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?