This article is part of a series exploring how the church responded to significant insights, movements, and events in the 20th Century, and how these have shaped where we are today.
“The social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified. The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart. . . . But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order.”Walter Rauschenbusch
Most of our churches in the 21st century have some kind of outreach ministry to help people in need. We believe that it is central to our Gospel proclamation. In the Anglican Church of Canada, in our baptism, we promise both ‘to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourselves’ AND ‘to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.’ These are no longer controversial statements. Why is that? Part of the reason is the ministry of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), the founder of the Social Gospel Movement.
A Challenging Ministry
Walter Rauschenbusch was a new pastor in 1886 when he started at Second German Baptist Church in the neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. It was called Hell’s Kitchen for reason. The neighbourhood was filthy and neglected, a place of poverty, crime, disease and hopelessness. It was a hard first calling for a new pastor! He later wrote, “Oh, the children’s funerals! they gripped my heart. That was one of the things I always went away thinking about—why did the children have to die?”
His problem was that he had been taught to preach a Gospel of personal salvation: that Christ died for your sins, and if you put your faith in him you will go to heaven. Rauschenbusch started to wonder if the Gospel had anything to say to his parishioners other than to wait for heaven. The churches were giving charity, but he felt that there had to be more. He started to think that the church had a responsibility actually to change the social conditions people were living under. But he wasn’t sure of the theology behind it.
The Gospel Through New Eyes
As he pondered this question, he started to read the New Testament with new eyes. In 1891, he found what he was looking for. Of course, it had been there the whole time. He rediscovered the central message of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels: The Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God in the New Testament is a vision of a new world and a new creation.
For Rauschenbusch, this theme was all encompassing. It captured both personal faith AND social transformation. It connected the church to the world in a powerful way, one that had been neglected and forgotten over the centuries. He published his insights in A Theology for the Social Gospel and started lecturing widely. For three years after its publication in 1907, his book was a best seller. Harry Emerson Fosdick said that the book “struck home so poignantly on the intelligence and conscience … that it ushered in a new era in Christian thought and action.”
The Rise of the Social Gospel Movement
Rauschenbusch’s message resonated strongly with a population of Protestant Christians eager to make a difference in the world. From his and others’ ideas rose the Social Gospel Movement, which had a significant impact in the early 20th century. Social Gospel activists were concerned not only with preaching the Gospel, but with working for labour reforms such as the abolition of child labour, a shorter work week, and a living wage. Many of Rauschenbusch’s ideas found expression in the 1930s with the rise of the labour movement and the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Read more about the Social Gospel’s influence on Roosevelt here.)
The Social Gospel Movement Still Forms Our Theology
I want to help us in the 21st century understand that our faith comes from key moments that happened in the 20th century. Although the Social Gospel movement peaked in the mid-20th century, these ideas still form the theology of our Mainline churches. At the beginning of this reflection, I quoted two promises that form the backbone of our understanding of our Baptismal responsibility. Without Walter Rauschenbusch and the others in the Social Gospel Movement, we would not have this understanding of baptism. They added to our insight into the Gospel of Jesus Christ.