Where Did the Social Gospel Come From?

Where Did the Social Gospel Come From? April 11, 2023

Image by Leonhard Niederwimmer / Pixabay

If you were to ask an Evangelical about the Social Gospel, you may get a few different responses. Funny enough, I had a weekend full of Evangelicals. With the celebration of Easter came explanations of why we celebrate the holiday anyways. Conservative Evangelical Christians tend to look at the Gospel and Theology as right or wrong. Let me put it another way – their interpretation of the Bible and the good news of God is the right way. You shouldn’t look for anything else because they have the right answer already.

The problem with this way of thinking is that is devalues a rich history of Christian thought. There have been many interpretations and frameworks that Christians have used to bring meaning and value to their current culture. I am constantly looking for new theologies and ideas to expand my critical thinking ability. I don’t even need to like the ideas – but having them in my tool box allows me to look at a text or concept through another set of eyes.

I want to take a few articles to look at the rise and fall of one of my favorite frameworks. This has changed my perspective on the Bible, Christianity, and how to live. Let’s look at the Social Gospel.

What Was Going On?

The end of the 19th century saw a rise in quality of life and economic prosperity that was unprecedented. As the Industrial Revolution came to America, so did a change in the way we worked and structured society. Before the Industrial Revolution, America was an agrarian society. Our work, and our identity, was built on our farming and raising animals. This changed when factories made their way across the pond and into New England.

As farmers moved to factories, their needs changed. Because of the radical change in society, the Church needed to change their message. Big business owners and Robber Barrons were exploiting their work force. There was no laws for what an employer could require of their workers. Children were often pulled away from education to work in the factories. These were new problems for a new culture.

So What IS the Social Gospel?

“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 old prophets who believed in the salvation of nations.”
– Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel.

The Social Gospel was a push to reconcile the Sermon on the Mount with the changing American culture. Although the Church was thriving, the people were not. Preachers saw that it was impossible to be true disciples of Jesus if one failed to follow His teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Furthermore, the Church had a great example – the Early Church in Acts.

The Social Gospel saw the repentance of systemic injustice and inequality as imperative to the Great Commission of Jesus. This theological framework led American ministers to endorse labor movements like unions and the end of child labor as well as the New Deal creation of welfare systems to curb poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

The Social Gospel movement saw the wealth of resources and saw that the kingdom of God was here for us. Humanity finally had the ability to erase poverty and provide for each person. The Sermon on the Mount was available for Americans. This, however, was a short lived movement. Society and international politics would go on to make the Social Gospel a harder idea to justify.

What Now?

The 20th century saw the abandonment of the Social Gospel. While Evangelicalism has taken hold in America, there are still churches that fight for the physical Sermon on the Mount. Rather than focusing on an afterlife paradise, these churches aim to establish God’s kingdom on earth. These churches march with protestors and attend rallies. The tradition of standing for the marginalized is still strong. Let’s be the Church that works for equity for all.

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