The social gospel

The social gospel July 25, 2017


The “social gospel” is the teaching that the purpose of Christianity is to work for a just society by changing political structures.  It had its origins in the 19th century–particularly in “post-millennialism,” the view that human beings are to establish the millennial golden age on earth, after which Christ will come again–and developed into the political activism of 20th and 21st century liberal churches.  Now some evangelicals are discovering these concepts and are redefining their mission away from saving souls for eternity to improving conditions for the poor and rebuilding society.

An article by Christopher Evans, linked after the jump, gives a good account of the movement and its various permutations, showing the historical and theological background of today’s “religious left.”  He thinks that recovering the social gospel can help bring disaffected young people back into the church.

Some theses for consideration and discussion:

(1)  The social gospel is not gospel.  It is law, replacing personal moralism with social and political moralism.  It has little to say about forgiveness.  Sinners–that is, political oppressors–are not forgiven.  They are crudely demonized and are considered worthy of a secular kind of damnation.

(2)  The social gospel is not THE gospel.  It has little interest in Jesus Christ atoning for the sins of the world and offering grace, forgiveness, and eternal life to those with faith in Him.  Those who believe in the social gospel are interested in this world, not the next.  Salvation has to do with improving society, not redeeming an individual so that he or she can experience everlasting life after death.

(3)  Though originally the creation of mainstream Protestants, many Catholics too now support a social gospel.

(4)  There is a social gospel of the right, as well as of the left.

Photograph of Walter Rauschenbusch, a key theologian of the social gospel.  See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From Christopher H. Evans, How the Social Gospel Movement Explains the Roots of Today’s Religious Left | RealClearReligion:

Throughout American history, religion has played a significant role in promoting social reform. From the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century to the civil rights movement of the 20th century, religious leaders have championed progressive political causes.

This legacy is evident today in the group called religious progressives, or the religious left.

The social gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as I have explored in my research, has had a particularly significant impact on the development of the religious left.

What is the social gospel movement and why does it matter today?

What was the social gospel?

The social gospel’s origins are often traced to the rise of late 19th-century urban industrialization, immediately following the Civil War. Largely, but not exclusively, rooted in Protestant churches, the social gospel emphasized how Jesus’ ethical teachings could remedy the problems caused by “Gilded Age” capitalism.

Movement leaders took Jesus’ message “love thy neighbor” into pulpits, published books and lectured across the country. Other leaders, mostly women, ran settlement houses designed to alleviate the sufferings of immigrants living in cities like Boston, New York and Chicago. Their mission was to draw attention to the problems of poverty and inequality – especially in America’s growing cities.

Charles Sheldon, a minister in the city of Topeka, Kansas, explained the idea behind the social gospel in his 1897 novel “In His Steps.” To be a Christian, he argued, one needed to walk in Jesus’s footsteps.

The book’s slogan, “What would Jesus do?” became a central theme of the social gospel movement which also became tied to a belief in what Ohio minister Washington Gladden called “social salvation.” This concept emphasized that religion’s fundamental purpose was to create systemic changes in American political structures.

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