Christianity and the Social Crisis

views updated


Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) appealed to American Protestants at a time when men and women of conscience were struggling to understand their Christian responsibilities; rapid industrial development had created both unprecedented wealth and unimaginable poverty and had made paupers and petty criminals of hard-working people. Its author, Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), a Baptist theologian and church historian, was not the first churchman to propose a Christian response to the social upheavals of the late nineteenth century. Josiah Strong published The New Era in 1893, the same year as George Davis Herron's The New Redemption, and Washington Gladden's Social Salvation appeared in 1902. All spoke of the need to conceive of salvation in social rather than individual terms. Their writings and organizations formed the kernel of what would be known as the Social Gospel at the turn of the twentieth century. But Christianity and the Social Crisis offered the most compelling historical analysis, locating the essence of Christian teaching in community and linking the prophets of the Old Testament to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Rauschenbusch insisted that responding to the social crises of industrialism would restore true Christianity, which, over the centuries, had been hampered by institutional concerns, ascetic suspicion of the wider world, and a false confidence in personal piety that blinded Christians to the needs of others.

The originality and force of Rauschenbusch's analysis lay in his ability to draw out the lives and history of early Christians from New Testament sources. Instead of plucking quotable passages out of context, Rauschenbusch used the Gospels and Epistles to present modern readers with a picture of how the early followers of Jesus had sought to live according to his principles. One example after another demonstrated their commitment to communal care, to meeting the needs of fellow seekers without demanding complete equality of material condition. That history, he argued, provided a powerful lesson for modern Christians. Neither retreating from modern industrial life nor calling for a radical Christian communism, Rauschenbusch invited readers simply to respond to the needs of others with love, compassion, generosity, and faith—to live in community as Jesus had taught.

Although Rauschenbusch was a learned and meticulous scholar, he adopted a plain style of writing and made Christianity and the Social Crisis both accessible and compelling to a nonscholarly audience. He employed earthy analogies to appeal to readers, suggesting, for example, that a nation's wealth was like manure on a farm. "If the farmer spreads it evenly over the soil, it will enrich the whole. If he should leave it in heaps, the land would be impoverished and under the rich heaps the vegetation would be killed" (p. 281). Similarly, he relied on his gift as a storyteller to narrate New Testament episodes in ways that made Jesus, his disciples, his audiences, and his message come alive to the modern reader. Thus, Jesus' call for human brotherhood was no mere bromide but a message that spoke to a world divided between Jews and Gentiles and that reminded Christians that their Hebrew ancestors had relied on and attended to the needs of Gentiles. For example, Elijah had found refuge in the home of a Phoenician, and Elisha had healed a Syrian leper. With his simple, direct prose and informed historical perspective, Rauschenbusch inspired a generation of American Protestants, who in turn coalesced around the Social Gospel reform agenda.


Shortly after Christianity and the Social Crisis appeared in print, Rauschenbusch left the United States for a year of study abroad. When he returned, he was both stunned and gratified to learn that the book had enjoyed a wide readership and had exerted a great influence. Readers inspired by his work looked to him for guidance in implementing his ideas. In the early years of the twentieth century, Americans could not escape the widespread problems arising from industrialism, urban growth, and profound social tensions. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) exposed the social evils that accompanied large-scale food processing, which exploited immigrant workers and resulted in contaminated products. Lincoln Steffens exposed the political corruption that prevailed in many municipalities, calling it "the shame of the cities." Novelists such as Hamlin Garland, Frank Norris, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and journalists such as Stephen Crane and Ray Stannard Baker described in vivid detail the travails of farmers and wageworkers as they toiled without relief yet sank deeper into debt and despair. Labor uprisings in the 1890s, followed by violent suppression, threatened to embroil the nation in class warfare. The depression of 1893 and the panic of 1907, set off by plummeting stock market prices, made it all too clear that market forces and capitalist speculation could ruin anyone—even those in the professional middle class. In addition, the social makeup of the nation included people who spoke languages other than English, wore clothing that reflected foreign traditions, and seemed utterly alien, which made them objects of fear, prejudice, and violence. Moreover, since the end of the Civil War, African Americans had become part of the nation's citizenry, but the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution did little to protect them from lynching, disfranchisement, dispossession, poverty, and discrimination. After reading Christianity and the Social Crisis, many American Protestants—laypersons and clergy alike—recognized their obligations as Christians to scale this mountain of social ills. They turned to Rauschenbusch and others to find out specifically what to do.

In the years between Rauschenbusch's first book and his second, Christianizing the Social Order (1912), a flood of new reform initiatives swept the nation. The Social Gospel movement was rooted in late-nineteenth-century efforts, such as the rise of "institutional churches," which catered to material as well as spiritual needs seven days a week. It also had its roots in the efforts of Charles Stelzle, wageworker turned Presbyterian minister, to reach workers in noontime services and in spontaneous local efforts to supply food, clothing, fuel, and shelter to families hit hardest by the depressed conditions of the 1890s. The early-twentieth-century movement spawned more systematic efforts to combat the social crisis. Rauschenbusch's clarion call had arisen from his experience as a pastor in New York City's "Hell's Kitchen," where in the 1880s he had personally ministered to the suffering of working people struggling with poverty, disease, and squalor, which he attributed to low wages and overcrowded conditions. By the time he wrote Christianizing the Social Order, Rauschenbusch could point to the social interests of the Religious Education Association (established in 1903), the founding of the Presbyterians' Labor Temple in New York City (1910), and the Men and Religion Forward Movement (1911–1912) as examples of the concerted efforts he had earlier imagined necessary for those who sought to live in the modern age according to Christian principles.

In 1908 delegates to the Federal Council of Churches, representing more than seventeen million American Protestants, endorsed the Social Creed of the Churches, committing themselves to support labor unions, protective legislation, and active involvement in social amelioration. Over the next few years, Protestants under the sway of the Social Gospel collaborated with reform-oriented governments to push for state intervention on behalf of workers, immigrants, rural communities, and families whose lives had been irrevocably altered by factory labor, urban existence, and the pervasive impact of market exchange. Some members of the clergy ran for public office, hoping to bring Christian principles to city hall or the statehouse. Others served as arbitrators in labor disputes. Settlement houses and institutional churches expanded their programs to help working-class families bridge the gap between low wages and the high cost of living. They provided free or inexpensive meals and wholesome family entertainment, classes in industrial training and domestic science to improve the life chances of young people, and visiting nurses and day care centers. Some initiatives—notably, the Men and Religion Forward Movement and the Social Service agencies of the Methodist Church—targeted black communities but unfortunately failed to bring an end to violence and discrimination against African Americans. Nevertheless, social activism generated by Christianity and the Social Crisis contributed significantly to the flowering of the age of social reform known as the Progressive Era. Social Gospelers sought government regulation to introduce a measure of justice into modern social relations.


The world war that began in 1914 dampened enthusiasm for the Social Gospel, but it did not extinguish the movement. Rauschenbusch, deeply troubled by the advent of war, which pitted loved ones in the United States and Germany against one another, did not survive the conflict. Many Social Gospel programs adopted a business orientation in the 1920s and beyond, making use of advertising, mass media, and celebrities to appeal to Christians and measuring success in terms of social efficiency. In the Great Depression of the 1930s and during World War II, the Social Gospel faced stiff criticism because of its purported unrealistic optimism and its underestimation of humankind's capacity for evil. But Christianity and the Social Crisis found new life after the war in the work of Martin Luther King Jr., who credited it with shaping his Christian message in the African American struggle for civil rights.

See alsoChristianity


Primary Works

Rauschenbusch, Walter. Christianity and the Social Crisis. New York: Macmillan, 1907.

Rauschenbusch, Walter. Christianizing the Social Order. New York: Macmillan, 1912.

Secondary Works

Crunden, Robert M. Ministers of Reform: The Progressives' Achievement in American Civilization, 1889–1920. New York: Basic Books, 1982.

Curtis, Susan. A Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.

Evans, Christopher H. The Kingdom Is Always But Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004.

Evans, Christopher H., ed. Perspectives on the Social Gospel. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1999.

Gorrell, Donald K. The Age of Social Responsibility: The Social Gospel in the Progressive Era, 1900–1920. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1988.

White, Ronald C., Jr., and C. Howard Hopkins, eds. The Social Gospel: Religion and Reform in Changing America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976.

Susan Curtis

About this article

Christianity and the Social Crisis

Updated About content Print Article


Christianity and the Social Crisis