Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel Movement

Walter Rauschenbusch was a Christian pastor and theologian who practiced during the closing years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. He was to be remembered as a co-founder and proponent of what was then, and still is, known as the “social gospel” movement. Writing in 1917, Rauschenbusch suggests that the social gospel is to be seen as the “religious reaction on the advent of democracy” (A Theology for the Social Gospel, 5).

Following his father’s footsteps in entering Baptist ministry, Rauschenbusch would find himself working, and eventually seeing out his years, in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhatten. It would be in Hell’s Kitchen that Rauschenbusch would be moved to respond to the socio-economic deprivation with which he was faced everyday. His response would come through a rearticulation, and remobilisation, of  the Christian tradition.

Rauschenbusch found that the Christianity under which he was raised, and trained in – broadly identifiable by its revivalism and individualism, emphasising personal salvation and an escapist eschatology – utterly lacked the capacity and capability to react, and speak, to the most pressing socio-economic and -political issues present, and rampant, in the continually modernised and industrialised capitalist environment, surrounding the people of Hell’s Kitchen and America, in general. Rauschenbusch would, in turn, ruminate upon how this wizened understanding of sin and relation to the social field, condemned Christian theology and generated a failure to comprehend its complicity in social sin and evil.

If the exponents of the old theology have taught humanity an adequate consciousness of sin, how is it that they themselves have been blind and dumb on the master iniquities of human history? During all the ages while thy were the theological keepers of the conscience of Christendom, the peasants in the country and the working class in the cities were being sucked dry by the parasitic classes of society, and war was damning poor humanity. Yet what traces are there in traditional theology that the minds of old-line theologians were awake to these magnificent manifestations of the wickedness of the human heart? How is it that only in the modern era, since the moral insight of mankind has to some extent escaped from the tuition of the old theology, has a world-wide social movement arisen to put a stop to the exploitation of the poor, and that only in the last three years has war been realized as the supreme moral evil? One of the culminating accusations of Jesus against the theological teachers of his time was that they strained gnats and swallowed camels, judiciously laying the emphasis on the minor sins and keeping silence on the profitable major wrongs. It is possible to hold the orthodox doctrine on the devil and not recognise him when we meet him in a real estate office or at the stock exchange. (Ibid., 33-34)

Additionally, Rauschenbusch writes, perhaps to spare the old theology some blushes, but not to give it a free ride, that,

It would be unfair to blame theology for the fact that our race is still submerged under despotic government, under war and militarism, under landlordism, and under predatory industry and finance. But we can justly blame it for the fact that the Christian Church even now has hardly any realization that these things are large-scale sins. We can blame it in part for the fact that when a Christian minister in our country speaks of these sins he is charged with forgetting the simple gospel of sin and salvation, and is in danger of losing his position. This comes of shelving the doctrine of the Kingdom of God, or juggling feeble substitutes into its place. Theology has not been a faithful servant of the truth entrusted to it. The social gospel is its accusing conscience. (Ibid., 53)

It would be under these conditions that Rauschenbusch and his fellows would embark upon nothing less than a radical revisitation, and expression, of Judeo-Christianity, as they saw it presented and recounted in the Scriptures.

The re-reading that would emerge centred on asking whether, and elucidating how, the Scriptures spoke to the sorts of concerns shared among their peer group. Issues that ultimately circled around matters of (social) justice – i.e., economic disparity and poverty, political negligence, social inequality and division, violence, and prophetic challenge and response to said issues.

Rauschenbusch, with his peers, found the Scriptures to be laden with, and indeed founded upon, responses to such pressing matters. Yet, they would note that, conversely, the (Protestant) Christian tradition from which they had emerged, ultimately, was devoid of urgency to tackle, or, indeed, much concern for prioritising and responding to, such social matters that were to be clearly seen as the chief concern of, both, God and Jesus alike. Rauschenbusch would come to write, without a tone bordering on derision,

What a spectacle, that the original teaching of our Lord has become an incongruous element in so-called evangelical theology, like a stranger with whom the other doctrines would not associate, and who was finally ejected because he had no wedding garment. (Ibid., 25-26)

The social gospel, in its own response to what it saw before it in the Scriptures, would take up the prophetic tradition and its “belief in the salvation of nations” (Ibid., 6), and with it, in turn, emphasis upon the social message of Jesus of Nazareth’s proclamation of the kingdom of God. Both these prophetic and (synoptic) Gospel inspired visions would provide the basis of the social gospel and its rigorous socialisation of Christian theology, from sin and evil to redemption and salvation.

The idea of the social redemption of the social organism is nothing alien. It is simply a proper part of the Christian faith in redemption from sin and evil. As soon as desire for salvation becomes strong enough to look beyond the personal sins of the individual, and to discern how our personality in its intake and output is connected with the social groups to which we belong, the problem of social redemption is before us and we can never again forget it. It lies like a larger concentric circle around a smaller one. It is related to our intimate personal salvation like astronomy to physics.  Only spiritual and intellectual immaturity have kept us from seeing it clearly before. (Ibid., 24)

It would be from this ground that Rauschenbusch and co. would revise, and reinterpret, much of what had occupied the doctrinal heart of the (Protestant) Christian tradition; each being read through the aforementioned social matrix. This list would come to include (some, as mentioned) doctrines such as sin, salvation, redemption, evil, eschatology, and the atonement.

Rauschenbusch maintained, in spite of such revision, that

the social gospel is the old message of salvation enlarged and intensified. The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God to save every soul that comes to him. But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it. It has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion. Both our sense of sin and our faith in salvation have fallen short of the realities under its teaching. The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins and to create a more sensitive and more modern conscience. It calls on us for the faith of the prophets of old who believed in the salvation of nations. (Ibid., 5-6)

In fact, Rauschenbusch would state that, in this eminently social sense, theology would witness an,

increase of health when [it] takes in hand the problems of social redemption and considers how its doctrines connect the Kingdom of God in actual realization. (Ibid., 17)

It is from this place that A Theology for the Social Gospel procedes, with Rauschenbusch offering an analysis, and reframing, of the aforementioned doctrines vis-a-vis the hopes, priorities, and principles of the social gospel or at least vis-a-vis his understanding of this late 19th century movement. The goal, ever and always; to put forward an articulation of Christianity that spoke prophetically, and thus critically, to the ever-industrialising society of the day and the gross socio-economic and -political abuses and injustices occurring without remainder. It would be on these expressly social grounds that the social gospel movement hoped to see manifestations of the incrementally-coming kingdom of God brought to bear on, and realised in, human and societal development.

It would, and will, be of a similar increase of health in actually existing Christianity today, if it takes it upon itself to recall and reacquaint itself with this movement, and its legacy, discerning how to make it its own and attempting to concretise and embody its values and goals. For, “the church is the social factor in salvation… [but its] saving power… does not rest on its institutional character, on its continuity, its ordination, its ministry, or its doctrine. It rests on the presence of the Kingdom of God within her” (Ibid., 119 & 129) and “the Kingdom of God… is the energy of God realizing itself in human life” (Ibid., 140-141). Here is a vision that is socially and politically engaged, and theological astute, remaining as pertinent today as in 1917 – may we let it loose once again.