Social Gospel

views updated May 21 2018


SOCIAL GOSPEL was a movement led by a group of liberal Protestant progressives in response to the social problems raised by the rapid industrialization, urbanization, and increasing immigration of the Gilded Age. The social gospel differentiated itself from earlier Christian reform movements by prioritizing social salvation over individual salvation. Although the ministers and activists of the social gospel based their appeals on liberal theology, which emphasized the immanence of God and the doctrine of Incarnation and valued good works over creeds, they usually showed more interest in social science than in theology. Believing that laissez-faire capitalism's understanding of labor as a commodity and its sole reliance on mechanisms of supply and demand to determine wages and allocate resources was un-Christian, social gospel advocates supported the labor movement and called for an interventionist welfare state. They differed from secular activists in that their ultimate vision was not just a more equitable balance of power within society, but a Christianized society in which cooperation, mutual respect, and compassion replaced greed, competition, and conflict among social and economic classes. Despite all of their efforts to reach the working class and to cooperate with the labor movement, though, the social gospel failed to reach far beyond its middle-class liberal Protestant milieu. Ultimately, the greatest achievement of the social gospel was to prepare the ground of middle-class America for progressivism.

Social Gospel in the Nineteenth Century

Washington Gladden was the first person to formulate the ideas of the social gospel. After failing to have the definite conversion experience required by his family's orthodox Calvinist faith, Gladden discovered liberal theology. His editorial work with the liberal journal the Independent and his ministry in several urban churches wracked by labor conflict solidified his liberalism and his concern for the plight of labor. By the mid-1880s, Gladden's name drew audiences across the country to hear his calls for bargaining rights for labor, a shorter work week, factory inspections, inheritance taxation, and regulation of natural monopolies. His charismatic presence, along with his comforting theological exposition of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, made these ideas, radical at the time, more palatable to his middle-class audiences. Gladden never endorsed socialism, but hoped for a gradual evolution toward a cooperative social order. Although he did write several theological treatises, including Applied Christianity (1887) and Social Salvation (1901), Gladden's thought relied more on social ethics and reform than on Christian theology.

If Gladden reveals the social gospel's tendencies to reduce Christianity to a system of social ethics, Richard Ely calls attention to the movement's international influences. Ely was a member of a cohort of social scientists who received their academic training in Germany and who regarded the social welfare legislation of the German Empire with great interest. Ely began his career by studying with German historical economists such as Karl Knies, who rejected neoclassical economics and called for economists to attend to differing cultural and historical contexts. As the principal founder of the American Economic Association and a professor at the social science centers of Johns Hopkins and the University of Wisconsin, Ely advocated the application of Christian social ethics to the discipline of economics. In his economic writings, Ely supported such major revisions to the economic order as public ownership of natural monopolies, factory inspections, and consumer protection.

By the mid-1890s, the social gospel had the support of multiple denominations and a strong foothold in interdenominational organizations. The Episcopal church, which had strong ties to English Christian socialism, the Congregational church, which boasted Gladden and social gospel leader Josiah Strong as members, and a small minority within the Baptist Church were the denominational leaders of the social gospel. The social gospel was particularly prominent within interdenominational organizations. The Interdenominational Congress and the Evangelical Alliance evolved into organs of the social gospel, and social Christianity frequently occupied the podium at the Parliament of Religions at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Beginning in the 1890s, some social gospel ministers, including Gladden, traveled south with the American Missionary Association to address the plight of southern blacks. Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch both denounced racial inequality and lynching and explicitly extended the brotherhood of man to include African Americans. However, the primary geographic and intellectual focus of the movement remained the cities of industrial America.

Social Gospel in the Twentieth Century

In the early twentieth century, the social gospel found its intellectual leader in Rauschenbusch. A theologian, Rauschenbusch's social gospel career began while he was the minister of a German Baptist congregation in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City. His witness of urban poverty sparked his passion for social Christianity, and after his eleven years of ministry, he became the theologian of the social gospel. In Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), Christianizing the Social Order (1912), and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917), Rauschenbusch united German pietistic evangelicalism, theological liberalism, and social Christianity by connecting the Kingdom of God to social salvation. For Rauschenbusch, the Kingdom of God lay in the unknown future, but was latent in the present and active in moments of crisis and change. The Church's and the Christian's role was to enunciate the Kingdom, to find it in the present, and to look to the future with a vision of the Kingdom as one's fulfillment and end. Rauschenbusch accepted a gradualist, Fabian version of socialism. He denounced what he saw as the evils of capitalism and gave his support to workers, but never joined the Socialist Party.

The social gospel reached its zenith in the decade before World War I. In 1908, the Federal Council of Churches, a federation representing thirty-three Protestant denominations, came into being and immediately adopted the social creed of the churches, which affirmed labor's rights to unionize and to bargain collectively. The Men and Religion Forward Movement, an interdenominational campaign that challenged men and boys to devote

themselves to Christian social reform, was founded in 1911. An expanding YMCA, the development of institutional churches, and the social direction of the Religious Education Association, which oversaw Sunday-school education, expanded the reach of social Christianity. The social gospel's indirect connection to progressive activist Jane Addams further benefited the movement by drawing attention to the cause of urban social reform. Addams was not, strictly speaking, a member of the social gospel; she did not use the language of social Christianity, and she maintained a skeptical attitude toward the churches, which offered her little financial support. However, her work as a settlement house founder and social activist made her a symbol of the social gospel in action. Hull House workers joined social gospel activists in lobbying for urban housing improvements, shorter working hours, better working conditions for women, unemployment insurance, and against prostitution and other forms of urban vice.

Most members of the social gospel supported World War I, which they saw as a chance to Christianize society and international politics. The Senate's rejection of U.S. participation in the League of Nations and the revelation of the horrors of the war destroyed the cultural optimism that had been the social gospel's emotional foundation. The social gospel persisted through the 1920s, mostly through pacifist and ecumenical organizations. Yet the majority of American Protestants, who remained socially and theologically conservative, had begun to withdraw their support. Fundamentalism, which began its struggle for denominational power in the 1920s, articulated the growing distrust of the liberal theology behind the social gospel. Fundamentalists did not object to Christian social concern, but to the social gospel's prioritization of social salvation over Christ's regeneration of individual souls. The social gospel, fundamentalists claimed, valued Christian faith only for its inspiration of social action. Furthermore, liberal theology's overemphasis on God's immanence in human society had made God an almost irrelevant component in a largely human project of social reform. As the fundamentalist fight against liberalism and modernism became more strident, fundamentalists identified all social Christianity with the liberal social gospel and associated Christianity with social conservatism.

Criticisms of Social Gospel

In the 1930s, neo-orthodox theology, which originated with the work of Swiss theologian Karl Barth, formed a second major critique of the social gospel. Barth emphasized the transcendental nature of God and the apostolic message of scripture, and criticized liberal theology's willingness to alter Christianity to fit the needs of the middle class, modern scholarship, and social reform. Along with his fellow theologians Paul Tillich and H. Richard Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr expanded Barth's critique of the social gospel. Reinhold Niebuhr took the social gospel to task for its optimism, inattention to human sinfulness, and avoidance of political conflict. In the early 1930s, Niebuhr called for a social Christianity that possessed a more realistic understanding of power structures and human sinfulness and based its appeal on a deep, biblical faith instead of utopian visions. A new, more politically realistic social gospel did develop in the 1930s, as the changing political mood gave a more radical branch of social Christianity the opportunity to express itself. However, World War I, the growth of Protestant political conservatism, and the critiques of neo-orthodoxy divided the social Christianity of the 1930s from its progressive-era precursor.


Curtis, Susan. A Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Hopkins, Charles Howard. The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865–1915. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1940.

May, Henry F. Protestant Churches and Industrial America. New York: Harpers & Brothers, 1949.

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


See alsoModernists, Protestant ; Protestantism ; Religion and Religious Affiliation .

Social Gospel

views updated May 23 2018

Social Gospel

Referring generally to a fresh application of the insights of biblical faith to the problems of the social order, historians have usually identified the "social gospel" with the response of reform-minded church men and women to the urban and industrial crises of the post-Reconstruction North. That interpretation runs the risk of truncating the roots of American social Christianity in reform movements of the antebellum period and failing to see the early origins of a distinctive African-American social gospel.

A social gospel began to develop within African-American communities in late eighteenth-century Christian voluntary societies, which commonly combined the functions of church, school, and mutual aid society. These included the Newport, Rhode Island, Free African Union Society, founded in 1780; the Free African Society of Philadelphia, founded in 1787; Charleston, South Carolina's Brown Fellowship Society, founded in 1790; the African Society of Providence, Rhode Island, founded in 1793; and Boston's African Society, founded in 1796. In the same period, the earliest semiautonomous African Baptist congregations were established in the plantation South, first in Virginia and along the Savannah River bordering South Carolina and Georgia.

As these early African-American voluntary societies developed, particularly in the freer setting of the urban North, they articulated a variety of themes within a framework of millennial expectation: economic development and self-help, freedom and social justice, missionary education, and racial nationalism. In the antebellum North, black clergymen such as Henry Highland Garnet, James W. C. Pennington, and Theodore Wright built institutions and networks for organizations that promoted education, social reform, and the freedom of their enslaved southern kinsmen. These activities were the preparation for northern African-American missionaries to move into the South during and after the Civil War. There they established missions as the institutional seeds of rural social settlements, churches and Sunday schools, and schools and colleges for nurturing the former slaves and their children in freedom.

Usually among the race's educated elite in Reconstruction, African-American clergymen gave direction to the social and political aspirations of southern freedmen. They often served in multiple capacities, as pastor, politician, and professor or school administrator. Commonly committed to a conservative theological orthodoxy, they believed in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and "uplifting the race." They encouraged the freedman to confirm family ties, acquire property, and get an education. Many of them were active in temperance reform. When male freedmen gained the franchise, some clergymen such as Richard H. Cain, William H. Heard, James W. Hood, Hiram R. Revels, and Henry M. Turner were elected to political office. In state legislatures, for example, their efforts helped to lay the foundations for public school systems in the southern states.

After Reconstruction, black clergymen and laywomen turned to building the institutions of social redemptionchurches, schools, and social settlementswithin the African-American community. In rural and urban settings, North and South, black churchwomen founded social settlements to "uplift the race." From 1890 to 1908, Janie Porter Barrett founded the Locust Street Settlement at Hampton, Virginia; Margaret Murray Washington founded the Elizabeth Russell Settlement at Tuskegee, Alabama; Victoria Earle Matthews founded New York's White Rose Mission; and Lugenia Burns Hope founded Atlanta's Neighborhood Union.

In urban communities, clergymen built institutional churches to extend the range of church services to migrants from the rural South. Hutchens C. Bishop of New York's St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Henry Phillips of Philadelphia's Episcopal Church of the Crucifixion, Matthew Anderson of Philadelphia's Berean Presbyterian Church, and Henry H. Proctor of Atlanta's First Congregational Church first built institutional churches. Their example was followed by African Methodists Reverdy C. Ransom, Monroe Work, and R. R. Wright Jr. in Chicago. Thereafter, urban Baptist congregations followed suit with remarkable results.

Some churches' pulpits passed from father to son: Washington and Gardner C. Taylor presided at Baton Rouge's Mt. Zion First Baptist Church; Richard H. Bowling, Sr. and Jr., at Norfolk's First Baptist Church; Junius Caesar Austin, Sr. and Jr., at Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church; Marshall Shepherd, Sr. and Jr., at Philadelphia's Mt. Olivet Baptist Church; and Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and Jr., at New York's Abyssinian Baptist Church. These pastors built centers of urban religious, social, and political power. More remarkable is the passage of the pulpit through three generations of William H. Grays, I, II, and III, at Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

Martin Luther King Sr., who succeeded his father-inlaw, A. D. Williams, at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, would have passed it on to his sons, Martin Luther King Jr., or A. D. Williams King, had their premature deaths not prevented it. Even so, as the heir of many generations of African-American preachers of the social gospel, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had already become its foremost American spokesman in his generation.

See also Brown Fellowship Society; Cain, Richard Harvey; Garnet, Henry Highland; Hood, James Walker; Hope, Lugenia Burns; Pennington, James W. C.; Revels, Hiram Rhoades; Turner, Henry McNeal; Washington, Margaret Murray; Wright, Theodore Sedgwick


Luker, Ralph E. The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 18851912. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Wheeler, Edward L. Uplifting the Race: The Black Minister in the New South, 18651902. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986.

ralph e. luker (1996)

Social Gospel

views updated May 23 2018


The movement in American Protestantism, beginning in the 1870s, that endeavored to answer the challenges presented by the abuses of industrialism. It was also a corrective to the theological individualism and economic conservativism of the churches of that epoch, and an assertion that from the teachings of Jesus Christ the institutions of a just social order can be deduced. Although its theological premises were different, the moral idealism of the social gospel movement and its goals paralleled those of Christian socialism in England, and the efforts of Continental Catholicism that culminated in Leo XIII's encyclical rerum novarum of May 1, 1891. The social sympathies of unitarians and the utopian perfectionism of transcendentalism earlier in the 19th century undoubtedly contributed to the emergence of the social gospel, as did the momentum of the antislavery crusade. These humanitarian protests came at a time when labor leaders, socialists, and reformers were attacking Christianity as a class religion concerned primarily with protecting property and ignoring widespread human misery. Moreover, science was eroding the beliefs of theological fundamentalism, and the recognition was growing that the shocking disparities of wealth were not to be cured by appeals to middle-class piety. A new interpretation of the Christian message was probably inevitable, one addressing itself to the changed world and its problems of the sweatshop, the slum, the company town, and unemployment.

A social order reflecting the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man was the essential demand of the social gospel. The ideas of Horace bushnell directly influenced Washington Gladden, who, along with W. D. P. Bliss, gave a new orientation to American Protestantism at the end of the century. Their voices were subsequently joined by those of George D. Herron, Walter rauschenbusch, and Shailer mathews. In a movement climaxed in December 1908, the overwhelming majority of churches of the evangelical tradition formed the nation al (originally called Federal) council of churches of christ in the u.s.a. to secure, as the preamble to its Constitution declared, "a larger combined influence for the Churches of Christ in all matters affecting the moral and social condition of the people, so as to promote the application of the law of Christ in every relation of human life."

The reforms advocated by the exponents of the social gospel were gradual ones. Their goals, partly because of the moral energy they released, have been incorporated into national legislation. Their overly simple belief in the essential goodness of man and in his responsiveness to moral suasion, along with their lack of realism as to the magnitude and complexity of the problems they optimistically analyzed and prematurely "solved," ultimately weakened confidence in the social gospel. Its energies were dissipated in efforts to impose national prohibition. Attacks on its theological adequacy by the disciples of Karl Barth, and on its political naïveté by Reinhold Niebuhr, further weakened the movement. But its activist emphasis and its concern for justice among men left a characteristic stamp on American Protestantism.

Bibliography: r. h. gabriel, The Course of American Democratic Thought (2d ed. New York 1956). f. e. johnson, The Social Gospel Re-examined (New York 1940). j. a. hutchison, We Are Not Divided (New York 1941). c. h. hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 18651915 (New Haven 1940). a. s. nash, Protestant Thought in the Twentieth Century: Whence and Whither? (New York 1951). w. a. visser 't hooft, The Background of the Social Gospel in America (New York 1929).

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Social Gospel

views updated May 29 2018


The Social Gospel was a Christian reform movement originating in the late nineteenth century. It was espoused by Protestants, who preached social responsibility as a means to salvation. Adherents believed that the social, economic, and political ills produced by unrestrained capitalism could be addressed by teaching religious values to the working class. They also believed that human nature could be improved by changing the conditions in which people lived and worked.

In addition to building churches in impoverished neighborhoods of American cities, Social Gospel reformers worked within the communities to urge businesses to adopt socially responsible practices. Movement leaders, including clergymen Washington Gladden (18361918) of Columbus, Ohio, and Walter Rauschenbusch (18611918) of Rochester, New York, acted as mediators between employees and employers. They also wrote books on applying Christian beliefs to alleviate social ills and they worked to lessen the effects of poverty.

The Social Gospel movement was one aspect of a greater progressivism of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Activistsincluding many young, middle-class individualswere outraged by the living and working conditions of the urban poor. They argued that government needed to regulate big businessthey argued that the doctrine of laissez faire, which opposes government interference in the economy, had only resulted in a capitalist society run amok. This view was at least partly responsible for government legislation imposing some regulations on U.S. industry. It also inspired a spirit of charitable works among many Americans. The reform movement resulted in the passage of building safety codes, enactment of anti-trust laws, approval of health safety standards for the food industry, establishment of settlement houses in inner cities (where residents could participate in educational and social activities), and urban beautification projects.

The legacy of the Social Gospel movement lasted well beyond the first three decades of the twentieth century. Protestant pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick (18781969) asserted that leaders such as Rauschenbusch had "ushered in a new era of Christian thought and action."

See also: Muckrakers