Sunday, September 18, 2011

Do We Need another Social Gospel?

When Jesus said that you will have the poor with you always (Mark 14:7), there was much truth in this statement, as the poor and the marginalized remain with us.  Over the centuries there have been many attempts to deal with the reality of poverty, and yet poverty remains with us to this day.  

I’m not sure whether a reclamation of the Social Gospel Movement, which emerged more than a century ago is possible or even workable, but I thought I’d share these words that I drew from a lecture I gave on the movement for my American Church History class I taught more than a decade ago at Fuller Seminary.  As I share this introduction, I invite you to respond.  What do you think about such a thing?

The Social Gospel stands as one of the most important Protestant responses over the course of America’s history to the growing problems engendered by urbanization and industrialization.  This movement, rooted in the nations universities and divinity schools, is linked to the works of several intellectual leaders, most especially Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden.  For a time they would be the vanguard of liberal Protestantism.  Though concerned about the conditions of workers and the poor, they did not focus much attention on the needs either of women or African Americans.  As for women, only one woman stood as a leader in the movement, Vida Scudder, a Christian Socialist.  Indeed, most Social Gospel leaders did not support the growing woman's suffrage movement.  Rauschenbusch was among those who held up the ideal of the nuclear family with the wife at home caring for the family.  Despite these seeming flaws in the movement, it did have an important impact on the churches of the day.  For the most part the Social Gospel theologians stood to the left of the Salvation Army in their advocacy of structural change and reform, but to the right of the Socialists.  Theirs was a moderate attempt at reform with a liberal theological base.  Martin Marty comments that:

"It may seem amazing that the Social Gospel in its time connoted something radical, given its programmatic timidity and gentility."  [Martin Marty, Modern American Religion, Volume 1:  The Irony of it All, 1893-1919, (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1986), 286-95.]

Theological Distinctives of the Social Gospel Movement.

We can define the Social Gospel Movement as being an attempt to apply Scripture and theology to the problems of the modern world.  The impetus for which came out of the pastoral experiences of movement luminaries such as Rauschenbusch and Gladden.  Among the distinctive elements are the following:

1)  Jesus Christ:
Social Gospelers looked to the historical Jesus for inspiration in their work of social transformation.  In looking at the life of Jesus, they believed that it would be through the use of modern biblical scholarship, that they would find the principles of personal and social conduct that would serve as an example in the modern age.    

2)  The Kingdom of God:
The central theme derived from the teachings of Jesus was that of the Kingdom of God.  Walter Rauschenbusch wrote the following concerning the views of an organization called the "Brotherhood of the Kingdom":
"Its members believe that the idea of a kingdom of God on earth was the central thought of Jesus, and ought ever to be the great aim of the church.  They are convinced that this aim has largely dropped out of sight, or has been misunderstood, and that much of the social ineffectiveness of church life is due to this misunderstanding."  [Winthrop Hudson, ed., Walter Rauschenbusch:  Selected Writings,  (New York:  Paulist Press, 1984), 76-77.]  
Social Gospel advocates believed that the establishment social harmony and the end of injustice would lead to the in breaking of God's kingdom.   Salvation was understood not simply in individualistic terms but more broadly in social or communal terms.  

3)  The Immanence of God.
Social Gospel teachers conceived of God in immanent rather than transcendent terms.  One could find God at work in the natural world and in history.  Rauschenbusch writes:

"It is no slight achievement of faith to think God immanent in the whole vast universe, but those who accomplish that act of faith feel him very near and mysteriously present, pulsating in their own souls in every yearning for truth and love and right.  Life once more becomes miraculous; for every event in which we realize God and our soul is a miracle.  All history becomes the unfolding of the purpose of the immanent God who is working in the race toward the commonwealth of spiritual liberty and righteousness.  History is the sacred workshop of God."    [Hudson, Walter Rauschenbusch, 181.]

Thus, they attempted to minimize the distinctions between the sacred and secular realms.  

4)  Human Progress:
Social Gospelers placed an emphasis on the possibility of human progress, but they didn’t  believe that it was either automatic or inevitable.  Progress was conditioned by the responses of humanity to the divine will.  While the Social Gospel did not reject the idea of sin, it broadened the definition of sin to include the social context of human decisions.  Yet they had a high view of human potential and so they believed that humans could and would make the right choices that would lead to the establishment of the Kingdom of God.  Charles Sheldon, in his popular book In His Steps (Remember WWJD?), asked the question of what would happen if Christians truly followed in the footsteps of Jesus.

"Would it not be true, think you, that if every Christian in America did as Jesus would do, society itself, the business world, yes, the very political system under which our commercial and government activity is carried on, would be so changed that human suffering would be reduced to a minimum?"  [Charles Sheldon, quoted in Edwin Gaustad, A Documentary History of Religion in America since 1877, [Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2003), 2:114.]

What role does the Gospel play in transforming the world in which we live?  Is/Was the Social Gospel Movement a good model?


Brian said...

Social Gospel (modified for today) is essentially where I stand. NIt-picking, but they were far to the left of Salvation Army (Starvation Army as they were called by activists 100 years ago). Also, I would not say they were to the right of socialists. Originally the movement was called Christian Socialism. I don't think they changed the name out of fidelity to theology, but due to the misunderstanding people had/have of the term socialism. It is a highly charged political word. Yet, the liberal Christians often proudly claimed the term socialist for themselves until about the 20's or 30's.

You are right to point out where they failed in terms of standing up for women and people of color, but that is something we can correct today. Every time Christians passionate for social and economic justice speak out, the social gospel lives.

On a side note, at Fuller did you have to teach about dinosaurs on Noah's Ark? (I'm just joking my brother!)

John said...

So why did it take eighteen hundred years for the social gospel to emerge in Christianity...or were there significant precursor movements? For example, did Francis of Assisi teach that we should care for the poor because Jesus said we should care for the poor, or merely that we should emulate the poor for the improvement of our own spiritual welfare? What happened to this movement after the 1930's?

On a related note is Liberation Theology a child of the social gospel movement, or did the social gospel movement merely open the eyes of Christian thinkers to the socio-political ramifications of Jesus' teachings which then opened the way for the development of Liberation Theology?

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


The social gospel was a movement within/out of liberal Protestanism. It could be rather anti-Catholic. Martin Luther King emerged out of this movement (might have added him to this).

As for Liberation Theology, it is a separate movement that emerged out of the Catholic Church in Latin America. There might be some connections, but they are different movements, and much more likely to embrace Marxism than the Social Gospelers.

John said...

Perhaps I am ignoring a critical distinction but I tend to read Christian history as an unbroken continuum and thus i don't make distinctions between Protestant and Catholic rooted movements. My assumption, right or wrong, is that the two will draw on each other more and more for the truths which each has to offer about Christianity. I see Vatican II as a validation of this approach.

So my question remain unanswered, why did it take eighteen hundred years for any kind of social gospel, no matter how flawed, to emerge within (c)atholic Christianity?

Gary said...

Didn't need the first "social gospel", which wasn't the gospel; and don't need another one.

John said...


So maybe you can give me a justification why caring for the poor and marginalized shouldn't be the first concern of every Christian? How does a Bible believing Christian ignore the message about the blessed poor and the least of these, and the last who will one day be first.

Gary said...


Can you give me a justification why that should be the first concern of every Christian?

And I'm not ignoring anything in the Bible.

John said...

I think my last post addresses your question. If the point was missed it seems that most of Jesus' responses to questions of eternal have to do with giving everything to the poor and with caring for the "least of these."

Gary said...


Have you given everything you have to the poor?

Brian said...

John - You are not alone in seeing a thread running throughout Christian history. There was a famous Church historian who based his thesis on that image. I think his name was Kenneth Scott Lattaurette (sp?), but our real historians will know for sure. (Working from memory.)

Throughout the history there have been moments of reclaiming the importance of care for the poor. You are right that St. Francis is one of the stellar examples.

The social gospel was a response to the grinding poverty found in cities as a result from the industrial revolution. The founders/practitioners were liberal protestants. Back then, denominational labels were much more important to people than today.

Liberation theology comes from Latin American Roman Catholics. BUT - you are right, in my opinion, they are of the same spirit.

While Bob is historically accurate in pointing out the differences, I experience them as being of the same spirit. As I've shared on here, I resonate with the theologies that focus on the right here and now, particularly trying to change systems to be fair for the "least of these". Both liberation and social gospel are of this ilk. This is not denying a transcendent reality. Rather, as I see it, this is about putting the focus on what God has given us dominion over: creation.

Hi Gary. Hugs and kisses!

John said...

So you refuse to respond to my inquiry. That's OK.

As for your last question to me, no one is perfect, and I am likely no closer than you to complying with God's will for my life. But it is important that I acknowledge the standard of conduct which Jesus set for me, if I am ever going to improve. Just because I am too attached to my worldly possessions to give them to the poor, does not mean that I reject or deny the calling of Jesus to continue work toward this end.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

You have to understand -- as a historian I have to have some precision!

There have been different forms of a social gospel through the years. In the 19th century evangelicals took the lead in a number of areas including abolition (Charles Finney), Women's Suffrage, and temperance. It is important to note that women's suffrage and temperance often went together.

Although there is a common spirit amongst such movements, I think it's helpful to note their different rootage, because the impetus and the foundations are different.

John said...


I have been wondering at this question: did the prophets in the pre-enlightenment church not preach a social gospel because they did not see the poverty in their midst?

Here's what I am saying, to see abject poverty you have to be above it, and you have to perceive there to be an alternative. In a peasant society, everyone is in abject poverty, except perhaps the 1/2 percent or so of people in the elite ruling class. Few of the poor ever glimpsed the wealth of the wealthy. While income disparity was enormous, access on the part of the underclass to wealth or even awareness of the lifestyles of the wealthy was severely limited if not unheard of. And there was no social mobility.

Even the priests were poor and few of them could even read. They were all in the same boat.

Before the end of feudal society Jesus' statement that "The poor will always be with us." was heard in a very different context.

Since everyone was poor to a greater or lesser degree, and none but the rulers resided outside of poverty, there was little point in a gospel directed at servicing the poor. And no one with the perspective to perceive it or to preach it, and no audience willing to listen in any event.

The message of St. Francis actually confirms this hypothesis because he came out of the ruling class and had both the perspective and the calling to prophesy a message regarding poverty. He was not a peasant threatening the wealthy; he was from wealth, and having laid aside his wealth, he could speak out on behalf of the peasants, lay and religious, and called for church renewal along these lines.

Even so, few members of the ruling class seriously listened at the time, because individually they had too much at stake, and no one saw no genuine alternative to a feudal society.

Gary said...


You have missed the gospel. It isn't about feeding the poor.

John said...


Really? So then we should ignore Jesus' teachings in this regard?

I notice that you still have not explained how Jesus' teaching from the gospel of Matthew regarding care for the poor and the marginalized (the least of these) can justifiably be dismissed and ignored?

Maybe this is a good time to explain what I have apparently missed.

Gary said...


I never said to ignore anything in the Bible.

The Gospel is about reconciling sinful people to God. It is not about social programs.

John said...

I cannot ignore that in the Gospels there were two commandments, 'love God and love your neighbor.' In the Gospel of John there was only one commandment, "Love one another as I have loved you." There were other commandments in Jesus teaching.

I believe that you are right about the 'reconciling' focus of Jesus' earthly mission, however, I am certain that Jesus approach to reconciliation with God begins with reconciling with our neighbors, that is by forgiving, loving and caring for our neighbors. In fact we are directed away from the table until we have reconciled with our neighbors.

The way I see it the core of Jesus teaching on reconciliation is about our relationships with our neighbors.

For those who see their life on earth as a program geared toward gaining access to heaven, that program too is centered around caring for "the least of these".

You may choose to minimize these teachings as mere social programs, but the social aspect is foundational to Jesus' teachings on sin, reconciliation, and eternal life. We live in community, and as followers of Christ we die in community, and we hope to live eternally among a cloud of witnesses to the love of God.

John said...

There were NO other commandments in Jesus teaching.

Brian said...

Al Staggs is a Baptist minister and actor. Copy and paste the above link into your browser if you want to see him perform as Walter Rauschenbusch giving a talk.

David said...

The martyred Christ of the working class,
The inspired evangel of the downtrodden masses,
The world's supreme revolutionary leader,
Whose love for the poor and the children of the poor
Hallowed all the days of his consecrated life,
Lighted up and made forever holy
The dark tragedy of his death
And gave to the ages his divine inspiration
And his deathless name.

Jesus by Eugene V. Debs