The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865-1915

By Charles Howard Hopkins | Go to book overview

THE RISE OF THE SOCIAL GOSPEL
IN AMERICAN PROTESTANTISM
1865-1915

INTRODUCTION

AMERICA'S most unique contribution to the great ongoing stream of Christianity is the "social gospel." This indigenous and typically American movement, initiated in the "gilded age," was called into being by the impact of modern industrial society and scientific thought upon the Protestantism of the United States during the half century following the Civil War. Defined by one of its leaders as "the application of the teaching of Jesus and the total message of the Christian salvation to society, the economic life, and social institutions . . . as well as to individuals,"1 social Christianity involved a criticism of conventional Protestantism, a progressive theology and social philosophy, and an active program of propagandism and reform. It reached its climax in the optimistic prewar years of the twentieth century.

The social element in the Christian religion is at least as old as the gospel.2 Jesus inherited the high moral aspirations of the Hebrew prophets, who were in a sense themselves social reformers. The followers of Christ have endeavored to apply his teachings in every age. The apostolic church experimented with a form of voluntary communism; the Christian ethic wrought a decided change in the mores of the Roman world. The Middle Ages, the Reformation, and modern times have all produced their quota of attempts to establish the kingdom of God. The American social gospel is but one of the latest adjustments of the Christian ethic to the exigencies of history.

When Puritan emigrants looked across the Atlantic to a place where the Lord would "create a new Heaven, and a new Earth in new Churches, and a new Common-wealth together," they were expressing the hope for a perfected society that came to be a vital part of "the American dream." With the rise of the

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1
Shailer Mathews, Social Gospel, in Shailer Mathews and G. B. Smith, A Dictionary of Religion and Ethics ( New York, 1921), pp. 416-417. By permission of The Macmillan Company, publishers.
2
See Chester C. McCown, The Genesis of the Social Gospel ( New York and London, 1929).

-3-

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