Social Gospel for APUSH®
About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.
In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.
The Social Gospel was a largely Protestant response to problems created by the rapid urbanization and industrialization in the United States late in the nineteenth century. Rather than a “movement” that had a common set of beliefs and an organizational structure, it was more a call to action to remedy the plight of the disadvantaged, particularly industrial workers and immigrants. Fundamentally it believed in the “Fatherhood of God” and the “Brotherhood of Man”. Since God was the father of all humankind, all men were brothers and it followed that “you are your brother’s keeper”. Therefore, it was incumbent on all mankind to look after those less fortunate.
An Awakening of Responsibility
The message that there was a Christian responsibility to look out for the well-being of the disadvantaged was particularly aimed at middle and upper class who, in the minds of social gospelites, had turned a blind eye to the hardships of the poor.
The Social Gospel probably had its roots in the Second Great Awakening of the 1830s and 1840s. While the First Great Awakening had focused on personal redemption and salvation, the Second Great Awakening had added the component of social consciousness: the need to redeem and save society as well as oneself. A core tenet of the Second Great Awakening was its belief in the “perfectibility of man“. If man was perfectible, Christians had the responsibility to make that a reality.
Thus, the Second Great Awakening gave birth to the many reform movements of the time, such as the temperance movement, the abolitionist movement, and criminal reform movements, to name a few. The late nineteenth century added the new challenge of the dislocation of many Americans due to urbanization and industrialization. As well, the emerging need of religious thought to accommodate Darwin’s theory of evolution and the survival of the fittest posed new challenges for the Christian community.
Thus, the Second Great Awakening gave birth to the many reform movements of the time, such as the temperance movement, the abolitionist movement, and criminal reform movements, to name a few.
Two Party Protestantism
What emerged in the late nineteenth century is what some have labeled “two-party Protestantism“, private Protestantism and public Protestantism. Private Protestantism continued to focus on the redemption and salvation of individuals while public Protestantism added a component of social welfare to the mix.
Ministers like Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch spoke of the need to correct the abuses of the capitalistic system that had resulted in extreme poverty and hardship for much of the working class. They rejected Andrew Carnegie’s contention in The Gospel of Wealth that God had sanctioned the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few because of their superior ability to utilize that wealth for the good of society. Instead, they attributed the accumulation of wealth and conspicuous consumption to pure greed. As well, they rejected the notion of Social Darwinists that the accumulation of vast fortunes was the natural order of things, survival of the fittest as it were, and instead viewed the accumulation of wealth in a few hands as a natural and detrimental outcome of the capitalistic system.
Ministers like Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch spoke of the need to correct the abuses of the capitalistic system that had resulted in extreme poverty and hardship for much of the working class.
The Social Gospel and Progressivism
In some sense the Social Gospel was both a catalyst for and an outgrowth of the Progressive Movement. As the plight of the urban poor became more public through the work of Jacob Riis and other muckrakers, the emerging study of sociology called on people to remedy the extremes of poverty and despair among the lower classes of society. People like Jane Addams and Lillian Wald instituted the settlement house movement, while Upton Sinclair exposed the harsh realities of profit superseding food safety, and multitudes of others exposed the abuses of child labor and workplace safety. Social gospelites fought for better working conditions and workmen’s compensation for those injured on the job.
In some sense the Social Gospel was both a catalyst for and an outgrowth of the Progressive Movement.
While some have referred to the Social Gospel as the Third Great Awakening, that tag probably goes a little too far. It is very difficult to separate those progressives who were motivated primarily by religion and those motivated by the emerging science of sociology. Certainly, the increasing number of college-educated women provided a cadre of activists who stepped outside the women’s sphere into the arena of social justice. As well, whether muckraking writers sought to expose social injustice for religious, sociological, or financial reasons is a subject of debate.
It is very difficult to separate those progressives who were motivated primarily by religion and those motivated by the emerging science of sociology.
Whatever Happened to the Social Gospel?
So what happened to the social gospel movement? In a sense the Social Gospel movement went the way of the progressive movement. First, a hostile Supreme Court struck down many key pieces of progressive legislation leading to frustration of many who had worked diligently to see that legislation enacted. Second, World War I created a distinct need for a partnership between the government and big business which rekindled the pro-business attitude of the Gilded Age. The needs of the disadvantaged played second fiddle to the needs of the war effort.
In a sense the Social Gospel movement went the way of the progressive movement.
As well, the war brought added employment opportunities, higher wages, and higher farm prices thus reducing the base of support for progressive reform. Finally, the end of World War I brought disillusionment to many progressive reformers, whether they were social gospelites or secular humanists. The war had been touted in very idealistic terms. In the end, and at great cost, “The War to End All War“ also called “The War to Make the World Safe for Democracy“ did neither. Instead it brought cynicism to the very people who had been the sparkplugs of reform. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in This Side of Paradise,
“…a generation grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, and all faiths in men shaken…”
The end of World War I brought disillusionment to many progressive reformers, whether they were social gospelites or secular humanists.
Return to Normal
The “Return to Normalcy” election of Warren G. Harding in 1920 ushered in a decade of conservative dominance. In the minds of conservative Republicans, the term normalcy did not refer to the pre-war disposition of the progressive movement, but to the pro-business environment of the Gilded Age and the survival of the fittest mentality. As well, the economic prosperity and frivolous nature of the 1920s masked the problems of the disadvantaged until the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression laid them bare.
In the minds of conservative Republicans, the term normalcy did not refer to the pre-war disposition of the progressive movement, but to the pro-business environment of the Gilded Age
Clearly the mingling of religious social consciousness and secular social consciousness combined to give progressive reform a major boost in the first years of the twentieth century. Like the progressive movement, the Social Gospel’s influence was largely confined to the north where the problems of industrialization and urbanization were most acute. In truth, during most reform periods, or spasms of liberalism, religious and secular forces come together to ameliorate the suffering of the disadvantaged.
Like the progressive movement, the Social Gospel’s influence was largely confined to the north where the problems of industrialization and urbanization were most acute.