Walter Rauschenbusch

Early Life

Walter Rauschenbusch was born on 4 October 1861 in Rochester, New York. Karl August Rauschenbusch was teaching German at Rochester Theological Seminary after being originally sent to the United States as a German Lutheran missionary. Curtis suggests that Walter shared the imperative of the day to break free of his fatherís expectations while surpassing the elder manís successes. This suggests that Walter, like many other young men at the time, was searching for a source of personal fulfillment outside Victorian definitions of success. His longtime assistant, student and friend Dores Sharpe said that Walterís relationship with his father was particularly tense, recording an account of the boy nearly being ousted from his fatherís own Sunday school class for independent and contrary questioning of answers to theological problems.[1]

Early Pastorate

Upon graduating from extensive theological and historical study in the United States and Europe, Walter took a three-month summer pastorate at a German Baptist church in Louisville. His experience there sealed his calling as a preacher, and he wrote, "It is now no longer my found hope to be a learned theologian and write big books; I want to be a pastor, powerful with men, preaching to them Christ as the man in whom their affections and energies can find the satisfaction for which mankind is groaning."[2] His work with the small congregation had a profound effect on his understanding of ministry and the Christian life. He described it in an address to the Cleveland YMCA, "The Kingdom of God," on 2 January 1913:

I wanted to do hard work for God. Indeed, one of the great thoughts that came upon me was that I ought to follow Jesus Christ in my personal life, and die over again his death. I felt that every Christian ought to participate in the dying of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in that way help to redeem humanity, and it was that thought that gave my life itís fundamental direction in the doing of Christian work.

Here we see Rauschenbuschís understanding of Christianity as a community-oriented religion begins to take form as the foundation of his idea of the kingdom of God.[3]

Hellís Kitchen

Rauschenbusch began his first long-term pastorate at the Second German Baptist Church in New York, in a poor and dangerous neighborhood called "Hellís Kitchen," on 1 June 1886. Robert T. Handy records that the young pastor began his tenure intending to evangelize first and foremost, but that his education "in individualistic conservatism" had not prepared him for the poor standards of living, lack of education and danger. Sharpe concurs, informing us that in the eleven years he spent in Hellís Kitchen, Rauschenbusch decided "that industrial crises" existed due to the capitalistic system under which the poor struggled, exacerbating sickness, violence, and problems presented by bad food. He notes that the pastor began reading the works of prominent liberals and socialists when he moved to Hellís Kitchen, rather than the "personal problems" addressed by the dayís popular evangelical writers.[4]

The Brotherhood of the Kingdom

Rauschenbusch turned to the idea of the Church as an institution for a temporal Kingdom of God to answer the problems of the working poor. He decided that to live in that context, Christians must work out social reform while awaiting Christís return. He did not believe that complete perfection was attainable in the present world, but believed it to be a valid goal. In essence, the mission of the church was practical ministry, meeting the needs of the weak politically, spiritually, and physically. To coordinate these efforts outside of the sectarianism that plagued American Protestants by forming the non-denominational Brotherhood of the Kingdom in 1892.[5] He published membership standards for the Brotherhood in his 1893 "Spirit and Aims of the Brotherhood of the Kingdom." Members were ministers who placed a social emphasis on his Christianity and sought to "infuse the religious spirit" into the secular reform movements. These clergy actively helped one another to secure public platforms for their message that they might expose to conditions of the working poor to society as a whole.[6]


Kyle Potter, March 2001
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[1] Robert T. Handy, Ed., The Social Gospel in America: 1870-1920 (New York: Oxford UP, 1966), 253; Curtis 111; Dores Robinson Sharpe, Walter Rauschenbusch (New York: Macmillan, 1942), 41.

[2] Handy, 254.

[3] Sharpe, 57.

[4] Handy, 254-55; Sharpe 60-61, 64-65.

[5] Handy, 257; Sharpe, 119-20; Curtis, 109.

[6] Sharpe, 119-22.