Progressives and the Bible in the Gilded Age

The United States’ centennial celebrations in 1876 took place in a republic barely a decade removed from a civil war that killed over 700,000 men. The ensuing decade that followed Appomattox convinced many Americans that their society was progressing materially, spiritually, and socially. Jackson Lears noted in Rebirth of a Nation that the idea of rebirth—heavily influenced by texts from the Christian Bible—compelled Americans towards political and social reforms. “The half-century between the Civil War and World War I,” Lears noted, “was an age of regeneration. Seldom if ever in our history have longings for rebirth played a more prominent role in politics.” Biblical themes and the Bible itself became a leading inspiration for the Progressive movement. As common as it is to hear religious right commentators slander secular progressivism, the roots of modern American progressivism lay in intellectual, social, and political organizations deeply wedded to maintaining the Bible as a chief textual authority, inspiration, and foundation. The Bible held a privileged status in Gilded Age society to the point it became ubiquitous. It was only after the world wars, said Mark Noll, that the Bible’s presence declined. [1]

In 1876, in San Francisco, a social reformer named Marie Herbert placed progressivism firmly on a biblicist foundation. Because she believed “that the Bible is a revelation from God, given both for spiritual enlightenment and as a great popular textbook,” society could draw from the Christian scriptures “clear knowledge of those ethical principles upon which human society can alone successfully build individual and public character.” She published a book on the Bible’s necessary place in politics and progressive social movements hoping that the text would “be instrumental in awaking with some a more correct comprehension of the essentiality of the Sacred Scriptures in the developing of a healthy social and civil life.”

Spencerian and Darwinian influence on American Protestantism manifested itself in treatments of the Bible after the Civil War. Human progress and perfectibility wedded to Protestant pietism convinced social reformers that a more perfect world was possible, and Herbert was no exception to the era’s rising confidence in progressive precepts, provided they were underpinned to a necessary Christian foundation. She complained that “political and social reformers are constantly and ostentatiously laboring to correct public abuses, and to impel the race forward toward the ideal,” but they lacked the necessary inspiration. “It is only where the Bible becomes the source of popular inspiration that we find an active reformatory spirit and a permanent progressive movement.” It was “this great fact,” which Herbert hoped to indelibly impress upon the minds of my countrymen, that they may be enabled to discharge with fidelity and with honor those sacred trusts of conscience and of liberty which a beneficent Providence has committed to their care.”[2]

Herbert’s treatment of the Bible was not neccesarily that of theological liberals of the day. She believed it was inspired, although she stopped short of affirming that it was without error. It was most important for her the greatest set of moral and political examples and influences over compiled.

There exists no longer doubt that that people whose models of moral excellence are most faithfully drawn from the inspired Word are able to present the most refined manners, the largest industries, the noblest charities, the purest literature, the most varied arts, the most equitable laws, the most stable government, and even the most invincible armies. True, there have been peoples with philosophies, laws, literature, industries, and military renown, without the Bible; but the civilization of the most distinguished of these was no more than a brilliant prolepsis of that which was to come; no more than genius, in the dawn of its inspiration, struggling for immortal embodiment in the graces of the material, in the subtleties of dialectics, in the eloquence of harangues, in the speculations of philosophy, and in the achievement of arms. Those inspiring glimpses of the attributes of the Godhead, those lofty ideals of the pure in morals, those enrapturing visions of a future life, those grand and mighty impulses of enlightened thought, those broad utilities and charities which so mark the reign of Christian law, have no place in the civilization or philosophy of such.[3]

Progressive politics and reform movements of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era remained firmly wedded to Christianized moral and civil precepts, and they conceded the necessity of the Bible to their project. But the very reliance on the Bible for social and moral progressivism instigated serious debate over the place of scripture in politics and society. Conservative religious scholars like Charles Hodge became increasingly wary of the Bible’s use for non-spiritual ends, largely because he and his successors at Princeton and other conservative Protestant institutions believed that the Scriptures were not merely inspired, but without error, and given to humanity for the specific purpose of presenting the Christian Gospel narrative. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, some conservative religious scholars disliked the thought of using the bible in schools precisely because they thought it would inevitably be used to support progressive social causes.

[1] Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 (New York: HarperCollins); Mark A. Noll, America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).

[2] Marie Herbert, The Bible: Its Influence, Its Relations to Republican Government, and Its Necessity as a Text-book of Ethics in the Public Schools (Cubery and Co., 1876), 3.

[3] Herbert, The Bible: Its Influence, 11.


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