Walter Rauschenbusch

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RAUSCHENBUSCH, WALTER (18611918), Baptist clergyman and intellectual leader of the Social Gospel movement in American Protestantism. Rauschenbusch was born in Rochester, New York, received most of his schooling there, and taught at the Rochester Theological Seminary from 1897 to 1918. His father, August, a highly educated Westphalian Lutheran pastor, had gone to Missouri in 1846 as a missionary to German immigrants. After becoming a Baptist, August Rauschenbusch headed the Rochester seminary's program for German-speaking clergy. He bequeathed to his son an enduring appreciation of both evangelical piety and the Western cultural tradition.

Following his graduation from the Rochester Theological Seminary in 1886, young Rauschenbusch became pastor of the Second German Baptist Church in a tenement section of New York City. Here he was stirred by the hardships of the people: "I saw how men toiled all their life and at the end had almost nothing to show for it; how strong men begged for work and could not get it in the hard times; how little children died" (The Social Gospel in America, 18701920, p. 265). He realized that his training had not equipped him to understand the powerful social, economic, and intellectual currents sweeping through American life; nor had his conservative seminary professors offered him a religious perspective adequate to cope with those currents. During his eleven-year pastorate in New York City he undertook an intense schedule of reading, discussion, and writing, much of it in collaboration with colleagues in two new organizations he helped to direct, the Baptist Congress and the Brotherhood of the Kingdom. Rauschenbusch received intellectual stimulation from a variety of authors, notably the American economist Henry George, the English theologians Frederick D. Maurice and Frederick W. Robertson, the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoi, the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini, and the German sociologist Albert Schäffle.

Rauschenbusch returned to the Rochester Theological Seminary in 1897 as professor of New Testament; from 1902 until his death he was professor of church history. More than any other person in the United States, he provided a theological undergirding for the growing numbers of laity and clergy who sought to mold social and economic institutions according to Christian principles. His chief books were Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), Prayers of the Social Awakening (1910), Christianizing the Social Order (1912), The Social Principles of Jesus (1916), and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917).

Central in Rauschenbusch's message were the affirmations that the churches must recognize afresh that the kingdom of God had been Jesus' key teaching, that God intends this kingdom to reach into every realm of life, and that the competitiveness and selfishness fostered by capitalism must be opposed by persons committed to fulfilling God's beneficent will for humanity.

In the decades following Rauschenbusch's death many churches continued to address the tasks of social criticism and reconstruction, albeit not with the single-mindedness and effect for which he and other Social Gospel leaders had wished. Some influential religious thinkers in the middle third of the twentieth century judged Rauschenbusch's theological perspective to have been colored excessively by the optimism of his era. Recently, his thought has been viewed more appreciatively by persons who find richly provocative such Rauschenbuschian themes as the centering of Christianity in Jesus' proclamation of God's reign, the historical and social character of sin and salvation, and the complementarity of personal piety and social activism.


The information contained in Dores R. Sharpe's Walter Rauschenbusch (New York, 1942) makes this an indispensable volume. However, it offers little historical and theological perspective, and significant gaps exist in Sharpe's presentation of Rauschenbusch's life. A more recent biography is Paul M. Minus, Walter Rauschenbusch: American Reformer (New York, 1988). Perceptive analyses and important portions of Rauschenbusch's writings can be found in The Social Gospel in America, 18701920, edited by Robert T. Handy (New York, 1966); "Sources of American Spirituality," in Walter Rauschenbusch: Selected Writings, edited by Winthrop S. Hudson (Mahwah, N. J., 1984); and Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York, 1917), "Library of Theological Ethics" (Louisville, 1997), with introduction by Donald W. Shriver, Jr.

Paul M. Minus (1987 and 2005)

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Walter Rauschenbusch

The American clergyman Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) broke the complacency and conservatism of late-19th-century American Protestantism, propounding a Social Gospel capable of responding to the challenges of an industrial, urban era.

Walter Rauschenbusch was born on Oct. 4, 1861, in Rochester, N.Y., the son of a German missionary, and reared in a pietistic environment. Years of study in his youth in Germany provided him with scholarly intellectual equipment and introduced him to the then revolutionary ideas shattering traditional dogmas. On graduation from the Rochester Theological Seminary in 1886, he was ordained to the Baptist ministry.

Rauschenbusch's first pastorate was on the edge of New York City's infamous Hell's Kitchen area, and daily observance of the terrible poverty of his block led him to question both laissez-faire capitalism and the relevance of the old pietistic evangelism with its simple gospel. As he observed during the depression of 1893, "One could hear human virtue cracking and crumbling all around." In these New York years he edited a short-lived labor paper; founded the Brotherhood of the Kingdom, a band of prophetic ministers; and formulated a theology of Christian socialism. In 1897 he left parish work for a professorship at Rochester Seminary, partly because deafness was reducing his ministerial effectiveness.

A series of books now came from Rauschenbusch's pen, most notably Christianity and the Social Crisis, Christianizing the Social Order, A Theology for the Social Gospel, and Prayers of the Social Awakening. These volumes, widely translated, reached hundreds of thousands. Penetrating in his critique of society, solidly grounded in theology, he towered above all the other prophets of the Social Gospel in the Progressive era.

Rauschenbusch believed that men rarely sinned against God alone and that the Church must place under judgment institutional evils as well as individual immorality. He held that men are damned by inhuman social conditions and that the Church must end exploitation, poverty, greed, racial pride, and war. The Church must not betray, as it had done since Constantine, its true mission of redeeming nations as well as men. But he was no utopian. He recognized the demonic in man, understood the power of entrenched interest groups, and predicted no easy or early establishment of God's reign of love. Therefore his theology, unlike that of so many bland modernists of the Progressive era, continues to speak for contemporary tragic conditions. Rauschenbusch died on July 25, 1918, deeply saddened by World War I, by the failure of pacifism to check the holocaust, and by the hatred poured out on all things German.

Further Reading

Dores Robinson Sharpe, Walter Rauschenbusch (1942), is a satisfactory but not definitive biography. Vernon Parker Bodein, The Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch and Its Relation to Religious Education (1944), covers its limited subject well. Three fine studies of the Social Gospel are Charles H. Hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865-1915 (1940); Henry F. May, Protestant Churches and Industrial America (1949); and Robert T. Handy, ed., The Social Gospel in America, 1870-1920 (1966). □

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Chief exponent of the social gospel in American Protestantism; b. Rochester, N.Y., Oct. 4, 1861; d. Rochester, July 25, 1918. After graduating in 1886 from Rochester Theological Seminary, he served for 11 years as pastor of the Second German Baptist Church on the edge of New York City's notorious Hell's Kitchen. From this ministry and from his reading of Henry George, Tolstoi, Marx, Bellamy, and the Webbs came Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), a book that challenged the individualism and pietism of 19th-century American Protestantism. In subsequent works, Christianizing the Social Order (1912), The Social Principles of Jesus (1916), and A Theology of the Social Gospel (1917), he preached the theme of the "Kingdom of God," which emphasized social transformation and economic betterment as the purpose for which the church exists. In addition to his writing, Rauschenbusch also served as professor of New Testament (18971902) and of church history (190218) at Rochester Theological Seminary. He was active in civic affairs until World War I, which left him crushed in spirit. His theology was largely superseded by neoorthodoxy after the war.

Bibliography: A Rauschenbusch Reader: The Kingdom of God and the Social Gospel, comp. b. y. landis (New York 1957). h. f. ward, Dictionary of American Biography, ed. a. johnson and d. malone, 20 v. (New York 192836; index 1937; 1st suppl. 1944; 2d suppl. 1958) 15:392393. d. r. sharpe, Walter Rauschenbusch (New York 1942). r. niebuhr, "W. R. in Perspective," Religion in Life (Autumn 1958).

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Walter Rauschenbusch (rou´shənbŏŏsh), 1861–1918, American clergyman, b. Rochester, N.Y. In 1886 he was ordained and began work among German immigrants as pastor of the Second German Baptist Church in New York City. He studied (1891–92) economics and theology at the Univ. of Berlin and industrial relations in England, where he became acquainted with the Fabian Society. In 1902 he was appointed professor of church history at Rochester Theological Seminary. He was a leading figure in the Social Gospel movement, which sought to rectify economic and social injustice. His writings include Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), Christianizing the Social Order (1912), The Social Principles of Jesus (1916), and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917).