Social Gospel

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search

The Social Gospel was a Christian intellectual movement that was most prominent in the early 20th century United States and Canada. The movement applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. Theologically, the Social Gospellers sought to operationalize the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:10): "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."[1] They typically were post-millennialist; that is, they believed the Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort.[2] The Social Gospel was more popular among clergy than laity.[3] Its leaders were predominantly associated with the liberal wing of the Progressive Movement, and most were theologically liberal, although a few were also conservative when it came to their views on social issues.[4] Important leaders include Richard T. Ely, Josiah Strong, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch.

Although most scholars agree that the Social Gospel movement peaked in the early 20th century, there is disagreement over when the movement began to decline, with some asserting that the destruction and trauma caused by World War I left many disillusioned with the Social Gospel's ideals[5] while others argue that World War I stimulated the Social Gospelers' reform efforts.[6] Theories regarding the decline of the Social Gospel after World War I often cite the rise of neo-orthodoxy as a contributing factor in the movement's decline.[7] Many of the Social Gospel's ideas reappeared in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. "Social Gospel" principles continue to inspire newer movements such as Christians Against Poverty.[8]


The term "Social Gospel" was first used by Charles Oliver Brown[9] in reference to Henry George's popular book, "Progress and Poverty", which sparked the Single Tax movement.[10]

United States

The Social Gospel affected much of Protestant America. The Presbyterians described its goals in 1910 by proclaiming:[11]

The great ends of the church are the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.

In the late 19th century, many Protestants were disgusted by the poverty level and the low quality of living in the slums. The social gospel movement provided a religious rationale for action to address those concerns. Activists in the Social Gospel movement hoped that by public health measures as well as enforced schooling the poor could develop talents and skills, the quality of their moral lives would begin to improve. Important concerns of the Social Gospel movement were labor reforms, such as abolishing child labor and regulating the hours of work by mothers. By 1920 they were crusading against the 12-hour day for workers at U.S. Steel.

Washington Gladden

Gladden (1836-1918) was an American clergyman. His words and actions earned him the title of “a pioneer” of the Social Gospel even before the term came into use. Gladden spoke up for workers and their right to organize unions.[12]

For Gladden, the “Christian law covers every relation of life” including the relationship between employers and their employees.[13] His 1877 book The Christian Way: Whither it Leads and How to Go On was his first national call for such a universal application of Christian values in everyday life. The book began his leadership in the Social Gospel movement.[14] Historians consider Gladden to be one of the Social Gospel Movement’s “founding fathers.”[15]

In the 20th century, the mantle of leadership was passed to Walter Rauschenbusch.

Walter Rauschenbusch

Another of the defining theologians for the Social Gospel movement was Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist pastor of a congregation located in Hell’s Kitchen. Rauschenbusch railed against what he regarded as the selfishness of capitalism and promoted a form of Christian Socialism that supported the creation of labor unions and cooperative economics.[16]

While pastors like Rauschenbusch were combining their expertise in Biblical ethics and economic studies and research to preach theological claims around the need for social reform, others such as Dwight Moody refused to preach about social issues based on personal experience. Pastor Moody’s experience led him to believe that the poor were too particular in receiving charity. Moody claimed that concentrating on social aid distracted people from the life saving message of the Gospel.

Rauschenbusch sought to address the problems of the city with socialist ideas which proved to be frightening to the middle classes, the primary supporters of the Social Gospel. In contrast, Moody attempted to save people from the city and was very effective in influencing the middle class Americans who were moving into the city with traditional style revivals.[17]:476–478

Rauschenbusch's A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917)

The social gospel movement was not a unified and well-focused movement, for it contained members who disagreed with the conclusions of others within the movement.[17]:478 Rauschenbusch stated that the movement needed “a theology to make it effective” and likewise, “theology needs the social gospel to vitalize it.”[18]:1 In A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917), Rauschenbusch takes up the task of creating “a systematic theology large enough to match [our social gospel] and vital enough to back it.”[18]:1 He believed that the social gospel would be “a permanent addition to our spiritual outlook and that its arrival constitutes a state in the development of the Christian religion,”[18]:2 and thus a systematic tool for using it was necessary.

In A Theology for the Social Gospel, Rauschenbusch states that the individualistic gospel has made sinfulness of the individual clear, but it has not shed light on institutionalized sinfulness: “It has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion.”[18]:5 This ideology would be inherited by liberation theologians and civil rights advocates and leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

The “Kingdom of God” is crucial to Rauschenbusch’s proposed theology of the social gospel. He states that the ideology and doctrine of the “the Kingdom of God,” of which Jesus Christ reportedly “always spoke”[18]:131 has been gradually replaced by that of the Church. This was done at first by the early church out of what appeared to be necessity, but Rauschenbusch calls Christians to return to the doctrine of “the Kingdom of God.”[18]:132 Of course, such a replacement has cost theology and Christians at large a great deal: the way we view Jesus and the synoptic gospels, the ethical principles of Jesus, and worship rituals have all been affected by this replacement.[18]:133–134 In promoting a return to the doctrine of the “Kingdom of God,” he clarified that the “Kingdom of God”: is not subject to the pitfalls of the Church; it can test and correct the Church; is a prophetic, future-focused ideology and a revolutionary, social and political force that understands all creation to be sacred; and it can help save the problematic, sinful social order.[18]:134–137

Settlement movement

Many reformers inspired by the movement opened settlement houses, most notably Hull House in Chicago operated by Jane Addams. They helped the poor and immigrants improve their lives. Settlement houses offered services such as daycare, education, and health care to needy people in slum neighborhoods. The YMCA was created originally to help rural youth adjust to the city without losing their religion, but by the 1890s became a powerful instrument of the Social Gospel.[19] Nearly all the denominations (including Catholics) engaged in foreign missions, which often had a social gospel component in terms especially of medical uplift. The Black denominations, especially the African Methodist Episcopal church (AME) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church (AMEZ), had active programs in support of the Social Gospel.[20] Both evangelical ("pietistic") and liturgical ("high church") elements supported the Social Gospel, although only the pietists were active in promoting Prohibition.[21]


In the United States prior to World War I, the Social Gospel was the religious wing of the progressive movement which had the aim of combating injustice, suffering and poverty in society. Denver, Colorado, was a center of Social Gospel activism. Thomas Uzzel led the Methodist People's Tabernacle from 1885 to 1910. He established a free dispensary for medical emergencies, and employment bureau for job seekers, a summer camp for children, night schools for extended learning, and English language classes. Myron Reed of the First Congregational Church became a spokesman, 1884 to 1894 for labor unions on issues such as worker's compensation. His middle-class congregation encouraged Reed to move on when he became a Socialist, and he organized a nondenominational church. The Baptist minister Jim Goodhart set up an employment bureau, and provided food and lodging for tramps and hobos at the mission he ran. He became city chaplain and director of public welfare of Denver in 1918. Besides these Protestants, Reform Jews and Catholics helped build Denver's social welfare system in the early 20th century.[22]

The Rev. Mark A. Matthews (1867-1940) of Seattle's First Presbyterian Church was a leading city reformer, who investigated red light districts and crime scenes, denouncing corrupt politicians businessmen and saloon keepers. With 10,000 members, his was the largest Presbyterian Church in the country, and he was selected the national moderator in 1912. He build a model church, with night schools, unemployment bureaus, kindergarten, an anti-tuberculosis clinic, and the nation's first church-owned radio station. Matthews was the most influential clergymen in the Pacific Northwest, and one of the most active Social Gospelers in America.[23]

The South had its own version of the Social Gospel, focusing especially on prohibition. Other reforms included outlawing public swearing, boxing and dogfights and similar affronts to their moral sensibilities. By 1900, says Edward Ayers, the white Baptists, although they were the most conservative of all the denominations in the South, became steadily more concerned with social issues, taking stands on "temperance, gambling, illegal corruption, public morality, orphans and the elderly." [24]

New Deal

During the New Deal of the 1930s Social Gospel themes could be seen in the work of Harry Hopkins, Will Alexander and Mary McLeod Bethune, who added a new concern with African Americans. After 1940, the movement withered, but was invigorated in the 1950s by black leaders like Baptist minister Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. After 1980 it weakened again as a major force inside mainstream churches; indeed those churches were losing strength.

Examples of the Social Gospel's continued influence can still be found, in Jim Wallis’s Sojourners organization’s Call to Renewal[25] and more local organizations like the Virginia Interfaith Center.[26] Another modern example can be found in the work of Reverend John Steinbruck, senior pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C., from 1970 to 1997, who was an articulate and passionate preacher of the Social Gospel and a leading voice locally and nationally for the homeless, Central American refugees, and the victims of persecution and prejudice.

Social Gospel and Labor Movements

Because the Social Gospel was primarily concerned with the day-to-day life of laypeople, one of ways in which it made its message heard was through labor movements. Particularly, the Social Gospel had a profound effect upon the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL began a movement called Labor Forward, which was a pro-Christian group who “preached unionization like a revival.”[17]:479–480 In Philadelphia, this movement was counteracted by bringing revivalist Billy Sunday, himself firmly anti-union, who believed “that the organized shops destroyed individual freedom.”[17]:479–480

Legacy of the Social Gospel

While the Social Gospel was short-lived historically, it had a lasting impact on the policies of most of the mainline denominations in the United States. Most began programs for social reform, which led to ecumenical cooperation in 1910 while in the formation of the Federal Council of Churches. Although this cooperation was about social issues that often led to charges of socialism.[17]:479–480 It is likely that the Social Gospel's strong sense of leadership by the people led to women's suffrage, and that the emphasis it placed on morality led to prohibition.[17]:479–480 Biographer Randall Woods argues that Social Gospel themes learned from childhood allowed Lyndon B. Johnson to transform social problems into moral problems. This helps explain his longtime commitment to social justice, as exemplified by the Great Society and his commitment to racial equality. The Social Gospel explicitly inspired his foreign-policy approach to a sort of Christian internationalism and nation building.[27]

The Social Gospel Movement has been described as “the most distinctive American contribution to world Christianity.”[15]


The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, a political party that was later reformed as the New Democratic Party, was founded on social gospel principles in the 1930s by J.S. Woodsworth, a Methodist minister, and Alberta MP William Irvine. Woodsworth wrote extensively about the social gospel from experiences gained while working with immigrant slum dwellers in Winnipeg from 1904 to 1913. His writings called for the Kingdom of God "here and now".[28] This political party took power in the province of Saskatchewan in 1944. This group, led by Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister, introduced universal medicare, family allowance and old age pensions.[29] This political party has since largely lost its religious basis, and became a secular social democratic party. The Social Service Council (SSC) was the “reforming arm of Protestantism in Canada”, and promoted idea of the social gospel.[30]:70 Under the “aggressive leadership of Charlotte Whitton”, the Canadian Council of Child Welfare, opposed “a widening of social security protection...” and “continued to impede the implementation of provincial mothers’ pensions”, instead pressing for the “traditional private charity” model.[30]:59 Charlotte Whitton argued that children should be removed from their homes “instead of paying money to needy parents” [31] Charlotte Whitton, as Christie and Gauvreau point out, was also a member of the SSC,[32]:124 The SSC's mandate included the “intensive Christian conquest of Canada".[32]:214

In literature

The Social Gospel theme is reflected in the novels In His Steps (1897) and The Reformer (1902), by the Congregational minister Charles Sheldon, who coined the motto "What would Jesus do?" In his personal life, Sheldon was committed to Christian Socialism and identified strongly with the Social Gospel movement. Walter Rauschenbusch, one of the leading early theologians of the Social Gospel in the United States, indicated that his theology had been inspired by Sheldon's novels.

In 1892, Rauschenbusch and several other leading writers and advocates of the Social Gospel formed a group called the Brotherhood of the Kingdom. Members of this group produced many of the written works that defined the theology of the Social Gospel movement and gave it public prominence. These included Rauschenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) and Christianizing the Social Order (1912), as well as Samuel Zane Batten's The New Citizenship (1898) and The Social Task of Christianity (1911).

The 21st century

In the United States, the Social Gospel is still influential in mainline Protestant denominations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the United Methodist Church; it seems to be growing in the Episcopal Church as well, especially with that church's effort to support the ONE Campaign. In Canada, it is widely present in the United Church and in the Anglican Church. Social Gospel elements can also be found in many service and relief agencies associated with Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church in the United States. It also remains influential among Christian socialist circles in Britain in the Church of England, Methodist and Calvinist movements.In Catholicism, liberation theology is considered by some[who?] to have been a radical Marxist attempt to promote the Social Gospel. However, as noted by Penny Lernoux in her 1977 book Cry of the People, right-wing death squads linked with groups supported by the United States government frequently targeted priests merely for helping the poor and labeled them as Marxist or communist merely to justify torturing and murdering them.

See also


  1. Cecelia Tichi, Civic passions: seven who launched progressive America (and what they teach us) (2009) p 221
  2. They rejected premillennialist theology. which held the Second Coming of Christ was imminent, and Christians should devote their energies to preparing for it rather than addressing the issue of social evils.
  3. Jill K. Gill (2011). Embattled Ecumenism: The National Council of Churches, the Vietnam War, and the Trials of the Protestant Left. Northern Illinois University Press. p. 33.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. White, Jr. (1990), and Ahlstrom (1974).
  5. White, Jr. and Hopkins (1975) and Handy (1966).
  6. Visser 't Hooft (1928)
  7. Ahlstrom (1974), Hopkins (1940), White, Jr. and Hopkins (1975), and Handy (1966)
  8. Christopher H. Evans, The social gospel today (2001) p. 149
  9. Marty, Martin E. (1997). Modern American Religion, Volume 1: The Irony of It All, 1893-1919. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226508948.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Gould, Rebecca (2005). At home in nature modern homesteading and spiritual practice in America. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520241428.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Rogers and Blade 1998
  12. “Washington Gladden” in the Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004. Retrieved January 29, 2015 from
  13. Washington Gladden, Recollections (Houghton Mifflin, 1909, 252, 292.
  14. Geoffrey Parker, Richard Sisson, William Russell Coil, eds, Ohio and the World, 1753-2053: Essays Toward a New History of Ohio (Ohio State University, 2005), 106.
  15. 15.0 15.1 “WASHINGTON GLADDEN (1836-1918)” online at Accessed January 7, 2015.
  16. ”Social Gospel in the Nineteenth Century” in the Dictionary of American History (2003) online at
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 17.5 Kee, Howard C.; et al. (1998). Christianity: A Social and Cultural History (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 18.5 18.6 18.7 Rauschenbusch, Walter (1917). Theology for the Social Gospel. New York: Abingdon Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Hopkins (1940)
  20. Luker (1998)
  21. Marty (1986)
  22. Jeremy Bonner, "Religion," in Rick Newby, ed, The Rocky Mountain Region (Greenwood Press, 2004) p 370
  23. C. Allyn Russell, "Mark Allison Matthews: Seattle Fundamentalist and Civic Reformer." Journal of Presbyterian History (1979): 446-466. in JSTOR
  24. Edward L. Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction (1992) p 170
  27. Randall B. Woods, LBJ: Architect of American Ambition (2006) pp 27, 430, 465-66, 486
  28. "A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE NDP". Retrieved 2009-10-14.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. "The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan "Social Gospel"". University of Regina (Saskatchewan, Canada. Retrieved 2009-10-14.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. 30.0 30.1 Guest, D (1997). The Emergence of Social Security in Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. Carniol, B. (2005). Case Critical: Social services and social justice in Canada. Toronto, ON: Between The Lines. p. 45
  32. 32.0 32.1 Christie, C., Gauvreau, M. (2001). A Full-Orbed Christianity: The Protestant Churches and social welfare in Canada, 1900-1940. Kingston, ON, Montreal: QC: McGill-Queen’s.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

Secondary sources

  • Sydney E. Ahlstrom. A Religious History of the American People (1974)
  • Susan Curtis. A Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture (1991)
  • Jacob H. Dorn. Socialism and Christianity in Early 20th Century America. (1998), online edition
  • Brian J. Fraser. The Social Uplifters: Presbyterian Progressives and the Social Gospel in Canada, 1875-1915 (1990)
  • Robert T. Handy, ed. The Social Gospel in America, 1870-1920 (1966).
  • Charles Howard Hopkins. The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865-1915. (1940) online edition
  • Benjamin L. Hartley. Evangelicals at a Crossroads: Revivalism and Social Reform in Boston, 1860-1910 (University of New Hampshire Press/University Press of New England; 2011) 304 pages; looks at Methodist, Salvation Army, Baptist, and nondenominational Christians
  • William R. Hutchison. "The Americanness of the Social Gospel; An Inquiry in Comparative History," Church History, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Sep., 1975), pp. 367–381 online in JSTOR
  • Maurice C. Latta, "The Background for the Social Gospel in American Protestantism," Church History, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Sep., 1936), pp. 256–270 online at JSTOR
  • Ralph E. Luker. The Social Gospel in Black and White American Racial Reform, 1885-1912. (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Marty, Martin E. Modern American Religion, Vol. 1: The Irony of It All, 1893-1919 (1986); Modern American Religion. Vol. 2: The Noise of Conflict, 1919-1941 (1991)
  • Muller, Dorothea R. "The Social Philosophy of Josiah Strong: Social Christianity and American Progressivism," Church History 1959, v 28, #2 pp. 183–201 at JSTOR
  • Rader, Benjamin G. "Richard T. Ely: Lay Spokesman for the Social Gospel." Journal of American History 53:1 (June 1966). in JSTOR
  • Rogers, Jack B., and Robert E. Blade, "The Great Ends of the Church: Two Perspectives," Journal of Presbyterian History (1998) 76:181-186.
  • Smith, Gary Scott. "To Reconstruct the World: Walter Rauschenbusch and Social Change," Fides et Historia (1991) 23:40-63.
  • Visser 't Hooft, Willem A. The Background of the Social Gospel in America (1928).
  • White, Ronald C., Jr. Liberty and Justice for All: Racial Reform and the Social Gospel (1877-1925) (1990).
  • White, Ronald C., Jr. and C. Howard Hopkins. The Social Gospel. Religion and Reform in Changing America (1975).

Primary sources

External links