The Social Gospel was an early 20th century Protestant Christian movement which placed its emphasis on the application of Christian principles to society's problems. Until this time, most Protestant ministers did not do much to address any of the growing problems of industrial society.
However, as the 19th century closed, rapid urbanization and industrialization convinced many Protestant clergymen that there was a need for them to promote certain ideals of social justice which could be derived from the gospels. Altough it made use of a number of ideas from Europe, this movement was almost entirely American, characterized by a boyant idealism and a pragmatic, action-oriented program.
One important factor in the development of this program was the spread of Darwinsim. For some, Darwinism was applicable not simply to biology, but also to society. Thus was born Social Darwinism, an ideology which argued that certain people or cultures should be allowed to simply die off and in part to the social stresses produced by industrial capitalism.
The earliest examples of the development of the Social Gospel (originally referred to as "social Christianity") can be found in the teachings of Solomon Washington Gladden in the 1870s. Gladden urged his parishoners to use the gospel to address the many problems which faced people in the slums of Columbus, Ohio. Later, during the violent strikes which occurred in 1877, he worked to bring labor and business leaders to a peaceful agreement.
This growing "Social Gospel" involved not simply Protestant leaders, but also Catholic and Jewish leaders in a multi-reilgious and multi-denominational effort. It was not, however, a truly "organized movement" with any sort of centralized leadership. Rather, it was simply a general inclination among a diverse group of religious people who shared certain premises about the nature of a just society and the role religion should play in the development of such a society.
Adherents to Social Gospel movements believed in social progressivism, were optimistic about the morality and future of humanity, and sought to harmonize Christian ethics with political action. Adherents also followed a liberal theology, and one of the results of the growing dominance of the Social Gospel movement was the parallel development of fundamentalism. Some went so far as to identify themselves politically as socialists, although this was relatively rare.
In His Steps, a book published by Charles M. Sheldon in 1897, was for a long time one of the most popular and influential books in the Social Gospel movement. According to Sheldon, American society would experience a dramatic transformation if only people would base their public and private actions on the answer to the simple question of "What Would Jesus Do?" This question has been adopted today by Christian evangelicals as a motto for personal spiritual development.
Another influential figure was Walter Rauschenbusch whose 1907 Christianity and the Social Crisis was destind to become an important theoretical work about the nature and purpose of Social Gospel. Rauschenbush was himself influenced by the work he did in New York City because his Baptist parish was located in the notorious neighborhood popularly known as Hell's Kitchen.
Rauschenbusch argued that the notion of "sin" should not be applied to individuals, but also to society as a whole. Just as a sinful person was an affront to God, a sinful and unjust society offended God. If the social order as a whole can embody sin, then it must be possible to fight that sin - this effort was what became known as the Social Gospel, a gospel message for the benefit of society and not simply particular individuals.
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