Walter Rauschenbusch: Essential Spiritual Writings (Joseph Fahey) -- A Review

WALTER RAUSCHENBUCSH: Essential Spiritual Writings. (ModernSpiritual Masters Series). Selected with an Introduction by Joseph J. Fahey. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2019. Xx + 104 pages.

Today we talk of social justice and the church, but, in an earlier age, it was the Social Gospel. That term—Social Gospel—may turn up occasionally, but it’s not as common as it was a century earlier. However, at the turn of the twentieth century, the Social Gospel played a significant role in the life of Mainline Protestant churches. Among the leading figures in this movement was Walter Raschenbusch. To read Rasuchenbusch today is to see something that is at the same time radical and yet strangely old fashioned. While we hear a call in his messages to embrace revolution, he assumes women would be best served if they could remain in the home. The times are different and yet the message is both familiar and strange. Nevertheless, it is a message worth exploring and attending to, for it is concerned with this world and yet it is deeply spiritual.

This particular book is a collection of excerpts from Rauschenbusch's writings, that form a volume of the Modern Spiritual Masters Series of Orbis Books. These books are brief, but expressive of deep spirituality. This collection of Rauschenbush’s writings were selected and introduced by Joseph J. Fahey. Fahey holds a Ph.D. in religion and social ethics from New York University and served until his retirement as a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, Ge also served as a founder of PaxChristi USA.

For those unfamiliar with Walter Rauschenbusch, he was a Baptist minister and theologian who lived from 1851 to 1918. For much of his career, he taught theology at Rochester Theological Seminary (now part of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School). While the Social Gospel movement has its origins earlier than his involvement, he became one of the important proponents of the Social Gospel. Concerning this vision of theology and the church, Fahey writes: "The foundational insight of the Social Gospel Movement was that Jesus' mission and message essentially concerned establishing the Kingdom of God here on earth"(p. 2). Rauschenbusch and other Social Gospellers, including Washington Gladden preached a message of radical transformation of the economic, political, and social systems on earth. It was an earthly message, but also a revolutionary one. In a chapter on the revolutionary nature of Christianity, Rauschenbusch wrote: “Two things are essential to the program formulated in Christ’s revolutionary parole: First, the idea of a kingdom necessarily implies a social ideal; it speaks of a perfect community. Secondly, the fulfillment of that ideal is expected on this earth and on the hither side of death” (p. 39).  Among the revolutionary issues addressed was the dangers of capitalism and war. While some of what he writes is dated, there is much here that one hears today and continues to apply.

Setting the context for the excerpts from Rauschenbusch’s writings, Fahey begins the book with a timeline, a listing of his works, and then a substantial introduction to the message of the Social Gospel and Rauschenbusch's contributions to the movement. Fahey suggests that Rauschenbusch would be pleased with many of the advancements since his day, including the abolishment of child labor and the enfranchisement of women, but he and fellow Social Gospelers might be disappointed by the hold that capitalism still has in our context. I’ll leave it to the reader’s imagination as to which presidential candidates for 2020 he might support. The author is cognizant of the fact that we are not where the Social Gospelers envisioned, but in introducing us to their vision, he offers us hope that their vision might be enacted. Of course, not everyone in the church would embrace that hope, but it continues to make itself known.

As we move on from the introductory materials, we are invited to engage in Rauschenbusch’s own words. The earliest work that Fahey reproduces was written in 1887. It was published in the Christian Enquirer. He wrote it during his tenure as a pastor in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen area. It’s titled “Beneath the Glitter,” and invites the reader to look beyond New York’s glitter to the suffering of its poor residents. The book concludes with two excerpts from Rauschenbusch's final book, his Theology of the Social Gospel published in 1917. The last excerpt comes from the opening chapter of the Theology of the Social Gospel, where Rauschenbusch makes clear that the success of the Social Gospel movement requires an appropriate theological foundation. You can see in his work how he integrated democratic principles into that theology. He believed that the movement “put the democratic spirit, which the Church inherited from Jesus and the prophets, once more in control of the institutions and teachings of the church” (p. 101). When it comes to salvation, the movement sought to move beyond simply an individualistic gospel to a more collective vision. Thus, “the social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins and to bring a more sensitive and more modern conscience” (p. 101). Another excerpt is a chapter titled "Prayer," which includes Rauschenbusch's essay "The Social Meaning of the Lord's Prayer," in which Rauschenbusch declares that "the Lord's Prayer is recognized as the purest expression of the mind of Jesus" (p. 74). Rauschenbusch, suggests in this chapter that while the Lord's Prayer "is part of the heritage of social Christianity," it "has been appropriated by men who have had little sympathy with its social spirit" (p. 75). The chapter on prayer also includes excerpts from Rauschenbusch's book For God and the People: Prayers of the Social Awakening," (1910). This section introduces us to some of Rauschenbusch’s own prayers, which express the spirituality of the movement and gives us a sense of the social issues of the day. Thus, there is a prayer for children who work. He prays for a blessing on “the young lives whose slender shoulders are already bowed beneath the yoke of toil, and whose glad growth is being stunted forever. . . . We have all jointly deserved the millstone of thy wrath for making these little ones to stumble and fall” (p. 79).

For those who have heard of the Social Gospel but do not know much about it, this is an excellent introduction, while allowing the reader to encounter some of the more poignant pieces from one of the leading Social Gospel theologians. It is also a worthy refresher for those who have some background with the movement. But, it’s not just a work of history. It’s intended to be used as a foundation for conversations about the spirituality of our own social justice movements, as well as the ongoing conversation about the nature of God’s reign. At the same time, it needs to be understood, as Fahey makes clear, that even though Rauschenbusch seems rather prescient, he was a man of his times. There is a radicalness to the message, and yet with regard to race and gender, they are not at the forefront of the conversation. These theologians were focused on economic matters and the social class struggle. The people whom they were most concerned about appear to be white men. While one of the prayers does lift up the immigrant and the contribution of the immigrant, it is good to remember that at the time most of the immigrants came from Europe.

Despite his being a man of his own times, there is much to learn from him. We might not embrace everything he offers, but by engaging with these excerpts we may find resources for our own journey toward the full realization of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.  


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