A Brief History Of "Christian" Liberalism

From the pen of Rolland McCune:

The new evangelicals were annoyed with certain fundamentalist characteristics that to them were quite objectionable, such as a supposed mean spirit that lacked the love of Christ, an intellectual inferiority that could only produce second-rate scholarship in Bible and theology, a majoring on minors, and the like…*

The Influence of the Social Gospel

Although the “social gospel” is primarily an American phenomenon arising during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, there were European precursors such as the Christian Socialist movement in Britain which began in 1848 (F. D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley, and J. M. Ludlow). The value-judgment theology of Albrecht Ritschl strongly influenced a concern for social betterment on the Continent.

Among the precursors of the social gospel in America was Horace Bushnell (1802–1876), a Congregationalist who stressed the corporate, social involvement of man in sin. He taught that if sin can be social in dimension, so can virtue. He is most famous for his book, Christian Nurture (1847), in which he taught that conversion should come by a process of education or nurture and not in a sudden, instantaneous manner. He also understood the atonement of Christ in terms of love rather than penal satisfaction. Josiah Strong, a Congregational minister who wrote Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (1885), said that money, greed, immigration, Roman Catholicism, and Mormonism were corrupting America. Strong was the executive secretary of the American branch of the Evangelical Alliance (formed in England in 1846) from 1886 to 1898. The American branch became the Federal Council of Churches in 1908. Other precursors of the social gospel were William D. P. Bliss, George Herron, and Graham Taylor.

Charles M. Sheldon (1857–1946) was a Congregationalist who did the most to popularize the social gospel. He wrote In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?, a social gospel novel that sold over 100,000 copies within a few months, 23 million within a generation. Washington Gladden (1836–1918) has become known as “the father of the social gospel.” He was also a Congregational minister and was influenced by Bushnell. He believed that a competitive basis of economics was unchristian. He stressed love and moral persuasion as the means of achieving a more ideal society. His hymn, “O Master Let Me Walk With Thee,” was a statement of the social gospel. His books included Working People and Their Employers (1876), Applied Christianity (1887), and Social Salvation (1902).

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) also led in the development and spread of the social gospel in America. He taught church history at the Rochester Theological Seminary after having been a pastor for eleven years among immigrant workers in a difficult section of New York City. His major publications were Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), Christianizing the Social Order (1912), and A Theology For the Social Gospel (1917). Rauschenbusch maintained that social sins were more devastating to morality than personal sins. He followed Bushnell’s idea that personal existence is social in nature, i.e., that society was an organization and not just a collection of individuals. There existed a solidarity to society. Rauschenbusch’s ideas for social betterment rose chiefly from his concept of the kingdom of God. The kingdom would emerge from the existing social order and redeem it without destroying it. This feat would be accomplished by God working immanently in society, not merely by the efforts of people. Through moral, economic, and social reform a new order, not based on competition, would emerge. Rauschenbusch understood that the realms of education and democratic principles had already made great social advancement, but the kingdom of God needed advancement in the economic realm. Although definitely a liberal, his theology was not characterized by the “sentimental optimism” that marked much of the social gospel; “many of his deepest convictions ran counter to the prevailing liberal theology.”31

The social gospel in America achieved notable status when the Federal Council of Churches began in 1908, partly for the purpose of centralizing Protestant concern for social problems. The Council drew up a Social Creed of the Churches which called for equal rights for all, child labor laws, old age benefits, a shorter work week, and labor arbitration. The theoretical underpinnings (philosophical and theological) for the social gospel are patently Enlightenment-liberal in origin and content.

McCune, R. (2004). Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism (xv). Greenville, SC: Ambassador International.


Ibid, p. 9-11

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About lalvin1517

I'm married with two children and pastor McCall Baptist Church in McCall, Idaho.
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