The Social Gospel as a Response to Victorian Ideals 
The excesses of the Victorian age gave foundation to a number of important political and religious trends that which converged to give rise to the Social Gospel.

The Progressive Movement

The Progressive movement was a secular initiative over the first decades of the new century to utilize government power and resources to correct the excesses and moral violations of both Victorian individualism and industrial capitalism. Many Americans became weary of and disgusted by the blatant self-interest of many of their politicians. Those men also placed their faith in individualism and used their civic offices not as avenues of public service, but as paths to personal affluence. Such attitudes obviously meant that popularity among those with political and financial influence would be an official’s priority, not the tough reforms needed to alleviate the conditions of the working poor. Such reforms, after all, would displease the businessmen and companies whose favor could be important to a budding politician. In response to this, many rising elected officials and active citizens began to advocate voting reforms. Witnessing the plight of the working poor, many took notice of their inability to help themselves in the face of corporate oppression. Social reformers began to advocate a bigger government that could respond in "emergency or disaster" rather than leave a disadvantaged public to their own devices. Along the same lines, many sought changes allowing the government greater power in regulating "economic health" as a way to combat capitalistic excesses and the dangers of the free market.[1]


In his book, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism, William R. Hutchison defines modernism as a willingness to adapt theology to contemporary culture, the belief that God in present in culture and uses it as a vehicle of revelation, and the belief that humanity is approaching "realization of the Kingdom of God." These ideas exhibit some influence of popular Darwinian thought: humanity was considered to be continually progressing toward a greater and higher end. Rather than condemning culture, a relevant Christian faith was required to adapt to changing culture as an expression of humanity’s progress. The underlying assumption was that the Fall was not irrevocable, and that in God’s redemption of humanity, he was working in and through his creation’s culture and history to glorification. Therefore the Church had to modify the unredeemed elements of culture while responding to those blessed and inspired by God. The shift was found in an increasingly optimistic view of human endeavor.[2]


Liberalism was another important response emerging in America after the Civil War. Sydney Ahlstrom discusses the movement in the form of three distinct branches. First, one branch placed emphasis on experiential ethics without seeking to construct formal philosophy (this group included Walter Rauschenbusch). Another branch sought answers to life’s questions by formulating an abstract understanding of human spirituality. In this realm, one branch relied on "subjective" spiritual experience and human intuition, while the other looked to more rationalistic religion for solutions. The clergymen and theologians termed "evangelical liberals" by Ahlstrom, devalued "mystical" religion and sought to reestablish their theological foundation upon the historically revealed teachings of Jesus as primary over those of Paul or the Church Fathers. Liberals considered the Church more of an institution for moral and social improvement rather than the mystical "Body of Christ," and saw "conversion, faith, and holiness as options, not gifts." Further, eschatology centered not on a literal Second Coming of Christ, but strategies to bring about the temporal rule of his Kingdom on earth. Hutchison tells us that this was idea was further supported by the fin de siècle crisis. As society believed that with the turn of the century, they were reaching civilization’s eleventh hour. In the eyes of many religionists, especially these liberals, the future depended directly upon the right action of the church. Attitudes about the person of Jesus also changed. Curtis records that between the Civil War and WWI, the historical figure of Jesus moved from the effeminate, soft, polite Victorian ideal to the rugged, coarse carpenter of Nazareth. He the ideal of manhood for those alienated from their fathers by the circumstances of industrial life or Victorian custom.[3]  Jesus’ appeal was found in his civic work ethic, interpersonal efficacy, and his ability to lead and influence others. Such ideas of teamwork, cooperation, and self-sacrifice appealed to those who began to believe that social salvation was necessary to alleviate social problems.[4]

Kyle Potter, March 2001
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[1] Ibid., 129, 132-33.

[2] William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism, (New York: Oxford UP, 1976; Galaxy Books, 1982), 2.

[3] Victorians saw women not only as principal nurturers to children, but considered the raising of children itself to be a task for women alone.  Men were expected to remain aloof.  Children of the working poor, of course, received little affirmation from father figures when the factory work of all family members kept them separate.) 

[4] Sydney E. Ahlstrom, Ed., Theology in America: The Major Protestant Voices from Puritanism to Neo-Orthodoxy (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), 67-71; Hutchison 145-47; Curtis 82-85.