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Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and the Biblical Gospel

2. The Second Great Awakening and the Burned-Over District

As we trace the evolution of Roman Catholic theology concerning Scripture since the 16th century, we see that Rome maintained a very strong view of the inerrancy and inspiration of the Bible. This was particularly evident in the 19th century, when the question of the integrity of Scripture was a central issue in both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism during the so-called “modernist controversy.” This controversy pitted conservative Christians against liberal theologians, who focused much of their effort on attaching the reliability and integrity of the biblical witnesses. The modernist controversy is often seen as a dispute between so-called “American fundamentalism” and European and American liberalism. However, this embroilment was not limited to Protestant circles; it fueled so-called “Restorationist” movements, such as early Mormonism’s claim of a corrupted Bible and a need for Scriptural “restoration.”

A Fundamentalist cartoon portraying Modernism as the descent from Christianity to atheism, first published in 1922 and then used in "Seven Questions in Dispute" by William Jennings Bryan.

A Fundamentalist cartoon portraying Modernism as the descent from Christianity to atheism, first published in 1922 and then used in “Seven Questions in Dispute” by William Jennings Bryan.

The modernist controversy also had a great impact on the Roman Catholic Church. Rome spoke very sharply against the modernist movement in various decrees and papal encyclicals of the 19th and early 20th centuries. For instance, at Vatican Council I, which convened in 1869-70, the Roman Catholic Church decreed, “These books … being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author” (Vatican Ecumenical Council I Decrees, Session 3: 21 April 1870 — Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, chapter 2). Furthermore, the council said, “they contain revelation without error,” a clear affirmation of the notion of biblical inerrancy.

This was reaffirmed by Pope Pius in 1907, which was a pivotal year in modernist controversy. That year, the pontiff issued two encyclicals, both affirming the inerrancy and divine inspiration of Scripture over against modernism, and gave a scathing criticism of the modernist position with respect to Scripture. Also around that time, in order to stem the tide of liberalism, the Roman Catholic Church required each parish priest to give a loyalty oath to the church and to its decrees. That meant that those who were of a modernist persuasion were forced to go underground or to leave the church (Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism, pg. 16).

Roman Catholicism did not have much influence on American religion until the 19th century with the influx of immigrants from Europe. In American Catholics, his magisterial history of Roman Catholicism in the United States, James Hennesey recounted the hostility of Protestants toward Roman Catholics which began in the mid-1820s — the exact time the Book of Mormon was produced. Roman Catholics during the colonial and early national periods were relatively few in number and generally accommodated themselves to the prevailing Protestant culture. In the Federalist Papers: Federalist No. 2, John Jay asserted that the citizens of the new nation were “descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, profession the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in manners and customs.” Hennesey observed that when “that homogeneity was shattered” with the massive immigration of Irish, German, and other non-English-Scottish to America, “the process was painful.”

The anti-Roman-Catholic sentiment that punctuates this movement, periodically erupted in violence and played a powerful role in antebellum politics, was an especially ugly expression of a more general defensive reaction of American Protestants in the face of the official disestablishment of churches and the rise of religious diversity. But at the same time, there were efforts, especially from the Presbyterian court, to reconsolidate cultural influence. Protestantism was the dominant religious presence until the Second Great Awakening, which, with the help of one Charles Grandison Finney, inadvertently produced a number of outgrowths of Christianity that have survived as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses), Seventh-day Adventism, Christian Science, and of course, Mormonism.

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