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

By Charles Howard Hopkins | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

WITH the turn of the century the social gospel entered upon the final stage of the career that has now been followed through three decades. As had been the case during the 1890's when the evangel of George D. Herron was borne upon the wave of populist discontent, the first dozen years of the twentieth century witnessed the rise of another surge of reform -- progressivism -- in the sweep of which the social gospel was carried to the climax of its development. The spirit of progress expressed itself in the vigorous "trust-busting" of Theodore Roosevelt and the idealistic crusades of Woodrow Wilson. The direct primary, woman suffrage, the initiative, referendum, and recall were being widely discussed and voted upon, while the older populist agitation against the plutocracy ripened into accomplished reform in the establishment of the Federal Reserve System, the income-tax amendment to the Constitution, the tightening of the Interstate Commerce Commission's control of the railroads, and the assumption of the policy of public ownership of unexploited forests. On the crest of this liberal flood social Christianity rode to its high-water mark.

But the apogee of the movement we have so far followed was aided by internal factors as well as the progressive climate of the day. The quest of the historical Jesus led to the discovery of his social teachings and their enthusiastic avowal as the ethical and authoritarian foundation that social Christianity had previously lacked. Likewise the growing force of socialism and its increasingly effective appeal to the clergy acted as a leavening agent of no mean power. The developing techniques of sociology and the religious interests of certain popular sociologists added both methodological effectiveness and scientific sanction to a movement now rapidly becoming acceptable, while a factor of no mean significance was the inspired formulation of socialgospel philosophy by its greatest prophet, Walter Rauschenbusch.

The confluence of these streams resulted in the formal cecognition of social Christianity by Protestant denominations and by their representative association the Federal Council of the

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