In 1848 Karl Marx dismissed Christian Socialism as “the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heartburnings of the aristocrat” (Marx  1967). His immediate, if unstated, target was the group of Anglicans around the theologian F. D. Maurice, who that year in London began a short-lived publication, The Christian Socialist. The occasion for their emergence—sympathy with Chartism—was political, and an important part of their activity was practical social witness, such as Maurice’s foundation of the Working Men’s College in 1854. Their Christian Socialism was thus reformist rather than radical and operated within a theological as well as a political context. As Maurice explained, he chose the term Christian Socialist to differentiate them from both “the unsocial Christians and the unChristian socialists” (quoted in Wilkinson 1998). The former were targets because of the pietistic emphasis on individual salvation of contemporary evangelicalism, and for political reasons. At the time Christian views of political economy were primarily shaped by emphases on responsibility: either in Malthus’s warnings about the demoralizing effects of the Poor Law or in the comforting commonplace of the time that he who pursues his own best interests is also supplying the interests of the community as a whole. Maurice attacked such views and the laissez-faire orthodoxy they reflected. Socialism for him, however, seems to have been largely about the church addressing the people inclusively rather than individually, not least through reformist social activity rather than the establishment of an alternative political economy.
Although the term Christian Socialism was popularized in this distinctive nineteenth-century context, it drew, as even Marx acknowledged, upon both biblical and ecclesiastical precepts. It may have been at this point that Christian Socialism began to emerge as a distinct witness, but those who followed in Maurice’s footsteps could associate their views with a much longer tradition. From the Old Testament the providence of land and the Jewish institution of Jubilee implied divine sanction of equal shares in the means of production and divine prohibition of private accumulation, while the prophets provided examples of denunciations of injustice. The New Testament furnishes strictures against the rich and the money changers, while Christ’s message that, instead of the love of self implied by such accumulation, people should love one another became, by the late nineteenth century, the basis for claims that Jesus was the first socialist. And the sharing of all things in common and their distribution according to need in the early church (Acts 2: 44–47; 4: 32–37) suggested protosocialist communities.
There were a number of attempts to re-create such communities in the early nineteenth century. Étienne Cabet in France saw the rise of the medieval church as having corrupted early Christianity, the ideals of which he sought to recapture in utopian communities. The non-Christian Robert Owen simultaneously experimented with such communities in Britain and America. Although his ideas were to influence Maurice, both his and Cabet’s communities ended in failure. Meanwhile, the shadowy League of the Just founded in 1836 and largely composed of German exiles in London was transformed from a body calling for the realization of the Kingdom of God on Earth through universal brotherhood in 1847 into the purported commissioners of Marx’s Communist Manifesto, which sought to achieve the ideal society through class struggle instead.
Some Christians accepted this diagnosis, while rejecting both the materialistic basis of Marxism and its facile assumption that an ideal society requires merely the expunging of class exploitation. They were, however, in a new situation, in which positivistic secular creeds sought to explain the human condition or express social ideals without necessarily having recourse to religious frameworks. Socialism could still benefit from the imprimatur of Christianity, but it could also become a rival creed to churches seen as more focused on salvation in the next world rather than this one. In continental Europe, as well, papal hostility to this challenge in Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864), as well as the extent to which Catholicism had become associated with defense of the established order, meant that nineteenth-century socialism there frequently had a distinctly anticlerical flavor. Despite the efforts of, for instance, Bishop Kettler of Mainz in the 1860s, this antipathy was not to be mitigated until after Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, which, while still condemning socialism, was much more open to labor organizations.
The more pluralistic political and religious culture of the Anglophone world produced different effects. An emphasis on the Incarnation and the corporate life of the church led Anglo-Catholics such as Stewart Headlam to revive Christian Socialism in the 1870s and 1880s. Walter Rauschenbusch’s emphasis in the 1890s on the Kingdom of God as an endeavor for this life, not the next, was also to have wide influence. It led to a positive view of state intervention. Contemporary economic and social developments, especially the emergence of more rigid class differences and secular socialist parties, were also prompting this trend. A “Social Gospel,” intended to bridge the gulf to the working classes by a mixture of social work in poorer areas and a generalized language of social welfare, appeared in both Britain and America around the end of the nineteenth century.
In America such figures as Washington Gladden emphasized a new concordat between capital and labor, not least through just wages and profit sharing. Meanwhile, in Edwardian Britain, the more radical idea of Guild Socialism came into vogue. This was an attempt to find ways for workers themselves to directly control their production and entrench the dignity of labor against the materialism of collective socialism. Grounded in part in medieval romanticism, practical expression was most nearly achieved by the guild organization in the building trades established by Quaker businessman Malcolm Sparks after World War I. Such ideas, however, did not long survive in the difficult economic climate of the interwar years.
Anglo-Catholic enthusiasm for a corporate and social expression in faith led instead to experiments such as the Christendom Group around Maurice Reckitt. Meanwhile, within the Roman Catholic Church, while the rise of Catholic Action as a means of engaging with modern conditions prompted a growing accent on social welfare by the 1930s, the theocratic nature of much of Catholic political thought militated against its being expressed in radical political ways. Exceptions included the Catholic Worker Movement founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in New York in 1933.
Significant change came with Vatican II in the early 1960s. In particular, its more active approach to pastoral care opened the way for political engagement. This was particularly true in Catholic Latin America, where popular protest against the extreme social inequalities of the Continent were already gathering strength in the wake of the 1958 Cuban revolution. Bishops meeting in Medellín in 1968 concluded that the Church had to be not only for the poor but of the poor. The focus, as developed in Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation (1971), was on God’s preferential love for the poor and oppressed, expressed, not least, by Christ himself identifying with their suffering on the cross. This perspective was subsequently to find wide application, particularly in the developing world.
Christian Socialism, then, is to some extent contextual and does not involve a single political or theological viewpoint. It has developed in relation both to secular socialist movements—some of which, like the British Labour Party, now have affiliated Christian organizations—and the wider churches. What is distinctive throughout, however, is the view that a more socially just society requires changes in people’s attitudes toward one another rather than simply in the social system.
SEE ALSO Christianity; Egalitarianism; Jesus Christ; Labour Party (Britain); Liberation Theology; Malthus, Thomas Robert; Marx, Karl; Roman Catholic Church; Socialism; Vatican, The
Bryant, Chris. 1996. Possible Dreams: A Personal History of the British Christian Socialists. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Gutiérrez, Gustavo. 1971. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.
Jones, Peter d’A. 1968. The Christian Socialist Revival 1877–1914: Religion, Class and Social Conscience in Late-Victorian England. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Marx, Karl. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1967.
Maurice, Frederick Denison. 1838. The Kingdom of Christ. London: Dent, 1906.
Wilkinson, Alan. 1998. Christian Socialism: Scott Holland to Tony Blair. London: SCM Press.
Christian Socialism was the name given to a variety of religious groups during the nineteenth century in western Europe who tried to apply Christian teachings to solve social and economic problems resulting from industrialization. Only in England, from the 1850s through the 1920s, did groups formally use the name "Christian Socialists." Informally, observers at various times applied it to Christian social activists in France, Belgium, and Germany. In 1850 a number of Anglican Christians, that is, members of the Church of England, created the Society for Promoting Working Men's Associations along with its journal, The Christian Socialist. This marked the first widely known use of the term. This group was inspired, and led for a time, by F. D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley, John Ludlow, and Edward Vansittart Neale. At the time, the Anglican Church usually had little to say about the terrible conditions of workers, beyond advocating charity on the part of the wealthy. The Christian Socialists believed that Biblical teachings justified workers' associations and governmental regulation of labor. Taking the medieval guilds of independent artisans as their inspiration, they supported producers' cooperatives more than they did true labor unions. While strongly encouraging workers to form associations, they usually hoped that educated middle-class Christians would play a leading role in these groups. The goal of the workers' associations would be social solidarity in place of antagonism between workers and the upper class.
Neither these Anglican leaders nor any of the activists elsewhere called Christian Socialists advocated government ownership of private property. In this sense, they were never truly socialist in the Marxist sense. Nonetheless, the advocacy for workers' associations and government action appeared radical among Christians in the nineteenth century.
The Society for Promoting Working Men's Associations and its journal soon ended in the mid-1850s, but their ideas and example continued. In 1889 a small but influential group of Anglican clergy and laypeople organized the Christian Social Union and its journal, The Church Socialist; this organization lasted until 1919. A similar Church Socialist League was founded by Baptists and other "nonconformists," that is, Protestants outside of the Church of England, in 1886, although some Anglicans were active in it; its organizers had begun publishing Christian Socialist in 1883. These groups abandoned the nostalgia for workers' associations or producers' cooperatives modeled on medieval guilds. Instead, through the Labour Party, they supported labor unions and workers' political action to gain unemployment insurance, pensions, and state-supported housing. The more radical, still largely Anglican, Church Socialist League, founded in 1906, which began publishing The Church Socialist in 1912, advocated this program most clearly. They helped create within the British Labour Party an openness to Christianity and a resistance to anti-clericalism that had no counterpart among socialist parties in France, Germany, Italy, or elsewhere in continental Europe. The most famous leader of this tendency was Philip Snowden (1864–1937), a Methodist weaver's son and member of the Free Church Socialist League, founded in 1909, who became a cabinet member in Labour Party governments in the 1920s and 1930s.
Some French Catholics in the 1840s who supported democracy and aiding workers were called Christian Socialists. Their most important leader, Philippe Buchez, like many of the British Christian Socialists, called for the creation of associations in which workers could provide insurance, regulate their trades, and advocate for better conditions. This wave of activism ended in the harsh struggles between Left and Right in the years following the Revolution of 1848 in France.
The intellectual basis of Catholicism as a social doctrine that provided an alternative to socialism is best seen, for example, in Juan Donoso Cortés's Essay on Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism, published in 1851: "Liberalism cultivates only individuality, even isolation. Socialism … reacts against the prospect of savage competition with … regimentation and collectivism." Catholic Christianity, Donoso Cortés argued, offered a third way. Social solidarity on Christian principles could protect workers without destroying liberty. Most "social Catholics" in the mid-nineteenth century concerned about the plight of workers, however, were still more inclined toward providing charity than creating organizations of workers that took account of their economic grievances. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other organizations offered food, clothing, and education. Catholic groups of workers, such as those inspired by Adolph Kolping, a German priest, beginning in 1846, were to be social, religious, and nonpolitical. Wilhelm von Ketteler, bishop of Mainz, Germany, in his 1864 work titled The Workers'Question and Christianity, went further and called for state recognition of workers' associations and the need for these groups to make political demands. Only gradually did social Catholics give up the dream of re-creating the supposedly harmonious craft guilds of the pre–French Revolutionary period. Arthur Verhaegen, a sponsor of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, helped found a Catholic labor union federation in Ghent, Belgium, in 1891. As he declared, "Charity is not enough to guarantee what is right. Next to it one must have justice." Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum, promulgated in 1891, called on Catholics to solve economic grievances. Without advocating labor unions specifically, the pope provided an intellectual basis for their support. Catholic labor unions were usually allied with Christian Democratic political parties, which also began in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Austria, and France in the 1890s. The Christian unions in Germany were exceptional in including both Protestants and Catholics. In the Netherlands, conservative Calvinists, under the leadership of a future prime minister, Abraham Kuyper, and the Anti-Revolutionary Party, provided the only example of Protestant Christian Democracy and organized their own labor unions. While called Christian Socialists by their opponents on both left and right, that is, by Marxist socialists or anarchists and by conservative Catholics, Catholic labor activists almost never used this term themselves. Yet it was frequently used to attack them. Verhaegen, who was of aristocratic descent, was sometimes mocked as the "Red Baron" for his allegedly left-wing sympathies. Catholic unions, although much smaller than those of the socialists, ensured that Christian Democratic parties would not be exclusively middle class and rural. As a result, Christian Democracy joined socialism as the most important political movements in much of continental Europe in the twentieth century.
Fremantle, Anne, ed. The Papal Encyclicals in Their Historical Context. New York, 1956.
Nitti, Francesco. Catholic Socialism. 3rd ed. Translated from the 2nd Italian ed. by Mary Mackintosh. London, 1911.
Backstrom, Philip N. Christian Socialism and Co-operation in Victorian England: Edward Vansittart Neale and the Co-operative Movement. London, 1974.
Berenson, Edward. Populist Religion and Left-Wing Politics in France, 1830–1852. Princeton, N.J., 1984.
Brose, Eric Dorn. Christian Labor and the Politics of Frustration in Imperial Germany. Washington, D.C., 1985.
Jones, Peter d'A. The Christian Socialist Revival, 1877–1914: Religion, Class, and Social Conscience in Late Victorian England. Princeton, N.J., 1968.
Kalyvas, Stathis N. The Rise of Christian Democracy in Europe. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996.
Misner, Paul. Social Catholicism in Europe: From the Onset of Industrialization to the First World War. New York, 1991.
Reckitt, Maurice B., ed. For Christ and the People: Studies of Four Socialist Priests and Prophets of the Church of England between 1870 and 1930. London, 1968.
Strikwerda, Carl. "A Resurgent Religion: The Rise of Catholic Social Movements in Nineteenth-Century Belgian Cities." In European Religion in the Age of the Great Cities, 1830–1930, edited by Hugh McLeod, 61–89. London, 1995.
Carl J. Strikwerda
Christian socialism, term used in Great Britain and the United States for a kind of socialism growing out of the clash between Christian ideals and the effects of competitive business. In Europe, it usually refers to a party or trade union directed by religious leaders in contrast to socialist unions and parties. The movement was begun in England in 1848, after the failure of Chartism. Influenced by Carlyle, Southey, Coleridge, and the Fourierists, rather than by Marx, such men as John Ludlow, Frederick Denison Maurice, and Charles Kingsley sought to encourage the laboring masses and the church to cooperate against capitalism. They published periodicals and tracts, promoted workingmen's associations, founded (1854) a workingmen's college, and helped achieve some general reforms. Though their experiments in producers' cooperation failed, their traditions were carried on by the Fabian Society, by adherents of guild socialism, and by several Roman Catholic groups. The movement in the United States was organized with the formation (1889) of the Society of Christian Socialists, although there had been earlier activity by Washington Gladden, Richard Theodore Ely, and others.
See C. E. Raven, Christian Socialism,1848–1854 (1920, repr. 1968); J. C. Cort, Christian Socialism (1988).
John F. C. Harrison