by Janine Giordano Drake
Historiographical debates on the origins of the Social Gospel movement used to strike me as irrelevant. Why does it really matter, I thought, whether the Social Gospel movement was a Protestant "response" to changes in industrial America, or whether Protestant church leaders had been addressing the importance of justice and equity for years?
Whether or not their interest in charity and a living wage was a recent turn of the early twentieth century, I thought, white male Protestants were still quite far from radicals. They still saw themselves as the only ones fit to rule in the early twentieth century, and were not shy about admitting this.
If Josiah Strong, the ardent nationalist and not closeted racist, could be friends with George Herron (the Christian Socialist) and Lyman Abbott, the racist defender of the Prosperity gospel, could be identified as a "liberal Progressive" because of his stance on science and Biblical interpretation, then the Social Gospel was really just another name for the more "charitable" minded middle class Protestant ruling classes.
All those early twentieth century "associations" for helping the poor struck me as excuses to wear the newest fineries to a public meeting and further allay white Protestant consciences that they were getting richer off the cheap labor of immigrants and African Americans. Whether a "response" or something ongoing or not, the Social Gospel movement struck me as an excellent example of the fact that white Protestant leaders of the early twentieth century were rarely enthusiastic about living in social equality with non white Protestants.
As I began my dissertation on the subject six years ago, I boldly argued that this debate on the Social Gospel was outdated and should finally be put to bed. It grew up in a world (1930s-1960s) which questioned what role the Protestant churches had played, or ought to have played, in economic justice initiatives.
Efforts to "recover" what churches had done was primarily apologetics. The effort came on the heels of a generation of angsty working class Christians who blamed the churches for not doing more. Middle class Protestants who were correct when they said that they had been socially active for quite a while. But, I said, it was not whether they were doing something that was the question, I said. The question was what their actions were, and the extent to which they were helpful.
But years later, I think I've changed my mind. As a new generation of scholars point out to us the white supremacist heritage of white Protestant Jesus figures and Christian organizations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we have new reasons to examine the roots of the Social Gospel and the motives of Social Gospel leaders.
To what extent was the early twentieth century "Church," including the economic justice advocates (Protestant and Catholic) ultimately still grounded in a pro-capitalist and white supremacist project? Were liberal church leaders as fearful of the prospect of social equality as their images of Christ portrayed?
We know that some leaders were trailblazers in social justice: how far did they stray from their more conservative brethren, and what help did they use to navigate this world?
These questions are especially important to those currently engaged in social justice initiatives in the name of Christ, for it requires this kind of careful, if painful, historical analysis to learn from mistakes of the past and build upon successes.
The newest magazine issue from Christian History has revisited this old question in just this way. Titled, "Christians in the New Industrial Economy: The World Changed, The Church Responded," short articles by scholars for a non-scholarly audience address the history of the Social Gospel in a new way.
In an introductory essay, I discuss why churches were fragmented over class lines, emphasizing the fact that rich Protestant church leaders had a very different Christianity from that of workers.
Next, Jeffrey Webb discusses how converting native peoples and "using them for economic purposes had long been intertwined."
William Kostlevy brings historians and the non-scholarly public up to date on what we now know about the Social Gospel and how it operated in the political and industrial world of its day.
Kevin Schmiesing discusses the Catholic Church's response to industrial oppression and poverty.
Finally, historian and magazine editor Jennifer Woodruff Tait discusses the Methodist origins of the Salvation Army in the Victorian British world.
The magazine issue is free online and available in print for a small fee. Donations are also encouraged--they keep the excellent magazine of public history alive. While you're at it, check out the other terrific issues the magazine has put out over the years. I am looking forward to reading this older issu
e on the history of Church involvement in healthcare and hospitals. Several writers for this blog have long been involved with the publication.