Skip to main content Accessibility help

Religious Liberalism in the South During the Progressive Era

  • John Lee Eighmy (a1)


The social gospel was one of the most productive intellectual movements to originate from American Protestantism. Essentially, the new religious ideology of the late nineteenth century brought the ethical element of Christianity to bear upon the unprecedented problems of social adjustment caused by the rise of an industrial society. It inspired an outpouring of social criticism and reform activity unequalled in the nation's religious experience. The urban-centered problems of slums, crime, political corruption and industrial strife turned progressive-minded churchmen to the mission of social uplift.



Hide All

1. The principal works on the social gospel are Hopkins, Charles Howard, The Rise of the social Gospel in American Protestantism, 18651915 (New Haven. Yale University Press, 1940); Abell, Aaron Ignatius, The Urban Impact on American Protestantism, 18651900 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953); May, Henry F., Protestant Churches and Industrial America (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949).

2. Sanford, Elias B., Origin and History of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America (Hartford: S. S. Scranton Co., 1916); Cameron, Richard M., Methodism and Society in Historical Perspective (New York; Abingdon Press, 1961), pp. 315–24.

3. Rauschenbusch, Walter, Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: Macmillan, 1909); A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: Macmillan, 1917); Mathews, Shailer, The Social Teachings of Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1897); Batten, Samuel Zane, The Social Task of Christianity (New York: Fleming A. Revell, 1911).

4. Hopkins. Rise of the Social Gospel; Abell, Urban Impact; May, Protestant Churches; Miller, Robert Moats. American Protestantisrn and Social Issues, 19191939 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1958); Mever, Donald, The Protestant Search for Political Realism. 19191941 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960), p. 45; Carter, Paul A., The Decline and Revival of the Social Gospel, Social and Political Liberalism, in American Protestant Churches, 19201941 (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1954); Woodward, C. Vann, The Origins of the New South, 18771913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), p. 450.Hill's, Samuel S.Southern Churches in Crisis (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), shows how conservative evangelical traditions have left Southern churches ill-prepared for effective social action in contemporary America. Only a few scholars have noted evidence of Southern religious liberalism. See Dabney, Virginius, The Dry Messiah, the Life of Bishop Cannon (New YorkAlfred A. Knopf, 1949), pp. 43, 168–70; Farrish, Hunter, The Circuit Rider Dismounts, a Social History of Southern Methodism, 18651900 (Richmond: Diets Press, 1938), pp. 293304, 333–5; Bailey, Kenneth K., Southern White Protestantism in the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper and Row, 1965),. pp. 40–3; Spain, Rufus B., “Attitudes and Reactions of Southern Baptists to Certain Problems of Society, 1865–1900” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1961), pp. 367–8.

5. Simkins, Francis B., A History of the South (3rd. ed.; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), pp. 328–36; Ezell, John Samuel, The South Since 1865 (New York: Macmillan, 1963), pp. 136–53; Woodward, , Origins of the New South, p. 17.

6. A considerable amount of social criticism by Southern liberals appeared in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On George W. Cable's career as a reformer see his The Silent South (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1885), and Turner, Arlin, Cable, George W., a Biography (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1956), chapters 14, 15, 18. The succession of social critics includes Hines, Walter Page, The Rebuilding of Old Commonwealths (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1902): Murphy, Edgar Gardner, Problems of the Present South (New York: Macmillan, 1904); MacCorkle, William Alexander, Some Southern Questions Asked (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1908); Mims, Edwin, The Advancing South (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1927); Dabney, Virginius, Liberalism in the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1932).

7. Woodward, , Origins of the New South, pp. 371–95, has valuable insights on Southern Progressivism. Other corrective studies are: Link, Arthur S., “The Progressive Movement in the South, 1870–1914,” North Carolina Historical Review, XXIII (04, 1946), 172205; Scott, Anne Firor, “Progressive Wind from the South, 1906–1913,” Journal of Southern History, XXIX (02, 1963), 5370; Doherty, Herbert J. Jr., “Voices of Protest from the New South, 1875–1910,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, XLII (06, 1955), 4566.

8. Murphy, , Problems of the Present South, pp. 7, 194.

9. Zimmerman, Jane, “The Penal Reform Movement in the South During the Progressive Era, 1890–1917,” Journal of Southern History, XVIIM (11, 1951), 462–92.

10. Woodward, , Origins of the Hew South, pp. 425–6; Hendrick, Burton J., The Life and Letters of Walter Hines Page (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1925), pp. 98101.

11. Otken, Charles H., The Ills of the South (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1894), pp. 60, 72, 112, 130, 173; Woodward, , Origins of the New South, pp. 412–5; Bailey, Joseph Cannon, Seaman A. Knapp, Schoolmaster of American Agriculture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1945), pp. 133174. Poe edited The Progressive Farmer, formerly a Populist party sheet.

12. Murphy, , Problems of the Present South, pp. 205–31 is a firsthand account of the educational movement. Hendrick, Burton J., The Training of an American, the Earlier Life and Letters of Waiter Hines Page (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928), chapter 11 contains important correspondence on the movement. Davidson, Elizabeth H., Child Labor Legislation in the Southern Textile States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939), pp. 2741. 85. 122–6; Doherty, Herbert J. Jr., “Alexander J. McKelway: Preacher to Progressive,” Journal of Southern History, XXIV (05, 1958), 177–90; Woodward, , Origins of the New South, p. 33.

14. Bueke, Emory Steven (ed). The History of American Methodism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964), III, 332–3; Hofstadter, Richard, The Aqe of Beftrm, from Brijan to FDR (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955), pp. 151–2, 287. That prohibition was a part of Progressivism is the thesis of Timberlake's, James H., Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 19001920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), pp. 138.

15. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, 1891 (Richmond, 1891), p. 244.

16. Spain, , “Attitudes of Southern Baptists,” pp. 272–3.

17. Proceedings of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1886 (Nashville, 1886), p. 33; 1896, p. 45.

18. Journal of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1882 (Nashville, 1882), pp. 82, 170; 1886, p. 195; 1890, p. 150.

19. Timberlake, , Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, pp. 119–20; Whitener, Daniel Jay, Prohibition in North Carolina, 17151945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1945), pp. 134, 153Sellers, James Benson, The Prohibition Movement in Alabama, 17021943 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1943), p. 101.

20. Odegard, Peter H., Pressure Politics, the Story of the Anti-Saloon League (New York: Columbia University Press, 1928), pp. 22, 121, 190; Asbury, Herbert, The Great Illusion, an Informal History of Prohibition (Garden City, N. Y.; Doubleday, 1950), pp. 98, 121–4; Whitener, , Prohibition in North Carolina, p. 134; Sellers, , Prohibition in Alabama, p. 102; Dabney, , Dry Messiah, pp. 4952, 8199, 120–7.

21. Turner, Alice Lucille, A Study of the Content of the Sewanee Review with Historical Introduction (Nashville: Peabody College, 1931), pp. 31, 92107.Bassett, James S.announced his editorial policy in the South Atlantic Quarterly, I (01, 1902), 23. See also William Preston Few, “Southern Public Opinion,” ibid., IV (January, 1905), 1–12; Murphy, Edgar Gardner, “The Task of the Leader,” Sewanee Review, XV (01, 1907), 130.

22. The editorials Stirring up the Fires of Race Antipathy,” South Atlantic Quarterly, II (10, 1903), 297305; and “Trinity College and Academic Liberty,” ibid., III (January, 1904), 6 relate to the attack on Bassett after he had referred to Booker T. Washington as the greatest Southerner since Robert E. Lee. See also Edwin Minis, “President Theodore Roosevelt,” ibid., IV (January, 1905), 48–62; James W. Garner, “The Negro Question in the South,” Ibid., VII (January, 1908), 11–22; and the editorial “Remedies for Lynch Law,” Sewanee Review, VIII (01, 1900), 111. The October, 1906, issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly published a symposium on race by Episcopal Bishop Robert Strange, Methodist Bishop Charles B. Galloway and Baptist editor J. W. Bailey.

23. McCulloeh, James E. (ed.), The Call of the New South, Addresses Delivered at the Southern Sociological Congress, 1912 (Nashville, 1912), pp. 7, 14.

24. ibid., pp. 16–20.

25. McKelway, Alexander J., “Remarks of the Acting President,” The South Mobilizing for Social Service, Addresses Delivered at the Southern Sociological Congress, 1913 (Nashville, 1913), p. 14.

26. For examples see: Crafts, Wilbur F., “The Potential Resources of the South for Leadership in Social Service,” Call of the New South, pp. 311–22; Thirkield, William P., “A Cathedral of Cooperation,” Mobilizing for Social Service, pp. 476–82; John A. Rice “Report of the Committee on the Church and Social Service,” ibid., pp. 489–503; McCulloch, James E., “Introduction,” Battling for Social Betterment, Southern Sociological Congress, 1914 (Nashville, 1914), p. 3; “A Creed for a Crusade,” The New Chivalry—Health, Southern Sociological Congress, 1915 (Nashville, 1915), p. 11.

27. “The Church and Social Service,” Call of the New South, pp. 275–92; “Social 8erviee and the Church,” Mobilizing for Social Service, pp. 596–612.

28. “The Social Program of the Church,” ibid., pp. 504–11.

29. “The Church and Modern Industry,” Call of the New South, pp. 292–807; “The Preparation of the Church for Social Service,” Battling for Social Betterment, pp. 98–108.

30. “Qualification of Social Workers,” Call of the New South, pp. 340–52.

31. G. W. Dyer, “Southern Problems that Challenge our Thought,” ibid., p. 30.

32. “Introductory Note,” ibid., p. 7.

33. ibid., p. 9.

34. For Presbyterian criticism of the social gospel see: Lingle's, Walter L., “The Teaching of Jesus and Modern Social Problems,” Union Seminary Afagarine, XXVII (04, 1916), 205; and his review of Rauschenbusch's A Theology for the Social Gospel in ibid., XXIX (April, 1918), 274. See also A. D. P. Gilmour's reviews of three social gospel books in ibid., XXI (October-November, 1909), 157–8 and J. P. Hawerton's, “The Church and Social Reform,” ibid., XXV (October-November, 1913), 30–4. Methodist objections were voiced by Tigert, John T. in “Regeneration through Environment,” The Methodist Review, XXVIII (0910, 1902), 913–5 and Frank M. Thomas in “Is the Methodist Church Reaping?” ibid., XLV (April, 1919), 548–50.Among Southern Baptists the most persistent critic of social Christianity was Home Mission Board executive Victor I. Masters. See his Call of the South (Atlanta: Home Mission Board, 1918), pp. 27, 162–3; and his “Baptists and the Christianizing of America in the New Order,” Review and Expositor, XVI (07, 1920), 280.98. Major Baptist theologians who quarreled with the New Theology were Mullins, Edgar Y., Axioms of Religion (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1908), pp. 1417, 201–10; and Carver, W. O. in his review of Rauschenbusch's A Theology for the Social Gospel in the Review and Expositor, XIV (07, 1918), 359. Typical of the mixed reactions are the statements in the Annual of the Baptist Convention of Texas, 1915 (n.p., 1915), pp. 26–8; 1916, pp. 27–9; 1918, p. 31; Minutes of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, 1913 (n.p., 1913), p. 62; 1914, pp. 109–13; 1915, p. 103; 1916, pp. 97–8.

35. Minutes of the Presbyterian Church, 1891, p. 228; 1913, p. 701,

36. ibid., 1914, pp. 71, 80b [sic].

37. ibid., 1904, p. 41. Opposition to the social service program of the Federal Council appeared in ibid., 1913, p. 17.

38. Smith, Egbert Watson, “The Mission of the Southern Presbyterian Church,” Semi-Centennial Memorial Addresses Delivered before the General Assembly of 1911 (Richmond: Committee of Publications, 1911), pp. 4156.

39. Bencham, Dewitt M., “Methods of City Evangelization,” Union Seminary Magazine, XV (12, 1903-01, 1904), 105–18. The most unequivocal endorsement of the social gospel was Home Mission Board Secretary Charles L. Thompson's, “The Institutional Church,” ibid., XV (February-March, 1904), 233–7.

40. Minutes of the Presbyterian Church, 1913, pp. 11, 66. The full statement appeared in ibid., 1914, pp. 161–3.

41. An account of the founding of the committee by its chairman is in ibid., 1944, pp. 45–9.

42. Dargan, E. C., “The Teaching of Sociology in the Seminary,” The Seminary Magazine, (03, 1900), 298–9.

43. The Ethics of Jesus and Social Progress (New York: George H. Doran, 1914). For Gardner's contribution in the field of social ethics, see Whaley's, Early R. “The Ethical Emphasis of Charles S. Gardner” (unpublished Th.M. thesis, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1953).

44. Articles promoting the social gospel ideology Include: Gardner, , “The Old Faith and the New Philosophy,” Review and Expositor, IV (01, 1908), 127; R. E. Gaines “The Layman in the Social Order,” ibid., XIII (Janaury, 1917), 16–31; Marshall Louis Mertins, “Is the Modern Church a Good Samaritan?” ibid., XIII (April, 1917), 223–35; and Edward B. Pollard, “Baptist Preaching In the New Era,” ibid., XVI (July, 1920), 299–305. This journal reviewed dozens of titles on the church and society by Rauschenbuseh, Batten, Washington Gladden, E. A. Ross, Charles Stelzle, Shailer Mathews and many others. Reviews criticized the theological liberalism of the authors, but most were sympathetic to the new emphasis on applied Christianity.

45. The Baptist World Alliance, Second Congress, 1911 (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Committee, 1911), pp. 333–4.

46. Minutes of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, 1911, pp. 74, 91; Minutes of the Baptist Convention of the State of Georgia, 1911 (n. p., 1911), p. 15; Annual of the North Carolina Baptist Convention, 1912 (Raleigh, 1912), pp. 73–5; 1913, p. 85; 1914, pp. 90–1; Minutes of the Baptist Denomination in South Carolina, 1914 (Greenville, 1914), pp. 102–8; Minutes of the Baptist Convention of Texas, 1915 (n. p., 1915), pp. 26–8.

47. Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1914, pp. 36–8.

48. Hawley, J. W., “The Tweuetieth Century Protestant Outlook,” The Methodist Review, XLIX (0304, 1900), 316, 318.

49. See for example Wilbur F. Tillett, “Some Currents of Contemporaneous Theological Thought,” ibid., L (July-August, 1901), 560–75; J. T. Curry, “What is Higher Criticism?” ibid., LIV (January, 1905), 472–8; Marion T. Plyer, “The Inevitable in the Southern Pulpit,” ibid., LII (April, 1903), 291–300.

50. The articles may be found respectively in: LIX (January, 1910), 223–9; LXII (October, 1913), 682–98; LVI (January, 1907), 32–51; XLI (July, 1907), 457–67.

51. Sanford, Elias B., Origin and History of the Federal Council, pp. 359–67; Sanford, , Church Federation, Inter-Church Conference on Federation, (New York: Fleming H. Bevell, 1906), pp. 283, 287, 475, 611, 656. See the strong endorsement of the Federal Council in the “Bishops' Address,” Journal of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1910, p. 40.

52. Ibid., 1914, pp. 84, 249–50; 1926, p. 382; The Doctrine and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1914 (Nashville, 1914), pp. 373–4; Dabney, , Dry Messiah, pp. 162, 167–9. Cannon had a hand in the Interchurch Commission's inquiry into the great steel strike of 1919.

53. Bailey, , Southern White Protestantism, pp. 164–6.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
  • URL: /core/journals/church-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed