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The Social Gospel movement is a Protestant Christian intellectual movement that was most prominent in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The movement applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially justice, inequality, liquor, crime, racial tensions, slums, bad hygiene, child labor, weak labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. Theologically, the Social Gospel leaders were overwhelmingly post-millennialist. That is because they believed the Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort.[1] Social Gospel leaders were predominantly associated with the liberal wing of the Progressive Movement and most were theologically liberal, although they were typically conservative when it came to their views on social issues.[2] Important leaders include Richard T. Ely, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch.

Although most scholars agree that the Social Gospel movement peaked in the early 20th century, there is disagreement over when the movement began to decline, with some asserting that the destruction and trauma caused by World War I left many disillusioned with the Social Gospel's ideals[3] while others argue that World War I actually stimulated the Social Gospelers' reform efforts [4]. Theories regarding the decline of the Social Gospel after World War I often cite the rise of neo-orthodoxy as a contributing factor in the movement's decline [5]. Some believe that many of the Social Gospel's ideas reappeared in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. "Social Gospel" principles continue to inspire newer movements such as Christians Against Poverty.


United States

The Social Gospel affected much of Protestant America. The Presbyterians described its goals in 1910 by proclaiming:[6]

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 late 19th century, many Americans were disgusted by the poverty level and the low quality of living in the slums. 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 workers at U.S. Steel.

Many reformers inspired by the movement opened settlement houses, most notably Hull House in Chicago operated by Jane Addams. 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. The YMCA was created originally to help rural youth adjust to the city without losing their religion, but by the 1890s became a powerful instrument of the Social Gospel.[7] Nearly all the denominations (including Catholics) engaged in foreign missions, which often had a social gospel component in terms especially of medical uplift. The Black denominations, especially the African Methodist Episcopal church (AME) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church (AMEZ) had active programs in support of the Social Gospel.[8] Both evangelical ("pietistic") and liturgical ("high church") elements supported the Social Gospel, although only the pietists were active in promoting Prohibition.[9]

In the United States prior to World War I, 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 more local organizations like the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.


The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, a political party that was later renamed the New Democratic Party, was founded on social gospel principles in the 1930s by J.S. Woodsworth, a Methodist minister. Woodsworth wrote extensively about the social gospel from experiences gained while working with immigrant slum dwellers in Winnipeg from 1904 to 1913. His writings called for the Kingdom of God "here and now".[10] This political party took power in the province of Saskatchewan in 1944. This group, led by Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister, introduced universal medicare, family allowance and old age pensions.[11] This political party has since largely lost its religious basis, and became a secular social democratic party.

In literature

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

In 1892, Rauschenbusch and several other leading writers and advocates of the Social Gospel formed a group called the Brotherhood of the Kingdom. Members of this group produced many of the written works that defined the theology of the Social Gospel movement and gave it public prominence. These included Rauschenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) and Christianizing the Social Order (1912), as well as Samuel Zane Batten's The New Citizenship (1898) and The Social Task of Christianity (1911).

The 21st century

In the United States, the Social Gospel is still influential in mainline Protestant denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church; it seems to be growing in the Episcopal Church as well, especially with that church's effort to support the ONE Campaign. In Canada, it is widely present in the United Church and in the Anglican Church. Social Gospel elements can also 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.

See also


  1. ^ For the most part, they rejected premillennialist 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.
  2. ^ White, Jr. (1990), and Ahlstrom (1974).
  3. ^ White, Jr. and Hopkins (1975) and Handy (1966).
  4. ^ Visser 't Hooft (1928)
  5. ^ Ahlstrom (1974), Hopkins (1940), White, Jr. and Hopkins (1975), and Handy (1966)
  6. ^ Rogers and Blade 1998
  7. ^ Hopkins (1940)
  8. ^ Luker (1998)
  9. ^ Marty (1986)
  10. ^ "A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE NDP". Retrieved 2009-10-14. 
  11. ^ The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. "The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan "Social Gospel"". University of Regina (Saskatchewan, Canada. Retrieved 2009-10-14. 

Further readings


Primary sources

  • Batten, Samuel Zane. The Social Task of Christianity: A Summons to the New Crusade. New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1911.
  • Gladden, Washington. Who Wrote the Bible? A Book for the People. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1891.
  • Mathews, Shailer. Jesus on Social Institutions. New York: Macmillan, 1928.
  • Mathews, Shailer. The Spiritual Interpretation of History. William Belden Noble lectures. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916.
  • Peabody, Francis Greenwood. Jesus Christ and the Social Question; An Examination of the Teaching of Jesus in Its Relation to Some of the Problems of Modern Social Life. New York: Macmillan, 1900.
  • Rauschenbusch, Walter. Christianity and the Social Crisis. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.
  • Rauschenbusch, Walter. A Theology for the Social Gospel. New York: Macmillan Co., 1917.
  • Sheldon, Charles Monroe. In His Steps: "What Would Jesus Do?". London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., 1897.
  • Sheldon, Charles Monroe. The Reformer]]. Chicago: Advance Publishing Co., 1902.
  • Strong, Josiah. The New Era; Or, The Coming Kingdom. New York: The Baker & Taylor Co., 1893.
  • The New Era: Or, The Coming Kingdom (1898) by Josiah Strong complete text from Google Book Search
  • Thomas, Lewis Herbert, ed. The Making of a Socialist: The Recollections of T.C. Douglas. Edmonton, Alta.: University of Alberta Press, 1982.

Secondary sources

  • "Social Gospel." Encyclopedia Americana. 30 vols. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier, 2003.
  • Sydney E. Ahlstrom. A Religious History of the American People (1974)
  • Susan Curtis. A Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture (1991)
  • Jacob H. Dorn. Socialism and Christianity in Early 20th Century America. (1998), online edition
  • Brian J. Fraser. The Social Uplifters: Presbyterian Progressives and the Social Gospel in Canada, 1875-1915 (1990)
  • Robert T. Handy, ed. The Social Gospel in America, 1870-1920 (1966).
  • Charles Howard Hopkins. The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865-1915. (1940) online edition
  • William R. Hutchison. "The Americanness of the Social Gospel; An Inquiry in Comparative History," Church History, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Sep., 1975), pp. 367-381 online in JSTOR
  • Maurice C. Latta, "The Background for the Social Gospel in American Protestantism," Church History, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Sep., 1936), pp. 256-270 online at JSTOR
  • Ralph E. Luker. The Social Gospel in Black and White American Racial Reform, 1885-1912. (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Martin E. Marty, Modern American Religion, Vol. 1: The Irony of It All, 1893-1919 (1986); Modern American Religion. Vol. 2: The Noise of Conflict, 1919-1941 (1991)
  • Dorothea R. Muller. "The Social Philosophy of Josiah Strong: Social Christianity and American Progressivism," Church History 1959, v 28, #2 pp. 183-201] at JSTOR
  • Benjamin G. Rader, "Richard T. Ely: Lay Spokesman for the Social Gospel." Journal of American History. 53:1 (June 1966). in JSTOR
  • Jack B. Rogers, and Robert E. Blade, "The Great Ends of the Church: Two Perspectives," Journal of Presbyterian History (1998) 76:181-186.
  • Gary Scott Smith, "To Reconstruct the World: Walter Rauschenbusch and Social Change," Fides et Historia (1991) 23:40-63
  • Willem A. Visser 't Hooft, The Background of the Social Gospel in America (1928).
  • Ronald C. White, Jr., Liberty and Justice for All: Racial Reform and the Social Gospel (1877-1925) (1990).
  • Ronald C. White, Jr. and C. Howard Hopkins. The Social Gospel. Religion and Reform in Changing America (1975).


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

The Social Gospel movement is a Protestant Christian intellectual movement that was most prominent in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Social Gospel principles continue to inspire newer movements such as Christians Against Poverty. The movement applies 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 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.


1889 “He works for God who works for man” Motto of Dawn, a monthly magazine published by Boston Episcopalian minister W. D. P. Bliss, a believer in the Social Gospel.


“The influence of the teachings of the Carpenter’s Son [will] counteract the influence of Mammon.”

“A day will come when] every man shall have according to his needs.”

Labor reformer George McNeill.

1894 “What would Jesus do?” Methodist minister Charles M. Sheldon of Topeka, Kansas, in his pamphlet, “In His Steps”.

c 1890 “Make the world more HOMELIKE” Goal of Frances Willard, founder of the 1 million-member Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.


“We who know personal religion by experience know that there is nothing on earth to compare with the moral force exerted by it. It has demonstrated its social efficiency in our own lives....

“All social movements would gain immensely in enthusiasm, persuasiveness, and wisdom if the hearts of their advocates were cleansed and warmed by religious faith. Even those who know religious power only by observation will concede that.

“But will reënforcement work the other way, also? Religion strangthn the social spirit; will the social spirit strengthen personal religion? When a minister gets hot about child labor and wage slavery, is he not apt to get cold about prayer meetings and evangelistic efforts? When young women become interested in social work, do they not often lose their taste for the culture of the spiritual life and the peace of religious meditation?...

“If this is indeed the alternative, we are in a tragic situation, compelled to choose between social righteousness and communion with God.

“Personal religion has a supreme value for its own sake, not merely as a feeder of social morality, but as the highest unfolding of life itself, as the blossoming of our spiritual nature. Spiritual regeneration is the most important fact in any life history. A living experience of God is the crowning knowledge attainable to a human mind....

“If, therefore, our personal religious life is likely to be sapped by our devotion to social work, it would be a calamity second to none. But is it really likely that this will happen? The great aim underlying to whole social movement is the creation of a free, just, and brotherly social order. This is the greatest moral task conceivable. Its accomplishment is the manifest will of God for this generation. Every Christian motive is calling us to do it. If it is left undone, millions of lives will be condemned to a deepening moral degradation and to spiritual starvation. Does it look probable that we will lose our contact with God if we plunge too deeply into this work? Does it stand to reason that we shall go astray from Jesus Christ if we engage in the unequal conflict with organized wrong? What kind of ‘spirituality’ is it which is likely to get hurt by being put to work for justice and our fellow-men?

“Some of the anxiety about personal religion is due to a subtle lack of faith in religion. Men think it is a fragile thing that will break up and vanish when the customs and formulas which have hitherto encased and protected it are broken and cast aside. Most of us have known religion in one form, and we suppose it can have no other. But religion is the life of God in the soul of man, and is God really so fragile?...

“[P]ersonal religion collapses with some individuals, because in their case it had long been growing hollow and thin.... In reality there was little personal religion to lose, and that little would probably have been lost in some other way....

“A new factor enters the situation when we encounter the influence of ‘scientific socialism.’ It is true, the party platform declares that ‘religion is a private affair.’ The saving of souls is the only industry that socialism distinctly relegates to private enterprise....

“The socialism of continental Europe, taking it by and large, is actively hostile, not only to bad forms of organized religion, but to religion itself.”

Walter Rauschenbusch, from his book, Christianizing the Social Order.

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