"The Social Gospel" refers to a movement within some Protestant churches in North America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The movement was a Christian response to a widely-perceived problem.
During the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the U.S. and Canada experienced first agricultural and then industrial expansion. The immigration of tens of millions of people, primarily to the U.S., made possible the scale of this expansion. This "modern situation," as it was called also generated what observers referred to as "the social question." That phrase included issues such as tension--and sometimes conflict--between labor and capital, the question of a just wage, the unprecedented growth of cities, and above all poverty and its effects (Schweicker, 67).
One of the basic convictions of the Social Gospel was that "society is a web of mutually interdependent relations and interests" (Otatti, 468). The problems of the unemployed person or the poor laborer are not simply individual. Instead, they are environmental or systemic. Therefore, the solutions to poverty and its effects are not personal, but are likewise systemic. Advocates of the Social Gospel believed that this insight spoke not only about the world, but also to the church. For that reason, they insisted that the church "could no longer claim that true religion is entirely a matter of personal conversion and individual salvation" (Otatti, 469).
Social Gospelers, as they are sometimes called, were convinced that their age had presented the church with a basic question: is our general, collective economic and social life beyond the scope of Christian ethics? Or is it the case that "the social question" pertains to the church; that responding to it is part of the business of the body of Christ? Leaders of the Social Gospel answered by saying that the church's obedience to a God of justice, its faith in a God of mercy, was exactly what North America needed. Why? Because it was the church that could say, "Unregulated industrial expansion and laissez-faire economics must be tempered by the command 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself' (Ahlstrom, 786-77). Because that was the message of the Social Gospel, some people have said it was the religious face of the progressive movement and reform impulses in American politics of the time.
A couplet from the Lord's Prayer epitomizes what advocates worked for and really expected. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The Social Gospel movement began with the burden that the will of God was not being done in North America. To that extent, the kingdom had not yet come. But it could.
An interesting group of people provided leadership for the Social Gospel. Any short list would include the name Washington Gladden (1836-1918), a Congregational minister who spent a good number of his working years in Columbus, Ohio. Gladden was a popular speaker, and wrote about 40 books. One of the first, published in 1886, was titled Applied Christianity. Because his influence was early and immense, he is commonly called the father of the Social Gospel.
Another early leader was Josiah Strong (1847-1916). Like Gladden, Strong was a Congregational minister. He served mainly as a peacemaker and organizer among the various Protestant denominations. From 1886 to 1898, he was general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance. He was also one of the founders in 1908 of the interdenominational group, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America.
Probably the most significant non-preacher in the group was Richard Ely (1854-1943), a layman in the Episcopal Church. Ely was a political economist who took an interest in theological and religious issues. His expertise on economic questions made the Social Gospel movement seem more credible, and this was basic to its influence.
The best theological thinker and most eloquent prophet of the movement was the great Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). The son of German immigrants, in the 1880s Rauschenbusch began working as pastor of a Baptist congregation near that part of Manhattan called Hell's Kitchen. Ministering there, he was forever changed by his experience of what he called "an endless procession of men out of work, . . . out of shoes, and out of hope." This became the burden that drove his ministry (Wooden, 267). In his later years, Rauschenbusch taught at Rochester Theological Seminary. In 1907, he published Christianity and the Social Crisis. He said that he wrote that book "to discharge a debt" that he owed to the working men among whom he had served. The book became a bestseller. In 1917, he published another significant book, A Theology for the Social Gospel.
And then there was the great creative writer of the movement, the Congregational minister, an activist, and novelist named Charles Sheldon. My next post will be about him.
Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. See especially Chapter 47, "The Social Gospel," pp. 785-804. This source provides uncommon insight for understanding the Social Gospel Movement.
Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed., revised. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Erikson, Millard J. Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology. revised ed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001.
Handy, R. T. "Social Gospel Movement." In Dictionary of Christianity in America, edited by Daniel G. Reid, 1104-06. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990.
Hutchinson, William R. American Protestant Thought in the Liberal Era. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1968.
Ottati, Douglas F. "Social Gospel." In New and Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology, edited by Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price, 468-70. Nashville: Abingdon, 2003.
Schweiker, William. "Social Gospel." In Encyclopedia of Christianity, edited by Erwin Fahlbusch, Jan Milic Lochman, John Mbiti, Jaroslav Pelikan, Lukas Vischer, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and David B. Barrett, 5:67-69. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.
Wooden, W. Frederick. "Social Gospel." In Encyclopedia of American History, edited by Ari Hoogenboom and Gary B. Nash, 6:266-67. New York: Facts On File, 2003.