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date: 23 August 2017

Social Christianity in America

Summary and Keywords

Social Christianity is a heterogeneous tradition that has been cultivated by a diverse array of American Christians who shared in common an intuition that the source of social problems is more exterior than interior to the individual. Social gospelers have contended, in word and in deed, that sin infects not only individuals but also systems and structures; that salvation is not only personal but also societal; and that therefore participation in the struggle for a more just society is, for Christians, not so much optional as essential. This distinctly modern tradition first emerged in the antebellum period, but was overshadowed by older, benevolent, and bourgeois modes of reform until the early 20th century, when it gained a stronger foothold in both the institutional churches and the worlds beyond their walls. Social Christianity’s influence was never more formidable than during the New Deal era. It was during those pivotal decades, which saw the rise of a robust welfare state as well as of massive, faith-infused labor and civil rights movements, that social gospelers left their most lasting mark on American society. In the late 20th century and early 21st centuries, the tradition’s influence would decline precipitously, in no small part due to the success of a multifaceted backlash against social gospel ideas and movements. The rise of the modern right signaled, for social gospelers of all different kinds, a return to the wilderness.

Keywords: Civil Rights movement, Federal Council of Churches, liberation theology, Martin Luther King Jr., National Catholic Welfare Conference, New Deal, Rerum Novarum, Social Christianity, social gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch

Rethinking Social Christianity

At the outset of his 1917 book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch declared, “We have a social gospel. We need a systematic theology large enough to match it and vital enough to back it.”1 One hundred years later, the swagger of that first sentence is striking. To Rauschenbusch, the basic shape of the social gospel—its “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where”—seemed self-evident; he need only supply the “why.” It was an understandable presumption. Rauschenbusch was deeply embedded in networks of progressive Protestant ministers and seminary professors whose theological outlook had moved decisively from the margins to the mainstream of churchly institutions in the immediately preceding decades. The thought and activism of these elite white Protestant men appeared to him and to many others in his circles to be coterminous with “the social gospel movement.” The view proved remarkably durable. A generation later, the first historians of American Social Christianity still took it for granted in books that long defined the way that academics and popular audiences alike understood the subject.2 What seemed eminently clear at that point became gradually less so in the ensuing decades, however, as historians turned up evidence of social gospels originating in communities that were often some combination of black, female, Latino, working class, evangelical, Pentecostal, Catholic, and more. Even as these new studies underscored the inadequacies of the old consensus, they left the field in a quandary. If we have a social gospel, as Rauschenbusch once insisted, then what is it?

This essay dispenses with the older notion of Social Christianity as a singular movement and recasts it instead as a heterogeneous tradition cultivated by a diverse array of American Christians who shared in common an intuition that the source of social problems is more exterior than interior to the individual. Social gospelers have contended, in word and in deed, that sin infects not only individuals but also systems and structures; that salvation is not only personal but also societal; and that therefore participation in the struggle for a more just society is, for Christians, not so much optional as essential. This distinctly modern tradition first emerged in the antebellum period, but was overshadowed by older, benevolent, and bourgeois modes of reform until the early 20th century, when it gained a stronger foothold in both the institutional churches and the worlds beyond their walls. Social Christianity’s influence was never more formidable than during the mid-20th-century decades. It was during those pivotal years, which saw the rise of a robust welfare state as well as of massive, faith-infused labor and civil rights movements, that social gospelers left their most lasting mark on American society. The remainder of this essay will chart some of the key persons and moments in the development of this vital religious tradition.

Antebellum Beginnings

Reflecting on his travels across the antebellum United States, Alexis de Tocqueville declared, “the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention.” The role of faith in public life, in particular, was like nothing he had experienced back home in Europe. “In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions,” he relayed. “But in America I found that they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country.” The young nation’s clergy were, in Tocqueville’s experience, at least as focused on the shape of this life as the next. As he put it, “If you converse with these missionaries of Christian civilization, you will be surprised to hear them speak so often of the goods of this world, and to meet a politician where you expected to find a priest.”3

Tocqueville was onto something important. In the wake of the American Revolution and as the gradual process of religious disestablishment unfolded, the social, cultural, and political influence of Christianity—and especially evangelical Protestantism—only increased. Revivals in far-flung fields, hamlets, and boomtowns fueled a Second Great Awakening, which generated not only new converts but also prodigious energy for social reform. As the example of Charles Finney underscores, the two went hand in hand. If Finney’s mastery of the psychology of conversion helped him to become one of the period’s most successful revival preachers, so did his arresting social message. Like many 19th-century evangelicals, he embraced a postmillennial eschatology which taught that the church had a key role to play in ushering in God’s kingdom here and now; and so he exhorted the faithful to pursue a more perfect world: one without alcohol, tobacco, and, most controversially, slavery. In the very same season that Finney was blazing a trail through New York’s famed Burned-Over District, his fellow evangelicals were founding a dazzling array of voluntary associations geared toward the total reformation of American society. The American Education Society was founded in 1816, the American Temperance Society in 1826, and the American Peace Society in 1828, and these were only a small fraction of the countless organizations that together made up what historians variously call the Benevolent Empire and the Evangelical United Front. This new wave of reform departed in many ways from the venerable practice of benevolence, but crucially, it perpetuated the assumption that the surest means to reform society was to reform all of the individuals within it. As historian David Walker Howe writes, “The social reforms embraced by the Evangelical United Front characteristically involved creating some form of personal discipline serving a goal of redemption.”4 Little wonder that, for Finney and others in his camp, evangelism was the primary task. Social causes—even ones as pressing as abolition—were not to “divert the attention of the people from the work of converting souls.”5

But on both sides of the Atlantic, the operation of larger systems and their impingement on everyday life was becoming more apparent—and concerning—to a small but vocal minority. Concerted opposition to the slave, factory, and wage systems emerged earlier in Great Britain than in the United States. But by the antebellum period, some believers in the latter, too, were beginning to build movements against sinful structures. Out of their thought and activism grew a wider tradition of American social Christianity, which incorporates, as historian Gary Dorrien notes, “something that previous socially oriented forms of Christianity lacked - modern social consciousness, especially the idea that there is such a thing as social structure.”6 The persons who catalyzed this shift were usually those who had experienced systemic oppression firsthand.

Consider the example of David Walker. Born in 1785 to a free mother and enslaved father, Walker eventually fled the South and settled in Boston. In 1829 he published a pamphlet entitled Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles: Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular and Very Expressly to Those of the United States of America, which would soon enough make him notorious across the land. At a moment when many white evangelicals were arguing that some enslavers acted sinfully, but that slavery as an institution enjoyed divine sanction, Walker advanced a blistering critique of the system and its self-righteous defenders. The text brimmed with prophetic warnings, which evoked dread in the heart of many an enslaver. At one point he vowed, “the Lord our God . . . will give you a Hannibal . . . God will indeed, deliver you through him from your deplorable and wretched condition under the Christians of America.” Elsewhere Walker argued that the redemption of people of color would require the abolition of slavery. “Your full glory and happiness, as well as all other colored people under heaven, shall never be fully consummated, but with the entire emancipation of your enslaved brethren all over the world,” he insisted, going on to say, “For I believe it is the will of the Lord that our greatest happiness shall consist in working for the salvation of our whole body.” Walker rejected colonization—the more respectable variety of antislavery activism, but one often informed by white supremacy—as a “cunningly devised plot of Satan.”7 He died under mysterious circumstances the year following the Appeal’s publication, but his legacy lived on, as a growing minority of American believers, both black and white, joined the fight against the slave system as such.

Other antebellum Christians directed their fire at the emerging factory and wage systems. Evangelical craftsmen spearheaded the rise of the labor movement in Baltimore, contending that the Bible contained all the justification they needed for a campaign against employer greed.8 In Manayunk, Pennsylvania, meanwhile, the energies of a successful revival fueled an uprising of new converts against the bosses of the local textile mills.9 Some middle-class believers such as Orestes Brownson and Stephen Colwell systematized the intuitions informing working-class activism.10 In his provocative 1851 book, New Themes for the Protestant Clergy, Colwell broke with an increasingly powerful free-labor ideology in asserting, “That philosophy which teaches that men should always be left to the care of themselves; that labour is a merely marketable article, which should be left, like others, to find its own market value, without reference to the welfare of the man, may appear plausible to those who forget the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man; but is utterly at variance with His precepts.”11 A handful of others pushed in even more radical directions, embracing such a thoroughgoing critique of the prevailing economic system that utopian alternatives seemed the only faithful way forward. John Humphrey Noyes founded one particularly notable community at Oneida, New York, where the rule of life was “Bible communism,” a philosophy that sprung in part from restorationist currents. Noyes took the stories of the early church contained in the book of Acts as normative for his day. Just as they had “shared all things in common,” so did the faithful at Oneida. Their unconventional approach to not just property but also marriage and sexuality gained them renown across the land. The Oneida community was among the firstfruits of a vein of Social Christianity that embraced structural critiques but did not look to the state for remedies.12

Finally, it was during these same antebellum decades that women began to foster movements against the systemic underpinnings of gendered inequality: in particular, the laws of coverture and women’s exclusion from the franchise. Sarah and Angelina Grímke’s conversion to Quakerism propelled them into the abolitionist movement, and they went on to become some of the earliest and most important advocates for women’s rights in the era before the Civil War. Sarah Grímke, for one, found in the Sermon on the Mount evidence that “Men and women were CREATED EQUAL.”13 Many of her contemporaries who shared the conclusion gathered in Seneca Falls and then Rochester, New York, in 1848 for landmark women’s rights conventions. To the extent that those in attendance were religious, they tended to belong, like the Grímkes, to the Society of Friends and specifically to its more liberal Hicksite branch.14 The day when evangelical and Catholic women would become active in feminist organizations remained still a long way in the future.

Turn-of-the-Century Institutionalization

At the dawn of what Mark Twain famously dubbed the Gilded Age, Social Christianity existed entirely on the margins of churchly institutions, but within a generation its proponents could plausibly claim the mantle of mainstream. This trajectory was fraught with conflict at every step, as grassroots insurgencies demanding that denominational leaders enter the fight against sinful systems met stiff resistance. Only gradually did social gospels gain an institutional foothold, filtering into sanctuaries and seminaries. As they did, their power to animate movements both for and against equality came into fuller view.

In the North the Civil War had no sooner concluded than booming cities became sites of intense industrial conflict. Protestant church leaders, including many who had fought for abolition, rushed to the side of the nation’s business elite, often denying that there was any structural component to dramatic economic inequality. As one prominent Presbyterian divine put it, “The conflict between classes in the cities of our country is not a conflict between capital and labor, but between successful and unsuccessful lives.” The Catholic clergy were often more sympathetic to working people’s plight, but stopped well short of championing organized labor, which was too closely associated with disorder and radicalism.15

But a leveling gospel permeated the growing labor movement itself, and the same Northern workers who mobilized against the captains of industry also protested churchly complicity in the injustice of the emerging industrial order. One prominent national leader in the immediate postbellum decades was Andrew Cameron, a Scottish printer and ardent evangelical, who made the case in the pages of his newspaper, the Workingman’s Advocate, “the gospel of Christ sustains us in our every demand.” Working-class Catholics also defied clerical conservatism. Finding no contradiction between their faith and activism, they participated in parish life while enrolling in unions in droves. By the turn of the century, a growing number of church leaders were becoming convinced that they were losing the affection of the respectable white workingmen who predominated in labor’s upper ranks. As alarm at that prospect peaked, a reconsideration of the churches’ outlook on industrial questions began in earnest.16

Meanwhile, a variety of other prophetic movements materialized across the country, adding fuel to the fire. Countless middle-class white women joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which carried forward older Protestant bourgeois concerns about alcohol, to be sure, but which also, following its 1881 endorsement of women’s suffrage, became a central vehicle for respectable Christian critique of patriarchy.17 Still others, uninspired by the churches’ response to the industrial crisis, poured their energies into clubs, mission societies, and settlement houses, through which they debated and practiced solutions to a wide variety of pressing social problems.18 In parts of the South and West, women and men, both black and white, joined together to express a shared “righteous indignation” at monied powers, throwing their weight behind a Populist movement that briefly gained national prominence before flaming out and taking with it hopes for a progressive biracial political coalition.19

Even as Reconstruction gave way to Redemption and Southern whites reimposed a viciously racist order across the land, black believers hastened to establish independent religious institutions and to strengthen those with longer roots. Black churches were by no means universally oriented toward the reform of social structures, but investment in these vital institutions was, in itself, a kind of protest against the aggressive white supremacism of Jim Crow. Black denominations did produce a number of notable social gospelers, though their experiences within denominational institutions were frequently rocky. African Methodist Episcopal (AME) bishops Henry McNeal Turner and Reverdy Ransom championed black nationalist and socialist solutions, respectively, but at the expense of easy relationships with AME colleagues. W. E. B. Du Bois advanced a vision of a radical Jesus, but did so from outside the confines of the institutional church altogether. Black women did not often have that luxury. Ida B. Wells found a way to navigate both white and black religious institutions, which offered crucial platforms for her remarkable anti-lynching crusade. Nannie Burroughs helped to found the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention, which became in turn a launching pad for a lifetime of feminist and civil rights activism.20

The combination of industrial crises and surging grassroots movements proved formidable enough to gain church leaders’ ears. The Vatican responded with the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, in which Pope Leo XIII criticized both laissez faire capitalism and state-centric socialism, giving shape to a distinctly Catholic vein of economic teaching. Crucially, Leo challenged the regnant free-labor ideology of his day, declaring, “there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.” While American prelates long tended to emphasize the encyclical’s antisocialist provisions, a young priest by the name of John Ryan—who had been deeply influenced by populism as well—seized upon the notion of a living wage. His 1906 book, A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects, caught on and raised his national profile; and by 1920, when he was named the director of the fledgling National Catholic Welfare Conference’s (NCWC) industrial relations division, he had become one of the leading voices of a newly institutionalized Catholic social gospel. In the decades just ahead, it would only grow in strength and influence.21

A parallel set of developments unfolded within Protestant denominations. The Gilded Age witnessed the rise of scattered pastor-prophets, including Turner, Ransom, Washington Gladden, William H. Carwardine, George Herron, and Myron Reed. But it was not until the first decade of the 20th century that social gospels took deeper root within Protestant institutions. Those years saw the flowering of social Christianity as a theological movement. Seminal works such as Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917) vaulted Walter Rauschenbusch into the public eye. His tenure as pastor in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen district heightened his awareness of social struggle, and, starting in 1897, as a professor at Rochester Theological Seminary, he began to systematize his reflections on the relationship between the gospel and the nation’s industrial crises. In Christianity and the Social Crisis, he especially emphasized the Hebrew prophets and the ways in which the historical Jesus had carried on their critical sociopolitical legacy. While Rauschenbusch would become the name most closely associated with the social gospel, others made essential theological contributions as well. Consider for example Wellesley professor Vida Dutton Scudder, who over the course of her career elaborated a cogent case for Christian socialism.22

The ideas of Rauschenbusch, Scudder, and the rest gained official sanction during the progressive era. A signal development on this front was the 1908 formation of the Federal Council of Churches (FCC)—representing thirty denominations, both white and black—and its ensuing endorsement of a “Social Creed.” The creed’s affirmations were moderate in hue, and yet its prescriptions were decidedly structural in nature. It called, among other things, “For the principle of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions,” “For a living wage in every industry,” and “For such regulation of the conditions of labor for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the community.” Notably, the document did not broach the subject of race. As black migrants made their way to the North in the opening decades of the 20th century, they often interpreted the structural injustices they were forced to navigate through a theological lens: their journey was a kind of exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. But upon arrival in Chicago, Cleveland, and the like, they soon realized that they had not left Jim Crow behind after all. While Gladden and some other white social gospelers raised their voices against pervasive racism, black churches bore the overwhelming burden of helping migrants find their way in the perplexing and dangerous world of Northern industrial centers.23

If many white Protestant social gospelers remained silent about racism, many more who championed “applied Christianity” supported undeniably racist applications. Labor leader Andrew Cameron espoused an egalitarian, working-class gospel that included black workers but not the Chinese.24 Congregational minister Josiah Strong argued for Christianity’s relevance to all areas of life in his book Our Country (1885), which assumed the superiority of Anglo-Saxon civilization and bolstered those advocating for colonial ventures abroad and immigration restriction at home.25 Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan railed against the machinations of the capitalist class, while more quietly throwing his support behind Jim Crow.26 Leading white social gospelers would moreover go on to support nativist-tinged campaigns for Prohibition and explicitly racist movements for birth control and eugenics.27 As social Christianity became a more influential force within the institutional churches, it challenged some unjust systems at the same time that it reinforced others.

Social Christianity on the Move

While the historiography of the social gospel long pinpointed the years following World War I as a season of decline, this narrative arc sprung from its focus on elite white Protestant theological circles. In fact, for the wider tradition of social Christianity outlined here, the mid-20th century was nothing short of a heyday. The rise of the welfare state as well as of massive, faith-infused labor and civil rights movements marked the high-water point of social gospelers’ influence on society at large. Never before in American history had the basic assumptions underlying social Christianity’s vision seemed so intuitive to so many. Its advance generated a backlash as well, however—one that remained an undercurrent through the early Cold War, but that would have a decisive impact in the years to come.

The economic emergency of the Great Depression set the stage for a sea change in American governance. The unprecedented avalanche of legislation signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first hundred days alone created a larger and more interventionist federal government than the nation had ever known. Many in the president’s cabinet were steeped in social Christianity and framed the New Deal as the realization of its ideals. When Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes addressed the leaders of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in the spring of 1934, he drove home this point. “Christ wanted men and women to live upright lives,” Ickes acknowledged, “but he also wanted them to have for each other understanding and good will and mutual helpfulness. He wished them to be good neighbors. He hated injustice with a righteous hatred. His whole life was a fight against oppression.” In his estimation the New Deal reflected Christ’s values. “[It] is grounded on the theory that one should do unto others what he would that others should do unto him,” Ickes insisted. In the course of the speech, he stopped to ask, “Will the leaders in the Church follow the banner which has been boldly raised by President Roosevelt in his determination to establish social and economic justice, so far as lies within the power of man, wholeheartedly or only reluctantly?”28

It was more than a rhetorical question. Even as social gospelers gained a substantial institutional foothold in the early years of the 20th century, their victory was anything but complete. Consider, for example, that the very same Methodist Church that had generated the 1908 Social Creed was deeply embroiled in a labor dispute with the typographical union throughout the century’s first three decades. Despite the frenetic advocacy of the Reverend Harry Ward and other leaders within the denomination’s Federation for Social Service, powerful opponents of labor won the battles at annual meetings over and over again.29 But in the 1930s the tables turned in not just that fight but larger ones too. If social Christianity had infiltrated the White House, it had seeped deep into the soil of the nation’s churches too.

At nearly every level, American Catholics threw their collective weight behind the New Deal. Working-class believers poured into the ranks of the Congress of Industrial Organizations upon its founding in 1935.30 While they had embraced a pro-labor gospel for generations, they were now joined not only by the Vatican—which in 1931 promulgated Quadragesimo Anno, an even bolder reworking of the social program first outlined in Rerurm Novarum—but also a vast array of labor priests, nuns, and bishops. Many of these participated actively in the work of the NCWC’s Social Action Department and especially its Catholic Conference on Industrial Problems (CCIP). Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the leaders of the CCIP held conferences across the country, promoting Catholic social teaching and in particular the notion that the New Deal was faithful to the core principles of Quadragesimo Anno. Regulars on the speaker circuit included not only the likes of Monsignor John Ryan—known in many circles as the “Right Reverend New Dealer” after his endorsement of FDR’s 1936 reelection bid—but also Sister Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican sister and professor at Rosary College whose expertise on economic and political questions regularly took the men she encountered at such conferences aback.31 At a 1944 CCIP conference in Butte, Montana, Ferrer avowed, “The effect of Rerum Novarum in the last fifty years is immense. It settled once and for all that it is not only the right but the duty of the church to speak with authority on social and economic problems.”32

Not all Catholic social gospelers were convinced that the state should play a pivotal role in battles against structural sin. The emergence of the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s offered another way forward. Deeply concerned with structural sin and yet intensely skeptical of bureaucracies, which they perceived to be soulless, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded a network of urban and rural houses of hospitality. They imagined these houses as, at once, hubs of neighbor love and radical activism. Catholic Workers participated in a variety of social movements, including labor strikes and pacifist mobilizations. But unlike her counterparts in the CCIP, Day demurred when pressed for a grand plan of social salvation. Later in life she would write, in reflections that capture the distinctive spirit of her incarnational social gospel, “Young people say, What good can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time, we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.”33

Day may not have cheered every aspect of the New Deal, but the Protestant leaders of the FCC did. In 1932 the organization endorsed an updated and more progressive Social Creed, one which united its member denominations in support of collective bargaining and other policies that would become law under FDR. High-ups in the FCC would go on to hail the New Deal as a “Third American Revolution” and one which was consonant with Christianity’s highest ideals.34 Their sentiments were widely shared. When Roosevelt solicited clergy feedback regarding his programs, he was soon buried under a deluge of 30,000 letters, many of which were unremittingly positive. Even in the more conservative South, both white and black clergy returned glowing reviews of the 1935 Social Security Act, though in many cases the latter harbored deep reservations about the New Deal state’s surrender to Jim Crow.35 The mainline clergy hardly had a monopoly on social gospels. In Missouri’s impoverished Bootheel, it was spirit-filled Pentecostal tenant farmers who galvanized interracial organizing drives for economic justice.36 Such instances of collaboration across racial lines remained few and far between, however. Even as black Christians in a variety of denominations struggled against the withering reign of Jim Crow, many of their white social gospel counterparts continued to prioritize economic over racial justice, while many more remained straightforwardly racist. The failure of Christianity to address social wrongs and especially pervasive racism prompted Howard University theologian Howard Thurman to write Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), in which he probed the meanings of the gospel for those “with their backs against the wall.” The book encouraged an emerging generation of civil rights activists whose collective sacrifice would bring social Christianity to its apex.

From the Mountaintop to the Wilderness: Social Christianity in the 1960s and Beyond

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s did not appear out of nowhere. It built on organizing traditions cultivated over the course of generations. The movement was religiously and racially diverse, but at its very center were black Christians whose gospel was intuitively social. Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer did not need to read Walter Rauschenbusch or Howard Thurman to know that God longed for her people to be free. But the movement’s most influential spokesperson, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., had read both of them and many more besides. King’s speeches moved seamlessly between the biblical prophetic tradition and the nation’s republican ideals, and brought both to bear on the systemic injustice of the contemporary American scene. The everyday activists who showed up for rallies and bore the brunt of the often brutal opposition were the guarantor’s of his leverage with high-level negotiators, who were in turn often anxious, especially given the Cold War context, to avoid appearing undemocratic. As mass meetings, marches, boycotts, sit-ins, and speeches parlayed into historic breakthroughs in the form of court decisions and federal legislation, social gospelers collaborated with numerous others to leave arguably their most lasting mark on American society.37

In the final years of King’s life, he turned his attention increasingly to other unjust systems and especially to imperialism and capitalism, issuing urgent pleas for the United States to withdraw from Vietnam and to pursue an equitable distribution of is riches. In doing so he joined hands with those already active in Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam on the one hand and in a variety of labor organizations on the other. Even as King was joining working people’s fight, new developments in California were capturing the nation’s eye. When Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez founded the National Farm Workers’ Association in 1962, they hoped to improve the lot of workers who enjoyed few protections and little of the fruits of their labor. In the years that followed, they helped guide a movement that challenged some of the largest operators in California’s booming agricultural sector. Their dramatic fights with Delano grape growers illustrate the deeply religious character of the movement. Marching workers carried images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and framed their protests as pilgrimages. Chavez himself had been deeply influenced by a Catholic priest who introduced him to the papal encyclicals, among other things. In his 1966 Plan of Delano, he hearkened back to Rerum Novarum, declaring, “All men are brothers, sons of the same God; that is why we say to all men of good will, in the words of Pope Leo XIII, ‘Everyone’s first duty is to protect the workers from the greed of spectators who use human beings as instruments to provide themselves with money. It is neither just nor human to oppress men with excessive work to the point where their minds become enfeebled and their bodies worn out.’” Thanks in no small part to the tenacity of the farm workers themselves, by the early 1970s the movement had successfully organized much of the industry.38

As popular movements for justice crested, they once more prompted waves of theological reflection. In 1973, a group of mostly younger evangelicals—awakened by their experiences with Civil Rights and Vietnam, and eager to move beyond their tradition’s recent history of rigid conservatism—issued the “Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.” In it, they confessed, “We acknowledge that God requires justice. But we have not proclaimed or demonstrated his justice to an unjust society.” The statement went on, “We affirm that God abounds in mercy and that he forgives all who repent and turn from their sins. So we call our fellow evangelical Christians to demonstrate repentance in Christian discipleship that confronts the social and political injustice of our nation.”39 This small but vocal evangelical “moral minority” emerged at the same time as a new theological movement in mainline seminaries. From Mary Daly’s The Church and the Second Sex (1968) to James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power (1969) to George Edwards’s Gay/Lesbian Liberation (1984), this scholarship argued that liberation was at the very heart of the Christian message. Theologians working in this vein were influenced not only by American civil rights movements but also by uprisings in other parts of the world. Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation (1971) reverberated widely, as did the anti-apartheid witness of South Africa’s Desmond Tutu. As liberation theology matured, women of color—concerned that their experiences were not adequately reflected in the school’s foundational works—broke new ground. Jacquelyn Grant’s White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus (1989) was an important touchstone in the emergence of womanist theology, while Ada María Isasi Díaz and Yolando Tarango’s Hispanic Women: Prophetic Voice in the Church (1988) marked the rise of mujerista perspectives.40 But even as such paradigms proliferated within the academy, social Christianity was receding in the wider world.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, social Christianity’s influence declined precipitously. A variety of factors contributed to this development: declining mainline Protestant birth rates, the movement of white Catholics into the middle class, and the growing pluralism of the American public square in the wake of 1965 immigration reform, among them. But arguably no single factor loomed as large as the success of a slow-building, multifaceted backlash to social gospels—one whose origins extended back to the early days of the New Deal.

Starting in the 1930s and 1940s, corporative executives forged close partnerships with Christian leaders who shared their opposition to growing statism. Congregationalist minister James Fifield played a key role in nurturing this movement. His Los Angeles–based organization, Spiritual Mobilization, warned laypersons and pastors across the country about churchly complicity in the New Deal excesses. Its effectiveness could be measured in the volume of correspondence received at denominational and FCC offices from ordinary believers concerned that their churches’ social teachings were too “pink.”41 In the South, it was not just libertarians that raised the alarm but also many white Christian liberals who worried that the rising power of both the federal government and organized labor posed an imminent threat to the stability of the region’s apartheid regime.42 The onset of the Cold War only accentuated the appeal of “Christian free enterprise,” a neoliberal ideology that worked to the benefit of the executive class precisely because it also, increasingly, resonated at the grassroots.43

The scope of this backlash expanded during the 1950s and 1960s. The resistance to Civil Rights included an explicitly racist wing, which enjoyed strong support not only in the South but also in Northern cities, where white residents, outraged by open housing laws, often turned viciously on black neighbors. This movement, whose figurehead was the arch-segregationist George Wallace, inflicted great damage, but its long-term impact paled in comparison to that of an emerging white “silent majority” whose unrelenting faith in meritocracy eroded support for structural approaches to social problems. Its strongholds were the Sunbelt suburbs, which were also increasingly the nation’s demographic center of gravity. The silent majority rejected New Deal–style liberalism in favor of colorblind, neoliberal policies, which contradicted many a denomination’s social teaching, but which dovetailed seamlessly with the platform of a resurgent Republican Party. This tension between official church positions and the faithful’s political allegiances was not always apparent in local churches and parishes, far removed as they were from denominational headquarters. And with the 1980s’ emergence of a hard-charging religious right—which saw a role for the state in controlling individual behavior, but not in promoting distributive justice—any remaining whiff of tension between Christian convictions and modern conservatism evaporated for white Protestants and Catholics alike.44

Social Christianity never completely disappeared, but it was increasingly relegated to the margins of American life. Throughout the Reagan years and in the decades that followed, it animated movements for nuclear disarmament and immigrant and refugee rights. Black social gospelers continued to prophesy against structural racism, but their message largely failed to gain traction with a white Christian majority persuaded that the nation had addressed its original sin back in the Civil Rights era. Incontrovertible visual evidence of police brutality changed some white minds in the early 21st century. But in its initial phase at least, the Black Lives Matter movement succeeded more at calling attention to violations of individual rights than to the structural underpinnings of persistent racial inequality. Movements for gay and transgender rights enjoyed a series of stunning breakthroughs during the administration of President Barack Obama, but Christian activists, while involved, did not play nearly as central a role as they had in previous civil rights movements. A small evangelical left, galvanized by the likes of Jim Wallis, who had been one of the signers of the 1973 Chicago Declaration, continued to advocate for structural reform via publications such as the magazine Sojourners. But when in 2016 81 percent of white evangelical voters cast ballots for Donald J. Trump, the persistent hold of conservatism could not have been more clear. Arguably nothing so underscored the diminished status of social Christianity as the latter-day collapse of the labor movement. At a time when more than 77 percent of Americans identified as Christian, less than 7 percent of private-sector workers belonged to unions. Labor’s demise corresponded to a historic spike in economic inequality, as the chasm between rich and poor widened to proportions not seen since the Great Depression.45 For social gospelers—whose visions of justice rolling down like waters had, not so long before, transfixed the nation—such developments signaled an involuntary return to the wilderness.

Review of the Literature

The historiography on social Christianity dates back to the 1930s and 1940s, when a series of books on the more narrowly conceived social gospel movement began to appear. These studies focused almost exclusively on the responses of elite, white, Northern Protestant male clergy to the industrial crises of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Exemplary works include James Dombrowski’s The Early Days of Christian Socialism in America (1936), Charles Howard Hopkins’s The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism (1940), and Henry May’s Protestant Churches and Industrial America (1949). Aaron I. Abell’s The Urban Impact on American Protestantism, 1865–1900 (1943) fit perfectly within this paradigm, as did his later book, American Catholicism and Social Action: A Search for Social Justice (1960), though the latter expanded the cast of characters to include leaders of the nation’s largest single Christian church. Collectively, works such as these established the initial parameters for the field, ones that went largely unchallenged until well after the social-history turn. In the meantime, scholars such as Jacob Dorn, Gary Dorrien, and Christopher Evans produced a variety of excellent studies that expanded and embellished the traditional narrative.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the field started to move in a variety of new directions. John Patrick McDowell’s The Social Gospel in the South: The Woman’s Home Mission Movement in the Methodist Episcopal Church South, 1886–1939 (1982) transgressed the regional and gender strictures of the literature, recasting Southern women as social gospelers. Later books by Susan Curtis, Wendy J. Deichmann Edwards, Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, and Ellen Blue expanded upon these vital themes.46 Ronald C. White Jr., and Ralph E. Luker published important studies of the social gospel and race, which challenged the notion that the movement had been as lily white as it had seemed in earlier portrayals.47 Dorrien’s latest book, The New Abolition: W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel (2015), offers a definitive history of the early black social gospel tradition. Ken Fones-Wolf’s Trade Union Gospel: Christianity and Labor in Industrial Philadelphia (1989) traced working-class contributions to social Christianity, a thread later picked up in Heath W. Carter’s Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (2015).

Taken together, these new studies enriched and deepened the field, but they also destabilized its longstanding grand narrative. In the introduction to his edited volume, The Search for Social Salvation: Social Christianity and America, 1880–1925, Gary Scott Smith offered an incisive survey of the changing historiographical landscape, but he did not venture a new narrative. Consequently, by the early 20th century, the field was in an unsettled place, with many questions about the scope and arc of social Christianity’s story remaining to be answered.

Further Reading

Abell, Aaron I.American Catholicism and Social Action: A Search for Social Justice. Garden City, NY: Hanover House, 1960.Find this resource:

Burns, David. The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Byers, David M., ed. Justice in the Marketplace: Collected Statements of the Vatican and the United States Catholic Bishops on Economic Policy, 1891–1984. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1985.Find this resource:

Carter, Heath W.Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Chappell, David L.A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Creech, Joe. Righteous Indignation: Religion and the Populist Revolution. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Curtis, Susan. A Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Dorrien, Gary. The New Abolition: W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Dorn, Jacob. Washington Gladden: Prophet of the Social Gospel. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 1968.Find this resource:

Edwards, Wendy J. Deichmann, and Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, eds. Gender and the Social Gospel. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Espinosa, Gaston, Virgilio Elizondo, and Jesse Miranda, eds. Latino Religions and Civil Activism in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Evans, Christopher H. Evans. The Kingdom Is Always but Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Flanagan, Maureen A.Seeing With Their Hearts: Chicago Women and the Vision of the Good City, 1871–1933. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Woman’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Hopkins, Charles Howard. The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865–1915. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1940.Find this resource:

Luker, Ralph E.The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885–1912. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.Find this resource:

McDowell, John Patrick. The Social Gospel in the South: The Woman’s Home Mission Movement in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1886–1939. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.Find this resource:

McKanan, Dan. Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition. Boston: Beacon Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Phillips, Paul T.A Kingdom on Earth: Anglo-American Social Christianity, 1880–1940. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Smith, Gary Scott. The Search for Social Salvation: Social Christianity and America, 1880–1925. New York: Lexington Books, 2000.Find this resource:

Swartz, David R.Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.Find this resource:


(1.) Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: Macmillan, 1917), 1.

(2.) See Charles Howard Hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1940); and Henry F. May, Protestant Churches and Industrial America (New York: Harper, 1949). Aaron Ignatius Abell did supplement their accounts, which followed the activities of the Protestant clergy, with a book on Catholic counterparts. See Aaron I. Abell, American Catholicism and Social Action: A Search for Social Justice (Garden City, NY: Hanover House, 1960).

(3.) Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. I (New York: Colonial Press, 1899), 311, 313.

(4.) David Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007): 193.

(5.) Quoted in Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), 142.

(6.) Dorrien locates the rise of this new consciousness in the 1880s, but one can see shades of it even before the Civil War. See Gary Dorrien, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 4.

(7.) David Walker, Walker’s Appeal, With a Brief Sketch of his Life (New York: J. H. Tobitt, 1848), 30, 42, 79.

(8.) William R. Sutton, Journeymen for Jesus: Evangelical Artisans Confront Capitalism in Jacksonian Baltimore (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998).

(9.) Jama Lazerow, Religion and the Working Class in Antebellum America (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1995), 71.

(10.) Stewart Davenport, Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815–1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 107–165.

(11.) Stephen Colwell, New Themes for the Protestant Clergy: Creeds without Charity, Theology without Humility, and Protestantism without Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Grambo, 1851), 243.

(12.) Mark Holloway, Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America, 1680–1880 (New York: Dover, 1966).

(13.) Quoted in Robert H. Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 217.

(14.) Nancy A. Hewitt, Women’s Activism and Social Change: Rochester, New York, 1822–1872 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984).

(15.) Heath W. Carter, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). Quote from page 4.

(16.) Carter, Union Made.

(17.) Ruth Bordin, Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873–1900 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1981).

(18.) See, for example, Maureen A. Flanagan, Seeing with their Hearts: Chicago Women and the Vision of the Good City, 1871–1933 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).

(19.) Joe Creech, Righteous Indignation: Religion and the Populist Revolution (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006).

(20.) Gary Dorrien, The New Abolition: W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015).

(21.) Quote from Rerum Novarum: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor. Aaron I. Abell, American Catholicism and Social Action: A Search for Social Justice (Garden City, NY: Hanover House, 1960).

(22.) See, for example, Vida D. Scudder, The Church and the Hour: Reflections of a Socialist Churchwoman (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1917).

(23.) Milton C. Sernett, Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); and Ralph E. Luker, The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885–1912 (Raleigh: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

(24.) Carter, Union Made, 42.

(25.) Matthew Frye Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues: The United States at Home and Abroad, 1876–1917 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000).

(26.) Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (New York: Anchor Books, 2006).

(27.) Melissa J. Wilde and Sabrina Danielson, “Fewer and Better Children: Race, Class, Religion, and Birth Control Reform in America,” American Journal of Sociology 119.6 (May 2014): 1710–1760.

(28.) “Ickes Exhorts Presbyterians to Aid New Deal,” New York Herald Tribune (May 24, 1934).

(29.) Carter, Union Made, 176–179.

(30.) Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

(31.) Heath W. Carter, “Preaching with their Lives: Dominican Sisters and the Struggle for Economic Justice,” to be published in Dominicans on Mission.

(32.) “Bishop Gailmore of Helena Formally Opens Catholic Industrial Session,” Butte Daily (May 22, 1944).

(33.) Dorothy Day, Loaves and Fishes (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).

(34.) Paul A. Carter, The Decline and Revival of the Social Gospel: Social and Political Liberalism in American Protestant Churches, 1920–1940 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1954).

(35.) Alison Greene, No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

(36.) Jarod Roll, Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010).

(37.) David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Raleigh: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

(38.) Luis D. Leon, The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez: Crossing Religious Borders (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014).

(39.) The “Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern (1973)” is accessible in full via the Evangelicals for Social Action website. For wider context see David Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

(40.) Mary Potter Engel and Susan B. Thistlewaite, eds., Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998).

(41.) Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011).

(42.) Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013).

(43.) Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

(44.) Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

(45.) Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012).

(46.) Susan Curtis, A Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991); Wendy J. Deichmann Edwards and Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, eds., Gender and the Social Gospel (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003); and Ellen Blue, St. Mark’s and the Social Gospel: Methodist Women and Civil Rights in New Orleans, 1895–1965 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011).

(47.) Ronald C. White, Jr., Liberty and Justice for All: Racial Reform and the Social Gospel (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990); and Ralph E. Luker, The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885–1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).