The Social Gospels and Social Darwinism during the Progressive Era

The Progressive Era saw many changes in American thought and policy. Science and politics took a new direction for Americans. Another avenue of American thought that was beginning to be transformed is religion, in particular Christianity, through the social gospels. The social gospels preached that personal salvation was no longer sufficient but, social salvation was the goal. Putting an end to “social sin” and ushering in The Kingdom of God was another key component to the social gospels. It is also important to compare the social gospels to another social movement, social Darwinism.

When looking at the social gospels and the “social gospelers” many themes arise in their writings. Many of these gospels were, in fact, a response to the social changes during the Progressive Era. One of the challenges to Orthodox Christianity was Darwinian science. [1]  This challenge would cause a crisis within the Christian intellectual community and lead to a new understanding of The Bible. It is important to present the social gospel movement in the historical context in which the movement was born. For many of the social gospelers, this was not a simple social movement.

The main goal of Christianity, and thus the social gospels, as explained by Walter Rauschenbusch, “the essential purpose of Christianity is to transform human society into the Kingdom of God.”[2] The idea of the social gospels was nothing short of ushering humanity into the Kingdom of God. To do so, the social gospels were to rid society of social sin. Sin was the only obstacle standing in the way of a society entering into the Kingdom of God.[3] Lyman Abbott, a liberal publisher of the Progressive Era, referred to sin as a form of atavism.[4] The fear of society returning to their gospel deprived primitive ancestors was a driving force behind this movement. The Kingdom of God could not be fulfilled while society was in a downward spiral.

Sin, in the social gospel era, was no longer a private insult to God but, a form of selfishness that impacted the community. [5] This definition of sin being social and impactful is a turn from the idea of sin being a rebellion against God which dominated American theology until the Progressive Era. Sin is a communal process because; “we rarely sin against God alone”, and thus the community cannot receive salvation alone.[6] Sin blocks personal salvation thus social sin blocks realization of The Kingdom of God. The social gospelers were looking for God to appear and a community wading in sin would destroy this from happening. To have a sinful mind is to have an unsocial and anti-social mind according to Rauschenbusch.[7]

The Kingdom of God had a very specific definition and history to the social gospelers. The Kingdom of God was to be ushered in by a descendant of David, in this case this would be Jesus. No matter how wicked a nation is a prophet would be sent to warn them of the coming  Kingdom.[8] The Kingdom of God and the saved individual was the fulfilment of a society. [9]  Reminding the populace of the purpose of the gospels was also important, as gospelers were not “engaged in fine spun theories” but rather concerned with teaching believers how to live righteously in a wicked world.[10]  Therefore, with God’s help a society can become Godlike, and enter as a society, into the Kingdom of God.

There are some who looked at the coming Kingdom of God as a spiritual aspect; as to say the Kingdom of God was within and something that is experienced personally. The validation of this ideology was Luke 17:20; “The Kingdom of God is something that cannot be observed.” For the social gospelers, their validation was the next verse; “now will people say it is here, or therefore it is in our midsts.”[11] Many also claimed that Luke 17:20 was a talking to the Pharisees and that the Kingdom of God was upon them.[12]

The question still begs, what were the social gospels addressing in the social area? As the landscape of America was changing the role of the Church also changed. How the church dealt with sex, the rural community, politics, and public health were all of concern to the Social Gospelers. One way was through a very militant form of the Social Gospels, preached by, John Parker.Undoubtedly, it was believed that the church must regain influence and energy if it was to maintain footing. Above all, the church had to be well-organized and “militant in practice and preaching.”[13] The Church was to produce Christians who would willingly submit to discipline and training in “warfare against social evils.”[14] The Church had to be effective in dealing with society or else in their eyes, The Kingdom of God would not be fulfilled to their satisfaction.

The first step to an organized church in accordance to the social gospel was to have a competent minister at the helm. A Church will only be as strong as the minister leading thus he must be commited to the Gospels. [15] The next step is to carry on a militant and aggressive campaign in order to get the preach the Gospels. [16] The last step is to form a “unconquerable strength in the warfare for social justice”, by creating a corporate entity. Baker, pushed the idea of the Interchurch World Movement to support the collective actions of Christians. In order to Christianize the social order there must be a strong force behind it in Baker’s view.

Baker was very aware of the impact of religion on politics, even with the separation of church and state. Baker believed that even though religion and politics have different functions, both could be used to express common goals. Baker seemed to admire the state system based on how it is organized and effective it is. He admits that divine rule as shifted from the rights of kings to the rights of people to rule; Baker is fully in agreeance with a democratic system. This idea of “divine democracy”, in regards to The Church is vital, the church is to protect democracy. Baker says, “Jesus Christ is largely responsible for the growth of the principle of democracy as applied to government,” it is the Christian voice and vote which will save America.[17]

Although Baker is in full compliance with democracy he does find fault in the way it is implemented. For the church the main goal is to place Christian men in civic roles to push forward the Christianization of democracy.[18] Obviously, this would mean a country that would also push for a Christian citizenship in agencies for the most effective form of service.[19]  Baker knew the connection between war and patriotism; and noted that patriotic fervor would never hold in times of peace in America. The only way to maintain this force of fervor is through Christianity. [20]

For Ozora Davis, politicians were the civic servants who were seekers of, “the highest welfare of the commonwealth.”[21] Over the years politics and politicians have become synonymous with greed and corruption. The question that is raised by Davis is, can the pulpit restore politics to prestige? The basis of restoring politics to the proper Christian place is to foster a population with Christian character and Christian souls. In Davis’ own words, “Christians must be citizens; they must be citizens of the highest type. This must be a Christian nation(America).”[22]

Economics was also  pressing for the social gospelers and how capitalism began to impact Christian morels. Baker, also had ideals on how the social gospels should be used for a Christian social order. Man, according to Baker, was blessed with the ability to  contribute to the world through skilled and unskilled work. This need is in alignence with man’s need for physical and material needs. The issue raised by Baker is that in an industrial nation many people lack food, clothing, and shelter.[23] The lack of distribution of food and comfort is key for Baker, as he takes a less militant stance. The church should “give this vital problem an increasing and fascinating attention”; because the economic want in the West, “reveal the social situation unworthy of a civilized nation”. [24]

In order to cultivate a Christian nation the church must be true to the Gospels and the teaching of Jesus. Davis gives the examples of Proverbs 29:8 and 11:1; which “scoffers” are the ones who destroy cities and wise men save the city. Scoffers are those who pervert values and show honour to those which have no Christian honour.[25] The scoffers were looked as the ones who would drag the society from the Kingdom of God. Not only would a society be away from the Kingdom of God but, possibly be destroyed.

This notion of a city being destroyed based on sin, is a reflection of the concept of social sin and social salvation. Many forces are on constant alert to destroy the city; and to be clear not destroyed in the physical sense; but the Christian spirit of the city. Many of these forces are found in the political system according to Davis. The role of the politicians is not just to keep the city/state safe, but to keep it exalted in the eyes of Jesus.[26] In this brand of the social gospel in regards to keeping a state safe, the army is not as influential as the education of the citizens.

Other social gospel’s took a different stance on economics and looked fully in support of social classes. Jesus or the Apostles never spoke out against certain evils or played the role of social reformer during their lifetime.[27] Shalier Mathews gives the example of how Paul sent the slave Onesimus back to his master. [28] For Paul, the Kingdom of God was near and slavery was a temporary station of life, the important matter was that Onesimus was a Christian not a slave.[29] Mathers believes that the gospels are not meant to tackle economic and social questions within a democratic state. Part of being a Christian is accepting one’s callings in life, slave or free, and to simply be brothers and sisters in faith. Social reorganization is not the place of the church “as the socialists demand”.[30]

In terms of education in a Christian society under the social gospel ideology, there are many concepts to unpack. Christian knowledge and Christian personality development are in the forefront of the movement.[31] Social education is also a “of prime importance to the life of a democracy.”[32] The practical reason for this; a group of people are members of an overall Christian society. This education has a biblical explanation and it lies in the education of Jesus as a child.

Just as Jesus had developed a personality that was built for education so should a Christian based on the social gospel.  As a child Jesus could be found sitting in with the teachers, listening and answering questions.[33] This is important because for devout Jews, the temple was both a place of worship and education, in fact the best of education was a religious based education.[34] Education is not simply reading, studying, and memorizing but, an active process which is engaging and active.

On the other end of the social gospel spectrum are those who were skeptical of organized education. The separation of church and state was the tipping point of a society with the loss of Christian morals and knowledge.[35] The fact, that Jesus held no classes, held no degree, and the disciples were not formally educated was enough to distrust organized state education. [36] The end result to social gospel education is to evangelize the person, the system, and society through an authentic Christian education.

Christian education, politics, and education were all essential to the social gospels. Understanding this fear not only of being totally unprepared for the coming Kingdom of God is one aspect. There was also a concept of a Kingdom of Evil or Satanic Kingdom, although many did not attest to a Kingdom of Evil, it was written about. A dualistic view of a Kingdom of Evil, with Satan at the reins, was certainly a topic of conversation, but not a believable outcome. The Kingdom of God was going to win and there was no doubt in the mind of the social gospelers. The Kingdom of Evil was not a celestial kingdom but a nation that “registers many suicides. criminal assault, bankruptcies, and divorces.”[37] The Kingdom of Evil was a physical manifestation of the sinful and shameful which name was The United States of America. The Kingdom of Evil is not separate but equal to The Kingdom of God but, a state of a community which is far from the teachings of Jesus.

The social gospels were also working on improving the community based on communal salvation. There is also an underlying aspect of racial uplift also in many works by Davis and Rauschenbusch. It should be noted they when both Davis and Rauschenbusch speak on the human race, they use the term, human race. But when they speak on race, they simply use the term race. In both of their works they express concern for the life of the race. When speaking of the Kingdom of God or spiritual missions the main focus is the human race.

Seeing how there is a distinction between race and the human race, there was also a connection to science and social gospels. The eugenics movement was of great interest to some social gospelers as it was “how the human stock may be improved through a better type of offspring”, which in turn will make better Christians.[38] Social progress could also be made by breeding out evil or letting evil slowly die out in the human race. It is clear that the social gospels were compatible with natural selection in order to make a gospel inspired White Christian nation.

Natural selection or social darwinism in a basic understanding the progression of a society through natural selection; the strongest survive in all areas of human societal structures. Social darwinism like the social gospels concerned itself with the progression of society, albeit with different outcomes which will be discussed. It is imperative to first understand how they work together to push forward a certain racial and ethnic narrative.

War within social darwinism is known as collective homicide and is imperative to the progress of the human race.[39] States are a product of conquest and war, in which the strongest of the armies are the victors. The first step to in this process is the conquest of one race over another, then the conqueror enslaves the losing race. Thus, the superior race becomes the enslavers and institutional racism becomes the norm.[40] This idea of enslavement for social gospelers is non existent, as long as both parties are Christian. A just war  is permissible by the Christianity and the Bible, as it was used to spread “imperial Christianity” and spread civilization, arts, and western democracy.[41]

Social darwinism compliments the social gospels when it comes to the superior are supposed to be superior. If there is a dominate race, such as the works of Davis and Raushenbush suggest, they were meant to dominate. When it comes to the militaristic tone of the war hawkish form of social darwinism, Davis would be in agreement. It is a militant and aggressive campaign that will demonstrate the potency of Christianity.

There is one place where these two ideologies do not see eye to eye. When it comes to the poor and the “incapables” they have two different understandings of these people within a society. The social gospels, very much wish to help those who are poor and wish to elevate them, so be it they are Christian. It is very much a part of the social gospels to be charitable to those who need help. In fact it is part of the Christian spirit to help those in need, as did Jesus. The issue is that social darwinism looks to root out the undesirables from a society not so much help them.

When helping those who can help themselves, a society is in fact dragging itself down, a form social regression. Social darwinist, John Haycraft, had an issue with the way the term “poor” was being used. In his eyes the poor, are people who receive assistance from public money and this is done due to a Christian definition and understanding of charity. [42] For Haycraft he says this understanding of “the poor” is anti Christian because the poor, in reality are lazy not incapable. He goes on to say this idea of Christian charity is “due to a slovenly habit of mind” and out of touch with scriptural teachings.[43]

The social gospels have no stratification for people in need of assistance. If someone is hungry then, according to the social gospels they should be helped. There is always in the eyes of the social gospelers that one can always can enter the Kingdom of God; therefore charity should be given where it can for the ultimate communal salvation. Social darwinism takes the stance that one is placed in a station in life due to one’s own faults. Not only is it one’s own fault but poverty, criminals, incapables are breed.

If a strong community be created through selective breeding so can a weak community. According to Haycraft, “criminals and incapables are reckless as to the condition of their offspring”. [44] As where the social gospels takes the stance that everyone has potential to be a contributor to the community based on accepting Christianity. Social darwinism does not deny one can overcome being bred into poverty but. is very much reluctant to help one overcome poverty. And this is seen also in the ideas that the social gospels and social darwinism look at marriage. Rank and wealth are the basis of marriage in social darwinism. Two people with social rank and monetary wealth will undoubtedly produce offspring that will be beneficial for society.[45] It is through undesirable marriages that produce undesirable offspring,  that families and races disappear, thus correct breeding is a must for a society to survive.

The social gospelers are less concerned with wealth or rank than creating a society of children that follow the gospels. If the main goal is to create a society that is pure to enter the Kingdom of God, poverty and rank would be the least of their concern. Marriages between people whom are committed to the elimination of sin. Just as social darwinism believes poverty is transmitted from generation to generation; sin is also transmitted from generation to generation. And breaking the cycle of generational sin is very key for the social gospelers.

The social gospelers, just as Apostle Paul were convinced that The Kingdom of God was near. Through a strong church, economics, politics, and education; a nation would be fully prepared to enter into the kingdom. What is also clear is that the social gospels were looking to keep one race superior to another in terms of power and influence. Social darwinism was just as much intertwined in the social gospels as the teachings of Jesus. The progressive era produced many ideologies that looked to propel America into a new era, none did so as much as the social gospels.

End Notes

[1] Travis Kroker, The Christian Ethics and Political Economy of North America,(McGill-Queens Press, Quebec, 1995), 20.

[2] Korker, The Christian Ethics and Political Economy of North America, 23.

[3] Matthew Bowman, Sin, Spirituality and Privatism:The Theologies of the Social Gospels 1885-1917,( Ewing,University of California Press, 2007), 101.

[4] Bowman, Sin, Spirituality, and Primitivism, 101.

[5] Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel,(New York,The Macmillan Company, 1917), 47.

[6] Rauschenbusch, A Theology for Social Gospel, 48.

[7] Rauschenbush, A Theology for the Social Gospel, 50.

[8] Shailer Mathews, The Social Gospels,(University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1910), 19.

[9] Mathews, The Social Gospel, 14.

[10] Mathews, The Social Gospel, 14.

[11] Luke, 17:21.

[12] Mathews, The Social Gospel, 20.

[13] John Marshall Barker, The Social Gospel and the New Era,(New York, The Macmillan Company, 1919), 56.

[14] Barker, The Social Gospels and the New Era,57.

[15] Baker, The Social Gospels and the New Era, 59.

[16] Baker, The Social Gospels and the New Era, 66.

[17] Baker, The Social Gospels and the New Era, 206-207.

[18] Baker, The Social Gospels and the New Era, 208.

[19] Baker, The Social Gospels and the New Era, 209.

[20] Baker, The Social Gospels and the New Era, 212.

[21] Ozora Davis, Preaching the Social Gospel,( New York, Fleming H Revell Company, 1922),

[22] Davis, Preaching the Social Gospel, 159.

[23] Baker, The Social Gospel and the New Age, 85.

[24] Baker, The Social Gospels and the New Age, 86.

[25] Davis, Preaching the Social Gospel, 160.

[26] Davis, Preaching the Social Gospel, 161.

[27] Mathers, Social Gospel, 71.

[28] Mathers, The Social Gospels, 72.

[29] Mathers, The Social Gospels,72.

[30] Mathers, The Social Gospels, 73-74.

[31] Davis, Preaching the Social Gospel, 107.

[32] Davis, Preaching the Social Gospel, 108.

[33] Luke 2:46

[34] Davis, Preaching the Social Gospel, 110.

[35] Mathews, The Social Gospel, 140.

[36] Mathews, The Social Gospel, 139.

[37] Rauschenbusch, A Theology for Social Gospel, 81.

[38] Barker, The Social Gospels and the New Era, 137.

[39] George Nasmyth, Social Progress and the Darwinian Theory, (New York, The Knickerbocker Press, 1916), 7.

[40] Nasmyth, Social Progress and the Darwinian Theory, 11.

[41] Nasmyth, Social Progress and the Darwinian Theory, 50.

[42] John Haycraft, Darwinism and Race Progress,( New York, Swan Sunnenschien LTD, 1908), 97.

[43] Haycraft, Darwinism and Race Progress, 97.

[44] Haycraft, Darwinism and Race Progress, 165.

[45] Haycraft, Darwinism and Race Progress, 169.


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