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4. Modern Faith

The world's awry, undone!
What though the right should triumph in the strife,
Who can restore our fallen youth to life;
Waken the joy of our lost happiness;

The Wayfarer, 1919

One year after the end of World War One, a religious drama opened in New York City that attracted full audiences for weeks. In its opening scene a solitary wanderer stands amidst the ruins of a Belgian city, resisting the temptation of Despair to abandon all hope in man. Led to the foot of Christ's cross at the drama's conclusion, the "Wayfarer" embraces a renewed faith in traditional Christianity. Other spiritual searchers refashioned their creeds for modern times; some pursued new religions or no religion.

Collected commentary on modern faith PDF file

In its myriad forms, the search for "modern faith" in the Twenties reflected two concurrent drives—the need to affirm human goodness, hope, and salvation after the apocalyptic world war, and the struggle to accommodate modernity with traditional and revered belief systems. Whether man's "soul" was god-given or a psychological construct, it called for sustenance. "Can humanity stand the universe without its supernatural?" inquired a Protestant minister. "I do not know."

How Americans addressed this question is sampled in the commentary excerpted here. What was required of a "modern faith" in the 1920s? Would it abandon traditional belief? If it denied a deity, would it still be "faith"? For a broader perspective, combine these selections with the resources in Science & Religion. Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. (9  pp.)

Discussion Questions

  1. Which two of the following were major components of the search for "modern faith" in the 1920s? [Answer]
    1. striving for a global religion with a central set of tenets
    2. incorporating modern science with traditional belief
    3. dealing with postwar disillusion in man and his civilization
    4. meeting theological challenges of nonwestern religions
  2. What changes in religious faith and practice did the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd identify in Muncie, Indiana (Middletown)? What community activities were partially replacing religious activity? What increasingly secular attitudes were evident among the residents?
  3. Complete the following chart to organize the collected commentary on "modern faith" in the 1920s. Several cells are completed.
    (roughly, from
    fundamentalist to modernist)
    on "modern faith"
    in the 1920s
    to spiritual seekers
    on Fundamentalist-Modernist divide (if expressed)
    * W. B. Riley       No reconciliation is possible.
    * J. G. Machen         
    * Clarence Macartney    Modernist Christianity will abandon God and Christ.   
    * J. E. Crowther         
    * E. D. Martin    Some professional evangelists do not offer a lasting revival of faith.   
    * Shailer Mathews         
    * H. E. Fosdick         
    * Reinhold Niebuhr         
    W. G. Shepherd Modern man is searching for a new anchor for faith.      
    Walter Lippmann    Unbelievers must deal with the consequences of unbelief.   
  4. Using the chart to identify main themes, summarize three to four main characteristics of the spiritual strivings of the 1920s.
  5. Which characteristics were prevalent in poetry and fiction works of the 1920s, especially T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) and his later Journey of the Magi (1927), published after his baptism in the Anglican Church?
  6. Which characteristics are prevalent today? Why?
  7. How did many Christian Protestants strive to modernize traditional Christianity?
  8. Why did many Christian Protestants, including but not restricted to Fundamentalists, oppose the modernizing trends?
  9. Was there a middle ground allowing compromise in this conflict? Compare the opinions of Reinhold Niebuhr and William Bell Riley, both Christian clergymen.
  10. What was the main disagreement between the two Presbyterian ministers, Harry Emerson Fosdick and Clarence Macartney, on the modernist directions in Christianity?
  11. What did Fosdick mean by recommending an "intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty-loving" church? How did Reinhold Niebuhr agree with him?
  12. What did Macartney identify as the "menace of the rationalistic and modernist movement" in Protestant Christianity? How did Reinhold Niebuhr agree with him?
  13. How could Niebuhr agree with both men? Explain Niebuhr's position on the Fundamentalist-Modernist divide.
  14. According to Everett Dean Martin, why were "professional evangelists" of the 1920s failing to stir long-lasting religious commitment in their audiences?
  15. What did Martin predict for life in the modern industrial world "without the consolations of religion"?
  16. Similarly, what did Niebuhr predict for modern man if he became "emancipated from every kind of religious discipline"?
  17. How did Walter Lippmann, a layman, agree with Martin, Niebuhr, and other clergymen about the loss of traditional religion? What did man need to create in its stead to remain human and rooted?
  18. What did Lippmann present, in A Preface to Morals, as an ethical and cultural scaffold for living without traditional religion or faith in a deity?
  19. How did Shailer Mathews, a modernist theologian, reply to Lippmann's Preface? Why did he conclude that "we have the religion for which he looks in actual operation"?
  20. How did Christian churches fail the modern believer, according to Niebuhr and other clergymen?
  21. How did Niebuhr describe the "tragic state of religion in modern life"? What did he recommend to create a "more heroic type of religion"?
  22. What balance of reason and faith did Niebuhr encourage? Why did an excess of either endanger man and his civilization?
  23. How would conservative clergymen like Machen and Riley have responded to the recommendations of Niebuhr and other modernist clergymen?
  24. Explain the paradox of modern man's search for faith as elucidated by Niebuhr and Lippmann, i.e., that modern man can't live with religion, and can't live without it.
  25. Create a brief overview of the search for "modern faith" in the 1920s that reflects the broad range of spiritual searching. Begin with one of these statements from the resources in this section.

Framing Questions

  • How was modernity defined in the Twenties? What did "becoming modern" mean to the nation as a whole? to people in their personal lives?
  • What aspects of modernity were welcomed, resisted, or unrecognized in the Twenties? Why?
  • How were the social and political divisions of the period reflected in the debates over modernity?
  • In what ways is the decade's experience with modernity familiar and resonant today?


Collected commentary on modern faith
9 pp.

Supplemental Sites

The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy (Wikipedia)

Christianity Today, 1997 issue on Fundamentalism and the Scopes Trial

J. E. Crowther, The Wayfarer, religious drama, 1919, full text (Hathi Trust Digital library)

Author overviews Primary sources in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York).

– Trinity Church and graveyard, New York City, photograph, ca. 1916 (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-127224.
– James Edwin Crowther, The Wayfarer, Presented by the Interchurch World Movement of North America; adapted and produced by Laurence H. Rich, from the original production at Columbus, Ohio, June 28th - July 13th, 1919, religious drama, 1919, p. 3 (detail). Digital image courtesy of the Hathi Trust Digital Library.
– Cartoon (detail), Life, November 4, 1920. Current copyright holder of Life (1886-1933) unidentified; search in process.
– Photograph of Reinhold Niebuhr, ca. 1912, detail of photograph of Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr and others. Elmhurst College (Elmhurst, Illinois), Rudolf G. Schade Archives, Niebuhr Family Papers #2001-39, Box 4 folder 8. Reproduced by permission.
– Photograph of Harry Emerson Fosdick, n.d. Courtesy of the New York Public Library. Digital ID 97363.
– Photograph of Walter Lippmann, n.d. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-hec-21695.

Answer to discussion question #1: b, c.  

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