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

By Charles Howard Hopkins | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
PROTESTANTISM IN THE GILDED AGE

In so far as individual men are concerned, religion aims first and mainly at the production of character. Although Christianity has respect to the outward life, to society, to the most minute acts, it is only as results, not as the primal ends. It seeks to produce a state of mind of great purity and power, and from that state it derives the influences which shall control all the details of human life.

HENRY WARD BEECHER

A HISTORY of the social gospel must begin with the theological climate that sheltered its birth and nourished its early growth. The religious atmosphere of the gilded age comprised at least four distinct winds of doctrine that affected the development of American social Christianity. Conventional, institutionalized, orthodox Protestantism provided the frozen foundation of complacency, whose stubborn refusal to warm to the social gospel was to constitute a perennial problem. At the same time, the new movement probably obtained its greatest impetus from those enlightened conservatives who strove to reconcile the truths of Christianity with the new science, and to reorient Protestant ethics to the needs of a newly industrialized society. Further, the social gospel was the heir of that evangelical hope and fervor that had provided the religious motivation of an earlier generation's crusade against slavery and intemperance, and that had energized its heroic devotion to missions. Lastly, to the left of these more or less middle-of-the-road currents, there moved a coolly rational but nevertheless determined and influential Unitarian school that frankly challenged both the presuppositions and the ethics of conservatism.

The characteristic religion of mid- nineteenth-century America comprised a well-articulated body of doctrines and doctrinaires, effectively insulated against the corrosive forces of the new science and of social unrest by an otherworldly dualism that resulted in a smug preoccupation with the salvation and

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