Walter Rauschenbusch, William Temple, and the Social Gospel (Part 1)

(Over the next few days, I’ll be putting up pieces of a draft essay on the title topic.)

I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you.’ Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.(Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

Archbishop Tutu’s quote, along with his genial image, has been making the rounds of social media on a routine basis for a number of years.  Bread to a starving person is unquestionably better news than continued hunger, and it is a Christian duty to assist those in want as much as possible.  Anglican theology historically has been incarnational—it takes the body and its needs seriously, and recognizes that the physical requirements of human life must be met as a precursor to and foundation for spiritual, intellectual, and moral growth.

However, Tutu does not go far enough, and if this popular quote were the total of twentieth-century Anglican commitment to care for the poor, it would be insufficient to the point of being wrong. Individual acts of giving, as noble as they may seem on the surface, do not end a cycle of human want and suffering.  Furthermore, they may have the effect (whether or not intended) of creating a permanent division between the rich who give, and the poor who subsist at the pleasure of the rich.  A withdrawal of individual giving, for whatever reason, could, by the logic of this frequent Facebook meme, mean starvation for those dependent on the largesse of others.  Once examined beyond the surface of noble words and a photograph of a smiling archbishop, it becomes clear that ‘bread to a hungry person’ that isn’t motivated by a ‘social gospel’ is far from ‘good news’.

By the mid-19th century, intuitions in this direction had begun to develop; initiatives such as the Working Men’s College, aiming to help educate those who were less privileged, arose in England.  However, it was really in the early 20th century when religious leaders began to question the role of organized religion (especially in the established Church of England) a force for major social change.  The changes called for were not just to make sure that the poor had enough to eat (too often, so they would not resort to theft or prostitution, thus inconveniencing the middle and upper classes and offending their sensibilities).  Instead, the real inquiry was how the Christian religion required the elimination of poverty, and how the Church might serve as a prophetic witness to social institutions, pricking the conscience of the nation not just to dispense alms on an individual basis (however frequently), but to reduce and eventually eradicate the need for large-scale charity.

Although the churches’ consciousness began to move toward social transformation by the mid to late 19th century, the term ‘social gospel’ was probably not in use until the early 20th century.  Possibly the first person to use the phrase, and articulate the theological basis for the ‘social gospel’, was the American Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch.  Rauschenbusch ministered to a German Baptist congregation in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City during the first decade of the last century, and later moved upstate to Colgate-Rochester Divinity School where he served as a Professor of Systematic Theology.  His words may have been influenced by those of the Anglican FD Maurice.  It could be argued that Maurice’s ideas were transmitted at least in part by Vida Dutton Scudder, a New England Congregationalist who was received into the Episcopal Church in the United States after reading Maurice on an extended visit to England in 1885 (during which she also met John Ruskin).  There is some evidence that Rauschenbusch had read and was influenced by Maurice and Kingsley[1]; it may be through Scudder’s influence that he became acquainted with their work.  However, contemporaneously with Rauschenbusch, and in the decades following, similar calls for English Christianity (especially in the form of the established Church) were being issued.  The most influential articulator of an Anglican Social Gospel in the early 20th century was to be William Temple, who concluded his life too early at the age of 63 while serving as Archbishop of Canterbury.  Thus, the social gospel cannot be said to have begun definitively or exclusively within the Anglican Communion.  The term itself did not gain widespread usage in Anglican theology, although Anglican thinking developed many of the key concepts of this vision.  For this reason, the term ‘social gospel’ is used in this essay as a matter of convenience, and not as a mark of identity.  The ideas represented by the social gospel cross denominational and geographic boundaries.  As Anglicans have historically been at the forefront of ecumenical cooperation, and have adopted a self-consciously international identity as a Communion, it is natural to adopt and develop social gospel thinking.

The social gospel is also not rooted in a particular subset of Christian doctrine.  For Rauschenbusch, theology existed to ‘aid the preaching of salvation’ and to

make the essential facts and principles of Christianity so simple and clear, so adequate and mighty, that all who preach or teach the gospel, both ministers and laymen, can draw on its stores and deliver a complete and unclouded Christian message.[2]

The incarnational nature of the social gospel, as articulated both by Rauschenbusch and Temple, is biblically focused on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There is particular reference to the teachings of Jesus as articulated in the four canonical gospels, and to a lesser extent, the thinking of the church of the New Testament as expressed in the epistles. It is also a natural expression of some of the pre-Reformation concerns of English Christianity, such as care for place, limitations of the rights of the Church, and good government, which I have outlined elsewhere.[3]  To a lesser extent, but particularly for Anglicans, the sacramental worship of the church, primarily in the shape, rather than the words, of the Eucharistic Prayer, is an illustration of the Kingdom of God as applied to the industrial and economic life of humanity.  The focus of social gospel thinking is less concerned with post-apostolic doctrinal developments of the Christian religion, but places greater emphasis on the human aspect than on the divine in the person of Christ.    Rauschenbusch’s surviving works are largely dedicated to the development of the social gospel; it is more diffuse in Temple’s work but possibly, on close examination, form the single most important aspect of his writing.

For both, it is an approach of what could be described as natural theology:  the biblical texts are treated as documentary evidence of the priorities of the foundational Christian community, rather than as divine utterance. The emphasis is on ‘the record of a very rich and significant human experience’ recorded in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.[4]    The Bible is one of the forces that have shaped the conscience of a very large segment of humanity, over a long period of time.  For this reason, it must (according to Temple) be acknowledged as having some significant truth at its core, and is thus worthy of serious investigation; dismissing it casually would be both intellectually and morally suspect.   One must ‘start with the conviction that there is no faith which is held by any very large body of people or by any sincerely reflectecting people, which has not the truth as its mainspring’.[5]  As a result, there is little appeal in the social thinking of either Rauschenbusch or Temple to an ethic of divine command.  People are asked to reflect on the words principally through their reason, without recourse to an experience of personal revelation.

Two linked concepts in the thought of Rauschenbusch and Temple are the sinfulness of the social order (as opposed to individual wrongdoings), and the world as the object of God’s redeeming work (as opposed to personal salvation).  While individual sin and salvation are not ignored, for social gospel thought, they are inextricably tied to the state and destiny of the entire human community:

The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God to save every soul that comes to him.  But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it.  It has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion.[6]

No object is sufficient for the love of God short of the world itself.  Christianity is not one more religion of individual salvation, differing from its fellows only in offering a different road to that goal.  It is the one and only religion of world-redemption.[7]

Humans sin, and are saved, at least in part because our social (and ecclesiastical) institutions are sinful and in need of salvation.

An important ‘target audience’ for this approach to Christianity for both was young, privileged, educated adults (Rauschenbusch referred to them as ‘college men and women’; the early part of Temple’s ministry was spent as Headmaster of Repton School, working with privileged young men in their formative years, and had a lifelong involvement with fostering ecumenical fellowship amongst university students).[8] Encouraging Christian social thinking in this group had (and still has) a twofold potential.  First, although this approach to Christian teaching would seem to disadvantage the privileged in its preference for the less well-off, it is those whose lives are more comfortable who can affect changes reflective of Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God.  Furthermore, the disadvantaged are aware of the need for large scale institutional and systemic change (although the institutions and systems often collude to keep them from voicing their concerns).  It is the well-off who benefit from the status quo who need most to learn and embrace this particular Christian vision, even if they are the least likely to do so.  Secondly, by focusing on the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament, rather than an appeal to emotion or mystical experience, it was seen as more possible to attract those who were not affiliated with a particular Christian church whose sympathies (even if motivated by completely secular reasons) lay with a more peaceable, just society that was compatible with that Reign.[9]  Rauschenbusch went so far as to say that the social gospel “has taken the place of conventional religion in the lives of many outside the Church.”[10]

Furthermore, Rauschenbusch sees two important points which make social gospel attractive to those whose church involvements are minimal.  First, in the early 20th century, the idea that religion fostered superstition began to take hold; Rauschenbusch said there was “nothing in social Christianity which is likely to breed or reinforce superstition.”[11]  Additionally, the problems addressed by this strain of Christian teaching related to real experience, whether the hearers were Christian or not:

Audiences who are estranged from the Church and who would listen to theological terminology with frank scorn, will listen with absorbed interest to religious thought when it is linked with their own social problems.[12]

This essay will proceed in the following way.  First, I will give an exposition of the theology grounding the social gospel as articulated by Walter Rauschenbusch.   In the next section I will put forward William Temple’s particularly Anglican social theology.  After offering an exposition of these two foundational thinkers, I will elaborate on how their theologies are an enactment of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, first by summarizing the principles they articulated, and next by linking those principles to particular passages in the gospels.  The final piece of the essay will attempt to demonstrate how liturgy, especially the Eucharistic (with some attention to Baptism and Good Friday) services of the Episcopal Church (USA)’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer serve as a way of teaching and rehearsing the precepts of social gospel thinking.

[1] Walter Rauschenbusch, ATheology for the Social Gospel  (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1997; original 1917) p. 29.

[2] Rauschenbusch, Theology for the Social Gospel, pp. 6-7.

[3] See my essay in the Fall 2012 Anglican Theological Review (Vol. 9 No. 4); “Anglican Social Theology”, pp. 615-638.

[4] William Temple, Nature, Man and God (New York:  Macmillan, 1949; originally 1934), p. 6.

[5].William Temple, The Church and its Teaching Today (The William Belden Noble Lectures) (New York:  Macmillan, 1936), p. 34.

[6] Rauschenbusch, Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 5.

[7] William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel (London:  Macmillan, 1952, originally 1939-40), p 48.

[8] Walter Rauschenbusch, The Social Principles of Jesus( New York: International Committee of Young Men’s Christian Associations, 1916), preface.

[9] Although “Kingdom” was the biblical term, and Rauschenbusch did not shy away from it, his preference was for “Reign”.  See Social Principles, p. 60.

[10] Rauschenbusch, Theology of the Social Gospel, p.3.

[11] Rauschenbusch, Theology of the Social Gospel, p. 15.

[12]Rauschenbusch, Theology of the Social Gospel, p. 17.


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