Christianity and the Social Crisis: Rauschenbusch's Legacy after a Century: In 2001, the Plight of the Working Poor Reached a Wide Audience through Barbara Ehrenreich's Best Seller, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. Ehrenreich Wondered How Anyone Could Survive on near Minimum Wage

By Pitts, Bill | Baptist History and Heritage, Summer-Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Christianity and the Social Crisis: Rauschenbusch's Legacy after a Century: In 2001, the Plight of the Working Poor Reached a Wide Audience through Barbara Ehrenreich's Best Seller, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. Ehrenreich Wondered How Anyone Could Survive on near Minimum Wage


Pitts, Bill, Baptist History and Heritage


She worked as a waitress, house cleaner, and Wal-Mart salesperson to see whether she could live on the wages they offered. She found that the work was exhausting and that these jobs did not provide sufficient income to meet expenses. Ehrenreich concluded that it is, above all, the cost of rent that drives poor workers to the margins. They have no recourse but to take an additional job. They have no medical insurance. She observed that something is very wrong when a single person cannot support herself by the sweat of her brow. (1) On the other hand, the "owning class" has far too much, as she put it, "money, floor space, and stuff." (2) She concluded that the underlying problem is that the "megascale corporate order" is a "great blind profit-making machine." (3) Walter Rauschenbusch would have recognized this situation immediately and would have been dismayed to learn that the conditions and inequities he described a hundred years ago still plague the working poor in America.

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was a professional church historian who is not known for writing church history. He was much more a shaper of a church history than a chronicler of it. He was a Baptist who is not remembered for promoting Baptist ideas or practices. His voice transcended denominational lines, for he called the church to responsibilities it had long ignored. Instead of creating an identity as a church historian or Baptist spokesman, Rauschenbusch derived enduring influence from his message of the ethical obligation of Christianity to address social ills. He addressed his message to the larger Christian community, not merely to Baptists. For his role in prodding the church to see and accept its responsibility to society, Rauschenbusch is often called a modern prophet. (4)

Rauschenbusch is remembered as the central figure in the American Social Gospel. In this article, I argue that the key to Rauschenbusch's ongoing influence today rests especially on his deeply held notion of justice. He articulated his vision of Christian social justice first in Christianity and the Social Crisis, which he finished exactly one hundred years ago. The book was published in 1907, and by 1908, it had made Rauschenbusch famous. Christianity and the Social Crisis was the religious best seller in the United States for the next three years. (5) It is arguably the most influential book produced by any writer in the Social Gospel movement. This article is a centennial celebration of one of the landmark books in American religious history and a tribute to a great Baptist Christian thinker.

The claim is often made that Rauschenbusch is one of the three or four most influential American theologians in the nation's history. Influence is a somewhat elusive notion, but it would involve at least an original way of thinking about Christian theology, communicated by a persuasive articulation of these ideas, and, further, the power of that idea to influence the thinking of subsequent generations. This article seeks to demonstrate that Rauschenbusch's work fulfills both of these criteria. I will first examine the shaping of Rauschenbusch's thought. Second, I will explore the argument of Christianity and the Social Crisis. Third, I will suggest something of Rauschenbusch's influence during the past one hundred years. The force and relevance of Rauschenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis and of his entire theological output today rests on the notion of justice; the usefulness of the book is his insistence that justice must be retrieved as a central responsibility of the church. Rauschenbusch's perspective shifted the theological focus from the individual to society, thereby articulating an important strand of Christian thought called "The Social Gospel."

The Shaping of Rauschenbusch's Thought

Rauschenbusch's life is well documented, and his best biographers have traced the key influences in his development. (6) His thought revolved around two poles-the individual and the social. …

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Christianity and the Social Crisis: Rauschenbusch's Legacy after a Century: In 2001, the Plight of the Working Poor Reached a Wide Audience through Barbara Ehrenreich's Best Seller, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. Ehrenreich Wondered How Anyone Could Survive on near Minimum Wage
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