Feast of Charles Augustus Briggs and Emilie Grace Briggs (June 14)   Leave a comment

Above:  The Last Stand:  Science Versus Superstition, by Udo J. Keppler

From Puck Magazine, July 19, 1899

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-ppmsca-28614

Charles Augustus Briggs is the man on the left in the clergy collar.

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CHARLES AUGUSTUS BRIGGS (JANUARY 15, 1841-JUNE 8, 1913)

U.S. Presbyterian Minister, Episcopal Priest, Biblical Scholar, and Alleged Heretic

father of

EMILIE GRACE BRIGGS (1867-JUNE 14, 1944)

Biblical Scholar and “Heretic’s Daughter”

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It is surely harmful to souls to make it a heresy to believe what is proved.

Galileo Galilei

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Progress in religion, in doctrine, and in life is demanded of our age of the world more than any other age.

–Charles Augustus Briggs

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Above:  Charles Augustus Briggs

Image in the Public Domain

The tribe of alleged heretics includes luminaries.

Charles Augustus Briggs was one of the relatively liberal clergymen who became epicenters of controversy in the old Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (“Northern,” but actually national) in the late 1800s.  He, born in New York, New York, on January 15, 1841, was a son of Alanson Tuthill Briggs (Sr.), who managed the family business, the largest barrel-making company in the United States, and Sarah Mead Berrian Briggs.  Young Charles studied at the University of Virginia from 1857 to 1860; there he had a conversion experience.  For a few months our saint was a soldier in the New York Seventh Regiment during the Civil War.  Next Briggs matriculated at Union Theological Seminary (UTS), New York, New York.  He left in 1863, due to his father’s extended illness, to manage the family business.

Briggs married Julia Valentine Dobbs in 1865.  The couple had seven children, five of whom survived our saint.  These five were:

  1. Emilie Grace Briggs (1867-June 14, 1944);
  2. Agnes Briggs, who married Philip Ketteridge;
  3. Alanson Tuthill Briggs (II) (1871-January 31, 1946);
  4. Herbert Wilfrid Briggs; and
  5. Olive M. Briggs.

Briggs became a Presbyterian minister.  The First Presbytery of New York licensed our saint to preach in April 1866.  That June Charles and Julia Briggs traveled to Berlin, where he studied for his doctorate at the University of Berlin.  At that institution our saint studied under proponents of historical critical scholarship of the Bible; Isaac A. Dorner was, by Briggs’s account, an influential figure in the shaping of his theology.  Also in Berlin the Briggses welcomed their daughter Emilie Grace into the world.  Our saint, back in the United States, served as the first pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Roselle, New Jersey, from 1869 to 1874.  That year he accepted an appointment to Union Theological Seminary as Professor of Hebrew and Cognate Languages.

Briggs remained at Union Theological Seminary for the rest of his life, although not always as a Presbyterian.  He was, according to student then colleague, Presbyterian minister and UTS professor William Adams Brown (1865-1943), a

walking encyclopedia, combining an essentially conservative theology with a critical scholarship.

Most of Briggs’s critics within and beyond the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. never questioned his intellect, but they did doubt his orthodoxy.  Briggs, from 1880 to 1890 the Editor of the Presbyterian Review, was a champion of historical criticism scholarship, of Higher Criticism of the Bible.  Our saint argued for propositions that no not cause the author of this post to arch his eyebrows.  Briggs argued, for example that

  1. The Book of Isaiah is the product of two authors.  (I have read commentaries that argue for three Isaiahs.  The editors of The Jewish Study Bible argue for two Isaiahs.)
  2. The Book of Zechariah is a composite work.  (The study Bibles in my library agree with this conclusion.)
  3. The Torah is not the work of Moses, but a composite of various documents edited, cut, and pasted during the time of Ezra.  (Renowned Jewish Biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman supports this conclusion in his books Who Wrote the Bible? (1987), Commentary on the Torah with a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text (2001), and The Bible with Sources Revealed:  A New View Into the Five Books of Moses (2003).)
  4. The Book of Jonah is a work of fiction.  (Of course it is.  The story is a magnificent satire of the excesses of postexilic Jewish nationalism and a reminder that God’s love extends to all Gentiles, even national enemies.)
  5. The Bible is neither inerrant nor infallible.  The dogmas that it is constitute barriers to faith for many people.  (I have read the Bible too closely to affirm either inerrancy or infallibility.  To label the recognition of the obvious heretical is  to encourage one not to love God with all of one’s intellect.)

These and other views of Briggs allegedly subverted the Christian faith.

Briggs favored the reordering of American Presbyterian theology and the revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith, to moderate the rough edges of its Calvinism.  He, an ardent ecumenist and supporter of organic union among denominations, argued against “orthodoxism,” or a false orthodoxy that betrays the principles of the Protestant Reformation and of the best aspects of the Presbyterian tradition.  In Whither? A Theological Question for the Times (1889) Briggs wrote:

Orthodoxism assumes to know the truth and is unwilling to learn; it is haughty and arrogant, assuming the divine prerogatives of infallibility and inerrancy; it hates the truth that is unfamiliar to it, and prosecutes it to the uttermost.  But orthodoxy loves the truth.  It is ever anxious to learn, for it knows how greatly the truth or God transcends human knowledge….It is meek, lowly, and reverent.  It is full of charity and love.  It does not recognize an infallible pope; it does not know an infallible theologian.

Briggs did not remain either a Presbyterian or alive long enough to witness the triumph of his position in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.  He lived until 1913, a decade after the denomination revised the Westminster Confession of Faith.  The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. did not side officially with the Modernist side in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy until the middle and late 1920s, however.  The Presbytery of New York put Briggs, since 1891 the Edward Robinson Chair of Biblical Theology at UTS, on trial for heresy and acquitted him on that charge in 1892, but the General Assembly of 1893 suspended him from ministerial duties until he repented.  He never repented.  Briggs, after preaching as a layman for a few years, became an Episcopal priest in 1899 instead.  He, 72 years old, died of pneumonia on June 8, 1913.

Briggs, working from his secure professional home at Union Theological Seminary, continued to teach, write, and edit.  One of his greatest accomplishments was the Hebrew and English Lexicon (1905), a classic and standard work.  His fellow authors were Francis Brown and S. R. Driver, but his daughter Emilie Grace contributed to the work also.  She, assistant to her father from the 1890s to 1913, was a crucial participant in his late scholarly endeavors.

Emilie should have had a doctorate.  In 1897 she made history by becoming the first woman to receive a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary.  She pursued graduate studies and wrote her dissertation, The Deaconess in the Ancient and Medieval Church, which the UTS faculty approved.  Yet she never received her doctorate, due to the fact she could never get the dissertation published, a requirement for receiving a doctorate from UTS at the time.  She revised the dissertation for decades and various professors helped her try to get it published, to no avail.  Emilie taught Greek and the New Testament at the New York Training School for Deaconesses, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, from 1896 to 1915.  After her father’s death in 1913 her main project was his legacy.  He left some scholarly books unfinished.  She, the author of several scholarly articles, finished and got published Theological Symbolics (1914), History of the Study of Theology (two volumes, 1916), and a commentary on Lamentations.  Emilie, who studied the order of deaconesses, completed other projects her father never had time to finish; she could not get them published, however.  She also collected and organized her father’s papers, which she donated to the library at UTS in 1941.  Emilie, who never married, died, aged 77 years, on June 14, 1944.

Charles Augustus Briggs and his daughter and intellectual heir, Emilie Grace Briggs, belong on my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days.  They were fearless in their embrace of both faith and reason.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JANUARY 17, 2018 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT ANTONY OF EGYPT, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOT AND FATHER OF WESTERN MONASTICISM

THE FEAST OF SAINT BERARD AND HIS COMPANIONS, ROMAN CATHOLIC MARTYRS IN MOROCCO

THE FEAST OF EDMUND HAMILTON SEARS, U.S. UNITARIAN MINISTER AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF RUTHERFORD BIRCHARD HAYES, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

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O God, you have endowed us with memory, reason, and skill.

We thank you for the faithful legacy of [Charles Augustus Briggs, Emilie Grace Briggs, and all others]

who have dedicated their lives to you and to the intellectual pursuits.

May we, like them, respect your gift of intelligence fully and to your glory.

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Psalm 103

Philippians 4:8-9

Mark 12:28-34

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

MARCH 6, 2013 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT CHRODEGANG OF METZ, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP

THE FEAST OF EDMUND KING, ANGLICAN BISHOP OF LINCOLN

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