What is Social Christianity Anyway?

By Heath Carter

This question was amongst those at the heart of a vigorous roundtable exchange at the first ever joint meeting of the American Society of Church History and the Ecclesiastical History Society (UK) earlier this month.  The conference itself was well attended and a good crowd showed up to the morning session on Friday, April 4th, to participate in a dialogue with Wendy Deichmann (United Theological Seminary), Christopher Evans (Boston University), Ralph Luker (Independent Scholar), Rima Lunin Schultz (Independent Scholar), and myselfAmanda Porterfield (Florida State University) served as both chair and commentator.  A revised version of our exchange will be published as a forum in an upcoming edition of Church History, so rather than giving away all the juicy details here, I'll just highlight (below the fold) some of what I think were the most interesting questions and issues raised.

The members of our roundtable gathered for a group photo following the conference dinner at Wadham College.  Pictured from left to right are: Ralph Luker, Christopher Evans, Wendy Deichmann, Amanda Porterfield, and Heath Carter (Rima Lunin Schultz was not able to be present for the photo) 

1) Did Social Christianity emerge, first and foremost, out of elite or non-elite circles?  Roundtable participants articulated different views on this question, with some emphasizing the primacy of women, workers, and African Americans; and others insisting that, especially insofar as the Social Gospel was a movement, it was headquartered in seminaries and advanced by progressive ministers.  It was clear by the end of the conversation that there are multiple ways to read the development of the historiography on this question and that earlier synthetic works by the likes of Charles Howard Hopkins, Henry May, and Aaron Abell have been challenged but - in the minds of some experts, at least - far from displaced.  Notably, disparate perspectives on the origins of the movement parlayed into differences also on the question of whether Social Christianity should be understood primarily as an offshoot of theological liberalism or whether its theological orientation is in fact more heterogeneous than previously thought. 

2) In retrospect, how should we understand the intent and impact of Social Christianity?  Some argued it is better interpreted cynically as an instrument of state-building, institution-preserving, status quo-upholding, and the like.  Others contended that the Social Gospel should be understood as a genuinely noble and idealistic, if flawed, attempt to improve society and reform the churches through more consistent application of the Christian gospel.   

3) How might a transnational approach modify what we know about Social Christianity?  The participants and audience only just began to explore this tantalizing line of inquiry.  Some wondered about the movement's relationship to international missions.  Others emphasized the central place of the settlement house movement; and still others the mass migrations of peoples that occurred during the first generation of Social Gospel activism.  Finally, some noted how the shape of church-state relations in different national contexts had a profound impact on the Social Gospel's purpose and meaning across state lines. 

It would be impossible to capture the breadth and depth of what was a very wide-ranging and stimulating conversation, but in brief, some of the other points discussed included:

- The periodization of Social Christianity.  While it has traditionally been viewed as a Gilded Age and Progressive Era phenomenon, many of the panelists seemed to think that that periodization should be extended, perhaps all the way to the present day, and that developments in the wake of the First World War merit much further attention.

- Whether or not Social Christianity fits within Anthony Wallace's paradigm of revitalization movements, which start small and intense and become more widespread via compromise.

- The relationship of Social Christianity to the much larger and wider reorganization of peoples (in terms of their identity, institutional affiliations, geographic mobility, etc) throughout the most intense period of industrialization.     

- Whether or not Social Christianity ever had a "heyday."  Did this movement ever exert considerable influence within the churches and without, or was it always in one way or another embattled? 

For more on these questions and others, look for that forum in Church History and also for other forthcoming books and articles by the participants in this roundtable (as well as by many others, including some of RiAH's very own: Paul Putz, Janine Giordano Drake, and more). 


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