A League of Leagues
By John Hooper
An Evangelical Response to Modernism
John Hooper, Saltash
This year marks the 125th anniversary of the Bible League. We are very thankful to Mr. Hooper, a valued supporter of the League, for this two-part history of the way our society came into being. – Ed
Part 1 – The Battle at Home
The “New Theology”
By the early part of the twentieth century the Word of God had been under fierce attack for the nearly a hundred years from what had come to be known as liberalism, also known as modernism or the New Theology.1 Finding its roots in Germany with the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, liberalism abandoned the faith once delivered to the saints, including crucially, the Divine inspiration of the Scriptures. Now, having become subject to a destructive “higher criticism,” the Bible was regarded by many as a work of human authorship, limited by the times and cultures of the writers, and therefore without Divine authority. Believers were taught that human reason, experience and feelings were to judge the Scriptures rather than being made subject to them, and any doctrines considered irrelevant to human experience, such as the Trinity, the virgin birth or the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, were at least left open to question and doubt, or at worst denied outright. At the same time the doctrine of creation and the literal acceptance of the early chapters of Genesis were challenged as never before by Darwin’s theory of Evolution.
As theological colleges adopted these new views and students were taught to think and preach in these terms, the effect on churches, Sunday schools, evangelism, and missionary organisations was devastating. Preachers of truth were supplanted by pedlars of doubt and denial, and the faith of many would be overthrown. In no part of the world were the church and her work to remain untouched.
In Great Britain the year 1919 saw a major step forward in the advance of modernism with the publication of A.S. Peake’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible, a work described at the time by Dr. Graham Scroggie as “sodden with infidelity.” Peake was a Methodist layman, the son of a Primitive Methodist minister, whose name would probably never have come down to us had it not been for this infamous book. Drawing together contributions from over sixty modernist theologians, it worked from the premise that the Bible is no more than “the greatest human achievement.” Concerning the Saviour the commentary states, “We cannot claim infallibility for him on questions of history, such as the authorship of the Old Testament books, or the problems of Science … He was one who knew little if anything of Greek philosophy, of Roman law, and nothing of the vast accumulation of knowledge which has been garnered and systematised since His day.”2 The 1923 General Methodist Conference made Peake’s Commentary required reading for all its probationary ministers.
There was a concerted effort to get this new teaching – we would do better to call it poison – into the minds of children so the commentary was strongly promoted for the guidance and instruction of Sunday School teachers. Professor S.W. Green of Regent’s Park College, the main centre for the training of Baptist Union ministers, enthused: “Hundreds of our best Sunday School workers are eagerly drinking in the changed conceptions of the Bible literature, of the nature of its revelation, of the manner of its inspiration.” 3
But we are to be thankful to the Lord that He raised up many who would not be deceived but would put up a faithful and doughty resistance to it for the truth’s sake. One such response, just a few months after the death of C.H. Spurgeon in 1892, 125 years ago, was the founding of the Bible League. This was followed by the emergence of Bible League auxiliaries and similar organisations in other parts of the world, as we will see. Whether this British Bible League can claim to be the first of its kind is doubtful, as I have found reference to a Bible League operating on similar principles and fighting to have Bibles placed in schools in Melbourne, Australia as early as 1882. 4
Defending the faith
The Bible League was formed by a number of concerned ministers and laymen with the purpose of promoting “the reverent study of the Holy Scriptures” and resisting “the varied attacks upon their inspiration, infallibility and sole sufficiency as the Word of God.” All the men had been contemporaries of Spurgeon, having fought alongside him in the battles of the Downgrade.
The League’s inaugural meeting was held in the Council Chamber of Exeter Hall, London, on 3rd May 1892. It was presided over by General Sir Robert Phayre. Phayre had had a distinguished and highly decorated career in the British Army and it was while serving in Afghanistan during the First Afghan War of 1840-43 that he was called by grace. After retirement Phayre gave his time and energy to the cause of the Gospel, actively supporting the many evangelical and Protestant societies of his day. He became closely involved with the commencement of the Bible League and was elected one of its several vice-presidents.
Nineteen men were elected to the League’s first council with W.H. Seagram, a familiar figure on the platform of evangelical meetings in London, as its first President. One present, William Fuller Gooch, minister of Lansdowne Hall, West Norwood, later recalled:
I remember well that though the numbers were but few, there was a spirit of prayer and of deep humiliation before God, and a note of sincerest conviction that the time had come when something should be done to withstand the attacks which the Higher Criticism at that time was making on the veracity of the Holy Scriptures. That was a meeting deeply suffused by the Spirit of God, and out of that little gathering in a room dear to the memory of many of us here today, sprang an effort in which, we rejoice to know, there has been constant evidence that God has been sustaining it.5
In a letter, evidently written some time later, Gooch explained the principles on which the Bible League was to base its methods:
We do not exist either simply or mainly for the purpose of controversy or conflict with the ‘higher’ criticism and its allies. While one great purpose of our organisation is to expose and to resist the varied attacks made upon the inspiration and infallibility of the Holy Scriptures, it is by no means the only purpose. We hold strongly that controversy is of no avail in the service of truth, unless pre-eminently spiritual in its nature and methods. Mere argument or pugilistic attack, avails nothing in the warfare of faith – they are not parts of the panoply of God. The Spirit of Christ, both in the objective and subjective sense, must be in those who take the position of defenders of the faith; otherwise their very advocacy of the truth may be turned into a hurtful channel, and become destructive, rather than helpful, to the cause espoused. We are desirous of being understood to exist as a League wholly for spiritual purposes and to be bent on using none but spiritual means for their accomplishment. We do not attack men, but false principles, and erroneous teaching adopted and promulgated by them; and we do this, not in the spirit of antagonism or ill-will, but of love and jealous concern for the Word and work of God. 6
The words of the inspired apostle Paul could not have been far from the writer’s mind, “though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds” (2 Corinthians 10:3,4). The fact that there were “good men” in the opposing camp was regrettable, but it did not deter the League’s members from the battle.
It is a source of deep sorrow to us that in the prosecution of our work we are often constrained to place ourselves in opposition to some whom, apart from their lamentable attitude to the Book of God, we respect and admire. Their position in relation to the destructive criticism of Old and New Testament alike, is to us, a matter of wonder and surprise; and to have to point out the inconsistency and dangerous effect of their position is a real cause of sadness and regret. That we are placed hors de combat on such points with them is a matter of necessity, not of choice. 7
Early officers of the League
Documentary evidence of the earliest years of the Bible League is scanty, so it is not always possible to give precise dates. However, from the Minute Books we learn that the first Secretary was John Urquhart, a Baptist minister originally from Scotland but by this time serving in Weston-Super-Mare. He was followed by John Tuckwell of Westbourne Grove Baptist Chapel in Notting Hill, and then by Fuller Gooch. In 1912 the Council called on Prebendary H.E. Fox to take over as Honorary Secretary but his tenure was brief because within two years he succeeded W.H. Seagram as President, the office in which he remained until his death in 1926. Fox’s successor as Hon. Secretary was Robert Wright Hay, minister of Talbot Tabernacle, also in Notting Hill. Mr. Wright Hay occupied that position into the 1930s.8 Another name closely associated with the early days of the League was that of Arthur H. Carter. The first minute book, dating from 12th February 1892 to 23rd April 1908, is written in his hand and three months later, when the League was formally inaugurated, Carter is named as Assistant Secretary, a position in which he remained until May 1911.
By 1902 the list of Vice-Presidents had grown to twenty-two. Among them were Anglicans such as the Bishop Handley Moule of Durham, Henry Wace the Dean of Canterbury, and the head of the evangelical party in the Church of England, Preb. W.H. Webb-Peploe. Also listed were W.H. Griffith Thomas, who would be active in battles against modernist ideas in China, Charles Spurgeon junior, and Dinsdale T. Young, who later would become Superintendent Minister of the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster. By 1914 this list would reach thirty, as would also the League’s Council. Clearly, the Bible League commanded broad support among leading evangelicals of the time, from both Anglican and non-conformist churches.
One reason why the early history of the League is so difficult to piece together is that many of its early publications have not survived, though it is clear that a large number were published. Many of these were originally articles in the Quarterly. A list printed in the April-June 1924 issue advertises no fewer than 83 publications ranging in price from ½d to 3/6.9 Four years later this list had grown to 130 titles.10 The Quarterly itself sold for 6d. Brief reference is also made to a Bible League annual,11 though none have come to hand as yet.
It is difficult to say with certainty when publication of the Quarterly began, though by counting back the numbers and assuming it was always a quarterly magazine we arrive at a date around 1902. The earliest issues I have been able to track down date from 1913 and are held in the library of the Wales Evangelical School of Theology at Bryntirion. These are likely to be copies donated by the late Mr. Sidney Houghton, widely respected Editor of the Quarterly from the late 1960s until 1987.
With the words of I Peter 1:25 displayed on its masthead, “The word of the Lord endureth for ever,” the Bible League Quarterly brought to its readers many informative articles that would strengthen their faith, encourage their hearts and equip them for the battles ahead. While liberalism and higher criticism sowed only doubts and fears, the Scriptures brought truth and comfort, and were wholly to be relied upon as the very Word of God to His people. That is the message that, under God, the Quarterly has brought to its readers from that day to this.
In 1902 the League organised a conference in Oxford and later published the papers under the title Criticism Criticised: Addresses on Old Testament Criticism. Twelve years later another conference was held, this time at Littlehampton, and the addresses were again published in book form under the title The Bible Verified. A third conference was held in October 1923 at High Leigh in Hertfordshire on the theme The Fulness of Christ and Biblical Faith. While differing in style, ranging from polemical to devotional and practical, the subjects covered at these conferences encompassed all the great issues of the day. Titles included, “The Bible and Science,” “Some Outstanding Incongruities of the Higher Criticism,” and “Fulfilled Prophecy: A Proof of the Inspiration of the Bible.”12
In 1917 as William Fuller-Gooch looked back over twenty-five years of the League’s ministry, he wrote of it as suffering “great difficulties” and receiving little financial support during those early years. He acknowledged that this was not helped by the fact that “of course it does not uphold a popular cause.”13 These difficulties were felt by individual League supporters in their home churches, as many found themselves among people who, though sitting under a modernist ministry, failed to appreciate its dangers. A few years after Fuller-Gooch had made his remarks, a League member drew attention to the problem in an article for the Quarterly. He wrote of the many souls sitting in church pews around him and listening to modernist preaching while lacking the discernment to recognise that “very cleverly wrapped up in the very heart of [that preaching] is a bit of deadly poison, a theory, a remark discrediting Holy Scripture.” If a perceptive soul were to question the minister the results could be less than encouraging. Such a person would be labelled
“‘a disturber of the peace of the Church. He is trying to oust the pastor. He is creating dissension in our Church!’ I tell you that is one of the sorest trials of the ordinary lay member who is out on active service for the Bible League – to be looked upon as a disturber of the peace of the Church. Well, we have to bear it.”14
The Quarterly rarely mentioned numbers, so just how many supporters the League had at this time is not easy to say. During the year ending 31st March 1921, however, it reported “more members enrolled and larger financial support received than in any previous year.”15 Two years later the Quarterly made a rare departure from its usual practice by announcing, “Over five hundred new members have been enrolled from all parts of the United Kingdom, and from India, Ceylon, China, Japan, West Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, the U.S.A., and Canada.”16 Clearly this was a time of rapid growth – and not just at home – no doubt reflecting a growing concern over the menace of liberal ideas and the serious inroads they were making around the world. During these early years of the 1920s the battle was hotting-up both at home and abroad and throughout the decade the League was especially active in exposing and criticising the efforts of the modernists. One statistic I am sure readers today will find quite staggering is that over the course of the year ending March 1921 “some 400 meetings” were held throughout the UK under the auspices of the Bible League. That means that on average there was at least one League meeting somewhere in the country every day! This undoubtedly reflected not only the ferocity of the battle but also the measure of support the League was receiving among evangelicals, and the energetic efforts of its leaders. Not surprisingly the Quarterly was able to report, “In no previous year has the Destructive Criticism of the Bible been more aggressive within professedly Christian circles … and in no year of its history has the Bible League received such manifest and abundant tokens of the Divine favour.”17 The same issue reported,
Correspondence is now in progress between the Bible League Headquarters and members of the League in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand as to the formation of auxiliaries in those parts for the offering of more effective resistance to the war against the Word, and the Council earnestly requests the prayers of all Bible-believers that the Spirit of the Lord may be pleased to move, as the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord, in all that is undertaken in the direction indicated.18
Perhaps the greatest struggle at home was to be found in the Baptist Union. Yes, the Downgrade of the previous century was showing no signs of abating, much less reversing. In 1923 a liberal, T.R. Glover, was elected Vice-President, a stepping-stone to the presidency the following year. This precipitated a haemorrhage of churches from the Union but where were they to go? James Mountain, minister of St. John’s Free Church in Tunbridge Wells, set up the Bible Baptist Union as an alternative but this would be a short-lived endeavour. However, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, formed just a few years previously under the leadership of E.J. Poole-Connor, was to prove a much more permanent organisation, and would provide a spiritual sanctuary for many of these concerned churches. Poole-Connor was a Baptist minister who had himself seceded from the Baptist Union during the opening decade of the century, such was the long-standing drift towards modernism in that body.
The highlight of the Bible League’s year was the annual anniversary meetings, held in early June. These took place in the Great Hall of the Cannon Street Hotel, London, an auditorium that would seat some 800 people. At these meetings the Annual Report would be presented and it would later be published in the Quarterly, together with the anniversary addresses. The Annual Report for 1924 gives us an insight into a new avenue of the League’s work. For the first time it had placed literature in University Libraries and the Quarterly announced that “every University and Theological College in the United Kingdom has been brought within the sphere of our operation.” The need for this work was highlighted by a correspondent: “It is not easy to remain true to the Lord Jesus Christ in a Faculty of Theology.” The effect of the League’s initiative was generally encouraging, to the point that it felt able to report, “Evidence has been forthcoming of a gracious movement of the Holy Spirit in our universities which is pregnant with great and glorious issues.”19
The Bible Institute
The Bible League and its supporters felt a great burden for the training of pastors and missionaries in seminaries untainted by the evils of higher criticism and liberal theology. At the 1918 Annual Meeting, the League’s President commented on the need for “schools for the training of prophets, where the voices of human teachers shall not drown the voice of the Chief Shepherd; where the Bible will not be a mere text-book distorted by the follies and fancies of human wisdom.” A number of League members persuaded the Council that the Bible League itself was the agency best suited for such a work, so in October 1919, in the Parish Hall at Clerkenwell, the Bible Institute first opened its doors. Its Principal was C.L. Parker, who had formerly been the Chaplain-Fellow of University College, Oxford. A couple of years later the Institute moved to Leicester where the generosity of a League supporter enabled it to work from a much more suitable building with the potential to accommodate up to twenty men.20
By the end of 1921, however, it was becoming clear that the Institute would be a significant drain on the League’s resources. This was at a time when the League’s workload in other areas was expanding and needed “larger support than it [had] ever yet received.”21 The Institute fund was soon exhausted and in the last Quarterly of 1921 a note appears announcing the resignation of the principal and a temporary suspension of the Institute’s work.
For the next three months Robert Wright-Hay took charge and the Council asked for prayer “that clear guidance may be given as to the future conduct of the Institute and the financial support necessary … may be forthcoming.”22 However, after struggling on for another year, the Council decided to close the Institute.23 No details were given of the “several factors” involved in the decision but clearly the League’s work in this direction had come to an end.
(To be completed)
1. In 1907 a Congregationalist minister, R. J. Campbell, wrote a book entitled New Theology in which he rejected evangelical doctrines such as the Trinity, the incarnation, and substitutionary atonement.
2. Quoted in Bible League Quarterly (BLQ), Jan – Mar 1925.
3. BLQ Jan.-March 1923.
5. William Fuller Gooch, “The Need for the Witness of the Bible League” in Truth Unchanged, Unchanging; The Bible League, 1984, p. 61.
6. William Fuller Gooch: A Tribute and a Testimony; Henry Martyn Gooch, pages 83-84.
7. Ibid., page 84.
8. More details about the founding and early days of the Bible League can be found in S. M. Houghton, “The Bible League: its Origin and its Aims” in Truth Unchanged, Unchanging; The Bible League, 1984, pages 3-8.
9. BLQ April-June 1924, pages 95-6.
10. BLQ April-June 1928, pages 91-2.
11. The Christian Movement in Japan, 1907, page 205.
12. The Bible Verified; The Bible League, 1914, pages 7-8.
13. Truth Unchanged, Unchanging; page 61.
14. John A. Bolton, The Responsibility of Bible-Believers in their own Churches; BLQ 83, Oct-Dec 1921, pages 73-4.
15. BLQ July-Sept 1921, page 57.
16. BLQ July-Sept 1923, page 138.
17. BLQ July-Sept 1921, page 57.
18. Ibid. page 58.
19. BLQ July-Sept 1924, page 118-22.
20. BLQ July-Sept 1921, page 58.
21. BLQ Oct-Dec 1921, page 95.
22. BLQ Jan-Mar 1922, page 36.
23. BLQ Apr-June 1923, pages 85,88.