Social Gospel Theology

Reformers’ Conclusions About Society

Many Christians who lived in the cities and witnessed the squalor of squalor of the poor were outraged that men could treat one another as those who controlled industry controlled their workers. For those with a liberalist impulse, the desire to bring about God’s Kingdom in the context of temporal human relationships proved an important foundation for a religious social ethic. They began to believe that "industrial capitalism" was inherently unjust, and that its particular institutions and economic situations set individuals up for failure and consequently sinful lifestyles. A man’s own hard work could no longer prosper him in the world of the twentieth century, and the unrestrained capitalism that allowed the privileged to own the labor and production of others seemed to be responsible. Men who owned the means of production did not seem to be constrained by either morality or government regulation to be fair to their employees, so Social Gospellers and Progressivists alike were more inclined to favor bigger government, the rights of labor, and a number of socialist ideas.[1]

The Church’s Responsibility and the Kingdom of God

Liberals saw this need as an excellent niche for their form of Christianity that sought to be more relevant to men and women of the new century. The Church as an transformational institution would stand up for those who had no voice and provide for those who could not do enough to help their own families. Christians in the Social Gospel movement emphasized the immanence of God’s Kingdom on earth and the responsibility of a Christian society to bring it about. Victorian Protestantism and its emphases on individual salvation and holiness were not alleviating industrial conditions, but their vision of government as a brotherhood of service would. Individuals were given the responsibility to transform society, not deny themselves as such or evangelize people only. Community betterment became the focus of liberal evangelicalism as Social Gospellers worked to improve education, health care and sanitation in cities. Christians were called to create an environment conducive to tapping full individual and community potential in a relational context. Herein was a new measure of success: being appreciated by others as making a difference in society. Curtis suggests that this ethic can be seen in Charles Sheldon’s novels In His Steps (1897) and The Reformer (1902), among other writings of the period. . She also argues that the political actions of Christian reformers created the required atmosphere for progressivism, as they charged government with the task of enforcing moral reforms. Voters believed that such "policies…would usher in the kingdom of God."[2]

Uniqueness of the Social Gospel

The reforming impulse is nothing new to Christian denominations, and we find ecumenical benevolent societies with an appreciation of social problems since the early days of the nineteenth century. Ahlstrom points out that while all liberal movements were searching for some form of new relevancy in the midst of increasing change, the Social Gospel alone stood out as a religious movement that single-mindedly emphasized the "problems [of] industrialism and unregulated urban growth." Hutchison considers the movement unique because of the "theoretical" primacy it gave to social salvation over that of the individual.[3]  Traditional American Protestant thought held that the salvation of the individual would lead to social improvement, and so social improvement was never considered an end in itself. Certainly a just society would make the Church’s job easier, but it could only be achieved by converting one individual at a time. Further, that was the work that had eternal value. After all, no one expected God to ask men and women how they contributed to their governmental and economic systems as they stood before Him in eternity. The ideas of the Social Gospel were different. Adherents came to believe that many individuals could only leave sinful lifestyles and habits if they were extracted from the social and economic situations that had driven them into sin in the first place. Conversion and life in the Church therefore had to offer something better than sin and addictive habits, as well as alleviate the suffering that drove men to such despair. As a result of this reasoning, individual salvation was important, but considered secondary to social reform, which would convert multitudes into God’s kingdom as the government and economic institutions themselves taught men and women of brotherly love. Salvation of the individual, then, stood as an important byproduct of working for a literal kingdom of God on earth. Working for social improvement, the Kingdom of God on earth, then, was the thrust of the Social Gospel movement.

Kyle Potter, March 2001
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[1] Curtis, 7-8.

[2] Ibid., 8-9, 26-27, 73, 130, 139-42.

[3] Ahlstrom, 74-75; Hutchison, 165.