The Social Gospel and the Progressive Era, Divining America, TeacherServe®, National Center for the Humanities (2023)

The Social Gospel and the Progressive Era

Bradley W. Bateman
Dean and Professor of Economics
Denison University
©National Center for the Humanities

washington contentWhenwashington contentIn 1875, when he accepted a call to the pulpit of the Congregational Church in Springfield, Massachusetts, his parishioners had little reason to expect that his call to the 39-year-old pastor would herald a new era in American Protestantism. Gladden was a distinguished pastor who held positions in New York City and North Adams, Massachusetts, and served as editor of the magazine.Independent of New York, but there was no reason to think that it would push the boundaries of American Protestantism beyond its well-understood limits. Within a year, however, Gladden would cross one of the most respected boundaries for Protestant ministry in America and champion workers' rights to form unions.

Throughout the 19th century, American Protestant clergy were strong advocates of laissez-faire. Ministers such as Francis Wayland and John MacVickar wrote widely circulated university economics books extolling the virtues of unfettered capitalism and the right of capitalists to the fruits of their labor. However, his writings were written before the Civil War and therefore he wrote about a form of merchant capitalism in which peasants and small shopkeepers were the majority owners of capital. When the Civil War began, less than half of Americans worked for someone else to earn wages for their work, and these were usually young men who worked as farmhands before starting their own farms. However, the economic world that developed after the Civil War was very different from what Americans knew in the prewar period. As America industrialized, millions of Americans flocked to factories to earn wages.

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Therefore, thevertical integrationof American industry in the last three decades of the 19th century brought monumental changes in the structure of American industry and American culture. As giant corporations like USA Steel and Standard Oil dominated their industries, American cities also began to grow rapidly. Chicago was a city of 5,000 in 1840 and 30,000 in 1850; Chicago had a population of 300,000 in 1870 and 1.1 million in 1890. This rapid population growth was achieved in part by people migrating from rural areas, where 40% of US communities experienced a population decline between 1880 and 1890. However, the rapid growth of urban areas was also the result of large immigration from the South and Center. Europe. At the same time, the United States has become more industrial, urban, and ethnically diverse.

Jakob riceThe rapid growth of American cities and urban population has been accompanied by an increase in misery and poverty that has shocked many people. One of America's first photojournalists, Jacob Riis, an immigrant from Denmark, made his name publishing photographs of the living conditions of the urban poor. Riis was particularly known for a book titledHow does the other half live?(1890), which contained some of his most pathetic photographs.

When Washington Gladden took the pulpit in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1875, he found himself unexpectedly thrust into this rapidly changing industrial world of America. During his first year in Springfield, there was a strike by the shoe factory workers. When Gladden visited the attackers, he understood their situation. However, when he invited them to attend his church, they said this was unlikely as the people who owned and ran the factories they knew attended his church. Undeterred, Gladden used his journalistic skills the following year and published a book supporting workers' rights to organize.workers and their bosses(1876).

Gladden's book brought him fame and notoriety and would be seen by many as the beginning of a new era in American Christianity. However, the history of the social gospel movement is far more complex than one man or one book. Nor were industrialism and the problems that accompanied it the only concern of those who made up the social gospel movement.

In the first decades of the 19th century, whenSecond Great AwakeningSpread across the country, social reform became an important dimension of American Protestantism. meanwhile hefirst great awakeningWhile the Second Great Awakening focused primarily on saving the souls of individual sinners, the Second Great Awakening focused as much on human souls as it did on social issues such as alcohol, prostitution, and slavery. The revival of the Second Great Awakening became a hotbed of social reform and helped spawn both the temperance movement and the abolition movement. This focus on social issues in the prewar world undoubtedly influenced the sense of purpose of post-Civil War clergymen like Gladden, who wanted Protestant churches to address the problems they saw posed by the rapidly changing capitalism of the late 19th century.

One of the institutional structures that emerged from the second great awakening, local mission societies, were also responsible for helping to shape the social gospel movement. In the prewar world, Local Mission Societies were interdenominational Protestant organizations that sent people to the western and southern borders to try to plant new churches and solve pressing social problems. For example, before the Civil War, the American Home Mission Society, a joint organization of the Congregational Church and the Presbyterian Church, sent young missionaries to the Western New Territories to plant churches and promote moderation and abolition. After the Civil War, whenreconstructionWhen he failed to secure the rights of freedmen, many of the same people who had campaigned for the abolition of slavery became passionate advocates of freedmen's rights. Although Washington Gladden was not involved in local missionary work, he eventually became an advocate for African American rights and helped form theNAACPWhile the social gospel movement has always been identified as a reaction to the rapidly emerging industrialization of the late 19th century, it is also true that many social gospel advocates were also concerned about race relations and the rights of African Americans. 🇧🇷

None of these concerns facilitated social gospel preaching in the late 19th century. The collapse of Reconstruction did not provoke much national outrage; In fact, Reconstruction failed because white Americans were unwilling or unable to accept the new social and cultural landscape created by the end of slavery. The few voices brave enough to protest lynchings from the pulpits of white Protestant churches during the last two decades of the century did not provoke a major social backlash against violations of African American rights. Likewise, policy response to the plight of American workers who lacked disability insurance, union rights, and on-the-job protections was limited. Although William Jennings Bryan did not identify with the leaders of the social gospel movement, he was active in improving the lives of working Americans during his two presidential campaigns in the 1890s. He lost both races in a retrospectively conservative period.

Walter RauschenbuschThe great theologian of the social gospel,Walter Rauschenbusch, later referred to the 1890s as the "dark ages" for those who espoused the social gospel. Times certainly looked bleak because those preaching seemed to miss many of the people sitting in the pews. After the Civil War, American Protestantism began to split into what Martin Marty called "two-party Protestantism", consisting of a "private party" and a public party. Each of these parts drew from the power and energy of the Second Great Awakening. The private party focused on saving individual souls; In revivals in rapidly growing cities, they sought to convert people from their own sins and embrace personal salvation. The public feast focused on society's sins, such as poverty and inequality, and called on people to seek salvation by establishing the "kingdom of God on this earth". During the 1880s and 1890s, the private party surpassed the public party in popularity and public appeal.

Each of the groups was evangelical, which means they got their message from the Bible and each of them focused on salvation. But their concerns were very different. These were also his sources of inspiration. In many ways, the private party was reminiscent of the traditional themes of the First Great Awakening. While the first great awakening was motivated in part by concerns about how a Christian community could be sustained if succeeding generations did not accept the faith of their fathers, the solution depended only on securing the salvation of the people who made up that community. If people could recognize their own sinfulness and repent, their salvation would guarantee their participation in Christian politics. Like these eighteenth-century Protestants, proponents of the private party saw their work as directed toward the salvation of individual souls.

However, advocates of public parties drew on the reform elements of the Second Great Awakening, drawing on other new ideas of the 19th century, to build a new understanding of society and the church. In particular, they were influenced by German higher criticism andCharles Darwinofemergence of species(1859).

In the mid-19th century, graduate school did not exist in the United States, so serious academics went to Germany when they wanted to pursue graduate school. Many of the young people who traveled to Germany discovered Higher Criticism, a method of biblical interpretation that speaks against taking the Bible literally as true. Higher critical scholars believed that the Bible's stories might contain glimpses into the nature of the Christian God, but they believed that understanding that nature would require careful explanation of the Bible's intricate narratives. From this point of view, one cannot find simple literal truth when reading the Bible. Along with Darwin's ideas, Higher Criticism opened up a new and unknown understanding of themselves to Protestants who were already shocked by the changes in the rural and agrarian society they knew before the Civil War.

For those who embraced both Higher Criticism and Darwin's work, there seemed to be an opportunity to build a new world that would mitigate the distortions of the new industrial capitalism. However, Darwin's work was also adopted by some late 19th-century American scholars, such asGuillermo Graham Sumner, as an explanation and justification of the results of the new industrialism. When these conservative scholars looked at widespread poverty and high rates of infant morbidity and mortality, they saw natural selection at work. This so-called Social Darwinism provided an argument that allowed some people to see the shifts of industrialism as the necessary elimination of the weak and incapable as society evolved towards a new and higher form of social organization.

The defenders ofsocial gospelHowever, he saw things in a very different light. Rather than seeing the dislocations caused by industrialism as inevitable or desirable, social evangelists saw them as the result of greed and a collective inability to protect people. Social gospel leaders like George Herron saw the dire living conditions of workers and their families in urban areas as evidence of the dawn of a new millennium in which Christians were called to build the kingdom of God. Failing to strive to build this kingdom in the face of so much human suffering would be a social sin in the eyes of the Social Gospels.

Despite the fact that in the last decades of the 19th century banks were not often called upon to respond to the new social gospel message, social gospel theologians were compelled to continue preaching their unpopular message. On the one hand, connecting their ideas to the latest trends in higher education led them to believe that what they believed was right; On the other hand, their evangelical zeal led them to try to help those in need.

It wasn't until the first decade of the 20th century that the social gospel message began to have broad appeal to banks. One of the reasons for the shift in public opinion was that the dislocations caused by industrialism were not going to go away on their own. It also helped that gossipy journalists began reporting on these grim realities, as poverty, inequality and workplace injuries continued to rise. The photographs and writings of Jacob Riis were just the beginning of America's confrontation with the realities of industrialism. Like Riis, many of the leading scandalmongers were believers in the social gospel, motivated by their faith to show Americans the problems of the new industrial order. Just as Protestant evangelists believed since the 18th century that people could repent and seek salvation if they faced their sins, social evangelists believed that by giving to American society sin would bring to light the sins of industrialism. 🇧🇷 If social gospel preachers couldn't do it themselves in the 1880s and 1890s, gossip might finally help spur people on to understand a new set of responsibilities as followers of Jesus Christ.

The confluence of social gospel preaching and scandalous journalism helped shape the popular support that sustained the early progressive movement. Early reformers like Theodore Roosevelt relied on socially conscious Christians for much of their support.

The true strength of this support was seen within the churches in 1907-08O Credo Socialof churches has been adopted by virtually all major Protestant churches. The Social Creed, first endorsed by Methodists in 1907, called for many measures to alleviate the conditions created by the new industrial workplace, such as the facilitation of Sunday work, the abolition of child labor, and the introduction of disability insurance. injured in factories. The following year, the National Council of Churches was formed to persuade other Protestant churches to accept the Social Confession. Walter Rauschenbusch also published his classic Social GospelChristianity and the Social Crisisin 1907 and this had a profound impact on Protestants of all faiths. While 19th century Protestants had turned their backs on the social problems caused by economic development, they now accepted the call to address them. To theologians like Rauschenbusch, this felt like a new moment in human history and the beginning of a new American awakening. Recently, Nobel Prize-winning economic historian Robert Fogel dubbed this moment in American history the Third Great Awakening.

The role of the social gospel innot progressiveit was reinforced by the close connection between the social gospel and the emergence of professional social sciences in the late nineteenth century. During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, economics, political science, and sociology emerged at American universities as a result of the influence of the social gospel. Leaders in all three disciplines were "social Christians" who saw their work as central to revealing the truth about American society and the need for reform. This often caused them grief, as in the 19th century there were no guarantees of employment and academic freedom, and many academic careers were thwarted by university administrators and deans who fired advocates of the social gospel from their colleges; But with the rise of the progressive movement in the first decade of the 20th century, many stifled careers and silenced voices were revived, and social scientists became a central part of progressives' political work.

This influence was perhaps most evident in the social research movement. Social research emerged as a method of social research in the late 19th century. Americans, pioneers in England, began to use social research extensively in the 1890s. Social researchers surveyed urban neighborhoods and produced detailed maps of each building and what was happening there. Typically, there are a number of maps of the same neighborhoods, each created to show different features of the neighborhood. A map would show the nationalities of the residents of each apartment, color-coded to show the diversity and backgrounds of the people in the neighborhood. Another map would show jobs and another would show the location of churches, canteens and brothels. The maps were designed to show different things, especially where there were no Protestant churches and where they were most needed. BothJane Addams, one of the founders ofRumpfhaus, jNETWORK. dubois, the great black social activist, was active in social research in the 1890s.

But the social upheaval reached its apogee in the first two decades of the 20th century. economists likeRichard T. ElyjJuan R. CommonsThey were active in the movement, as were interfaith leaders like Josiah Strong. During these two decades, social elevation became an important instrument of Protestant revival; Large-scale social surveys would be conducted in the months leading up to a revival, so that the information collected could be used during a revival to urge people to work through their churches to try to improve poor social conditions in their neighborhoods. One of the main newspapers of the progressives wasthe search, a monthly magazine that combines Christian themes and practical advice for conducting social research.

One of the best examples of the fusion of social upheaval and Protestant revival occurred in 1910 and 1911 with theMen of the Avante Movement and Religion🇧🇷 At the time, the movement was the largest evangelistic effort in American history, encompassing revivals in 88 cities over the course of several months. A central committee organized the work of the social survey in each city before the revival, and a separate public relations committee released the results of the social survey weeks before the evangelists were called to conduct it. Organizers were interested in increasing male church attendance and saw this method as the best way to get men interested in church to better their communities. The movement was seen as a great success and changed the landscape of revival.

Presidente Woodrow WilsonThe height of Protestant influence in the Progressive Era was in the first half of the second decade of the 20th century. Progressive social Christians were particularly important in the national elections of 1912 and 1916. Woodrow Wilson studied under Richard T. Ely, a leader of social evangelism (and economist) at Johns Hopkins University in the 1880s, and his approach reflected the sensibilities of the mainline churches. Protestants regarding the Reformation. In 1917, Wilson arranged for one of the most radical evangelical social agitators of the 1890s to be sent to Lenin as his personal emissary after the Russian Revolution. George Herron preached a nascent form of Christian socialism in the 1890s before going into exile in Italy in the first decade of the new century. A former socialist agitator and supporter of Eugene Debs' 1904 presidential candidacy, Herron seemed the perfect ambassador for Lenin.

In the mid-twentieth century, the progressive movement began to diversify in terms of its sources and participants. This shift, in turn, led to a new self-image for progressives. On the one hand, in the second decade of the century, some people began to be skeptical about the possibility of a fundamental change in human nature. While still concerned about the social dislocations caused by industrialism, they were less likely to see the possibility of improvement through a fundamental change in human nature. The ethical improvement that social evangelists preached as a necessary part of social reform apparently did not take place on a large scale.

On the other hand, not all progressives were Christians in the second decade of the century. For example, two of the leading progressive writers to emerge after 1910 were Jews: Herbert Croly and Walter Lippman. Both Croly and Lippman offered a vision of political transformation much more clearly based on technical expertise and the ability to deal with social problems, subjecting them to rigorous critical analysis. This led to the early popularity of Frederick Taylor's time and motion studies, seen as a means of making the industrial system more efficient and thus producing more output that could serve more people. 🇧🇷 After 1918, many Christian social scientists such as John R. Commons consciously secularized their own rhetoric to make it more accessible to non-Christians and more in line with the new movement toward secular experience as the basis for social control.

But, for better or worse, even as the United States entered World War I, the social gospel had become so popular that its message was being edited by Protestant ministers more interested in the idea of ​​America than the kingdom. God's. than helping workers lead better and safer lives. These more conservative preachers saw the potential of the social gospel as a tool of nationalism rather than a tool of reform. Based on President Wilson's argument about the need to enter World War I to make the world safe for democracy, these men often used their pulpits to advocate the war. Ray Abrams (1933) documented the vehement appeals of many of these social gospel nationalists to young people to join trench warfare in Europe and defeat the Germans.

After the war, when the American public learned about the horrific nature of trench warfare and what young people were called to do, Protestant ministers who used their pulpits to help recruit young men for war lost credibility. This loss of credibility was part of a broader public disenchantment with the ideas that underpinned the progressive movement. While there had been some disenchantment with Social Gospel ideas about the betterment of human nature before the war, this disenchantment turned into an abandonment of hope after the war. Even progressives like Lippman, who had been trying to devise a more technical rationale for improving industrial society, now found it difficult to attract serious audiences. Even the suggestion that people could be so broadly motivated to want more industrial output to be more equitably distributed was seen as naive, if not outlandish.

The end of World War I is often seen as the end of the progressive era, and it marked the end of the widespread appeal of the social gospel to the Protestant pews of America. The loss of hope in the possibility of easily building a better world, appealing to people's indignation at inequality and social injustice, marked the end of an era in American politics and Protestant churches in the United States.

However, the impact of the social gospel on American life did not end there. As Conrad Cherry (1995) has shown, its influence in Protestant theological schools continued as the social gospel fell out of favor in the pulpits of mainstream churches. It remained a major force there well into the second half of the 20th century. When the young Martin Luther King Jr. came to Boston University to study theology in the 1950s, he found the social gospel tradition alive. He then used social gospel theology to lay the groundwork for his own black civil rights arguments. King was assassinated when he began to focus on questions of economic justice, but like his late 19th-century predecessors, he shared a theological passion for the freedom of black Americans and the equal treatment of working people in the United States. 🇧🇷

Bradley W. Batemanis Dean and Executive Vice President of Denison University. He began his teaching career at Simmons College and then spent 20 years on the faculty at Grinnell College. His areas of interest are the history of economic thought, monetary macroeconomics and the economics of natural resources. Bateman has an international reputation as a scholar of the economic thought of John Maynard Keynes and is the author ofKeynes' uncertain revolutionand co-editor ofCambridge Companion to Keynes(com Roger E. Backhouse) eKeynes and Philosophy: Essays on the Origin of Keynesian Thought(with JB Davis). In 2007, he became Chancellor of Denison University.

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To cite this essay:
Bateman, Bradley W. "The Social Gospel and the Progressive Era." Guess America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. TRIAL ACCESS DATE. <>


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