Helen Barrett Montgomery is as inspirational and challenging as Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker Movement. Montgomery wrote extensively for her denomination’s weekly news and comment journal â€“ aka “The Baptist.” More importantly than the work she did, however, was the content of the work actually submitted. Montgomery’s work was characterized by an authority all its own and pointed toward something existing well beyond the very limited scope of her own day’s controversial Christian conversation.
Montgomery found herself â€“ and the Christianity she held so dear - caught in the proverbial crossfire of the then raging fundamentalist-modernist controversy. This so-called “controversy” threatened to tear apart the hard fought for denominational unity of her church. This fight especially unfolded within the pages of “The Baptist,” as a centralized topic of debate in the 1920’s. Helen Barrett Montgomery was listed in The Baptist as a contributing editor. So, the stage was set. She could either be engulfed by it, or actually rise above it all. She rose above it all. She did so, in fine fashion.
The scene: “The Northern Baptist Convention seemed to be moving in two directions at once â€“ one modernist, ecumenical, and optimistic, the other fundamentalist, sectarian, and defensive; the modernists adopted soul competency as their precept and championed education and social activism, but the fundamentalists questioned the modernists’ commitment to the Bible and personal evangelism” (172).
It could be argued that Montgomery took what is usually referred to as a “middle course” approach to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, but it seems to me that she actually jumped the socio-religious walls erected by each side and moved somewhere well beyond both. It seems ridiculous to believe that a person of Montgomery’s spiritual and cognitive caliber would permit herself to be walled in by either detriment, let alone shackled by some sort of “middle-of-the road-culmination” of the combined two. It seems more likely that she actually dedicated herself to Christianity and moved far ahead, affirming the good and discarding the detriment inherent to each side of the controversy, according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
She held tight to her conservative understanding of the Bible. She held tight to the idea and practice of personal evangelism, individual salvation by grace through faith in Jesus, world missions, Christianity as The Way, and orthodox Christology. She did so while advancing an equally staunch belief in freedom, democracy, separation of church and state, religious liberty, soul competency, church autonomy, and critical approaches to creedalism (which is not the same as being non-creedal). All along the way, she sent biting criticism in the direction of both camps of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.
Too, Montgomery advanced the belief that Christianity could not be “dividend neatly into sacred/secular dualisms” (177). This especially resonates, in 2007, wherein more than a few are aligning faith and discipleship with missional/incarnational Christian beliefs and practices. Admittedly, the incarnational/missional cessation of the sacred/secular line may be moving a bit beyond the scope of Montgomery, who was very dedicated to an institutional ideal, but I think there is serious convergence inherent in the two declarations. Yes, look closely.
Christianity is better when adherents consciously avoid the always present slippery slope of American “isms” of the political left and right. Helen Barrett Montgomery is a wonderful example of a Christian woman who avoided it and went beyond the extremely limited fundamentalist-modernist controversy of her day. She went well beyond the debate and found a sacred place where the best arguments and advances of both sides already existed! Her place was the Gospel of Jesus Christ! It’s a place that still exists! We all can go there, and consciously avoid the limited conversation that is the political left vs. right, according to the Gospel of Christ.
Work Cited: Edwards, Wendy J. Deichmann, and Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, eds. Gebder and the Social Gospel. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2003.