Reformed Reflections

Jesus in North America (11)
The Social Gospel Jesus

The social gospel movement in America made its inroads during the latter half of the 19th century's social and theological upheavals. It reached its zenith in the early part of the 20th century. It was a period of far-reaching changes brought by urbanization, immigration, the growing influence of science, and the rapid industrialization of the country. It was marked by unprecedented economic growth and optimism, but also by the exploitation of workers, political corruption, and financial abuse inflicted by a powerful few. Workers earned pitiful wages, and laboured long hours. Many Christians tried to alleviate poverty, combat the liquor traffic, and sought better living conditions and liveable homes. But the vanguard of the movement to improve working conditions went far beyond the evangelical Christian emphasis on alleviating personal and family needs to a search for the causes of human suffering and a campaign to reconstruct social and economic relations upon a Christian pattern. The conviction emerged that the traditional emphasis on personal salvation was insufficient and must be expanded to include the "whole social system."

The churches were poorly equipped to deal with the immense pressure of modernization in a young country. The battle for liberal theology had been won in all the major church colleges and seminaries. Many pastors nurtured on a meagre diet of modernist theology and philosophy, in which reason and experience, not scriptural authority, were considered paramount. They were wary of creeds and sceptical about the Bible. They intended to build their social ethics on Jesus. I argue, therefore, that the social gospel is the fruit of liberal theology. It is also one of the reasons the social gospel is antagonistic toward Reformed and evangelical forms of Christianity.

The Social Gospel

In Stones for Bread: The Social Gospel and Its Contemporary Legacy, Harry Antonides summarizes the beliefs of the social gospel as follows:

1. The social teachings of Jesus are reliable guides for individual and social life.

2. God is immanent in history.

3. Man is basically good and perfectible.

4. Men of good will can establish the Kingdom of God.

5. Sin is primarily selfishness, to be overcome by an improvement in the social setting and especially by education.

6. The Bible is a human product to be studied like other books.

7. Reason and science are realizable sources of truth.

Social gospellers believed they could usher in the Kingdom of God. They identified its coming with the coming of a new socialist commonwealth where the labourer would be restored to dignity and equality. They argued that it is present in every social order that guarantees each personality their freest and highest development. Good deeds and improved public morality were omens of its approach and might well hasten it along. But when social gospellers made this claim that human effort could usher in the Kingdom of God, they abandoned a line of theology stretching from Augustine, Calvin, to American Presbyterianism. Two of the prominent leaders in the movement were Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbush.

Washington Gladden (1836-1918)

Washington Gladden, an American Congregational pastor, has been called the "Father of the American Social Gospel." He was in the vanguard of liberalism. He warned against the religion of individualism, and considered the goal of Christianity to be "a perfect man in a perfect society." He believed that the evidence of the truth of Christianity can be found in the social movements of the world. He liked to speak of a practical gospel that had liberated him from "the bondage of an immoral theology." He rejected both the doctrine of original sin and a personal devil. He regarded the atonement as "the reconciliation of suffering with love" that brought us Christ's victory over evil and his love for God. He said that despite its errors and contradictions, the Bible is not like any other book. Of more than mere scientific or social interest, it tells us all we need to know about this Jesus of Nazareth, his teachings and his death. Gladden understood the Kingdom of God in social terms, with a renewed America bringing it to fruition. He argued against industrial exploitation of workers and for the rights of unions. Gladden's well-known hymn, "O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee", expresses the spiritual content of his many appeals on behalf of workmen's rights.

Walter Rauschenbush (1861-1918)

Walter Rauschenbush, American theologian, Baptist minister in New York City (1886-97) and Professor at Rochester Theological Seminary (1897-1918), is regarded as the most successful exponent of the social gospel movement. With theological liberalism he combined biblical piety and the insistence on "social redemption of the race through Christ." He attempted to shape a new generation. He sought not to clarify students' ethical choices; he wanted to change their lives. He became an impassioned defender of the poor and the working classes, seeking ways to improve their lot. His impact on church and state was reflected in the success of his books, which included Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917). The latter became a manifesto of the Social Gospel movement.

Rauschenbush argued that God is using American Christianity to move all the world to a higher stage. He called Jesus a hard-working carpenter and "a man of the common people." In Jesus, the prophetic spirit rose from the dead. Like the prophets, Jesus was indifferent to the "ceremonial aspects of Jesus religion", focusing instead on "social transformation." He was a progressive activist going into battle against the collective sins of a capitalist society. The atonement is not for the reconciliation of the sinner with the Holy God. It is "the symbol and basis of a new social order based on love and solidarity." "There was nothing mushy, nothing sweetly effeminate about Jesus," Rauschenbush insisted. "He was the one that turned again and again on the snarling pack of His pious enemies and made them slink away. He plucked the beard of death and went into the city and the temple to utter those withering woes against the dominant class." His death effectively made God a God of love to the simplest soul, and that has transformed the meaning of the universe and the whole outlook of the race.

Rauschenbush's theology required neither repentance nor the atonement. It carried no fear of judgment nor gave hope for eternal life. He denied the doctrine of Christ's Second Coming – with its promise of perfect justice and enduring mercy. The Kingdom of God, not the church, was the centre of his theology. For him the Kingdom is a reality progressively growing through history. He believed in practical socialism – in immediate social reforms that move society gradually toward the social ideal. The Kingdom of God would come soon, if we only put our hands to the plow. Regrettably, his beliefs are still influential in the National Council of Churches and in the Canadian Council of Churches.

Evangelical Response

Evangelicals were profoundly ambivalent about the social gospel. Many evangelicals abandoned the cities in the face of the mounting social problems, preferring to emphasize individual, rather than social regeneration. Although Dr. Billy Graham courageously promoted racial integration in his crusades in the southern states, in response to Martin Luther Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech he offered a typical evangelical scenario: "Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children." The well-known evangelical theologian, Dr. Carl F.H. Henry, observed that evangelicals tend to be extremely individualistic and superficial, and consequently have no effect on culture. A Canadian evangelical leader, Brian Stiller, wrote in an essay Humanitarianism Is Not Enough that evangelicals are in danger of conforming to societal expectations by delivering goods and services in the pursuit of human needs. But they either ignore or camouflage their opinion that mankind is lost and in need of a Saviour. Thankfully, many evangelicals now recognize that both evangelism and social action are essential dimensions of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance noted in A Statement on Evangelical Social Engagement: The Philadelphia Statement, August 2007, that evangelical theology stresses the importance of a personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ and sees the transformation of individuals as an important part of the transformation of the world. They state that the notion of a purely privatized faith in which the gospel only affects individual, personal or family life but has no wider implications for society must be rejected as inadequate. They declare, "In exercising that responsibility to society which is fundamental to the mission of the Church we do not assume that everything depends on the action of the church in the world. Consequently, the church exercises its social responsibility not only by direct action in the world but also by witnessing to the redemptive work of Christ and looking forward to the consummation of all things in Him."

The Jesus of the Gospels offers the Living Bread. Harry Antonides aptly argues that the Jesus of the social gospel offers "stones for bread." He points out that the task of the church is not to develop all kinds of socio-political programs nor to design blueprints for the world of the future. He concludes, "In both the social gospel movement and its contemporary expression, the focus of religion is man, not God, and the purpose of religion is to build a new society and create a 'new man' in the service of the new world community. Both reject the historic Christian belief in redemption through the atoning work of Christ."


Johan D. Tangelder