Today, like the main performer in a piano bar, I am doing a request. The request is the Social Gospel Movement in America, but I will be expanding this to the movement in general.
When I was taking business classes, the professors often quoted from Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”, but in not a single class did any of them require us to READ it. I found this curious, because over and over again I was told that this was one of the most influential books in the founding of our nation, and the basis for our entire economic system.
Therefore, I committed the ultimate heresy; I purchased a copy, and read it cover to cover.
What I found inside was a blueprint for Progressivism, the Social Contract, and a progressive tiered tax system. The purpose behind nations and corporations generating wealth was to reinvest that wealth into the betterment of the lives of their citizens, especially those who had the least amount to give.
Smith’s other great work, and his personal favorite, was “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”. It opens with:
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”
This second book was never mentioned even once while I was in school. Adam Smith was a humanitarian who felt it our moral, social, and religious duty to improve the lives of our fellow man. By quote mining, they had turned “help your fellow man” into “greed is good”.
So, what has this long introduction have to do with the Social Gospel Movement? The Social Gospel was an originally Protestant social religious movement started in the 19th century, extending into the middle of the 20th, with some elements today, though in no way the mainstream in the United States. It was started by middle class preachers who saw the working classes becoming increasingly alienated from both the theory and practice of 19th century Christianity.
The movement was originally post-millennialist, in that they believed that the Second Coming of Jesus would not occur until after mankind had rid itself of social problems by its own efforts. This was not an original idea. Apocalyptic religions usually believe that the end of the world will not come until things get decidedly better or worse; usually the latter, if for no other reason than that it is easier to accomplish. There were several Jewish cults in pre-1st century Judea who thought that the Messiah would not come until the world was better, and far more who thought only ruin and war would bring him.
It is a myth that there was a rapid rise in the numbers of Christians in the 1st century. The extra biblical references to it would not fill a single sheet of paper, and come from later and medieval copies of texts without the original source materials. However, after a full century had passed and no end of the world was in sight, the 2nd century Christians turned their eyes from the skies to the earth below, and developed social welfare programs, which can be seen as an origin of the Social Gospel movement. One Roman author described Christianity as fit only for “women and slaves”, not realizing the significance of his words. These were two social groups with the least power, and the most to gain from a new way of thinking. They were also a significant proportion of the population. Christianity slowly became the religion of those who ran the day to day Empire and the middle class, until Helena and her son Constantine made it the official religion in the 4th century.
There were many in the Christian faith, both laity and priests, who felt it their duty to ease the suffering of their fellow man. The Franciscan order of priests was founded for this very reason. However, the emphasis of the Church became accumulation of power, wealth, and murdering other Christians who did not agree with them. Personal salvation by avoiding Hell took precedence over doing good deeds.
The Protestant Reformation and the rise of Humanism among the educated classes led to a new resurgence of concern for social ills. Infighting among sects, religious and political wars, along with the rise of Saint Paulian based Puritanicalism eventually subsided this upswing in social conscience. The needy were the way they were because of God’s Will and their own failures, and no right thinking Christian should interfere with that. You only helped them because you hoped they would reform their ways and think more like you did.
Most historians today completely miss the point of why various revolutionaries went after the churches in their countries. It was not an attack on the faith so much, but on the fact that the priestly class had become a privileged one, mostly discounting the needs of the poor. The French Revolution was a perfect example of this.
At the end of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th, the lower classes came to the full realization that they were being screwed. They did all the heavy work, the fighting and dying in wars, and the only thanks they got were short miserable lives. The American and French Revolutions were examples of what people could do to free themselves. The injustices of industrialization gave rise to the new political movements of Socialism and Communism, both based on putting the workers first. Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was first published in 1867. Revolutions broke out all over Europe in 1848, resulting in massive crack downs by authorities, but also a realization that the majority of the population would not stand for this forever. The increase in the voting franchise meant that politicians had to take notice of the needs of the poor. The German Empire, founded on the hard work of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, became a socialized paradise compared to its European and American rivals.
Into this environment stepped the Social Gospel Movement. Already, great strides had been made by Christians acting together. The abolition of slavery and the Temperance Movement were led by Christians, often working against the words of their holy texts in order to promote the social good. Christians became heavily involved in the development of worker’s rights, labor unions, opposition to child labor, environmental issues, better education, and eradication of vice. They saw clearly the causes of poverty and disease, and worked to clean up slums and provide health care to the poor. Many stood in opposition to war and empire building.
One good example of this was the Young Men’s Christian Association founded by George Williams in London in 1844. The YWCA and Boys and Girls Clubs would come much later. Christian principles would lead to a healthy mind, body, and spirit.
The Social Gospel and the Progressive movement often shared members and goals, and got help from figures like President Theodore Roosevelt. A growing press allowed people to learn of conditions far away. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain filled their books with the evils of modern society. “The Gilded Age” was the name of a book and a slur term invented by Twain, meaning that the apparent successes of Victorian society masked the depth of human misery that had built it.
Richard T. Ely (1854-1943) was a figure who straddled both the Social Gospel and Progressive Movement. He was an economist who helped found a number of organizations devoted to the applications of Christian principles to solve social problems. He lobbied for more government intervention in the areas of labor unions, workplace safety, child labor, and compulsory public education. Although he was strongly opposed to socialism, he adopted most of its ideas.
Ely wrote, “We have among us a class of mammon worshippers, whose one test of conservatism, or radicalism, is the attitude one takes with respect to accumulated wealth. Whatever tends to preserve the wealth of the wealthy is called conservatism, and whatever favors anything else, no matter what, they call socialism.”
Nevertheless, Ely was typical of his time, being both highly nationalistic and just as racist, wanting government support for the “Nordic” races over the “inferior” peoples. He was a strong supporter of American intervention in WWI, something opposed by the majority of those in the social movement. He founded the American Economic Association, which today is headquartered in Nashville, TN. His feast day in the Episcopalian Church (USA) is October 6.
The Social Gospel Movement suffered in the post WWI disillusionment, but saw major successes in the policies of the New Deal and the Eisenhower Administration reforms. However, in the 1950’s such ideas were being labeled as “commie” by the main stream media, government, and Christian churches, and membership fell off. It did remain a guiding principle in the Civil Rights Movement and Liberation Theology.
Today, the Social Gospel Movement can still be seen in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopalian Church, the Church of England, and in the reforms of Pope Francis in the Roman Catholic Church.
It is opposed by the majority of Evangelical Movements, and by Conservative groups and politicians. Most of the literature I found to research this article was actually from these detractors. They labeled the Social Gospel as “bankrupt”, “fallacious”, “dangerous”, “heresy”, “lunacy” and without a shred of biblical support. The Four Gospels sayings of Jesus probably could put them straight, but in their defense they don’t actually use them very often, except as reasons not to intervene. As they wrote in their articles, mankind is evil and sinful from birth, and only God can fix the problems. A single author put it “The problem is, this is a fallen, broken world full of imperfect people who cannot redeem themselves by their own efforts. Claiborne (another author) wants to bring to earth what is reserved only for heaven. Yet, no matter what people do, this broken world will remain broken.” He then went on to quote “the poor will always be with us”, so why bother.
“Temporal changes are not the objective of churches”.
I read this again and again. One helps the needy to get them to join your group. The Meek shall never inherit the earth because they will not be allowed to. Modern US Christianity has formed an alliance with Capitalism and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.
The Social Gospel is not unique to Christianity. Every religion has those members who deem it a necessity to help one’s fellow man. Zakat (“that which purifies”) is one of the Five Pillars of Islam in which one gives to the poor and needy. Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood gain their strength from the good they do for their communities. Dana (“generosity”) is one of the Ten Niyamas of Hinduism. Buddhism is an entire religion devoted to bettering the lives of others. Europe has been moving in this direction for decades, although with less of the religious motivation.
All is not lost here. Organizations like St. Jude’s Hospital come readily to mind. The various Masonic charities, such as the Shriner Hospitals and the Scottish and Yorkish Rite Charities work quietly every day to improve the lives of needy children. Every single medical worker, school teacher, and social worker, whether for religious reasons or not, live the ideals of the Social Gospel.
Perhaps the Social Gospel today can be seen, not so much as a movement, but as influencing the millions of acts of kindness Americans perform every day. It has moved from out in the open into the hearts of our people. The Social Gospel today may not be able to cure every ill, mend every broken heart, or end all injustice, but, by God, they certainly are going to try.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:35-40