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Social Gospel - Timeline Movement


Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch

Time Period

1880 - 1925


The Social Gospel movement (1880-1925) sought to remedy a broad array of social ills produced by the Gilded Age (1870-1990), including poor working conditions, child labor, and illiteracy. Focusing on "social sins," Social Gospelers promoted justice and equal opportunity in society. Also known as "social Christianity," the movement included a diverse array of proponents, although many were liberal Protestants.

The movement made its greatest impact in the Progressive years (1900-1920). During this time, the Federal Council of Churches (1908) was founded to help improve employer-worker relations. Theologian Walter Rauschenbusch pushed the Social Gospel agenda through his popular books, including Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917).

The movement slowly declined after World War I (1914-1918), as optimism toward the progress of human civilization waned. Nonetheless, the aims of the movement influenced religious organizations, theology, and public initiatives to address social problems.

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The Social Gospel was an extensive and multifaceted movement of Christians in the United States between 1880 and 1925 to remedy a broad array of social ills. Involving hundreds of thousands of participants and numerous organizations and activities, the Social Gospel was the most widely supported, long-lasting and effective campaign of Christians to improve social conditions in American history. While most of its leaders were liberal Protestants, some were evangelical Protestants and Catholics. No other American reform movement enlisted as many volunteers, tackled as many issues, or had as many accomplishments. The First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s and the Second Great Awakening during the first four decades of the 19th century helped shape the nation’s political policies, social practices and economic system and deeply affected its ethos and customs. However, they did not produce nearly as much literature to elucidate the social teachings of scripture, evaluate the causes, nature and scope of America’s social ills, or suggest remedies for them as did the Social Gospel. Its proponents also used the terms social Christianity, social reform, social activism, social salvation and social regeneration to describe their movement and ministry. The Social Gospel arose in the 1870s, gained momentum in the 1880s and 1890s and had its greatest impact in the progressive years (1900-1920).

Creative organizers, captivating personalities, enchanting authors and colorful orators, most of whom were professors, pastors, social workers, community organizers or businessmen, devised and directed the movement and recruited an army of Christians to combat the nation’s social, economic and political ills. The Social Gospel had no master plan, headquarters, dominant organization, membership list or formal leaders; it was centered in cities but had substantial support in other locales. Its broad boundaries, many activities and vague theological foundation enabled individuals espousing varied theological perspectives to identify with the movement and further its aims. While the original studies of the Social Gospel focused primarily on white males living in the North and Midwest, more recent ones have assessed the contributions of blacks, women, southerners and westerners. The Social Gospel did not have an official statement of faith. The Federal Council of Churches, created by 33 denominations in 1908, adopted a 12-point "Social Creed of the Churches" in 1912, which was the most widely endorsed summary of the movement’s aims. Consequently, the Social Gospel did not speak or act with a single or unified voice; it was an eclectic movement with many participants and components that make it hard to classify precisely.

Social Gospelers used a variety of means to wage war against social ills -- institutional churches, social settlements, reform organizations, employment agencies, homeless shelters, orphanages, health clinics, homes for unwed mothers and halfway houses for ex-convicts. Institutional churches sponsored many different social services, including kindergartens (before public schools provided them), recreational activities, employment bureaus, savings banks, legal advice and classes for working-class and immigrant adults in English, carpentry, sewing, cooking and many other subjects. By 1910, almost all urban congregations and the home missionary societies of most Protestant denominations provided at least some of these initiatives. Social Gospel proponents used numerous weapons in their battle against social evils -- conventions, forums, lyceum and Chautauqua lectures, sermons, Bible studies, Sunday school lessons, books, magazine and newspaper articles, novels, short stories, tracts, hymns, college and seminary courses, social and religious surveys and business enterprises.

The earliest students of the movement during the 1940s and 1950s identified Social Gospelers as almost exclusively liberal Protestants, focused on its efforts to alleviate urban and industrial ills (including abolishing prostitution, reducing political corruption and drunkenness, improving working conditions, decreasing the hours of manual laborers and ending child labor) and contended that it arose principally in response to frightening cultural changes in the Gilded Age rather than as a result of biblical analysis prompted by personal experience with social ills. During the past 30 years, scholars have produced a more complex picture of the support, activities, ideology and impact of the movement. Now, it appears more evident that from the 1880s to the 1920s a diverse coalition of combatants -- women and men; blacks and whites; theological liberals; moderates and conservatives; socialists and capitalists; pastors and laypeople, and Republicans, Democrats and Progressives -- all served in the Social Gospel army. Although much of the analysis of the movement has focused on ministers and professors because their publications and activities made them more visible, individuals in many other occupations -- journalists, lawyers, businessmen, laborers, social workers, farmers, homemakers and college students -- all participated.

Key Leaders and Organizations

The most important proponents of the Social Gospel were Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch. Through his ministry at First Congregational Church in Columbus, Ohio, from 1882 until 1914, his many articles and books (most notably Applied Christianity and Social Salvation), his service on the boards of numerous reform organizations, and his relationships with many other social activists, Washington significantly influenced the agenda and success of the Social Gospel. After pastoring a church in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan for a decade, Rauschenbusch, a Baptist, taught church history at Rochester Theological Seminary. His 1907 book Christianity and the Social Crisis catapulted him into national notoriety. Two other books -- Christianizing the Social Order (1912) and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917) had an enormous impact.


Before the publication of Rauschenbusch’s A Theology for the Social Gospel in 1917, the theological foundation for social Christianity was unspecified and eclectic, which allow theological liberals, moderates and conservatives to identify with the movement. All advocates of the Social Gospel believed that God’s kingdom could be established on earth. They all concurred that Christ accentuated this concept in His public ministry and commanded Christians to construct this kingdom on earth. Creating a more righteous and just social order was a central aspect of the biblical mandate and a vital part of advancing God’s kingdom on earth. Christians must work to restructure the society so that justice, freedom, equal opportunity, brotherhood and service could flourish. Social Gospelers exhorted Christians to stop focusing only on individual sins and to recognize the devastating impact of more complex social sins. Too often churches attacked only the symptoms and results rather than the causes of social diseases. The nation’s social ills -- indigence, intemperance, disease, crime, prostitution, unemployment, dangerous working and housing conditions and racial and sexual discrimination -- were all interrelated. Therefore, Christians must labor to reconstruct the entire social order, not simply reduce particular social maladies. Many Social Gospelers insisted that destitution was the root cause of many other social ills. They argued that poverty usually sprang not from defective character but rather from exploitation and lack of opportunity and worked to change the economic and social circumstances that produced it.

Most Social Gospel advocates insisted that Jesus did not endorse any particular economic system or political agenda. Christians were called both to convert individuals and improve social conditions. Redeemed individuals who understood biblical teaching and strove to implement could reform society. Social service was a natural byproduct of conversion. Conversion, Social Gospelers contended, was not simply a personal experience that removed individuals’ sin and guilt, reconciled them to God and guaranteed that they would go to heaven; rather it should be a life-changing event that motivated people to faithfully follow Jesus in every area of their lives and to work to regenerate the social order. By removing barriers that inhibited people from hearing and responding to the gospel, social ministries were a type of evangelism. Those who had comfortable homes, sufficient food, proper medical care, healthy working conditions and adequate recreation were more likely to focus on their spiritual condition and respond positively to the gospel message. Moreover, participating in social service enriched Christians’ spiritual lives. Its insistence that social engagement helped people experience greater intimacy with God, receive power for service and fulfill the Bible’s cultural commission drew many Christians to the Social Gospel.

Repudiating the idea that the world was a shipwreck from which individuals needed to be rescued, social Christians argued that all of life could be redeemed -- art, music, literature, industry, amusements and politics. They called for redeemed prisons and cities, regenerated governments, sanctified tenements, "born again" businesses and even "saved" sports.


Between 1880 and 1925, men and women, blacks and whites, pastors and laypeople who held diverse theological perspectives joined forces to remedy a wide variety of social ills and redeem the republic. Inspired by both biblical teaching and their own experiences with industrial problems and urban poverty, people who had many different occupations and belonged to numerous denominations worked through many organizations that had divergent aims, approaches and tactics to achieve their objectives. Its particular time period, peculiar theological perspective and specific agenda and activities all distinguish the Social Gospel from other American reform movements. Its proponents believed that the Bible contained principles, metaphors and historical examples that Christians should use to refashion economic, social and political institutions and practices and reform social conditions. While accentuating such basic scriptural tenets as social justice, human brotherhood, fair play and nonviolence, social Christians often clashed about how to best apply Jesus’ teachings to the complex problems of their industrial society. However, they sought to construct a social order that distributed wealth more evenly; based education on religious and moral values and made it readily available to all; viewed government as a public servant that promoted the good of all citizens, and used biblical principles to guide commerce and business.

While working to reconstruct the United States, Social Gospelers disagreed about what form a "redeemed" society should take. While some of them lambasted capitalism and supported varied types of state socialism, most of them preferred "benevolent" capitalism and argued that socialism was unbiblical and impractical. Numerous Social Gospelers favored increasing the power of the government to help achieve their reform agenda, but others feared that this would have dangerous consequences. The different political perspectives and affiliations (Democrats, Republicans, Progressives, socialists and independents), economic viewpoints, theological orientations, denominational memberships and vocational backgrounds and experiences of the Social Gospelers enriched the movement and empowered its participants to fight effectively on many fronts. However, they also inhibited the development of a coherent approach to social amelioration, thwarted cohesive action on some issues and sometimes even led social Christians to work at cross-purposes.

Proponents of the Social Gospel engaged in both constructive criticism and collective action. They established dozens of organizations, created hundreds of institutional churches, devised dozens of biblically based businesses and accomplished many specific reforms. The movement motivated many Americans to use their vocations as vehicles for serving God and others and helped improve the quality of life in the United States and enhance the opportunities and status of the poor and marginalized. Moving beyond platitudes and palliatives, countless Social Gospelers worked to remedy social ills and bring systemic changes. Their participation in the Social Gospel often gave people a deeper purpose in life, a closer relationship with God and greater camaraderie with fellow believers. While their social values, political commitments and economic perspectives helped motivate their actions, their religious convictions were often the most important stimulus. After emerging as a significant force in American life in the 1880s, the Social Gospel had a powerful influence on the nation’s thought, religious attitudes and practices, and social and economic policies and activities for the next 35 years. It transformed the ministry of many congregations, altered the ministry of thousands of pastors, influenced the development and agenda of progressivism and helped improve urban living and factory and office working conditions, racial justice and management-labor relations. The Social Gospel also significantly affected seminary education, the ministry of denominational agencies and the activities of the Federal Council of Churches (and later, the World Council of Churches). To some degree, the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the liberation theology that emerged in the 1960s, along with contemporary liberal Protestant, evangelical and Catholic social activism, have all built on the foundation laid by the Social Gospel.


Rauschenbusch, Walter

Related Dictionary Terms

Bible, Christian, Christianity, Conversion, Creed, Denomination, Gospels, Rauschenbusch, Walter (1861-1918), Salvation, Seminary, Social Gospel, Theology


A Theology for the Social Gospel, title page- Internet Archive
A Theology for the Social Gospel, title page- Internet Archive

Walter Rauschenbusch portrait- Internet Archive- from Dare We Be Christians by Walter Rauschenbusch
Walter Rauschenbusch portrait- Internet Archive- from Dare We Be Christians by Walter Rauschenbusch

Washington Gladden portrait- Internet Archive- from The Home Missionary, vol 79 (1905)
Washington Gladden portrait- Internet Archive- from The Home Missionary, vol 79 (1905)

Social Creed, first page- Hathi Trust
Social Creed, first page- Hathi Trust

Federal Council of Churches, special session- Hathi Trust- from The Progress of Church Federation by Charles S. Macfarland
Federal Council of Churches, special session- Hathi Trust- from The Progress of Church Federation by Charles S. Macfarland

Book/Journal Source(s)

Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Web Source(s)
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.

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