The modern impulse toward ecumenism began, significantly, with church leaders who today would be called conservative evangelicals. In 1846 a conference of such men held in London led to the organization of the World Evangelical Alliance. For fifty years, this alliance performed a valuable service to the cause of unity among Christians.
Then came the time near the turn of the century when liberalism began to have a serious effect on the Christian churches. A small group of leaders tried to shape the World Evangelical Alliance into an instrument of liberalism but met majority opposition and so withdrew from the alliance. In 1894 this group created the Open Church League, which was superseded in 1900 by the National Federation of Churches and Christian Workers. This in turn gave way in 1905 to the Federal Council of Churches, which in 1950 became the National Council of Churches.
This record makes it clear that the onus of division rests upon liberalism. But it must be said in the same breath that the responses of conservatives to the encroachments of liberalism were not satisfactory. Instead of keeping control of the mainstream, conservatives became defensive; they largely abandoned the field of scholarship, emphasized withdrawal from the world and separation from liberal churchmen, and exalted independency.
For the second fifty years, therefore, it seemed that conservatism had lost out not because its position was false but because its supporters were fragmented. Even the World Evangelical Alliance grew tame and ineffective, resting upon its endowments rather than upon a real sense of mission.
As early as 1929 Dr. J. Elwin Wright founded the New England Fellowship, which successfully brought a new sense, of unity and mission ...1
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