Social Gospel

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The Social Gospel movement was a Protestant intellectual movement that was most prominent 1880-1940 in the United States and Canada, during the Third Great Awakening applied Christian principles to social problems, especially poverty, inequality, liquor, crime, racial tensions, slums, bad hygiene, poor schools, and the danger of war. Theologically, the Social Gospel leaders were overwhelmingly "post-millennialist." That is because they believed the Second Coming of Jesus Christ could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort. For the most part, they rejected pre-millennialist theology (which was predominant in the Southern United States), according to which 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. Social Gospel leaders were predominantly liberal politically and theologically.

In The United States

The Social Gospel was a driving force in much of Protestant America. The Presbyterians said it best in 1910: [Rogers and Blade 1998]

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 early 20th century, many Protestants were disgusted by the poverty level and the low quality of living in the slums, which had a strong Catholic base but few Protestants . 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 so 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 men at U.S. Steel. Many reformers inspired by the movement opened settlement houses, most notably Hull House in Chicago operated by Jane Addams and many others after 1890. 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.

In the United States prior to 1930, the Social Gospel was the religious wing of the progressive movement which had the aim of combating injustice, suffering and poverty in society. 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 its continued existence can still be found, notably the organization known as the "Call to Renewal" and local organizations like the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

In Britain and Canada

The Social Gospel movement in the United States was parallel to the Christian socialism movement in Britain at about the same time.[1] The two movements came together in Canada, where they were especially influential. Many ministers became active in the socialist movement in the form of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and later the New Democratic Party. Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister, was leader of the CCF from 1942 and the premier of Saskatchewan from 1944 to 1961, where he led the first socialist government in North America and introduced universal public Medicare to Canada. From 1961 to 1971 he led the New Democratic Party at the federal level.[2]

In literature

The Social Gospel theme is reflected in the novels In His Steps (1897) and The Reformer (1902), the creations of the Congregational minister Charles Sheldon, who coined the motto "What would Jesus do?" 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.

The 21st Century

The Social Gospel is still influential in Canada's United Church and in the Anglican Church. Social Gospel elements can 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 has similarities to the Social Gospel. Other prominent leaders in the U.S. included Washington Gladden, Irwin St. John Tucker, J. Stitt Wilson, Franklin S. Spalding, George Washington Woodbey, and Bouck White. Socialists included W.D.P. Bliss, Edward Ellis Carr (who organized the Christian Socialist Fellowship), George C. Herron, Carl D. Thompson, Algernon Lee, Lena Morrow Lewis, Roland D. Sawyer, and Rose Pastor Stokes.

  1. See Latta, (1936); Hutchison (1975)
  2. See Fraser (1990)