Liberal Presbyterianism at once answered in the protest of many commissioners to the General Assembly of 1893 against the suspension of Dr. Briggs, which rejected the Assembly's assertion that "the inerrancy of the original autographs of the Scripture" was "the faith of the Church," and "the imposing of this new interpretation of our Standards upon the Church, to bind men's consciences by enforced subscription to its terms." The liberals were further aroused by the exercises of ecclesiastical authority in 1894 and 1899 against Dr. Henry Preserved Smith of Lane Seminary and Dr. Arthur C. McGiffert of Union Seminary, on the same general ground as the action against Dr. Briggs. In these years many Presbyterian ministers and laymen determined that in the Church there must be freedom of study and thought and speech, so that it could preach the gospel with power in a time of changed conceptions of the Bible and of new light upon it and upon Christian truth from science and history. Evangelicals, they upheld liberty for the gospel's sake.
These same years were the time of the rise of the social gospel. Not all, but many Presbyterian liberals came under its inspiration and gave its message, as it was understood in those early days. They were profoundly persuaded that the gospel commanded a more righteous industrial and economic order and that such an order must needs be to give the gospel free course. These same years saw also the coming with power of the impulse for Christian unity. Many Presbyterians caught the vision that was rising before the Christian world, caring supremely for the one gospel, above denominational particularities.
Thus about 1900 a body of liberals had formed in the Presbyterian Church. Many were younger men, but by no means all. Some of the most convinced and courageous were older. For this body held the old liberal evangelical position, in new conditions. Among the younger men was Henry Sloane Coffin. --Robert Hastings Nichols from "Leader of Liberal Presbyterianism" an essay in "This Ministry: The Contribution of Henry Sloane Coffin," ed. Niebuhr, 1945