Kingdom Coming: Rauschenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis

Article excerpt

IN THE 1880S Walter Rauschenbusch was a Baptist pastor in the Hell's Kitchen district of New York City, where he served a poor, hurting, immigrant congregation and where he converted to the social gospel. His searing encounter with urban poverty, especially the funerals that he performed for children, drove him to political activism and a social-progressive understanding of Christianity.

He later recalled that during his early ministry he had six books in his head: five were scholarly, one was dangerous. Three times he tried to write the dangerous one but had to put it aside, and each time he came back to it, he found that he had outgrown the manuscript and had to start over.

In 1891 Rauschenbusch decided, with deep sadness, that he had to resign from the ministry because he was going deaf. A surflike roar in his ears made it very difficult to do pastoral tasks; he called it "physical loneliness." He was offered a teaching position at Rochester Theological Seminary, but doubted that teaching would work any better than ministry for a deaf person. His idea was to resign his position, go abroad for a year, write the dangerous book and launch a literary career. His congregation insisted, instead, that he take a paid sabbatical--which he gratefully did, in Germany.

There he labored on a book titled Revolutionary Christianity, which argued that Christianity should be essentially revolutionary, in the manner of Jesus. Until then Rauschenbusch had preached the liberal idea, derived from Albrecht Ritschl, of Christianity as an elipse with two centers: eternal life as the goal of individual existence and the kingdom of God as the goal of humanity. The old pietism and the social-ethical Jesus of modern theology folded together. But in Germany it occurred to Rauschenbusch that Jesus had one center, the kingdom of God. Jesus proclaimed and launched a postmillennial idea of the coming reign of God, and the church was supposed to be a new kind of community that transformed the world by the power of Christ's kingdom-bringing Spirit. Rauschenbusch later recalled: "Here was a concept that embraced everything. Here was something so big that absolutely nothing that interested me was excluded from it.... Wherever I went, whatever I touched, there was the kingdom of God. It carries God into everything that you do."

In Revolutionary Christianity Rauschenbusch contended that the kingdom of God is always at work toward the realized life of God. He stressed that this idea was beautiful, comprehensive, filled with justice-making ethical content and evangelical: "You have the authority of the Lord Jesus in it."

But the year passed, the book never quite came together, Rauschenbusch returned to his congregation, and the following year he married a schoolteacher, Pauline, who helped him cope with his worsening deafness. They made pastoral calls together, and their marriage was a sustained love affair, mutually supportive and affectionate. The next time Rochester Theological Seminary called, in 1897, Rauschenbusch felt that he was ready for an academic career. His father had headed the German department at Rochester Seminary for many years, and for five years Rauschenbusch carried on his father's work, teaching English and American literature, physiology, physics, civil government, political economy, astronomy, zoology and New Testament--all in German--in addition to raising money for the German department.

This exhausting regimen left no time for his own work, and the German-American community that he served was mostly hostile to the social gospel. Finally, in 1902, the seminary's position in church history opened up, and that is why the greatest works of the social gospel have such a strong historical bent.

While learning his new field of church history, Rauschenbusch spoke at civic groups and churches about the social gospel, helped to organize the Federal Council of Churches and wrote pamphlets for an outfit called the Brotherhood of the Kingdom (which, after a brief debate, admitted sister members). …