A League of Leagues 2
By John Hooper
An Evangelical Response to Modernism
Part 2 – The Battle Abroad
Just as the rise of liberalism and higher critical views of the Bible was worldwide, so was the battle against it. Mention was made last time of a Bible League based in Melbourne Australia, but there were others too.
The American Bible League
In 1903 a graduate of Princeton College and Princeton Theological Seminary, Daniel Seelye Gregory, and a millionaire businessman, William Phillips Hall, joined forces to form an organisation in America dedicated to upholding the Word of God against the attacks made upon it by modernism, evolution, and higher criticism. It would be called The American Bible League. It received the support of a number of prominent theologians including Francis Patton and Benjamin Warfield of Princeton. At its first national convention, held in New York in May 1904, Seelye explained what the ABL stood for:
The American Bible League stands first, last and all the time for the Bible as the inspired Word of God, the only way of Life for lost sinners, and the only authoritative rule of Christian faith and conduct. It came into existence in recognition of the fact that the present death-grapple between faith and disbelief centres in the Bible and involves the question of Bible or no Bible. That determines its object, and its aim and method.1
The Convention was presided over and financed by William Phillips Hall. In his opening remarks he laid bare the root cause of the problem and the inevitable direction of travel in which it was taking churches:
Fascinated by a strange scholarship multitudes among the leaders in the Christian ministry and educational work have turned aside in large part from the faith which was delivered once for all to the saints, to worship at the shrine of a rationalistic criticism that destroys individual faith in the divine origin, integrity, inspiration and authority of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and that, sooner or later, logically and inevitably leads to the denial of the incarnation, omniscience, atonement and supreme authority of our Lord Jesus Christ.2>
And that, we should add, will lead only to a powerless gospel and empty churches. In December of the same year another convention was held, this time in Boston, at which one of the speakers was John Urquhart, first Secretary of the Bible League in London.
The Bible League of North America (BLNA), as it became known in 1907,3 was closely involved in the distribution of a well-known series of booklets on the fundamental doctrines of the Bible. Twelve in all, published over the period 1909-1915, they were called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. Their editor-in-chief was A. C. Dixon, a Baptist minister and conference speaker from North Carolina who in 1911 would come to London to be pastor of the Metropoliton Tabernacle. But as attention in evangelical circles became focussed on The Fundamentals rather than the BLNA’s own publications, the League found itself struggling financially. It fell into a decline from which it would never fully recover and what had begun with great bravado in 1903 had all but evaporated thirty years later.
The advance of liberalism and higher critical views of the Bible on foreign mission fields was a cause for deep and prayerful concern among evangelicals during the early years of the twentieth century. October 1922 saw a number of evangelicals leave the Church Missionary Society in response to a toleration of liberal views and opinions within its midst. This led to the formation of the Bible Churchman’s Missionary Society by, among others, Henry Wace, Dean of Canterbury, and Prebendary H. E. Fox, one time Secretary of the CMS and President of the Bible League. There was clearly a deep and growing concern for the state of the mission field at this time, with the situation in China being described in 1923 as a “crisis.”4> That year also saw the formation of the interdenominational Bible Missionary Trust as another attempt to halt the spread of modernism on the mission field.5
By 1920 the state of foreign missions was such that the Bible League felt compelled to act. It called on missionary organisations in the UK to give their “unqualified assurance that they do not and will not send out as Missionaries any who deny or doubt the Full Inspiration of the Bible.” Societies that gave such an assurance were listed in the Quarterly and by the April-June 1922 issue these numbered almost fifty organisations including the China Inland Mission, the Japan Evangelistic Band, and the Strict Baptist Mission.6 One notable absentee from the list was the Baptist Missionary Society, founded in 1792 by William Carey and others. This refusal of the BMS to take a public stand for the inspiration of Scripture led directly to the resignation of a handful of missionaries. Yes, just a handful. One of these, David T. Morgan serving in India, forwarded his letter of resignation to the Bible League for publication and at the same time announced his membership of the League. Morgan wrote,
It will be difficult for you to realise what this step means to us, but we believe that a failure to acknowledge the whole Bible as the Inspired Word of God must mean disloyalty to Jesus Christ, and we feel our resignation will be a protest against the withholding of the assurance asked for by the Bible League, and a testimony to our utter belief in our Lord Jesus Christ, Who declared Himself The Truth.7
Watkin R. Roberts, who in 1908 had gone to serve the Lord in India under the auspices of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Foreign Mission Society, estimated that of the 4,000 missionaries in India, Burma and Ceylon in the early 1920s, no more than half believed in the Bible as the inerrant and infallible Word of God. In 1922 the Bible League, in cooperation with four other sympathetic organisations, published Roberts’ pamphlet The Ravages of Higher Criticism in the Indian Mission Field. This gave an insight into the extent and deadly effects of higher critical views in theological colleges, educational institutions and Sunday Schools across India. I have not been able to track down a copy but Thomas Houghton, reviewing it for The Gospel Magazine, commented that it “clearly demonstrates that the evil teachings of the critics have … gained a firm foothold among missionaries of all denominations in India.”8 This had not happened overnight. Warnings had been issued many years previously and gone unheeded. The pamphlet provided something of a wake-up call and in the same year The Bible League of India, Burma and Ceylon was established with Roberts as one of its leaders.
India was by no means the first mission field to respond in this way. As early as 1906 the Japan Bible League had been established with a young American missionary named William J. Bishop as its first Secretary and Treasurer. Bishop described the JBL as “an extension of the work of the British Bible League and the American Bible League on the mission field,”9 and certainly the Japan Bible League enjoyed a close relationship with both organisations.
In 1920 the then President of the Japan Bible League, Paul Kanamori, spent six months visiting churches and theological seminaries in North America, speaking to them of “the baneful influence” the new theology was having on the churches in Japan. Having come under that influence himself as a young minister, Kanamori knew what he was talking about. Drawn away from the gospel by liberal teachers he eventually left the ministry and only returned many years later “by extraordinarily kind Providence.” He tells us in his autobiography that higher criticism had destroyed his faith in the perfect, divine authority of the Bible and in the deity of Christ. “When I had lost these two things I had lost everything. I could not preach Christ alone, and him crucified… I thought if social reform and moral uplift are the only work of the Christian ministry, and not the salvation of souls by the blood of Christ, there is no need for my staying in it any longer.”10
Among the seminaries Kanamori visited in 1920 was Princeton, and while there he gave a short but riveting address to the faculty and students. He described to them how liberal theology and higher criticism were sapping the life of the church. “It has shaken the faith of many of our ministers and pastors.”
Some say, “All right, we may let go of all but the essentials of what we used to call Christianity. If we hold on to the essentials that is enough.” I say, “what is essential?” … when you come to my country, to a heathen country like Japan, can you hold on to the so-called essentials when you have surrendered the Bible as the Word of God and Jesus as the Divine Son of God? … You cannot win them by teaching that Jesus was simply human. … I hope that Christianity in its purity and simplicity, teaching the absolute authority of the Holy Scriptures, absolute deity of our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of his saving blood, will be brought to Japan. I hope that Princeton Theological Seminary will ever be loyal to this evangelistic faith.11
Did he know that the rot had already set in at Princeton? Before the end of the decade it would capitulate entirely to the new theology and suffer its deadening effects.
Also in 1920 the Bible Union of China was formed by conservative missionaries associated with such bodies as the China Inland Mission and the Southern Presbyterian Mission. The early years of the twentieth century had seen a huge influx of Protestant missionaries to China, 450 in 1920 alone, but many of them had been “nurtured in liberal theology and the social gospel in North American colleges and Seminaries. When entering the field, they brought these liberal ideas with them.”12 The Bible Union of China was the conservative response to the liberal challenge, with the Anglican W. H. Griffith Thomas and Jonathan Goforth, a Canadian Presbyterian missionary, among its earliest supporters. In a famous lecture entitled Modernism in China, given in Philadelphia in January 1921 and later published, Griffith Thomas quotes a Methodist minister as reporting that in the city of Canton “there is not a single missionary out of about two hundred who have their headquarters there, set apart for purely evangelistic work in the city itself.” Thomas notes that “evangelism was being set aside by purely secular educational work.”13 Later in the lecture he reports a leading missionary as finding “much in Confucianism which we Christians can preserve and use.”14 These quotes are necessarily few and brief but they give a flavour of the state of missions in China at that time. Against this backdrop the stated purpose of the Union was to maintain
the fundamental and saving truths revealed in the Bible, especially those now being assailed, such as, the Deity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, His Virgin Birth, His Atoning Sacrifice for Sin, and His Bodily Resurrection from the Dead; the Miracles both of the Old and New Testament … 15
To say that the battle lines of the 1920s were drawn between theological liberals and conservatives is to oversimplify the case. On both sides there were shades of opinion, and the conservative side was not without its divisions. For some fundamentalists in China the Bible Union was simply not militant enough so they formed a separate organisation, calling it The Fundamentals League of China. This sought to be less compromising and more aggressive than the Union in its methods.
In the UK too the anti-modernist cause was divided. In the 1920s the Bible League was the cause of some disquiet among more ‘moderate’ evangelicals. In particular there was one characteristic of the League that provoked criticism. It appears in a short article in the July-Sept. 1924 issue of the Quarterly. Written by one W. M. Robertson it is entitled ‘Shall we Mention Names?’ Robertson describes as a “fatal fallacy” the idea that one should not mention the names of those who “poison the food” of the people of God. What men say in private correspondence is rightly to be treated in confidence, “but when men proclaim in public utterances and printed articles doctrines that are subversive of true Christianity, it is necessary if the refutation is to be effective, that their names be made known… [I]f men put their names to articles which are clearly opposed to the Word of God, it is not only legitimate to name them, it is our duty to do so.”16 Hence men like A. S. Peake and T. R. Glover were openly named and their works critiqued at Bible League meetings and in the pages of the Quarterly.
The criticism vented against the League for its stand on this issue was sharp. While explaining that he does not write to justify or excuse “un-Christian tempers,” Robertson concludes his short article by expressing the hope that “the utterly unfair and petty clamours now being raised against men, who in all sincerity and Christian love, though compassed with our common infirmity, are nobly standing for God against the enemies of the truth” might be allayed.17
In December 1923 a number of leading evangelicals, including the Anglican J. Russell Howden and Baptist Dr. Graham Scroggie, launched an alternative organisation which they called the Fraternal Union for Bible Testimony, later renamed the Bible Testimony Fellowship (BTF). Like the Bible League, its raison d’être would be the rejection of modernism and the reassertion of the Divine inspiration and authority of the Bible as the Word of God, but the language would be softer, less confrontational, less militant.
The BTF, with support drawn from across the spectrum of Protestant denominations including Methodist, Congregational, Baptist, Brethren and Salvation Army, as well as from the State Church, was presided over for its first twenty years by Edwin A. Carter. Carter was a Baptist minister who had trained under Spurgeon in the Pastor’s College and possessed a great heart for evangelism. The BTF’s aim, as summarised in Carter’s own words in 1933, was
… to gather together those who believe in the full inspiration of the Bible, and in the great evangelical truths, in order to create a great witness before the world, and, depending upon the blessing of God, to arouse the nations to a realisation of the value of the Bible and to the reverence due to it as the Word of God.18
In its first year the BTF attracted over 4500 members and was supported by some well-known evangelical periodicals of the day such as The Christian Herald, The English Churchman, The Christian, and The Life of Faith. But one thing made clear from the outset was that in the BTF there would be no personal criticism of individual modernists or their works. In 1923 E. G. Ingham, Bishop of Sierra Leone, publicly stated on behalf of the BTF, “We have not come to speak evil of the men or the books, or the assured findings so called.”19 This approach was confirmed the following year when Carter announced that the BTF existed “as a Union of all Evangelicals of the Christian Church to affirm our belief in the full inspiration of the Bible and its evangelical teaching. This, NOT attacks upon individuals or societies, is our special feature.”2021 But in the Lord’s goodness and grace He has seen fit to sustain this Bible League throughout its 125 year history to the present day. In many ways the Bible League Trust we know and love today is a rather different organisation from that of a century or so ago. That was some decades before the restoration of the Reformed faith, beginning in the late 1950s. Generally speaking the conservatism of the Bible League and its sister organisations across the world was of the fundamentalist, dispensational, ‘victorious Christian life,’ Keswick holiness kind of evangelicalism, drawn from across the spectrum of protestant denominations. The various statements of faith and purpose they published focussed on the great issues of the day, issues that struck at the very heart of the gospel and the gospel ministry and that have never gone away. Battles over Bible translation, ecumenism, charismatic signs and contemporary worship would be for future generations to fight. Writing in 1917 Fuller Gooch had observed that the Bible League “does not uphold a popular cause,” and that was at a time when the subject of the Divine inspiration of the Scriptures would fill to overflowing the great public meeting places of the day, such as the Royal Albert Hall, the Free Trade Hall in Manchester and the Colston Hall in Bristol. Still today, it has to be said, as the battle-lines have moved and other issues have needed to be addressed, the cause of the Bible League Trust is not a popular one.
It also goes without saying that the League is a much smaller organisation than it was then. No longer is it able to sponsor 400 meetings over the course of a single year, but its objective remains the same: “To promote the reverent study of the Holy Scriptures and to resist the varied attacks upon their inspiration, infallibility and sole sufficiency as the Word of God.” That inspired, infallible Word remains unchanged throughout all generations regardless of the harm that learned but proud and arrogant men may seek to inflict upon it. Still it has its ancient power to deliver from the thraldom of sin and bring light and life and everlasting joy to sinners. The text on the front cover of old issues of the Quarterly was a constant reminder of this to readers: “The word of the Lord endureth for ever” (I Peter 1:25). With the nation today giving the Word of God little acknowledgment except to undermine and mock it, and the churches paying only lip service to its authority, believers may be inclined to feel downhearted. The battle seems all but lost. Perhaps the time has come to reinstate that stirring text to encourage and embolden God’s people. The battle is the Lord’s and the Bible remains unharmed, and that is because He preserves His own Word.
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to the Chairman of the Bible League Trust, Rev. Malcolm Watts, and the Secretary, Mrs. Ruth Ward, for the access they have given me to early editions of the Quarterly.
1. Bible or No Bible: Report of the First Convention of The American Bible League, 1904; pp. 5-6.
2. Ibid. p. 4.
3. Two years later The Bible League of Canada split off to become an independent organisation under the leadership of William MacLaren of Knox College, Toronto.
4. BLQ Apr – June 1923, p. 89.
5. Ibid. p. 90.
6. BLQ Apr-Jun 1922, p. 70.
7. BLQ Jan-March 1923, p. 38.
8. The Gospel Magazine, May 1923, p. 194.
9. The Christian Movement in Japan, Fifth Annual Issue, 1907; p. 208.
10. Kanamori’s Life-Story Told by Himself: How the Higher Criticism Wrecked a Japanese Christian – And How He Came Back; 1921 (reprinted by Forgotten Books, 2012), p. 38-40.
11. The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, 1920, p. 11.
12. Kevin Xiyi Yao, The Fundamentalist Movement Among Protestant Missionaries in China, 1920-1937, p. 41.
13. W H Griffith Thomas, Modernism in China, Princeton Theological Review, 1921, p. 640-41.
14. Ibid. p. 656.
15. Ibid. p. 635.
16. BLQ July – Sept 1924, pp. 144-5.
17. BLQ Jul – Sept 1924, p. 145.
18. Holding Forth the Word, The Addresses delivered at the Great Demonstration … in support of the full Inspiration of the Bible, at the Royal Albert Hall, on December 6th, 1932; pp. 26-27.
19. Faith’s Foundations, The Addresses delivered at the Great Demonstration … on December 4th, 1923; p. 10.
20. The Facts of our Faith, The Addresses delivered at the Great Demonstration … on December 2nd, 1924; p. 4.
21. Modern organisations such as Bible League International, the American Bible League, and the Bible League of Canada are unconnected with those we have been considering in these articles.