Theology and Writings

Social Gospel Theology

Rauschenbusch insisted upon the need to formulate theology to support the social participation of the Church, arguing that it "must reconstruct its moral and religious synthesis whenever it passes from one era to another" to remain relevant to the culture it seeks to convert. He also feared that without "a theological basis for…social interest," the movement would remain nothing but an afterthought in the individualism of American Protestantism.[1] According to Hutchison, Rauschenbusch believed that if one translated the evolutionary theories into religious faith, the doctrine of the Kingdom of God would result. This combination with scientific evolution would free the Kingdom ideal of its catastrophic setting and allow it to adjust as part of the modern world. This shift was hoped to move believers from an "emergency surgery" mentality in dealing with the world to one of continual maintenance. Rauschenbusch insisted that the principles of the Kingdom and its immanence touched all areas of human life, so it transcended all of its traditional theological definitions as only "heaven, the inner life of the spirit…, the Church," the Millennial Reign, or even "a righteous social order."[2]

Rauschenbusch’s Contributions to Social Gospel Theology

Rauschenbusch claimed that his teachings in Christianity and the Social Crisis rested firmly in the tradition of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets, and emphasized the latter’s understanding of righteousness as a corporate, public issue, their special attention to the poor, and Jesus’ synthesis of the social and religious spheres.[3]  In his connection of individual human sinfulness to sinful social and economic institutions, Rauschenbusch embraced a number of liberalism’s beliefs, including the above idea of the Social Gospel as a kind of higher synthesis of history and theology. He also defined sin as "selfishness" rather than in terms of man’s "pride and rebellion against God."[4]  The German pastor described God in terms of a friend rather than a vindictive judge, and like other liberals of the time, pushed a coarser image of Jesus over Victorian orthodoxy: "There was nothing mushy, nothing sweetly effeminate about Jesus. He was the one that turned again and again on the snarling pack of His pious enemies and made them slink away." He also sought to overrule traditional individualistic interpretations of Christianity itself in area such as baptism, claiming that defining the sacrament "as an escape from damnation tainted it with selfishness." Defining it rather as an "entrance" in the context of the Kingdom could repair the quiet heresy. Rauschenbusch published a number of well-received books outlining then systematizing the social problem and the Church’s responsibility, including Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), Christianizing the Social Order (1912), and A Theology of the Social Gospel (1917). Sharpe shares the following excerpt, first published in New York’s Christian Inquirer in 1887.[5]

Why, yes, it is a pleasant evening. Out to see life in New York City, eh? Well, Saturday night is a good time to see it on this avenue. Lots of people. Hold on there.! That fellow nearly took my hat off. Rather interrupts conversation to squeeze through and dodge around.

Fine sight, you think? Yes, the stores are bright, people well-dressed mostly; they all look busy and happy, as they push by. God to do their shopping for Sunday, you know, and their love-making for all the week. ‘The world is not so bad a world as some would like to make it.’ That’s your verdict, is it, from what you see? You’ll go and pooh-pooh this talk about want and degradation and the iron law, and all that. Well, go ahead, you’ll only be one of a crowd who know the family because they’ve looked at the front door, and say the elephant is a tree, because they stumbled against his leg. Getting mad, am I? Oh, no, only a bit wild. You’d do the same if you had eyes to see.

There, do you see that big clothing hose on the corner there? Brilliantly lighted; show windows gorgeous; all hum and happiness. But somewhere in that big house there’s a little bullet-headed tailor doubled up over the coat he is to alter, and as surely as I know that my hand is pressing your harm, I know too that he is choking down the sobs and trying to keep the water our of his eyes. Why? Because his little girl is going to die tonight and he can’t be there. Consumption, pulmonary. Been wasting away for months, can’t sleep except her head is on his breast. And then he can’t sleep when her panting is in his ears.  He has just been draining his life to sustain hers, and yet Minnie is all the twirled to him. She’s the only drop of sweetness in his cup; all the rest is gall. Hard work; nothing to look forward to; wife grown bitter and snarling; and tonight the girl dies. How do I know? Just been there. Her forehead is getting clammy and her whole body rocks with the effort to get breath. She’s whispering, ‘Tell my papa to come,’ but he’ll not be there before one o’clock tonight. Saturday night, you know; very busy; sorry, but can’t spare him. O yes, you can say that: ought to go home, permission or none, but that means throwing up a job that he has been hanging to by his finger nails. It will be six months before he gets another. And so he has to sew away and let his little girl dies three blocks off. When he gets home he can sob over her corpse; what more does he want? Exceptional case, you think. Not a bit of it. It’s the drop on the crest of the wave, but there are a million other drops underneath it, all hurled along, or that one drop wouldn’t be so high.

Do you see that old woman with the basket just turned into the street? Yes the little one with the shawl over her head. Well, that is one of the meekest souls in this city. She and her husband live in two little rooms in a rear house. They pay about the lowest rent I have found in this neighborhood, $6 a month. He earns from $1.50 to $3.00 per week, so you can figure how much they live on. Lazy? No, sir! They have just toiled and toiled all their lives. She has kept house and borne children and washed and scrubbed and saved. Why aren’t they better off, you ask? That’s what I want you to tell me. Here are these two old people standing at the close of a life of work and frugality, and watching old age and helplessness creeping down on them. And what have they got to face it with? A bit of bare furniture; one son who drank and has drifted out of their sight; another son, a barber, who just scrapes together enough to feed and clothe his family while they live and to pay off their funeral expenses after they die; a few graves across the river; a hope in heaven, and $70 in the savings bank. Ah, you say, that’s something. Yes, it is something, more than I’ve got; but no soul knows how they stinted to get that much, and what an anchor of hope that little sum is for the coming years. And they gave me a dollar ‘for the heathen’ the other day. Case for charity, you say. Yes, daub your walls with mortar to fill up the cracks; but what makes the wall split up so, anyway?

Do you see that girl in front of…got to go, eh? Bored you, didn’t I? Yes, guess I am something of a crank on these things. Wish you’d trot around with me for a week; you wouldn’t think so highly of things as they are. Good night, my boy.


Kyle Potter, March 2001
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[1] Hutchison, 170; Sharpe, 231.

[2] Handy, 258; Hutchison, 174; Sharpe, 129.

[3] Sharpe, 234-41. 

[4] Handy, 262.

[5] Ibid., 81-82.