In Chicago, in the early years of this century, great wealth and business know-how were seen by some as the best means of doing great things for God. Evangelism and social reform went hand-in-hand with hard-nosed business practice. Were these rich philanthropist laymen properly promoting the cause of the Gospel, or were they confusing Christianity with the Corporation?
The early decades of the twentieth century reveal a distinct aggressiveness on the part of leading laymen in urban churches who banded together to accomplish specific religious tasks. In the course of “making religion efficient,” these laymen shaped evangelical Protestantism more powerfully than most ministers and theologians of the time realized.
Historical accounts of the collapse of the Protestant consensus in America usually focus upon the theological debates between conservative and liberal ministers and seminary professors (most of which began in the 1890s and continued up through the 1900s). Frequently overlooked are the subtle and not-so-subtle adjustments made by laymen that served to undermine the Protestant ethos of the 19th century. Whether one calls this process the modernization, secularization, accommodation, or domestication of Protestantism, it would appear that the flock was often one step ahead of its shepherds.
The Presbytery of Chicago made gallant efforts to respond to the host of urban ills resulting from the period of tumultuous population growth. Presbyterians were in the forefront of local temperance campaigns, anti-vice crusades, public school battles, and community welfare efforts. The Presbyterian Hospital was a favored charity of the Social Register set, as was the Chicago YMCA. By the end of World War I, the ...