The Legacy of Walter Rauschenbusch: A Life Informed by Mission

By Lundsten, Barbara A. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 2004 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Walter Rauschenbusch: A Life Informed by Mission


Lundsten, Barbara A., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


According to Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), "the Christianization of the social order in the next two generations" should be added to "the evangelization of the world in this generation," the dynamic watchword of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions. At the turn of the century Rauschenbusch witnessed hundreds of students pledge themselves to the austere goal of world evangelization. He longed, though, that "those who do not go to the foreign field would bind themselves to give some term of their youth at least to social work in the trenches." (1)

For Rauschenbusch, known for his leading contribution to the social gospel movement, the trenches were not only the far distant places of the modern missionary movement but also the political and economic social structures of society that impacted the cities of America, which were teeming with newly arrived immigrants. Rauschenbusch, born to German immigrant parents, was no stranger to the trenches or to mission. Throughout his life he was personally involved in mission, both home and world, and took an avid interest in its impact as a movement. As his interests in the social gospel expanded beyond the confines of the church and into international relations, Rauschenbusch often looked to the modern missionary movement, by then over a century old, as a model for the social gospel movement.

Early Years

Waiter Rauschenbusch was the fourth and youngest child of August and Caroline Rauschenbusch. Born October 8, 1861, in Rochester, New York, Walter became the seventh in a line of university-trained pastors and the sixth generation to join the "tradition of cultured university graduates." (2) August Rauschenbusch, though never attaining the public stature of his son, was a reformer in his own right. Reared and educated a Lutheran, he came to the United States in 1846 as a missionary to German immigrants. In New York, during his work for the American Tract Society, he broke with the Lutheran Church and became an avowed Baptist. August Rauschenbusch returned to Germany several times and in 1854 brought with him his newly wedded wife, Caroline. His leadership attracted attention, and in 1855 he was asked to join the faculty of the Rochester Theological Seminary, which he did three years later.

Throughout his adolescence, Walter attended school both in Rochester and in Germany. He studied in Germany between 1879 and 1883, and upon his return to Rochester, he enrolled in the University of Rochester, as well as Rochester Theological Seminary.

Educational and Spiritual Influences

Near the end of Rauschenbusch's student years in Rochester, two outside speakers left lasting impressions on him. The first, John E. Clough, spoke at Rochester Theological Seminary's 1884 commencement exercises. Clough, a well-known Baptist missionary with the American Baptist Telegu Mission who had spearheaded a mass movement in India in the late 1870s, impressed upon his seminary audience the need for workers to serve as evangelists and pastors. Clough's methods, often controversial, maintained as much as possible the social cohesion of the community. (3)

In 1885, a year before Rauschenbusch graduated from seminary, he heard W. S. Rainsford, an Episcopal priest at St. George's Church on New York's East Side, speak about the progressive reform among his congregation and the community. Rainsford's church was transformed into a center that welcomed the working-class neighborhood by providing immigrants with recreation as well as educational opportunities. With prophetic foresight Rainsford cited the church's urban mission as the place where she would either "win her greatest victory or suffer her most disastrous defeat." (4) Rauschenbusch, spurred by the missional action taken in the inner city, struggled to reconcile life in the increasingly industrialized cities with his historical faith and with confidence in the written Word of God. …

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