The Social Gospel was a social movement within Protestantism that sought to apply Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labour, lack of unionization, poor schools, and the dangers of war. It was most prominent in the early-20th-century United States and Canada.
Theologically, the Social Gospelers sought to put into practice the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:10): “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. They typically were postmillennialist; that is, they believed the Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort. Its leaders were predominantly associated with the liberal wings of progressive movements, and most were theologically liberal, although a few were also conservative when it came to their views on social issues.
The term Social Gospel was first used by Charles Oliver Brown in reference to Henry George’s 1879 treatise, Progress and Poverty, which sparked the single tax movement.
In the late 19th century, many Protestants were disgusted by the poverty level and the low quality of living in the slums. The social gospel movement provided a religious rationale for action to address those concerns. Activists in the Social Gospel movement hoped that by public health measures as well as compulsory schooling the poor could develop talents and skills, the quality of their moral lives would begin to improve. Important concerns of the Social Gospel movement were labour reforms such as abolishing child labour and regulating the hours of work by mothers.
Many reformers inspired by the movement opened settlement houses, such as Hull House in Chicago operated by Jane Addams. They helped the poor and immigrants improve their lives. Settlement houses offered services such as daycare, education, and health care to needy people in slum neighborhoods. The YMCA was created originally to help rural youth adjust to the city without losing their religious faith, but by the 1890s became a powerful instrument of the Social Gospel. Nearly all the denominations (including Catholics) engaged in foreign missions, which often had a social gospel component in terms especially of medical uplift. The Black denominations, especially the African Methodist Episcopal church (AME) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church (AMEZ), had active programs in support of the Social Gospel. Both evangelical (“pietistic”) and liturgical (“high church”) elements supported the Social Gospel, although only the pietists were active in promoting Prohibition.
The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, a political party that was later reformulated as the New Democratic Party, was founded on social gospel principles in the 1930s by J. S. Woodsworth, a Methodist minister, and Alberta MP William Irvine. Woodsworth wrote extensively about the social gospel from experiences gained while working with immigrant slum dwellers in Winnipeg from 1904 to 1913. His writings called for the Kingdom of God “here and now”. The CCF took power in the province of Saskatchewan in 1944. The CCF government,, led by Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister, introduced universal medicare, family allowance and old age pensions.
The Social Gospel was a significant influence in the formation of the People’s Church in Brandon, Manitoba, in 1919. Started by Methodist minister A. E. Smith, the People’s Church attempted to provide an alternative to the traditional church, which Smith viewed as unconcerned with social issues. In his autobiography All My Life Smith describes his last sermon before starting the People’s Church, saying “The Church was afraid it might give offense to the rich and powerful.” The People’s Church was successful for a time, with People’s Churches founded in Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton, and Calgary. In Winnipeg, Methodist minister and Social Gospeler William Ivens started another workers church, the “Labour Church,” in 1918. Both Smith and Ivens tried to take leaves of absence from their Methodist ministries, which were initially granted. Upon a decision to bring all such special cases before the Methodist Stationing Committee, however, the decisions were rescinded.
The Social Gospel theme is reflected in the novels In His Steps (1897) and The Reformer (1902) by the Congregational minister Charles Sheldon, who coined the motto “What would Jesus do?” In his personal life, Sheldon was committed to Christian socialism and identified strongly with the Social Gospel movement. Walter Rauschenbusch, one of the leading early theologians of the Social Gospel in the United States, indicated that his theology had been inspired by Sheldon’s novels.
Members of the Brotherhood of the Kingdom produced many of the written works that defined the theology of the Social Gospel movement and gave it public prominence. These included Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) and Christianizing the Social Order (1912), as well as Samuel Zane Batten’s The New Citizenship (1898) and The Social Task of Christianity (1911).
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