Social Gospel

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Social Gospel, a term which came into use in North America soon after 1900, refers to a movement concerned with the unequal distribution of wealth through capitalism, with the exploitation of the poor, and with a christianizing of society in all areas of life. Its goal was to help bring in the kingdom of God, which it believed to be "humanity organized according to the will of God." In the United States its influence spanned the years from the Civil War (1861-65) to World War I, peaking in the first two decades of the 20th century, but it was also influential in England (Charles Kingsley [1819-75]), and in Canada (J. S. Woodsworth [1874-1942]).

The roots of the Social Gospel grew, in part, in liberal theology with its idealism and optimistic view of progress, but also in Evangelicalism (Pietism) and sectarianism (Anabaptism). Those standing primarily in the liberal tradition were social evolutionists with unbounded optimism. The end of slavery now meant that God had opened the way "for the redemption and sanctification of our whole social system." Progress against evil would be inevitable. Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87) gave his endorsement to the soap advertisement: "Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Soap must be considered a means of grace and a clergyman who recommends moral things should be willing to recommend soap." Winthrop Hudson was to write later: "It was as if God had been 'naturalized' and invited. . . 'to give a weekly editorial commentary' on the vagaries of a society, in the image of which he had been made." For these clergy Christ was a moral example, a loving presence whose vision was now finally being realized. There was little mention of the cross of Christ.

A different mood and theology prevailed among those who stood more in the evangelical activist tradition of Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), Charles Finney (1792-1875), and the Great Awakening (1730s and 1740s). The foremost spokesman of this emphasis was Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), a Baptist minister and professor of church history at Rochester [N.Y.] Divinity School. Rauschenbusch knew both Anabaptism and the Mennonites well, as did his father August, an immigrant German Lutheran Pietist, later a Baptist minister, who made a return trip to Germany to study the history of the Anabaptist Hubmaier at Waldshut. Walter not only had a personal conversion experience at age 17, and what he called a "discipleship experience" at 21 ("I wanted to do hard work for God"), but translated a volume of gospel songs into German (Evangeliums Lieder) and believed that "the social order cannot be saved without regenerate men."

Walter Rauschenbusch saw himself standing in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets and of Jesus. He opposed the private, otherworldly piety promoted by most churches. We rarely sin against God alone, he said, but also against our fellow human beings. Adam's opportunities to sin real sins were rather limited in comparison to the opportunities in modern society. Sins which are real sins need social room to develop, but the churches have lost sight of the kingdom and concentrate on small personal sins. Yet we crucified Jesus with religious bigotry, graft, and political power, corruption of justice, mob spirit, and militarism. Jesus died as much for social sins as for individual sins; it was the social sins, in fact, that killed him. As a social sin "war is the most sinful thing there is." Its root is greed and deceit. Rauschenbusch was a pacifist.

For Rauschenbusch sin was at the heart of national decay but he was not a Calvinist. The Fall had not robbed humans of the ability to change things. Free will had not been lost. Christians could make society more Christlike. "I have entire sympathy with the conservative instinct which shrinks from giving up any of the dear possessions which have made life holy for us. We have none too much of them left.... The social gospel calls for an expansion in the scope of salvation.... It is able to create a more searching sense of sin and to preach repentance to the respectable and mighty who have ridden humanity to the mouth of hell. . . ." "Does Calvinism deal adequately with a man who appears before the judgment seat of Christ with $50,000,000 and its human corollaries to his credit, and then pleads a free pardon through faith in the atoning sacrifice? . . . If we can trust the Bible, God is against capitalism, its method, spirit, and results." Rauschenbusch considered himself a Christian Socialist but never joined the Socialist Party.

Rauschenbusch was a lonely prophet. Initially the Social Gospel was more a movement of the clergy than the people. His vision of social justice included industrial democracy, fair wages and decent working hours, an end to child labor, the nationalization of huge industries, e.g., coal and iron. Yet he did not share the optimism of the liberals: "The continents are strewn with the ruins of dead nations and civilizations. History laughs at the optimistic illusion that 'nothing can stand in the way of human progress'.. . What guarantee have we, then, that our modern civilization with its pomp will not be 'one with Nineveh and Tyre?'" He died a disappointed and misunderstood man with "brother fighting brother" in 1914-18. Perhaps he had been too optimistic after all, even with his strong emphasis on sin.

The Great Depression of the 1930s, two world wars, Stalinism, Hitler, and the holocaust put an end to the optimistic theology of liberalism and of the Social Gospel. The "realism" of Neo-orthodoxy took its place. It is surprising that in their concern to overcome capitalism the Social Gospelers failed to be alert to other social issues like racism and women's rights. But they clearly did alert the churches to many issues of justice and the dangers of a private piety unaccountable to anyone. In identifying with the needs of the poor, and seeing the demonic potential of corporate, economic or political power, they anticipated some aspects of 20th-century liberation theology. They gave strong impetus to fledgling peace movements. Woodsworth was also a pacifist. His mother was of Mennonite background. The New Democratic Party (NDP) in Canada is a political continuation of the Social Gospel vision of S. G. Bland (1859-1950) and J. S. Woodsworth. The latter was the founder (1932) of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party, which preceded the NDP and its policies.

Most Mennonites in Canada, particularly those who came from Russia, have had a deep-seated fear of socialism as being too much like Communism. Yet it was the CCF which first had a vision for Canada-wide health care and pension plans. These were partly put in place by the CCF party under Thomas (Tommy) Clement Douglas who, as premier of Saskatchewan (1944-61), was leader of the first socialist government elected in North America. Douglas later served as leader of the NDP until 1971.

In the United States many Mennonites were also opposed to the Social Gospel because socialism for them meant Communism. The Social Gospel, they believed, is liberalism and modernism, which undercuts biblical authority, trades individual for social salvation, promotes witnessing to the state about bad laws and evil structures, and finally leads to social action which is "identical with that of humanists and socialists who have embraced the Marxist philosophy." Eschatology is also at issue since "Christians do not believe. . ." that changing social structures will make a better world. "For the Bible message of personal reconstruction the social gospel substitutes the call to social reconstruction." For these persons the only key to social improvement was individual conversion. The issue was thus joined since the Social Gospel did indeed challenge individualism in all areas of social and religious life.

Yet most Mennonites in North America, and globally, were part of a vast worldwide social aid program through the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Concerns were heard occasionally that MCC workers were not witnessing effectively to the Good News of Jesus Christ, but generally MCC received broad support. So also a concern for world peace led to the founding of a committee for peace concerns under Mennonite World Conference in Curitiba, Brazil (1972). Mennonites carried on large social programs in the fields of mental health, service to the elderly, inner city voluntary service units, etc.

With this new concern for society, new terms entered the Mennonite vocabulary, including concern for justice, particularly after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. With this came the struggle of how best to reconcile justice with the traditional Mennonite preference for the word love. Such terms as "direct action," "nonviolent resistance," "confronting in love," and "conflict resolution" also entered the Mennonite vocabulary and, at times, practice. It appeared that many Mennonites believed in working at both individual and social change at the same time, believing this to be the way of Christ.


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Author(s) Cornelius J Dyck
Date Published 1989

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Dyck, Cornelius J. "Social Gospel." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 16 Apr 2021.

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Dyck, Cornelius J. (1989). Social Gospel. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 16 April 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 832-834. All rights reserved.

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