III. Social Gospel
From the very beginning of Christian history, the gospel has had its social influences,
and men have repeatedly attempted to embody its principles in legislation. It would be
difficult to misinterpret Jesus more completely than to regard him as setting forth
sociological theories; but he would be misinterpreted quite as completely if one were to
overlook his constant reiteration of principles which must have social results. These
principles are the chief elements in the Christian character.
There are three basic social principles of the gospel, the first being the principle of
love. Jesus himself recognized this as the one great contribution, which he made
to, inspired teaching. He gave his disciples a new commandment: to love one another.
Yet the newness of the commandment does not lie in its mere words. The Old Testament is
full of commandments to love. Jesus himself, when asked what was the greatest
commandment, replied in words taken from Deuteronomy 6:4: "Thou shalt love the Lord
the God with all thy heart, and with all thy strength," and "Thou shalt love thy
neighbor as thyself" (Mark 12:30-31). The element of novelty in Jesus' commandment
lies in the fact that with him love is not co-ordinate with any other commandment, but
Now, this love, which Jesus insists upon, is something more than mere affection or mere
"liking" some one. The Christian can love people whom he does not like. Christian love
is a matter of the will more than of the feelings. The Christian can, and if he is
really to be Christ like, he must, love his enemies. That is to say, he must treat them
not as those who are doing him wrong, but in the same way in which he treats those for
whom he has an actual affection. How far-reaching this principle becomes, is a part of
the revelation made by Jesus himself in his death. That was the culmination of his
supreme love for even those who brought him to the cross. Whatever else Christian love
includes - and it includes very many things - this element of service to the point of
complete self-sacrifice is supreme. If a man does not forgive men their trespasses, Jesus
says explicitly that God will not forgive his trespasses. God is love, and to be like
him is to be loving. That is what Jesus means by our "becoming children of God".
A second principle of the social gospel is, therefore, the principle of fraternity.
"All ye are brethren" is the way in which Jesus described the relation of his
disciples. But this fraternity is not based on men being men. It is the outcome of true
sonship of God. Real fraternity must be Christian. The difference between love and
fraternity is the difference between a quality of soul and one of the ways in which that
quality expresses itself in conduct. Fraternity is love expressed in social action,
which involves the recognition of the equality of human life, of the worth of mankind, in
the same way as Jesus recognized that worth. The tendency among many men is to love one
another in a condescending fashion. As Jesus said, among the heathen, men were called
benefactors who exercised lordship over others; but it was not so to be among his
disciples. They were not to regard themselves as superior to others or as inferior to
others. They had only one Master; they were all brethren.11
A third principle of the social gospel is that God himself is bringing in the better
social order. Too often we forget that God is really working in human affairs. In
our emphasis upon our own obligation to serve him we are often tempted to forget that God
is working with us to will and to do of his good pleasure. As one looks out over our
modern life he sees in it much that is evil; much that suggests discouragement if not
despair. Multitudes seem oblivious to the principle of love and fraternity and seem to
be seeking only present and personal advantage. Little children are sacrificed to
commercial success, the weaker are crowded to the wall, thousands of human lives are
being born into conditions which make it all but certain that they will grow up to be
criminals. And on the other hand, the work of the church seems sometimes ineffective in
bringing about changes for the better.
The gospel is a message of hope for such moments of discouragement. God is in his world.
The world may be full of sin and oppression and injustice, but God has not abandoned it;
he loves it and has given his Son to save it. That is the source of the Christian's hope.
He is not working desperately, uncertain of ultimate success. He is working with God and
God must bring in his own kingdom. The task before the Christian is therefore spiritual,
as truly as sociological. He is to let God work through him and he is to work with God
in this creation of a better social order. To do this he is to follow those spiritual
impulses toward love and justice, which he feels in his own soul.12
The story of the social gospel is one of the most distinctive chapters in the American
experience. Historian Carl Degler has summed it up in this way: "The acceptance of
the social gospel spelled the transformation of American Protestantism." Always more
than a traditional religious movement, the social gospel stepped outside the churches to
intersect the political, social, and economic forces of changing America. The social
gospel was born in post-Civil War America, and grew to maturity in the era of Progressivism.
Its impact continued long after its demise was forecast following World War I with the
coming of the politics of normalcy and the theology of neo-orthodoxy. Emerging with
renewed vigor in the turbulent 1960's as one of the not always recognized roots of the
variegated social justice movement, extensions of the social gospel can be seen today
among groups hitherto associated with different histories and orientations.13
The rapid growth of concern with purely social issues such as poverty, workingmen's
rights, the liquor traffic, slum housing, and racial bitterness is the chief feature
distinguishing American religion after 1865 from that of the first half of the nineteenth
century. Seminaries reorganized their programs to stress sociology. Institutional
churches and social settlement work became prominent in the cities. Crusades for the
rights of oppressed groups of all sorts absorbed the energies of hundreds of clergymen.
The vanguard of the movement went far beyond the earlier Christian emphasis on almsgiving
to a search for the causes of human suffering and a campaign to reconstruct social and
economic relations upon a Christian pattern. At its height, evangelicals like William
Booth and Charles M. Sheldon stood as staunchly for reform as their more liberal
The postwar moral reaction severely strained certain traditional ethical and social
standards. Corruption in local, state, and national government was widespread and in
many places unashamed, and business ethics suffered a similar decline.
The first expressions of the new social viewpoint were attempts to reorient the
philanthropic urges of the historic faith to the needs of the modern world without
seriously modifying the old doctrines. Social reform was approached by way of the
traditional conception of a stewardship that was to be applied by individuals to
business and industry, and the few radicals of the 1870's who demanded that the church
enter the class struggle on the side of the workers were completely ignored, if they
were at all understood.
The evolution of social Christianity was comparatively slow during the years that saw
the bitterest industrial struggles and the most glaring gaps in social condition between
classes in the nation's history was due as much to the preoccupation of the churches with
interests that had consumed their social, missionary, or charitable energies for decades,
as it was to their theology. All other social interests had been submerged in the
slavery crusade, and now that emancipation was an accomplished fact the religious
conscience naturally concerned itself with the further well being of the freedmen through
widespread programs of educational, missionary and welfare activity. Social Christianity,
therefore, was forced to concern itself with practical as well as theoretical changes.
Habits as well as theology needed to be redirected.15
The social gospel owes probably its greatest intellectual debt to those enlightened
conservatives who faced with open minds both the new science and the new industrial order
of the later half of the 19th century. Aware that the content of Christianity was of
more importance than its currently accepted forms, these leaders embraced a progressive
attitude that was to lead far from the sentimental piety of the gilded age. Men were
shown the human Jesus as the supreme example and as the epitome of a loving God at work
in the world. This trend broke away from the older high Christology and later brought
the realization that Jesus was a man among men whose words could be taken as literal
truth applicable to human affairs.16
11The Social Gospel, page 24-25.
12Ibid, pages 26-27.
13Ibid, pages 28-30.
14The Social Gospel: Religion and Reform in Changing America, page xi.
15Ibid, page 6.
16The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism,1865-1916, pages 12-13.
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