”  Inside, there are stained glass windows to be sure, but they’re also full of text.  MacArthur calls this church a sermon in stone.  He means that quiet literally.  He says, ‘we are showing the Word to Manhattan in our building, as well as proclaiming it through our words.

Mohler:  That’s something that Southern evangelicals often fail to either see or remember.  I was in college days on staff at the First Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama, which was a Romanesque building.  It was the last picture you would draw out as a stereotypical Southern Baptist building.  Right here in Louisville, we have the very large Walnut Street Baptist Church.  Again, very Romanesque with Louis Comfort Tiffany windows.  People forget that these were built as urban cathedrals by evangelicals.  Indeed, the book you mentioned, When Church Became Theater, as I recall, if not the cover picture, then one of pictures that is on that book is Jarvis Street in Toronto.  These are very evangelical churches, but they really did see the church as making a statement – the building.

Bowman:  I think even in the differing styles they have, they both are cathedrals.  They are large.  They’re Romanesque.  They’re impressive.  And they should be seen, in New York at least, as a real kind of defiant stand against this tide of immigrants that are very very poor compared to these Protestants.

Mohler:  One of the favorite stories I’ve had people in New York City tell me is of the immigrants, especially the Italian and Irish children, giving up their lunch money to help build St. Patrick’s Cathedral, knowing that a major physical statement like that was, and is (now over a hundred years old) making a statement about what the contest for the soul of New York was going to look like.

Bowman: Precisely. And you know, other groups as well, you know. I talk briefly about the Christian Scientists in the book who are building their own buildings, a very, very large one in Central Park West. And it’s kind of an age in which they are competing to erect buildings that are as impressive as the next denomination down the block.

Mohler: You know the other thing I wanted to mention before we get to some of the people is how you very interestingly trace the threat of the theater, the rise of an entertainment culture in New York City as a direct threat to that kind of evangelical moral – the picture that they had of what the city should be.

Bowman: Yeah, precisely. This is again I think something that is shared both by these Protestants, who will again calling themselves fundamentalists by the 1920s but also by these more liberal evangelicals, people like Coffin. There is a fear, I think, that the Word is being drowned out. It’s being drowned out by theater, and many of them see theater as a direct competition, a precise competition with the pulpit. John Roach Straton, who was a great fundamentalist preacher, called the theater a satanic pulpit, and he means that quite literally. The theater is proclaiming morals that he finds distressing. It’s proclaiming a world without Christ, but also I think entertainment culture is a competition to the Bible as well. There is a growing, growing tide of news print in this city. Newspapers are becoming increasingly popular. The penny press is rising and is selling many, many books. So people are not reading the Bible anymore. They’re going to the theater instead of the church house. It is a threat to their way of life, and one that both liberals and evangelicals fear.

Mohler: To look at a major American city is to see its church history as well. Matthew Bowman gives us so many key insights into looking at New York City, in particular Manhattan, and showing us how the history of that city in terms of its churches tells us a great deal about the religious transformations that took place not only in that city, but in the larger context of the United States. In particular, he helps us to follow waves of immigration that led to churches – especially those of the established denominations – moving further and further away from the original population center of the city of Manhattan. And then as you follow Manhattan’s development you also see major developments in American religious life.

We can follow the impact of the Second Great Awakening. We can see the impact of certain kinds of theological developments that came along. Matthew Bowman helps us to understand those changes. And of course, imbedded in the very title of his book is a very interesting compound. Liberal Evangelicalism. And to talking about liberal evangelicalism, and to talking about those liberal evangelicals we now turn.

Mohler: Well, now on to the people. Because the cast of characters in your book is one of the most interesting I have encountered in any recent monograph, and it’s one of the reasons I commend it. You begin and end, in a very real way, with Harry Emerson Fosdick. I just have to say, I find him one of the most fascinating figures of American church history. And you write of him quite sympathetically, and I think at the end of the book I understood more of what you were doing. You really do see him as something of the progenitor and model of an idea that didn’t happen but you’re quite elegiac about the fact that it didn’t if I’m reading you correctly. This idea of the liberal evangelicalism that you say Fosdick represented.

Bowman: Yeah, I feel Fosdick because he did himself assert that he was an advocate for something he called modernism, he is often characterized as non-evangelical, as sort of a forerunner of what today would be called the Protestant mainline. But I don’t think he saw himself that way. He does get in trouble. He is a Baptist. He is preaching in the early 1920s in a Presbyterian pulpit, and he throws down the gauntlet against conservative Protestant theology and gets his church in a whole boiling pot of trouble for a while and then eventually resigns. But during that period of trouble when his Presbyterian church is being investigated for orthodoxy, he declares that if I did not consider myself an evangelical Christian I would not be preaching in an evangelical pulpit. So he does imagine himself as an evangelical. He claims the word. He wants the label for himself. But at the same time, he believes that evangelicals should not have to believe in the five points of Presbyterian orthodoxy that were passed in the General Assembly a few years before,  in things like the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ and things like that. He does not seem to have trouble holding those two ideas both in his mind, that he can be an evangelical who does not believe in the virgin birth. And he’s trying very, very hard to maintain that middle ground.

Mohler: Well I’ve been fascinated with Fosdick ever since I was in seminary and first started reading about him. And quite honestly, I would never have described him as an evangelical because he is so steeped in modernism and so committed to it. I think the first thing I read by Fosdick was his Beecher lectures at Yale and that’s throwing down the gauntlet, kind of like his “Shall the Fundamentalist Win?” message. But when I got to the end of your book and I think I understand what you’re doing in terms of using the word, and Fosdick did represent at least an understanding of the need of a distinctively Christian word, a distinctively Christian influence. And if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re identifying that as evangelical over against the less Christo-centric, the less explicitly Christian leaders of the day.

Bowman: Sure. You know, Fosdick does not make the distinction. He uses the terms liberal Protestant, liberal evangelical, and modern Christian interchangeably, but I find it useful to make that distinction. What interests me about Fosdick and also about Henry Sloane Coffin or Henry Van Dyke and these other people I’m speaking of is that they’re pastors, and I think that’s a very, very important distinction. Many of those who I call modernists in the book, people like Tyler Matthews or Gerald Bernice Smith end up in academia. Yes, and Briggs as well who had not a bone of pastoralism in him. But they are ending up in divinity schools, and they are teaching. I think there’s something about being in the pulpit for a Fosdick or a Coffin that really makes them feel tugged both ways.

Mohler: Well, I’m going to fast forward you here. And we’ll re-track in just a moment. You reach the end of your book with another Coffin that I had the opportunity to meet more than once, that’s William Sloane Coffin. As you portray him as the death of—I guess, the third successor of Fosdick at the Riverside Church—he’s kind of the death of that vision in terms of your understanding of him even though his uncle was the one who you credit with coining the term of this liberal evangelicalism.

Bowman: Yeah, William Sloane Coffin is very interesting, and I think he was a very suitable to close the book with because he represents the evolution of so many of these ideas that I see being born in the early 20th century. He does not use the word evangelical, hardly at all. He does not claim it for himself. The word he does use quite frequently though is prophet, and that word really struck me as well because it is a word that is invoked quite frequently by conservative Protestants, people like Straton, fundamentalists 60 years previous. So in some ways there’s some swapping of vocabulary here. And I think that swapping represents a level of comfort in society that by the 1980s Coffin doesn’t feel anymore. He’s lost that sense of spiritual vitality that Fosdick thought was so important. For Coffin, that’s somewhat gone because he’s not interested in the word evangelical. But what he is interested in is social transformation but from a perspective that means he feels very lonely, I think. He feels like he’s railing against a corrupt and evil world which is, of course, precisely someone like John Roach Straton was feeling 60 years previous. And there’s an interesting contrast to be made I think between this second Coffin and Billy Graham. Billy Graham who rejects the word prophet by the time he comes to New York in 1957, and instead I think he finds himself very comfortable in the city. So in part I think that there’s been a lot of swapping going on. And it is, in some ways, I think someone like Graham who understands what Fosdick is doing better than Coffin does.

Mohler: So the institution that I lead as president and have for over 20 years intersects at so many points here because this has to be one of the only places on planet earth given the twist and turns of our own institutional history where John Roach Straton would have been a student and William Sloane Coffin would have been a lecturer. So you put all that together and someone’s going to have to explain this strange amalgam. But by the time I met Coffin as a student, he was, I would say first of all, one of the most engaging speakers I’ve ever met in my life. I think you could listen to him read out of the phone book, which he would have done with great passion by the way. And the second thing was if he did not have the title of—and then I think he was retiring as senior pastor of the Riverside Church, it was in his latter years –  I would never have identified him as a pastor because he didn’t speak like any pastor I’ve ever heard before. He never talked about anything spiritual. He was more concerned with nuclear disarmament at that point.

Bowman: Yes, and he’s quite uncomfortable with that, and he admits it quite frankly, I suppose to his credit. He admits that he is not very interested in being a pastor. He’s not very interested in the mundane day-to-day work of running a church, of counseling with people, and things like that. He instead, I think, is very much interested in being that prophetic figure and Riverside provided him a pulpit from which to do that.

Mohler: So the two party understanding of American Protestantism in the 20th century with the fundamentalist-modernist breach. New York is a microcosm of that and you deal with so many of these people. You’ve got Briggs on one side and then later Fosdick and William Sloane Coffin and Van Dyke. And on the other side you’ve got a cast of characters including John Roach Straton and MacArthur and so many others. By the way, your treatment of John Roach Straton reminded me of what I had forgotten and that was how strange some of these characters were. He did attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary though he did not graduate, which back then didn’t matter a whole lot. You could get a teaching job without graduating. Evidently, he went and taught at a college in Texas. I had forgotten that he had had this strange fascination with a 12-year-old girl preacher whom he defended preaching in his own pulpit.

Bowman: Yes he did. And that comes, I think, at a point in his career, a few years before his death, where I think he is feeling very desperate. I think Straton felt all of these pressures of the modern city as acutely as anybody and where someone like Fosdick tries very hard I think to adapt and find ways to keep this evangelical spirit alive, Straton simply redoubles his efforts. He doubles down on preaching the Word, and he really develops a sense of himself as a prophetic figure, as someone who is possessed by the Word of God. And that notion of the preached Word which is a scandal as Paul says, as it should be scandalous, is something that really sings to him. And something that really fascinates me about Uldine Utley, who is this young Pentecostal preacher and a young girl as well, is how successful she is at converting people. She preaches in front of crowds and people drop to their knees and confess Christ. And Straton finds that very, very powerful. And what’s very interesting to me about him is that he brings her to his pulpit. He brings her to New York. She preaches from his church, and of course this is something that horrifies many of his fellows who don’t believe that a woman should preach. But Straton tells them all the reason we need to allow her to preach is how effective she is. She preaches the Word better than some of you is what he tells some of these other preachers. That real commitment that he has to the effectiveness of the preached word is a sign to how strained he feels but also a sign of how deeply committed he is to a verbal word.

Mohler: Yeah, and that verbal word with Straton’s emphasis and of course eventually leading him to preach, I believe, in Angelus Temple for Aimee Semple McPherson. One of the interesting things you raise is how on the right side of that two party equation, you have the rise of Pentecostalism as something that they also had to see as a great challenge.

Bowman: Yes, I mean though some of them are tempted by it, like Straton, but others do find it very, very distressing and disturbing. I think in part because Pentecostalism, of course, veers from this real reformed emphasis on doctrine, on correct doctrine, on the Bible itself. Pentecostalism is, in some ways, closer to this sort of nebulous spirituality that someone like Henry Van Dyke is actually interested in. So on the one hand, Pentecostalism is tempting because there’s someone like Utley or even Aimee McPherson is a very, very charismatic preacher who seems capable of drawing converts out of a modern city, which is what Straton dearly, dearly wants to do. But on the other hand, it’s threatening and of course this ends up in a schism in Straton’s own congregation because some Pentecostal practices—the laying on of hands and the like—begin to seep in there. And many members of his congregation resign over it. But he stays committed until his death.

Mohler: Yeah, by the way, the idea of having church members who are dissatisfied, you trace that with Straton on the right and also with Coffin on the left. That is, I should say, William Sloane Coffin, in particular the rebellion from the men’s study class there at Riverside Baptist Church of all things. Not exactly a place you expect for that kind of thing to arise. I want to stretch you just a bit here if I may and ask you, when you trace the trajectory, which is a very minor theme in your book, you deal with Gresham Machen and his response to Fosdick. And then later on, you pick up the new evangelicals, in particular, you mention Ockenga and I would throw into that also Carl F. H. Henry. So how do you read this story continuing unto the present? If you could fast forward to 2015, the major players and trajectories in your story: where do we find them now?

Bowman: You mean in terms of the memory of them?

Mohler: No I mean, who today represents these various strains?

Bowman: Oh, I see. That’s a good question. And it’s one I think that is hard to answer because in a lot of ways the world that I’m talking about is very unlike the Protestant landscape that we see today. The world I’m speaking of is one in which conservative evangelicals, people like the Stratons or Gresham Machen feel very, very not at home in America. They find America threatening. They find America disturbing. Many of them oppose the First World War because they think it is a war of pride and overweening pride in America. But then after World War II, a lot changes. And you see, I think, the more conservative evangelicals like Graham for instance. And, I think, many people today – you can look at leaders of the religious right for instance who feel very, very comfortable with the concept of America and who feel very much as though they are the custodians of America and they are the ones who are defending America against these out-croaches. There are no longer the people like Straton who is trying to scale this mountain of New York City but are now defending what American culture is. The people who are missing, I fear though, are these liberal evangelicals, people who very much still believe in historic Christian tradition and the importance of the new birth and so on and so forth but who are capable of adapting. And I think in some ways, the polarization of American religion along partisan lines has a great deal to do with that. There is very little room for middle ground anymore.

Mohler: As a theologian, and I am a theologian who is evangelical and not a liberal evangelical. To me, when I read your book what I saw—and again I have a very great interest in Fosdick the man. I count Robert Moats Miller’s biography of Fosdick as one of the best American religious biographies yet written. I have a certain fascination with Fosdick and yet to me—the bottom line lesson is as a theologian: you can’t have what Fosdick wanted to retain once you have thrown overboard all the doctrine that he explicitly denied. And so this idea of liberal evangelicalism I think is actually very helpful in your book. But at the end of your book, it dies more or less. It is extinguished.

Bowman: It starts to fade. To speak to that, and if I were to go back and rethink this book and add something to it or do it a bit differently, one thing I did do was focus on the reformed denominations. I focused on Presbyterianism and the Baptist churches in New York City.  And I think there’s something to that insofar as the story is a tragedy because I think it is very hard for somebody like Fosdick. You know, he has so much trouble with his denomination and with the Presbyterians as well. It’s hard for someone like Henry Sloane Coffin who is a Presbyterian and dealing with Union Theological Seminary—and of course there is all sorts of issues going on there in the twenties as well—to maintain this sense of doctrinal integrity while at the same time trying to maintain what they call liberal evangelicalism. I wonder though if I were to look at other forms of evangelical Christianity, the Methodists for instance who I spend less time on here or even the Mennonites to range a bit further afield , into these traditions that are less doctrinally rigorous whether or not something like this might survive better.

Mohler: I found your book really interesting, very well documented, and to your credit very, very well told. And you kind of hinted at this in terms of your last response but if there were to be a follow up to this—whether you would do it or you would recommend it to someone else—what would the follow up, the successor to this project be?

Bowman: I am actually building off some ideas in this book and working on another book now. One thing that very much interests me and one thing that was in a lot of ways the impetus behind the story I told there was this contest over the word evangelical and a fight over really what it means and who gets to claim the word and who defines it. And I say in the last sentence of the book actually makes the case that evangelicalism is strongest when that definition is broadest. I think what I would like to do now and what I’m working on is taking this story past World War II and I’m looking at the contest over another word which is the word Christian. And that’s the project I have now looking at the debates over the word Christian, who gets to claim it, and what it means really for America in the 20th century to be a Christian nation and who gets to define that. And some of the same characters pop up in that project as well.

Mohler: Professor Bowman, this has been a truly fascinating conversation. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.

Bowman: Thank you.

Mohler: Matthew Bowman’s new book, The Urban Pulpit:New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism raises a host of issues, all of them interesting. And furthermore, he’s very adept at telling the tale. It’s one of those books that explains what you see with your eyes when you walk the streets of Manhattan. And you look at those massive church buildings that themselves tell a story. Many of those buildings have been there so long that the people now walking the streets of Manhattan have no idea the story that they are actually telling. And as the city has become more secularized, those monumental church buildings tell of a religious faith that once dominated that culture in a way it no longer does now.

That’s where Matthew Bowman’s category of liberal evangelicalism becomes very interesting. Today when people talk about the evangelical movement they’re talking about it generally in opposition to the idea of liberal Protestantism. What prevails in terms of most of our understandings today is a so-called two party system in American Protestantism. On the one hand, liberal mainline Protestant denominations, and on the other hand, conservatives both within and without those denominations who are defined by evangelical convictions in a more amorphous movement known as evangelicalism. The use of the term liberal evangelical for the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century is not unique to Matthew Bowman. There are a good number of other historians who are using the term in a similar manner. It isn’t without its problems. But it isn’t also without its insights. One of the things we often miss now in terms of knowing the two party system in American Protestantism in our generation is understanding that even that development wasn’t so clear if you were to go back to the last years of the 19th century and follow into the first decades of the 20th. It wasn’t so clear that the development would happen in these two different and very distinct directions – especially without some kind of center.

I would argue that one of the major insights in terms of watching the development of these issues and the development of these two trajectories is that middle ground actually doesn’t exist. And efforts to bring about that kind of middle ground essentially failed. But what you see in Matthew Bowman’s work is the fact that there were those who were trying to forge some kind of middle way. But for the most part, they ended up in those liberal mainline Protestant churches, and they ended theologically very much defined in terms of liberal theology. While for some time they wanted to keep some kind of evangelical vigor without evangelical conviction, over time it simply didn’t work. Looking at Matthew Bowman’s book we also come to understand just how word-centered Protestantism was even in the early decades of the 20th century. Even when you’re looking at the construction of these monumental church buildings. They were built for preaching. They were word-centered buildings, and the architecture of those buildings cries out the Word-centeredness of the worship and the ministry of those churches. They were places where pulpits were at the center – metaphorically if not architecturally – and they were places where preaching as expected and preeminent. But as he tells the story – especially as he fast-forwards to more contemporary eras – in the church known as the Riverside Church there, in terms of Morningside Heights there in Manhattan, he points to the fact that over time those liberal churches ceased to be the places of pulpit centrality they had once been. Theologically I would argue that’s because a loss of confidence in the Bible as the Word of God led to a necessary minimalization of preaching as the central act of Christian worship. Over time, the two are undoubtedly tied to one another. And the story that Matthew Bowman tells indicates that, not only in terms of the development of the Protestant mainline, but also the fact that you’re looking at many of these buildings built for preaching in which very little preaching now takes place. Or at least, the preaching takes place to an audience or congregation of very few people.

I did really enjoy Matthew Bowman’s book. On the one hand, I really enjoyed how he dealt with so many of the names that are so important not only to the history of the church in New York City during these eras, but to American theology in the larger context. And in particular in the development of so many of the issues that eventually led to that two-party system of conservatives on the one hand and liberals on the other in American Protestant life. As is almost always the case, when these persons are considered by a skilled historian, their stories turn out to be even more interesting than you thought. And some of that came out in my conversation with Matthew Bowman.

A lot more of it comes out in the book, and as one reads the book, one gains an understanding of so much more than the fate of liberal evangelicalism – as he calls it – in the city of New York during the period. One of the humbling recognitions that comes from reading a book like this is that we are still a part of the same conversation. The conversation, the controversies, the theological issues that were at stake then, they are now pretty much still at stake. In some cases you can take names out and replace them with more contemporary names, and the conversation could almost be the same. That’s a very humbling recognition. To walk on the streets of a city like New York is to see so many of these buildings knowing that every one of them tells a story. We’ll never know most of those stories, but thanks to Matthew Bowman, we know some of the most important stories, and we know them rather well. When you walk the sidewalks in your city, and see the churches on your streets, you’ll understand those stories better after you read The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism by Matthew Bowman.

Many thanks to Matthew Bowman for joining with me today. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to Thanks for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking.

I’m Albert Mohler