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6. Protestantism in the 20th century



The war of 1914-18 broke Europe's waning self-confidence in the merits of its own civilization. Since it was fought between Christian nations, it weakened worldwide Christianity. The seizure of power by a formally atheist government in Russia in 1917 brought a new negative pressure into the world of Christendom and sharpened the social and working class conflicts of western Europe and America. During the following 40 years the Protestant churches suffered inestimable losses.

Germany under Adolf Hitler (in power 1933-45) professed to save Europe from the threat of Bolshevism; and the Nazi rule was at first welcomed by many German churchmen. Disillusionment was not slow to follow. From September 1933 there already existed a partial schism between churchmen willing to cooperate with the government in church matters--especially over the Aryan clause that demanded that no Jew should hold office in the church--and those, led by Martin Niemöller, who were not willing to cooperate in church matters. With the support of the state-aided Lutheran churches in the south (Bavaria and Württemberg), Niemöller's group was able to form the Confessing (or Confessional) Church, and the schism was made manifest when the Confessing Church held the Synod of Barmen in May-June 1934. For a time the Confessing Church was strong throughout Germany; but when the German government provided a less doctrinaire government under the minister of church affairs Hanns Kerrl, the Confessing Church was itself divided--into those who were willing to cooperate and Niemöller's men, who were not willing to cooperate because it was a church government imposed by the Nazi government. At the Synod of Bad Oeynhausen (February 1936) the Confessing Church broke up and was never again so strong. In the later stages, especially during World War II when the extreme Nazis secured complete control of Hitler's government, the churches came under increasing pressure and toward the end were struggling in some areas to survive. Bishop Theophil Wurm of Württemberg was a leader in protesting to the government against its inhumane activities, and Pastor Heinrich Grüber, until his arrest, ran the Büro Grüber, which sought to evacuate and protect Jews. Some church leaders, notably the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, paid with their lives for their associations with resistance to the Nazi government.

The end of the war saw Russian armies in control of eastern Europe and Germany divided. All the churches in the area came under pressure. Most Germans were evacuated or deported from the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. Although Lutheran communities remained there, they were subjected to persecution, especially under the rule of Stalin. The Lutherans in Transylvania (Romania) and the Reformed in Hungary came under less severe pressure but were much diminished in numbers. The Protestants of Czechoslovakia, led by the theologian Joseph Hromadka, succeeded in maintaining more dialogue with Marxist thinkers than did Protestants elsewhere in Europe. From the viewpoint of Protestant strength, the greatest losses were suffered through the division of Germany. The settlement between the victorious powers gave large areas of former German-speaking (and largely Lutheran) areas to Poland, and many (approximately 8,000,000) Germans were expelled; most went to western Germany. The Soviet occupation zone of Germany in 1945 included Wittenberg and most of the original Protestant homeland. East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) became the sole country in which a Marxist government ruled a largely (70 percent) Protestant population. For a time the Lutheran churches were the chief link between East and West Germany, and the annual meeting, or Kirchentag, the single expression of a lost German unity. But the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 stopped this communication and isolated the East German churches. Despite governmental pressure, especially in relation to money, education, and church building and in the national (and anti-Christian) form of youth dedication, the East German Protestants worked courageously and flourished. The 450th anniversary of the Reformation on Oct. 31, 1967, showed how strong a hold the Protestant churches still had over the affections of a large number of people. (see also Index: Lutheranism)

In Russia, a deeply Orthodox state before the Revolution of 1917, the 40 years after the Revolution witnessed a growth in the Baptist community. The flexibility and simplicity of Baptist organization made it in some respects more suitable to activity under difficult legal conditions. In the years after Stalin's death in 1953 there was evidence of rapid advance; but after 1960 the Baptist communities, like the Orthodox, again came under pressure, which at times was severe.

The material losses that Great Britain suffered in World War II and the end of the British Empire in the years after 1947 had serious effects on the Protestant churches in former British territories. The home country could no longer provide money and human resources to the overseas churches on the same scale, and in a few areas church government was handed over to leaders who were not ready to take over church leadership. But in other areas the change of status for Britain hastened the process of change in leadership that had been proceeding slowly; and some of the failing resources were supplemented from elsewhere, especially from the United States, Canada, and Australia. Thus the so-called younger churches came to be a new fact of world Christianity, led by men who no longer saw the history of Christianity solely through European eyes and had an impatience partly derived from a different attitude to the Christian past. This was to be of primary importance in the ecumenical movement. Meanwhile, the secularizing trend of a technological age assailed the old European churches and had an even greater effect upon the areas where the younger churches ministered.

The growth of mainline Protestantism in sub-Saharan Africa, as of Lutheranism in South West Africa/Namibia or Anglicanism in South Africa--as well as of the Pentecostal and Evangelical churches and sects in South America and Asia--helped compensate for losses in Europe and North America. Because of conversions and population growth, the Protestant church actually increased in size as it changed its scope and ethos.

There were also surprising survivals and reappearances of Protestantism in areas of the world where its demise had been foreseen. Thus, in 1948-49 the Communist seizure of power in China effectively ended Protestant missions there. By 1951 there were hardly any European missionaries in the country, and the Chinese churches had to stand without outside aid. They came under severe pressure, especially during the so-called Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and '70s. They could no longer evangelize and sought barely to survive. The partial reopening of China to the West and the cautious measures granting more freedom of religion and speech beginning in the late 1970s and the 1980s led to new contacts between Chinese Protestants and Westerners. It was estimated that several million Protestants and other Christians had endured the suppression and persecution of the two previous decades, and, however uncertain their futures remained, they represented a vital group of churches.


The most important movements in 20th-century Protestantism took root in soil that most call conservative, and some of their founding had a reactionary character. At the same time not all members of these movements wished to be typed as conservative. Their forward-looking and exuberant expressions of faith displayed more radical outlooks. The three main movements are usually called Pentecostalism, Fundamentalism, and Evangelicalism. The first has been of immeasurable importance in the spread of Protestantism beyond its historic European home.

i) Pentecostalism.

Pentecostalism emerged out of Wesleyan Holiness movements at the turn of the century in the United States. In 1901 in Topeka, Kan., and in 1906 in Los Angeles, there were particularly notable manifestations of various phenomena that characterize the movement. Central to these is glossolalia, "speaking in tongues." This is a form of unrepressed speech whose agents "yield" themselves to the Lord. Normally the syllables they speak or sing are unintelligible, though some claim that they speak in recognizable foreign tongues as the disciples of Jesus did at the first Pentecost, from which the movement derives its name. Pentecostalists believe that they must experience a "second baptism," beyond water baptism, in which the Holy Spirit comes to them. They not only speak in tongues but also interpret them; they prophesy; many engage in healings, claiming that miraculous healings did not cease after the apostolic period, as many other Christians claim they did.

The Pentecostal movement in the United States was often Southern, associated with the "Bible Belt," and developed among the rural poor whites or urban blacks. After the mid-20th century, through fast-growing denominations like the Assemblies of God, Pentecostalism emerged as one of the most visible forms of Protestantism and became increasingly acceptable to the middle classes. After 1960 the movement spread into mainstream churches like the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian, where participants often called it a "charismatic" movement. (see also Index: Presbyterian churches)

Pentecostalism had its greatest success in the Caribbean, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa. There many prophetic movements erupted, in which Christians adopted emotional forms of worship and healing. Pentecostalism in these parts of the world was often the religion of the poor, bringing hope to people in nations that were emerging from colonialism. The Pentecostalists, building on the work done by missionaries a century earlier, were not often anti-American or anti-European, as some liberation movements were. In fact, they often accented "otherworldliness" and avoided politics or identified with conservative and even repressive regimes.

ii) Fundamentalism.

The second major movement, Fundamentalism, combined late 19th-century premillennialism with more or less rationalistic defenses of biblical inerrancy. It took its name from a sequence of tracts called The Fundamentals that were issued between 1910 and 1915 in the United States, and the movement became institutionalized in 1919 and 1920, as Fundamentalism became a formal and militant party in denominational conflict in the United States.

The most obvious causes for the rise of Fundamentalism were the spread of Darwinian evolutionary theory and its acceptance in the more liberal parts of the Protestant churches as well as the higher criticism of the Bible. Fundamentalists in the United States felt that these two movements were subverting seminaries, bureaus, mission boards, and pulpits in the northern branches of denominations like the Baptists and Presbyterians. The Scopes trial in 1925, in which the Fundamentalist champion William Jennings Bryan fought against the teaching of evolution in schools and defended the Genesis record as being scientific, coincided with the climactic denominational battles in those two churches.

The Fundamentalists tended to lose the political battles but survived with their own network of Bible colleges, radio programs, and publishing ventures. In the early 1940s they regrouped into several competitive Fundamentalist organizations that steadily gained followers, visibility, morale, and assertiveness. They prospered most when they moved from a generally passive political posture to open participation, particularly in support of Ronald Reagan's successful presidential bids in 1980 and 1984.

Groups like the Moral Majority, founded by Fundamentalist evangelist Jerry Falwell, demonstrated how effective the television ministry of the movement could be. The Fundamentalists concentrated political energies on opposition to abortion, support of an amendment that would permit prayer in public schools, and identification with the causes of Israel and a strong military defense budget.

iii) Evangelicalism.

The third movement is Evangelicalism. Focused for decades in the ministry of figures like evangelist Billy Graham and journals like Christianity Today, this conservative and evangelistic group tended to agree with Fundamentalism on cardinal doctrines: the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, and physical resurrection of Jesus. Most Evangelicals insisted on some version of biblical inerrancy, but gradually more and more scholars of the movement questioned whether that was the best way to assert faith in biblical authority. Nor did all agree with those Fundamentalists who stressed premillennialism.

Evangelicals, however, were more moderate than Fundamentalists; they agreed with the older-style Fundamentalists in substance but differed in style. They found Fundamentalists to be too negative about culture, too withdrawn into sects, too rude and blustery and judgmental. When Evangelicals formed the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942, they were attacked from the Fundamentalist right much as they attacked the mainstream moderates and liberals. Most of them preferred to see themselves not as well-mannered Fundamentalists but rather as perpetuators of the 19th-century Protestant mainstream.

To that end the Evangelicals increasingly reentered the world of cultural, social, and political engagement. Rather than build Bible schools, they concentrated on liberal arts colleges. Some Evangelicals even engaged in radical social programs and criticized conservative Protestantism's over-identification with militarism and unfettered capitalism. They also acquired considerable if slightly unpredictable political power in the United States and elsewhere.

Evangelicals also tended to be ecumenical; Billy Graham welcomed Catholic and mainstream Protestant leaders on his platforms, and he prayed with many kinds of Christians whom Fundamentalists would shun. Whereas Fundamentalists and Pentecostalists had counterparts in the Third World, Evangelicals tended to form international movements and hold conferences designed to bring Christians of many nations together.

While Fundamentalists usually split off into churches of their own, millions of Evangelicals remained connected to mainstream denominations and increasingly moved fully into the mainstream. But they always endeavoured to keep alive their doctrinal distinctiveness and their passion for witnessing to Christ.


Meanwhile, a certain reaction could be observed in the Protestant tradition of theology. This was partly due to a general doubt about European liberalism after World War I and particularly due, in its further development, to a reaction against attempts by the Nazis to use liberal theology for some of their views of society. (see also Index: theological liberalism)

In both the 19th and 20th centuries liberal theology met much criticism on the ground that it narrowed Christianity to the limits of what men believed themselves to be experiencing or turned what was objective truth into subjective feeling. Though himself no conservative, Kierkegaard was the most extreme of these critics. All the conservative theologians--including the earliest members of the Oxford Movement in England, the evangelical tradition generally, and those many who stood by the inerrant word of the Bible and in the 20th century came to be called by the name Fundamentalist--opposed the liberals on the same grounds. But in the 20th century there was a reaction even within the liberal camp. Beginning in 1918 a reaction against all theologies emphasizing religious experience was led by Karl Barth of Basel and Emil Brunner of Zürich. This theological movement, called Neoorthodoxy, widely influenced Protestant thinking in Europe and America. Barth and his disciples regarded their work as a reassertion of the true sovereignty of Scripture and as a return to the authentic principles of the Reformation. In America Reinhold Niebuhr was almost as influential in reacting against liberal Christian philosophies as they applied to society and to man. Yet that the questions the older theologians had sought to meet still remained was shown by the influence exerted by the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann of Marburg, who sought to "demythologize" the New Testament by discovering its core truths and thus allowing its significance for faith to be more fully disclosed. Refugees from Nazi Germany, such as Paul Tillich, interpreted European developments to Americans. (see also Index: United Kingdom, evangelical church)

The Neoorthodox synthesis did not outlast the generation of the giants who gave voice to it, and Protestant theology after the mid-1960s was in disarray. Europe lost its hegemony, though certain theologians, among them Jürgen Moltmann, began to take elements of Neoorthodoxy and combine them into variously described movements, such as "theology of hope," "political theology," "theology of revolution," or Protestant versions of "liberation theology." Espoused in the Third World by theologians who stressed witness to the fact that God sides with the oppressed and the poor or in the United States by feminists or black theologians who developed new interpretations of biblical and traditional texts, these theologies called into question what seemed to be the patriarchalism, elitism, and racism of much earlier academic theology.

Numerous movements adopting liberation theologies coexisted. In general they shared a tendency to particularize Protestant thought. One approach was to make much of cultural contexts. Thus, there was African or Asian, feminist or black theology. In all these cases interpretations were perceived as coloured by the "pre-understanding" people or groups brought to the reading of the texts. Another approach was to focus on "narrative theology" or "story theology" in an effort to move from abstract theology to concrete understandings centring on people. Finally, thanks to the rise of Pentecostalism and Fundamentalism, there developed across the Protestant spectrum fresh attention to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and to eschatology, the teaching about "the last things."


The ecumenical movement was in origin exclusively Protestant (though Eastern Orthodox leaders soon took part) and was at first largely dominated by Protestant thinking. Its origins lay principally in (1) the new speed of transport across the world and the movement of populations that mixed the denominations as never before; (2) the world reach of traditional denominations; (3) the variety of religion within the United States and the problems that such a variety created; and (4) the younger churches of Africa and Asia and their contempt for barriers raised by events of European history for which they felt no special concern. There was always a strong link with the missions, and an American Methodist missionary leader, John R. Mott, whose travels did as much as anything to transform the various ecumenical endeavours into a single organization, represented in his own person the harmony of missionary zeal with desire for Christian unity. A conference at Edinburgh in 1910, which marks the beginning of the movement proper, was a World Missionary Conference. From it sprang conferences on life and work (led by the Swedish Lutheran archbishop Nathan Söderblom), dealing with practical problems, as well as conferences on faith and order, at which theologians sought to examine their theological differences with sympathy. In the beginning Roman Catholics refused to participate; the Eastern Orthodox participated only through exiles in the Western dispersion; and the Nazi government refused to allow Germans to go far in participating. By the end of World War II in 1945 it was evident that there was a new atmosphere, and the World Council of Churches was formally constituted at the Amsterdam conference in 1948. The entire movement depended for most of its money and for part of its drive on the Americans; but its headquarters was in Geneva, and, under the guidance of its first General Secretary, Netherlands Reformed administrator W.A. Visser 't Hooft, it never lost sight of the fact that the traditional problems of divided Christian Europe had to be met if it was to succeed.

In the years after 1948 the ecumenical movement brought Protestants into an ever-growing dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. After John XXIII became pope in 1958, the Roman Catholics at last began to participate in the ecumenical movement. Although the definitions of the second Vatican Council (1962-65) were unacceptable to most Protestants, they had a breadth quite unlike the definitions of the first Vatican Council in 1870 and encouraged those (usually liberal) Protestants who hoped in time to lower this greatest of barriers raised by the 16th century.

For specific information on ecumenical efforts in the second half of the 20th century, see the entries on individual denominations below. 


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