The Coming Rebirth of the Social Gospel

Presented November 30, 2008*

by Dr. Jan Garrett

I. What was the Social Gospel?

A. Early History

The Social Gospel is the name of a faith perspective and a historical movement, [originally] within Protestant Christianity in the United States. It emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the Gilded Age, the era of the Robber Barons, amidst the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. It was also the time of the rise of the radical labor movement in the United States, specially the Industrial Workers of the World, and the pre-World War I American Socialist Party led by Eugene V. Debs. One would have expected it to expand during the Great Depression. For diverse historical reasons, it declined as a distinct trend within American religion during the 1930's.

B. Endurance and Diffusion of Social Gospel Ideas

But Social Gospel ideas continued to inspire activity among the disenfranchised and disadvantaged, for instance, in the African American churches: Martin Luther King Jr was consciously aware of the perspective of the social gospel as he began his work in the southern black churches and civil rights movement. His notion of the beloved community is a version of the Social Gospel's Kingdom of God. From the 1960's on the spirit of Social Gospel was active in Latin American liberation theology and in North American black theology, as expressed in the writings, for example, of James H. Cone. It is visible in the teachings of the leading 20th century UU theologian, James Luther Adams, and in UU's present-day social justice work.

II. Why prophesy a revival?

A. I am predicting, with proper humility, and welcoming, should it happen, a major revival of Social Gospel thinking and preaching in the coming years. Similar human situations and conditions tend to produce similar effects. Before the New Deal, American capitalism followed its own rough and tumble dynamic, with minimum protection for the working class, including many immigrants who had arrived here speaking little English, and for other groups like Native Americans and small farmers dispossessed by capitalism. With nothing like social security, no unemployment protection, few public health services, etc., with nearly all legal rights designed to empower capital and not labor, there was a hunger for a vision of social hope that would address the situation of the propertyless classes. The social gospel provided that for many people.

B. What we have seen since 1980 and especially since 2000 is the dismantling of many institutions developed during the New Deal to mitigate the worst effects of unregulated capitalism. The economic disasters of 2008 -- whose consequences will likely last for many years even if the new administration responds wisely -- will cause many people of faith to pay attention again to how Americans live in community with each other. The social dimension of salvation is likely to become a prominent theme, as the greatest preachers and thinkers of the earlier social gospel advocated.

C. Practically, this is relevant to Unitarian Universalism and other religious perspectives for which social justice is important. No doubt this time around the social gospel will not be chiefly a Protestant development. We already have the precedent of Latin American liberation theology that emerged within Catholicism. A Jewish version already exists in the Tikkun organization led by Rabbi Michael Lerner: this is as it should be since the original source of social gospel ideas is Hebrew prophets such as Amos and Isaiah. There is no reason to rule out a Muslim or Buddhist version of the social gospel.

III. Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918)

Today I want to introduce Social Gospel Christianity as it was expressed by its foremost proponent, Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch. His 1907 book Christianity and the Social Crisis (reprinted 2007) was for three years the second best-selling religious work after the Bible itself. It made Rauschenbusch's reputation as a major American theologian. I recommend it highly as an elequent and accessible introduction to the social gospel perspective. A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917), published in the year of the Russian Revolution and a year before Rauschenbusch's death, provides a more worked out theological interpretation. It shows how the symbols of Christianity--God, the Kingdom of God, Sin, and Salvation--can be rescued from the individualistic interpretation that has hijacked and distorted them and how they can be given social meaning truer to the spirit of many largely ignored Biblical texts.

From here on I am offering you a condensed version of a key chapter of the 1917 book. It's entitled "The Kingdom of God." The phrase is used repeatedly. If you wish, you may mentally substitute Rev. King's phrase, "the beloved community," for the Kingdom of God.

[The following is a version of "The Kingdom of God," Chapter XIII from Walter Rauschenbush, A Theology for the Social Gospel, 1917, pp 132ff. Scanned, abridigd, and edited November 2008 by Jan Garrett from the .pdf file of this book digitized by Google and available online.]

The Kingdom of God

If [I am ] to offer an adequate basis for the social gospel, [I] must not only make room for the concept of the Kingdom of God, but give it a central place and reinterpret other religious ideas so that they will [fit] organically with it.

… Without [the Kingdom idea], the [vision] of redeeming the social order will be but an [add-on] to the [familiar] scheme of [personal] salvation. . . . If this [idea] gets the place it … deserve[s], the . . . proclamation [of the social gospel] and application of social morality will have a firm footing.

To those whose minds live in the social gospel, the Kingdom of God is … the [very core] of the gospel, . . . It was just as dear to Jesus. He too lived in it, and from it looked out on the world and the work he had to do.

Jesus always spoke of the Kingdom of God. Only two of his reported sayings contain the word "Church," and both passages are of questionable authenticity. It is safe to say that he never thought of founding the kind [132] of [clerical] institution[s] which [later] claimed to be acting for him.

Yet immediately after his death, groups of disciples joined and consolidated . . . Each local group [sensed] that it was part of a specially founded fellowship mysteriously spreading through humanity, and awaiting the return of the Lord and the establishing of his Kingdom. This universal Church was [soon] loved with the same faith and reverence with which Jesus had loved the Kingdom of God. It was [seen as] the partial and earthly realization of the divine Society, and at the [Second Coming] the Church and the Kingdom would merge.

But the Kingdom [now seemed] merely a hope, the Church a present reality. The chief . . . [attachment] flowed toward the Church. Soon, … the name and idea of "the Kingdom" began to be displaced by the name and idea of "the Church" in the preaching, literature, and [reflection] of the Church. [Theologians declared that] the Kingdom of God which has, throughout human history, opposed the Kingdom of Sin, is today embodied in the Church. The millennium began when the Church was founded. [In effect,] this substituted the actual, not [even] the ideal Church for the Kingdom of God. The … ideal of Jesus became a vague phrase which kept [poking into Christian consciousness] from [parables in] the New Testament. Like Cinderella in the kitchen, it saw the other great [symbols dressed] up for the ball, but no prince of theology restored it to its rightful place. The Reformation, too, brought no [rebirth] of the [idea] of the Kingdom; [the phrase] … only [referred to the End of Days], or was defined in [133] blurred phrases borrowed from the Church. The present [i.e., early 20th century] revival of the Kingdom idea is due to the combined influence of the historical study of the Bible and of the social gospel.

When the concept of the Kingdom of God shriveled to a … pathetic remnant in Christian thought, this loss was bound to have . . . consequences. We are told that the loss of a single tooth from the arch of the mouth in childhood may spoil the . . . development of the skull and produce malformations [of all sorts]. The atrophy of that idea which . . . [was most important to] Jesus, [similarly] affected the conception of Christianity, the life of the Church, the [moral outlook] of humanity, and the structure of theology. I shall briefly [list] . . . the consequences affecting theology. . . .

1. Theology lost its contact with the [visionary] thought of Jesus. Its problems were not [those that] had occupied his mind. It … became . . . incapable of understanding him. His ideas had to be rediscovered in our time. Traditional theology . . . claimed to regard his revelation and the [content] of his thought as divine, and yet did not learn to think like him. The loss of the Kingdom idea is one key to this situation.

2. The distinctive ethical principles of Jesus were the . . . outgrowth of his conception of the Kingdom of God. When the Kingdom idea disappeared from theology, the [134] . . . principles disappeared from ethics. Only persons [who have absorbed] the Kingdom ideal seem to be able to get relish out of the ethics of Jesus. Only those church bodies which have resisted . . . organized society and have looked for a better city with its foundations in heaven have taken the Sermon on the Mount seriously.

3. The [institutional] Church is primarily a fellowship for worship; the Kingdom is a fellowship for [right relations]. When the [Kingdom] was neglected in theology, the ethical force of Christianity was weakened; when the [Church] was emphasized in theology, the importance of worship was exaggerated. The [Hebrew] prophets and Jesus had [denounced] sacrifices and ceremonial performances, and [demanded] righteousness, mercy, solidarity. Theology now reversed this, and . . . did its best to stimulate [sacred rituals] and priestly importance. Thus the religious energy and enthusiasm [that] might have saved mankind from its great sins were used up in hearing and endowing masses, or in maintaining competitive church organizations . . . .

4. When the Kingdom ceased to be the dominating religious reality, the Church [took over] the position of the supreme good. To promote the power of the Church and its control over all rival political forces [now seemed] equivalent to promoting the supreme ends of Christianity. This increased the arrogance of churchmen and took moral [restraint] off their policies. For the King [135] dom of God can never be promoted by lies, craft, crime or war, [yet these means have often promoted . . . the wealth and power of the Church…

5. The Kingdom ideal is the test and corrective of the influence of the Church. When the Kingdom ideal disappeared, the conscience of the Church was muffled.… It became possible for the most unjust social conditions to fasten themselves on [allegedly] Christian nations without awakening any consciousness that the [intentions] of Christ [were] being defied. The practical undertakings of the Church remained within narrow lines, and the theological reflection of the Church was . . . confined in a similar way. The claims of the Church were allowed to stand in theology with no . . . obligations to test and balance them. If the Kingdom had stood as the purpose for which the Church exists, the Church could not have fallen into such corruption and sloth. [Faulty religious thinking] bears part of the guilt for the pride, the greed, and the ambition of the Church.

6. The Kingdom ideal contains the revolutionary force of Christianity. When this ideal faded out of [136] the systematic thought of the Church, it became a conservative social influence and increased the weight of the other stationary forces in society. . . .

7. [Conversely], the movements for democracy and social justice were left without a religious backing for lack of the Kingdom idea. The Kingdom of God as the fellowship of righteousness would be advanced by the abolition of [wage] slavery and the disappearance of . . . slums . . .; the Church would only indirectly gain through such social changes. Even today many Christians cannot see any religious importance in social justice and fraternity because it does not increase . . . conversions nor fill the [pews]. . . .

8. Secular life is belittled as compared with church life. Services rendered to the Church get a higher religious rating than services rendered to the community.1 Thus religious value is taken out of the activities of the common man and . . . prophetic services to society. Wherever the Kingdom [ideal] … is a living reality … [137], any advance of social [justice] is seen as a part of redemption and arouses inward joy and the triumphant sense of salvation. . . .

9. When the [concept] of the Kingdom of God is lacking… , the salvation of the individual is seen in [terms of his] relation to the Church and to the future life, but not in its relation to the task of saving the social order. … It has taken us almost a generation to see that the salvation of the individual and the redemption of the social order are closely related, and how.

10. Finally, religious thought has been deprived of the inspiration of great ideas contained in the idea of the Kingdom and in labor for it. . . . The [people] who have contributed the most fruitful impulses to religious thought have been [characterized by] prophetic vision, and their theology has proved most effective … where it has been most concerned with past history, with present social problems, and with the future of human society. . . . It is impossible to estimate what inspirational impulses have been lost to [faith - for "theology"] and to the Church, because it did not [recover] the Kingdom [perspective] … and see the world and its redemption from that point of view.


These are … historical effects which the loss of the Kingdom ideal . . . has inflicted on [religious thinking and preaching]. The chief contribution which the social gospel has made and will make . . . is to give new vitality and importance to that [concept]. In [this way] … it will be a reformatory force of the highest importance

. . . for any . . . conception of Christianity must be not only defective but incorrect if the idea of the Kingdom of God does not govern it. . . .


I should now like to offer a few suggestions … for the [explicit statement] of the [conception] of the Kingdom. Something like this is needed to give us "a theology for the social gospel."

1. The Kingdom of God is divine in its origin, progress and consummation. It was initiated by Jesus [of Nazareth], in whom the prophetic spirit came to its consummation, it is sustained by the Holy Spirit, and it will be brought to its fulfillment by the power of God in his own time. The passive and active resistance of the Kingdom of Evil at every stage of its advance is so great, and the human resources of the Kingdom of God so slender, that no explanation can satisfy a religious mind which does not see the power of God in its movements. The Kingdom of God, therefore, is . . . the continuous revelation of the power, the righteousness, and the love of God. The establishment of a community of right relations ["righteousness in mankind"] is just as much a saving act of God as the salvation of an individual from … selfishness and moral [weakness]. The Kingdom of God, therefore, is not merely ethical, but has a rightful place in theology. This doctrine is . . . [essential] to establish that [close connection] between religion and morality, . . . which is one of the characteristics of [prophetic] . . . religion. Consciously related to the Kingdom of God [our moral actions] gain religious quality. Without this [connection] we shall have . . . schemes of redemption and . . . systems of ethics, but … not … a true [account] of prophetic faith [was: Christianity]. The first step to the reform of [faith communities in the [prophetic] tradition] is . . . restoration of the ideal of the Kingdom of God.

2. The Kingdom of God . . . [transforms] theology from the static to the dynamic. It sees, not doctrines or rites to be conserved . . . , but resistance to be overcome and great ends to be achieved. Since the Kingdom of God is the supreme purpose of God, we shall understand the Kingdom so far as we understand God, and [conversely]. As long as organized sin is [present in the form of systematic injustice], the Kingdom of God is characterized by conflict with evil. …

3. Since God is in [the Kingdom of God], the Kingdom . . . is always [141] both present and future. . . . It is His energy … realizing itself in human life. . . . It invites and justifies prophecy, but all prophecy is fallible; it is valuable insofar as it grows out of action for the Kingdom and impels action. No theories about the future . . . are likely to be valuable or true which paralyze or postpone redemptive action on our part. To those who postpone, it is a theory and not a reality. It is for us to see the Kingdom . . . as always coming, always pressing in on the present, . . . and always inviting immediate action. . . . The Kingdom is for each of us the supreme task and the supreme gift . . . . By accepting it as a task, we experience it as a gift. By laboring for it we enter into the joy and peace of the Kingdom as our divine fatherland . . .

4-5 (merged). [Long] before Christ[ianity], [the Hebrew prophets] saw the Kingdom of God as the great end to which all divine leadings were pointing. Every idealistic interpretation of the world . . . needs some such conception. Within the Christian religion the idea of the Kingdom gets its distinctive interpretation from [Jesus]. (a) Jesus freed the idea of the Kingdom from previous nationalistic limitations . . . and made it global; . . . (d) He not only foretold it but [more significantly] initiated it by his life and work.

As humanity more and more develops a universalist (was "racial") consciousness . . . , idealistic interpretations of the destiny of humanity will become more … important. Unless a faith has a vision [of solidarity] higher and fuller than any other, it can not maintain the spiritual leadership of [humanity], but will be outdistanced. . . .

5. . . . Interpreting [the Kingdom of God] through the consciousness of Jesus we may affirm these convictions about … ethical relations within the Kingdom:

(a) . . . the Kingdom of God, …[aims] toward a social order which will best guarantee to all personalities their freest and highest development This involves the redemption of social life from the cramping influence of religious bigotry, from the [denial of human capabilities in the less privileged] classes, and from all forms of slavery in which human beings are treated as mere means to serve the ends of others,

(b) Since love is the supreme law of Christ, the Kingdom of God implies a

. . . reign of love in human affairs. We can see its advance wherever the free [expression] of love [and mutual respect] supersedes the use of force and legal coercion as a regulative of the social order. This involves the redemption of society from political autocracies and economic oligarchies; the substitution of restorative justice for retribution [in penal systems]; the abolition of constraint through hunger as part of the economic order; and the abolition of war as the supreme expression of hate . . .

(c) The highest expression of love is the free surrender of what is truly our own, life, property, and rights. A much lower but perhaps more decisive expression of love is the surrender of any opportunity to exploit human beings. No social group or organization can claim to be clearly within the Kingdom of God which drains others for its own ease, and resists the effort to [diminish] this fundamental evil. This involves the redemption of society from private property in the natural resources of the earth, and from any condition in industry which makes monopoly profits possible.

(d) The reign of love tends toward the . . . unity of mankind, but with the maintenance of individual liberty and the opportunity of nations to work out their own national peculiarities and ideals.

6. Since the Kingdom is the supreme end of God, it must be the purpose for which [churches in the true prophetic tradition] exists. Their spiritual authority and honor correspond to the degree to which they fulfill this purpose. . . . Church institutions, its activities, its worship, and its theology must . . . be tested by [their] effectiveness in creating the Kingdom of God. . . . If the Church is not living for the Kingdom, its institutions are part of the [unredeemed] "world." In that case it is not the power of redemption but [a thing needing redemption]. . . .

7. Since the Kingdom is the supreme end, all problems of personal salvation must be reconsidered from the point of view of the Kingdom. It is not sufficient to set the two aims of Christianity side by side. There must be a link between them, and theology must explain how the two react on each other. . . . The entire redemptive work of [religion] must also be reconsidered from this perspective. Early Greek theology saw salvation chiefly as redemption of individuals . . . It interpreted the work of Christ accordingly, and laid stress on his incarnation and resurrection. Western theology saw salvation mainly as [pertaining to individuals], as involving forgiveness of guilt and freedom from punishment. It interpreted the work of Christ accordingly, and laid stress on the death and atonement. If the Kingdom of God was the guiding idea and chief end of Jesus-as we now know it was - we may be sure that every step in His life, including His death, was related to that aim . . . , and when the idea of the Kingdom of God takes its due place…, the work of Christ will have to be interpreted afresh.

[rewording of #8] The Social Gospel does not confine the tasks linked to the Kingdom of God within religious institutions and their explicit activities. It embraces all dimensions of human life and implies the transformation of the social order. Alongside religious structures, there are families, economic organizations of various kinds, nongovernmental groups, and the State. The Kingdom is potentially in all of these. "[Faith communities are] indispensable to the religious education of humanity and to the conservation of religion, but the greatest future awaits religion in the public life of humanity."

For discussion and reflection:

In what ways is the Social Gospel relevant to conversations among Unitarian Universalists about Christianity? How can this perspective help us disarm the anti-UU bias of at least some Christians in the so-called Bible Belt? How can it inform our cooperation with explicitly Christian churches already committed to a social justice values that overlap with ours?

Related Materials

Garrett, Jan. Prophetic Spirituality An Introduction to the Topic and to the Views of James Luther Adams (A talk given in July 1998)

Garrett, Jan. The Liberation Theology of James H. Cone (A talk given October 1, 2000).

Other Presentations by Dr. Garrett on Religion, Philosophy, and Social Justice at Unitarian Universalist Congregations (Scroll Down)

Rauschenbusch, Walter. Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century (New York: Harper Collins, 2007). Reprint by HarperOne of the 1907 classic, with commentary on the chapters by contemporary theologians and social justice activists, ed. by Paul Raushenbush [Walter's great grandson].

Zinn, Howard, 2003. A People's History of the United States. New York.

* This talk was presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, November 30, 2008.

1. The footnote in the original is very illustrative of the point: "After the death of [leading suffragist] Susan B. Anthony, a minister commented on her life, regretting that she was not orthodox in her beliefs. In the same address he spoke glowingly about a new linoleum laid in the church kitchen." (p. 136)