When Free Will Baptists Went Liberal (Part II)

In Part I, we began examining the Free Baptists’ relationship to Higher Criticism, particularly through Alfred Williams Anthony’s writings. In this piece, we’ll consider the influence of Higher Criticism at Bates College and Cobb Divinity School, as well as the Free Baptists’ interest in the Ecumenical Movement. This exploration will us a clear understanding of the theological status of key Free Baptist leaders and institutions in the early-twentieth century.

Bates College and Cobb Divinity School

From the very beginning of the twentieth century, Bates College and Cobb Divinity School seemingly had a close relationship with the University of Chicago, one of the leading proponents of Protestant liberal theology in America. Bates and Cobb were among the foremost Free Baptist educational institutions at the time. Daniel C. Goodwin notes, “Bates College and Cobb Divinity School had a close relationship with the University of Chicago, as professors and former students often went to Chicago to teach and study.”[1]

In fact, some of the leading faculty members at the University of Chicago Divinity School lectured at Bates and Cobb; examples include Shailer Mathews and Shirley Jackson Case.[2] The Minister’s Institute, operated by Cobb, invited Mathews to lecture in 1900 after he had already assumed his role as professor at Chicago. Through the examples of Case and Mathews, we can see the close ties between the Free Baptists at Bates, Cobb, and Chicago, and their mutual interest in Higher Criticism.

In 1907, Case delivered “The Historical Method in the Study of Religion” on the occasion of his inauguration into the professorship of the Philosophy and History of Religion at Bates College and Cobb Divinity School. This address bore the marks of the higher critical method, and it demonstrates unequivocally certain Free Baptists’ openness to Higher Criticism.[3] The order of service appended to the published version of Case’s address indicates that George C. Chase, President of Bates College and Cobb Divinity, and faculty, attended the address.

In the address, Case mapped out his understanding of the relationship between history and religion, which served as the basis for his class lectures.[4] In fact, Case’s inaugural address seems to set the trajectory for his work as one of America’s foremost Protestant liberals. Case’s methodology was key to what became known as the “Chicago School” of thought.

Case was not simply concerned with understanding and explaining the social and historical setting of early Christianity, though. Gary Dorrien notes that his thesis is much more radical: “Case and [Shailer] Mathews pressed the more radically social thesis that Christianity is nothing but the name for a particular phase of social existence. It is a problem of social adjustment that is best understood as the sociohistorical experience of Christian communities.”[5] Dorrien’s claim corresponds with Case’s definition of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Case defines religion as “the God-ward consciousness of the human race, the soul’s sense of its relation to deity.”[6] Case thus understood Christianity as merely another expression of the human soul’s “God-ward consciousness.”

Early in his address, Case contended, “The noble Christian conception of God, and the Christian struggle to attain unity of will with the Father, seem a great distance removed from the faith of the savage . . . but in germ the intelligent attitude of the Christian and the blind groping of the primitive man are one.”[7] The driving purpose of the historical method, when applied to religion, is to ascertain religious truth and discard all other creeds and traditions. In Case’s words, “The historical method seeks to set aside all blinding prejudices and to look with steady eye upon the religious truth of the ages. . . . [I]t stands ready to follow the light—it loves the light rather than the darkness even though to walk in the light requires the sacrifice of some of its long-cherished opinions.”[8]

Case then explained how the historical method is appropriately applied to the Bible. Before doing so, he confessed his awareness of the implications of applying the historical method to the Bible, as well as the critiques that would come with so doing: “When one approaches the Bible from this point of view he is apt to be dubbed a ‘higher critic,’ and that is an opprobrious epithet often thought to be almost coterminous with infidel.”[9]

Case was not concerned with labels. He aimed to arrive at social, historical, and religious truth. Therefore, he proposed that his students ask questions of the Bible: “How did this book come into being?” “When and why were they written?” and, “What were the grounds on which certain books were chosen as authoritative, and how and when did this idea come into being?”[10] Case openly admitted that answers to such questions might radically alter traditional Christian doctrine, including, but not limited to, verbal inspiration.

The radical alteration of Christian doctrine, however, would not hinder Case from applying the historical method to the Bible and teaching his students to do the same: “The historical student has great respect for the Bible but he does not treat it as a fetish. He worships the God whose truth it reveals, and recognizes that the sacred word is not the author of religion but rather is one of its products.”[11] Dorrien helpfully summarizes Case’s overall approach: “Case was a straightforward sociohistoricist who insisted that history is the golden key to unlocking whatever is worth knowing about religion.”[12] For Case, the historical method properly applied to the Bible—not the Bible itself—will lead mankind towards religious truth.

Case’s inaugural address is informative and seemingly indicative of the theological environment at Bates College and Cobb Divinity School in 1907. As noted above, school President George C. Chase introduced Case, and many of the faculty were present for the address. If the school was thoroughly orthodox, Case would likely have concealed his views. Furthermore, if the school’s faculty and administration were opposed to the methods of Higher Criticism, we might expect that Case would have been immediately relieved of his teaching duties or at least would have been asked to immediately cease teaching the methods of Higher Criticism.[13]

However, neither of these things occurred.[14] Instead, the address was published, which would appear to be an open endorsement of its contents—it certainly was not a condemnation of them.

 Free Baptist Ecumenism

Free Baptist and other Baptist leaders were among the earliest Protestants involved in the ecumenical movement, which grew rapidly among Protestant liberals in the early twentieth century. At the 1905 meeting of the Council of Churches in New York, the Free Baptist committee of twelve met with the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Disciples of Christ about the possibility of uniting with them.[15]

In 1924, Alfred Williams Anthony delighted in the growth of the ecumenical movement and Free Baptist involvement in it. There was deep interest in the ecumenical movement not only among Free Baptist leaders such as Anthony, but also among each group that the Free Baptists considered uniting with were also involved in the growing ecumenical movement—a movement guided by a distinct approach to theology.

To describe the spirit, members, and leaders of the ecumenical movement in the early-twentieth century would be difficult. “Ardent social gospelers,” such as Shailer Matthews, Harry F. Ward, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch, led the Federal Council of Churches, which officially formed in 1908.[16] Dorrien notes, “The early Federal Council functioned, in effect, as a kind of laboratory for social gospel ideas that infiltrated the churches and seminaries. It placed divisive Christian doctrines off-limits and sought to advance social goals.”[17] Dorrien’s description of the Federal Council and its placing “divisive Christian doctrines off-limits” accurately describes not only the Federal Council but also the spirit of denominational unity that undergirded the Free Baptist merger with the Northern Baptists.

The ecumenism of the twentieth century would not have been possible without minimizing divisive Christian doctrine. The merger between the Northern Baptists and the Free Baptists was possible primarily because many Free Baptist and Northern Baptist leaders had embraced the growing ecumenical spirit of the age—a spirit rooted in doctrinal minimization for the purpose of advancing a social version of Christianity throughout the world.

Free Baptist leaders must have been aware that Mathews, a key leader among the Northern Baptists and the Federal Council, was diametrically opposed to many classical Protestant doctrines. Free Baptist leaders must have known prior to 1911 that Federal Council leaders such as Rauschenbusch, a German Baptist theologian and professor, had sought to redefine, or as Rauschenbusch believed, rediscover the “Social Gospel.”

By joining the ecumenical movement and uniting with the Northern Baptist Convention, Free Baptist leaders placed themselves, their schools, and many Free Baptist churches in the Protestant liberal stream of Mathews and Rauschenbusch.


 An estimated six hundred Free Baptist churches, as well as all colleges, theological schools, and missions agencies, merged with the Northern Baptist Convention on or after 1911. Some annual meetings and local associations refused to partake in the merger.[18] The majority of Free Baptist churches, however, were brought into the Northern Baptist Convention. While some conservative theologians and historians have lamented the institutional losses, they have not adequately addressed the growing theological liberalism among key Free Baptist leaders.

A failure to account for this growing trend towards Protestant liberalism and the liberal theology being taught to future Free Baptist ministers tends to sentimentalize how the future might have been had the churches and schools been retained. Had the Free Baptists continued to exist as an individual entity, they may have endured a Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy similar to that of the Presbyterians a little over a decade later. An honest assessment of the theological state of the Free Baptists in the early-twentieth century eschews such sentimentality in favor of a more chastened realism.


[1] Daniel C. Goodwin, “The Formation of a Public Intellectual: Wilfred Currier Keirstead, Christian Personalism, and Modernity,” in Baptists and Public Life in Canada, eds. Gordon L. Heath and Paul R. Wilson, vol. 1, Canadien Baptist Historical Society Series (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 121.

[2] Shirley Jackson Case was raised in a Free Baptist family in New Brunswick, Canada. He was educated at Acadia University prior to completing his B.D. and Ph.D. at Yale University. Case taught history at Bates and Cobb from 1906 to 1908. In 1908, he joined Mathews at Chicago where he initially taught New Testament, eventually serving as the Church History Department chair.

[3] Shirley Jackson Case, “The Historical Method in the Study of Religion” (Lewiston, ME: Press of the Lewiston Journal, 1907).

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 196.

[6] Case, 5.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 10.

[9] Ibid., 11.

[10] Ibid., 12-13.

[11] Ibid., 13.

[12] Dorrien, 195.

[13] An example of this is seen in how the leaders of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary dealt with Crawford Toy, who had embraced and taught higher criticism, just a few years before. Toy was instructed to stop teaching higher criticism, and when he did not, he was forced to leave the seminary. See Gregory Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford University Press, USA, 2009).

[14] Case did accept an offer the following year to teach at the more prestigious Chicago Divinity School at the invitation of Shailer Mathews.

[15]Alfred Williams Anthony, “Twenty Years After: The Story of the Union of Baptists and Free Baptists During the Period of Negotiation and Realization, 1904-1924,” Reprint from Christian Work (October 18, 1924), 3.

[16] Dorrien, 107.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Southern Illinois Free Baptists “emphatically” denounced “the union movement through its paper, and by the utterances of it leaders.” “Free Baptists in other states who” were “dissatisfied with the union movement to discredit it amongst their brethren” apparently joined them. Alfred Williams Anthony, “Getting Together: Baptists and Free Baptists for Two Years” (Lewiston, ME: American Baptist Publication Society, 1913), 9-10.

Furthermore, the state associations and yearly meetings voted against the “Basis of Union”: Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Nebraska, Northern Kansas, and Southeastern Missouri. Pennsylvania was non-committal. The Committee on Conference with Other Christian People, The General Conference of Free Baptists: Information Respecting the Action of the General Conference in Regard to the Union the Baptists and Free Baptists in Missionary Work and In Other Denominational Exercises (Lewiston, ME, 1910), 6-7. For more on opposition to the merger see Robert E. Picirilli, Little Known Chapters in Free Will Baptist History (Nashville, TN: Randall House, 2015).

Author: Jesse Owens

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