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Josiah Strong

Josiah Strong

Josiah Strong (1847-1916) was one of America's leading religious and social voices during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Aclergyman who proposed revolutionary religion-oriented solutions to perceived inequities in America's social and economic network, Josiah Strong adhered to a brand of Christianity that came to be known as Christian Socialism. The impact of his words and actions was felt beyond the borders of religion, however. In the 1890s he also emerged as one of the country's strongest voices in support of American imperialism, a philosophy that held that the nation needed to expand its sphere of influence around the world to ensure its continued primacy and to save heathen cultures. The support of Strong and other American religious leaders lent America's expansionist impulse a veneer of righteousness and altruism.

Wrote Influential Book Our Country

Strong was born into an Illinois family with deep colonial roots. When he was five years old, Strong's family moved to Hudson, Ohio, and it was there that he spent the rest of his childhood. He attended Western Reserve College, graduating in 1869, and entered seminary school at Lane Theological Seminary. He was ordained two years later, shortly after marrying Alice Bisbee.

The newlyweds settled in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he served as pastor of the community's Congregational church. In 1873, though, Strong returned to Western Reserve, where he taught and served as the campus chaplain. The next several years were marked by continued migration from one post to another, eventually landing at Central Congregational Church in 1884. During his stint at Central, Strong was asked to update a manual used by the Congregational Missionary Society. The result was Our Country (1885), one of the most influential books of the late nineteenth century.

In Our Country, Strong articulated some of his most strongly held beliefs. Rich in idealistic exhortation and social commentary, the booklet offered previously unexplored religion-based prescriptions for addressing America's social and industrial ills. Strong paid particular attention to the nation's overcrowded and poverty-riddled cities, which he saw as endangered by immigrant-based political parties and fiscal irresponsibility. "The city is the nerve center of our civilization. It is also the storm center," he wrote. "It has become a serious threat to our civilization." Our Country also made the minister's imperialist leanings clear. Like many proponents of American expansionism at the turn of the century, Strong contended that the moral superiority of the nation's white population made America duty-bound to help "lift up" the inferior members of other nations. The Anglo-Saxon race, he wrote, was "of unequaled energy, with all the majesty of numbers and the might of wealth behind it." As possessor "of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization," Strong argued that it was the Anglo-Saxons' duty to stretch its influence over all the earth. Many expansionists, including Strong, pointed to America's burgeoning economic power as a sure sign of its superiority. They felt that foreign trade could be a tremendously effective mechanism in realizing America's ambitions of empire. "The world is to be Christianized and civilized," remarked Strong. "And what is the process of civilizing but the creating of more and higher wants. Commerce follows the missionary."

Developed Philosophies of Christian Socialism

Our Country vaulted Strong into the national limelight and led to his appointment as secretary of a Protestant ecumenical agency known as the American Evangelical Alliance. In 1893 he published a second book, entitled The New Era, which enjoyed a similarly enthusiastic reception. In The New Era, which was translated into a number of different languages, Strong articulated the philosophies that became cornerstones of a movement that came to be known as Christian Socialism or the Social Gospel. Strong insisted that people could create an ideal society akin to the Kingdom of God through programs of fundamental social change. Although Strong's first two works were perhaps his most influential, he continued to author books throughout his career. These included The Twentieth Century City (1898), Religious Movements for Social Betterment (1900), The Next Great Awakening (1902), The Challenge of the City (1907), My Religion in Everyday Life (1910), Our World: The New World Life (1913), and Our World: The New World Religion (1915). He also founded a monthly periodical entitled The Gospel of the Kingdom in 1908.

As secretary of the American Evangelical Alliance, Strong had hoped to unite various denominations under a single banner of social outreach, but disagreements with other religious leaders during his tenure in the Alliance gradually convinced him to pursue other avenues. In 1898 he resigned from his secretary position to found the League for Social Service (known as the American Institute for Social Service after 1902). He was also an important contributor to the establishment of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ. An untiring champion of the tenets of the Social Gospel, Strong maintained a vigorous schedule of lecturing and writing.

In the early 1900s Strong extended his involvement beyond America's shores. He extended a "Safety First" movement intended to curb accidents to several South American nations, and in 1904 he founded the British Institute of Social Service in England. He died in New York City on April 28, 1916.

Further Reading

Pratt, Julius W., Expansionists of 1898, Peter Smith Co., 1952.

Strong, Josiah, Our Country, American Home Missionary Society, 1885. □

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