The Social Gospel, Ely, and Common's Initial Stage of Thought

By Gonce, R. A. | Journal of Economic Issues, September 1996 | Go to article overview

The Social Gospel, Ely, and Common's Initial Stage of Thought


Gonce, R. A., Journal of Economic Issues


As John R. Commons rose out of the 1890s to success in the twentieth century as an institutional economist, his thought evolved through several stages. Much is known about the last stages that include his ideas in his Legal Foundations of Capitalism and Institutional Economics. His beginnings, however, lie in darkness, partially illuminated by his autobiography, Myself [1934], and the research of Dorfman [1949; 1965a; 1965b], Harter [1962], and Mayhew [1987]. These works reveal inter alia that he then had strong religious convictions. Questions arise. When was the initial stage? Did his religions beliefs affect his economic thought? Did his ideas then make up a coherent whole? Is the initial stage significant: does it make more understandable the later stages of his thought?

This essay argues several theses. First, the initial stage ran from 1882 until 1894, a period when Commons entered the social gospel movement and became Richard T. Ely's disciple and protege. Second, Commons's social gospel principles were fundamental: they imparted coherence to his work, creating his social welfare criteria, leading him into Christian socialism and Christian sociology, affecting his political economy and causing it to attend to the role of institutions and the social relations they enforce, and, via all of the foregoing, determining his policy proposals and his plan to enact them. Third, this initial stage is significant, for it can explain his subsequent work from 1894 to 1899, and it can roughly account for parts of the post-1899 stages.

The essay begins by surveying the social gospel movement in the nation during the 1880s and 1890s. It then traces Commons's entry into this movement. Next it critically examines his social gospel principles and shows how they imparted coherence to the rest of his thought. After establishing 1894 as a closing date, the essay ends by considering the significance of this initial stage.

The Social Gospel Movement

The social gospel movement (hereafter SGM) was one aspect of social Christianity, a phase in the history of American Protestantism mainly during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.(1) Among the causes inspiring social Christianity were post-Civil War economic and political problems. As clerics and laymen saw it, industrialization had brought mammoth corporations wielding power over consumers and labor and government itself, riches amid poverty, strikes and violence manifesting a "labor problem," depressions, slums, vice, and corrupt politics in burgeoning cities. Conditions spurred some in the working class to desert a seemingly unconcerned church, stirred socialist sentiments, and engendered such best-sellers as Henry George's Progress and Poverty [1880], a book with a religious halo [Nicklason 1970]. Social Christianity itself comprised those who sensed a crisis, sought a Christian solution, but who split into three wings.(2) The conservative wing believed that the social order was fundamentally sound and that regenerated individuals' actions could cure the problems [May 1949, 163-169]. The radical wing, led by the Rev. William D. P. Bliss, demanded gradual, democratic reforms leading to socialism [Hopkins 1940, 173-183; May 1949, 235-262]. Between the conservatives and radicals stood a moderate progressive wing known as the SGM [Hopkins 1940, 121-200; May 1949, 170-234].

The SGM flourished as a minority within American Protestantism between 1865 and 1915. Its protagonists during the 1880s and 1890s met and collaborated with Commons. They were the Rev. Washington Gladden, called the father of the social gospel, the Rev. Josiah Strong, author of the best-seller Our Country [1885], the Rev. George D. Herron, who drifted to the radical wing in the later 1890s, and Richard T. Ely, "the most aggressive advocate of the social gospel during the eighties" [Hopkins 1940, 68, 88]. Inspiring their ideas were the post-Civil War political and economic problems but also developments internal to American Protestant theology: reacting against an apparently too individualistic and otherworldly theology, an American Protestant religious liberalism had been growing.

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