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The Social Gospel and Socialism: A Comparison of the Thought of Francis Greenwood Peabody, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch

  • Jacob H. Dorn (a1)


For American Protestants who were sensitive to the profound social disruptions associated with rapid industrialization and urbanization in the late nineteenth century, the twin discoveries of the “alienation” of the working class from Protestant churches and of a rising and vibrant socialist movement caused much consternation and anxious soul-searching. Socialism offered not only a radical critique of American political and economic institutions; it also offered the zeal, symbols, and sense of participation in a world-transforming cause often associated with Christianity itself. The religious alienation of the working class and the appeal of socialism were often causally linked in the minds of socially-conscious Protestant leaders.



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1. Howard Hopkins, Charles, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865—1915 (New Haven, 1940), p. 244.

2. Dombrowski, James, The Early Days of Christian Socialism in America (New York, 1936); May, Henry F., Protestant Churches and Industrial America (New York, 1949; reprint, 1967); Handy, Robert T., “Christianity and Socialism in America, 1900–1920,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 21 (1952): 3954.

3. Works that give little or no attention to socialism include White, Ronald C. Jr., and Hopkins, C. Howard, The Social Gospel: Religion and Reform in Changing America (Philadelphia, 1976), and Gorrell, Donald K., The Age of Social Responsibility: The Social Gospel in the Progressive Era, 1900–1920 (Macon, Ga., 1988). The relationship is central in Dressner, Richard B., “Christian Socialism: A Response to Industrial America in the Progressive Era” (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1972); Craig, Robert H., “Seek Ye First the Political Kingdom: Christians and Socialism in the United States, 1890–1940” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1975); and Frederick, Peter J., Knights of the Golden Rule: The Intellectual as Christian Social Reformer in the 1890s (Lexington, Ky., 1976). Craig and Frederick criticize middle-class Christian radicals in this period for failing to commit themselves to a class-conscious movement.

4. William McGuire King has offered a provocative categorization of the Social Gospel, based on how three major figures in the movement, including two of these three subjects, appropriated Jesus' teachings to their own time. For Shailer Mathews, Jesus was “the transformer of culture”; for Peabody, he was “the scientific philanthropist”; for Rauschenbusch, “the nonviolent radical.” These categories correspond to three types of the Social Gospel King has found in American Methodism: “social evangelism,” “social engineering,” and “social reconstructionism.” I selected my subjects because of the intrinsic interest of their views of socialism, not because they fit King's categories. Though Gladden would not serve as a stand-in for Mathews, King's interpretation of Peabody and Rauschenbusch corresponds very closely to my findings. McGuire King, William, “The Biblical Base of the Social Gospel,” in Sandeen, Ernest R., ed., The Bible and Social Reform (Philadelphia, 1982), pp. 5984; and idem, “The Emergence of Social Gospel Radicalism: The Methodist Case,” Church History 50 (1981): 436–449.

5. On race relations, for example, Ralph Luker places Peabody right of the center of the Social Gospel, and Gladden left of that center; he finds in Rauschenbusch the “personalist” emphasis that would nourish Luther King, Martin Jr., Luker, Ralph E., The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885–1912 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1991), pp. 230, 315324.

6. Tholuck, Peabody wrote, “impressed himself chiefly by the singular purity and charm of his character and the daily habit of his kindly life.” Peabody, Francis G., Reminiscences of Present Day Saints (Boston, 1927), pp. 69, 8384. See also Herbst, Jurgen, “Francis Greenwood Peabody: Harvard's Theologian of the Social Gospel,” Harvard Theological Review 54 (1961): 4569; and Robinson, David, The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, Conn., 1985), pp. 133136, 305306.

7. Dombrowski, , Early Days of Christian Socialism, pp. 63, 69; Hopkins, , Rise of the Social Gospel, pp. 9192, 167168; Peabody, , Reminiscences, pp. 135137.

8. Hopkins, , Rise of the Social Gospel, pp. 116, 163, 292293.

9. Hopkins, , Rise of the Social Gospel, p. 207; Herbst, , “Peabody,” p. 58.

10. Peabody, Francis G., Jesus Christ and the Social Question: An Examination of the Teaching of Jesus in Its Relation to Some of the Problems of Modern Social Life (New York, 1900), pp. 5, 9, 1315, 1820. Antisocialist writers often screeched both about socialist atheism and about the antifamily and free-love proclivities of some socialists. Peabody was not as hysterical as some writers but also saw in socialism an assault on the family. See ibid., pp. 139—144; idem, The Christian Life in the Modern World (New York, 1914), pp. 38–42.

11. Peabody, , Jesus Christ and the Social Question, pp. 2428, 5763; idem, Jesus Christ and the Christian Character: An Examination of the Teaching of Jesus in Its Relation to Some of the Moral Problems of Personal Life (New York, 1913), pp. 6, 198; idem, The Christian Life in the Modern World, pp. 26–27, 85, 112–113.

12. Peabody, , Jesus Christ and the Social Question, pp. 7779; idem, Jesus Christ and the Christian Character, p. 6; idem, The Christian Life in the Modern World, p. 28.

13. Peabody likened his hermeneutic to the case method in legal studies. Peabody, , Jesus Christ and the Social Question, pp. 8082; idem, Jesus Christ and the Christian Character, pp. 74–75; idem, The Christian Life in the Modern World, pp. 27, 30–31.

14. Peabody, , Jesus Christ and the Social Question, p. 102.

15. Ibid., p. 110; Peabody, , Jesus Christ and the Christian Character, p. 16.

16. Peabody, , Jesus Christ and the Social Question, pp. 122, 118; idem, Jesus Christ and the Christian Character, pp. 9, 15–16; idem, The Christian Life in the Modern World, p. 82.

17. Peabody, , Jesus Christ and the Christian Character, chs. 5–6.

18. Peabody, , Jesus Christ and the Social Question, ch. 4.

19. Peabody, . Jesus Christ and the Social Question, pp. 271272; idem, The Christian Life in the Modern World, pp. 116, 133–134.

20. Peabody, , Jesus Christ and the Social Question, p. 297.

21. Dorn, Jacob H., Washington Gladden: Prophet of the Social Gospel (Columbus, Ohio, 1967).

22. Gladden's increasing support of unions can be traced from his Working People and Their Employers (1876), through “Is It Peace or War?” in his Applied Christianity: Moral Aspects of Social Questions (Boston, 1886), pp. 102–145 , to his The Labor Question (Boston, 1911). A comprehensive account is in Dorn, Gladden, ch. 8.

23. Gladden, Washington, “The Strength and Weakness of Socialism,” Century 31 (1886): 737749; reprinted as ch. 3 in Applied Christianity. For other examples of this approach, see Gladden, , “The Use and Abuse of Parties,” Century 28 (1884): 170175 and Moral Gains and Losses of the Temperance Reformation (Charlottesville, Va., 1895).

24. Gladden, , “The Strength and Weakness of Socialism,” pp. 739, 741.

25. Gladden, Washington, Tools and the Man: Property and Industry Under the Christian Law (Boston, 1893), p. 255.

26. Washington Gladden, sermon delivered at First Congregational Church of Columbus, 23 Jan. 1898, reel 28 (microfilm, ed., 1972), Washington Gladden Collection, Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, Ohio. See his “Socialism and Unsocialism,” Forum 3 (1887): 122130, and “Moral Tendencies of Existing Industrial Conditions,” Outlook 63 (1899): 871877.

27. Voss, Carl H., “The Rise of Social Consciousness in the Congregational Churches: 1865–1942” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1942), pp. 5556.

28. Gladden, sermon delivered 6 Jan. 1901, reel 32, Gladden Collection.

29. Gladden, Washington, “Christianity and Socialism,” Chautauquan 30 (Nov. 1899): 138141.

30. Gladden believed that profit sharing experiments would avoid these dangers and supported them until the mid-1890s when their paternalism became apparent to him. Gladden, , Applied Christianity, pp. 8694.

31. Gladden, , Tools and the Man, pp. 260270. He repeated some of these and other strictures in Christianity and Socialism (New York, 1905), p. 122.

32. Gladden, sermon delivered 27 May 1894, reel 25, Gladden Collection.

33. Gladden, sermon delivered 23 Sept. 1894, reel 26, Gladden Collection.

34. Gladden, Washington, Ruling Ideas of the Present Age (Boston, 1895), pp. 8182, 77.

35. Gladden, “The Philosophy of Anarchism,” sermon delivered 29 Sept. 1901, reel 33, Gladden Collection.

36. Gladden, sermon delivered 23 Jan. 1898, reel 28, Gladden Collection; idem, “The Spread of Socialism,” Outlook 62 (1899): 121; idem, “Christianity and Socialism,” Chautauquan 30 (1899): 138–141; idem, Christianity and Socialism, p. 126.

37. He saw this religious and ethical dimension in Bellamy's, EdwardLooking Backward (1888), Gronlund's, LaurenceOur Destiny (1890), and Fabian writings. See Gladden, Washington, sermons on Looking Backward, 1 Sept. 1889 (reel 21), Our Destiny, 19 Apr 1891 (reel 22) , and “Two Types of Socialism,” 10 May 1908 (reel 40), Gladden Collection; idem, “Mr. Bellamy's Utopia,” Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 16 Aug. 1890, p. 37. Gladden opposed Bellamy over equality of rewards, which, because of differences in effort, efficiency, and ability, would in fact be inequitable. Both Gronlund and Bellamy helped to “Americanize” socialism by infusing it with religious idealism. Quint, Howard H., The Forging of American Socialism (Indianapolis, 1953), ch. 3; Gemorah, Solomon, “Laurence Gronlund's Ideas and Influence, 1877–1899” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1965).

38. Gladden, , “Christianity and Socialism,” Chautauquan, p. 140.

39. Gladden, , Christianity and Socialism, pp. 9, 19, 23, 35.

40. Gladden, , “Moral Tendencies of Existing Industrial Conditions,” pp. 876877.

41. Gladden, , Tools and the Man, pp. 12. Gladden was not always consistent in balancing the individual and the social. A “true socialism,” he declared, would “socialize the individual,” rather than change society by “outward pressure.” But he still insisted that Christianity encompassed both. Gladden, Christianity and Socialism, pp. 185, 306.

42. His first biographer considered Rauschenbusch “a convinced socialist,” and a recent writer thinks he “came about as close as one possibly could to embracing socialism without joining the party.” Sharpe, Dores R., Walter Rauschenbusch (New York, 1942), p. 219; see also Frederick, , Knights of the Golden Rule, p. 155.

43. Rauschenbusch, Walter, Christianizing the Social Order (New York, 1912), p. 394; Sharpe, , Rauschenbusch, pp. 195196; Frederick, , Knights of the Golden Rule, pp. 148150; Minus, Paul, Walter Rauschenbusch: American Reformer (New York, 1988), pp. 6065. Though Rauschenbusch found George's emphasis on land too narrow, he considered it important and faulted socialists for neglecting it.

44. For the organization of the Boston and New York societies, see Dawn 1 (15 May 1889): 3–4 and ibid. (Feb. 1890): 5. For Rauschenbusch's involvement see Sharpe, , Rauschenbusch, p. 86; Minus, , Rauschenbusch, p. 67; and Rauschenbusch, Walter, “London Letter,” Dawn 3 (07 1891): 911. Though W. D. P. Bliss, the SCS's organizer, spoke in Gladden's church and Gladden wrote for the Dawn, Gladden did not call himself a Christian Socialist. See “Mr. Bliss's Lecture Trip,” Dawn 2 (06 1890): 9394; Washington Gladden, “The Eight-Hour Problem,” ibid. (July-Aug. 1890): 137–147.

45. Minus, , Rauschenbusch, chs. 5–6; Sharpe, , Rauschenbusch, ch. 7; Howard Hopkins, Charles, “Walter Rauschenbusch and the Brotherhood of the Kingdom,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 7 (1938): 138156.

46. Sharpe, , Rauschenbusch, pp. 9192.

47. Rauschenbusch, Walter, “The Ideals of Social Reformers,” American Journal of Sociology 2 (09 1896): 203, 209, 211.

48. Ibid., pp. 211–218. Hudson, Winthrop S. has emphasized the necessity of personal religious experience for Rauschenbusch in “Walter Rauschenbusch and the New Evangelism,” Religion in Life 30 (1961): 412430, and Walter Rauschenbusch: Selected Writings (New York, 1984).

49. Rauschenbusch, , “Ideals of Social Reformers,” p. 219. Rauschenbusch explained why the church should be interested in social conditions in a subsequent article, The Stake of the Church in the Social Movement,” American Journal of Sociology 3 (07 1897): 1830.

50. “Socialism is of Two Kinds: The Practical and the Dogmatic Contrasted,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 25 Feb. 1901. He criticized Marxists' emphases on surplus value and the industrial proletariat, argued that authoritarianism made their scientific pretensions mere “cant,” and accused them of “turn[ing] one of the sublimest movements the world has ever seen into the squealing of a drove of pigs where the rear pigs are trying to push away the front pigs and get their noses into the trough too.” Practically, he argued that refusal to work for short-term gains would expose workers to further mental and physical degradation and leave them unprepared to administer socialist institutions when the new order came. Sharpe incorrectly considered this lecture Rauschenbusch's most representative treatment of socialism and included it in Rauschenbusch, pp. 203–216.

51. Shannon, David A., The Socialist Party of America: A History (New York, 1955), chs. 1–2.

52. Rauschenbusch, Walter, Christianizing the Social Order (New York, 1912), pp. 397403.

53. Rauschenbusch to Francis G. Peabody, 14 Dec. 1912, Box 26, Rauschenbusch Family Papers, American Baptist-Samuel Colgate Library, Rochester, N.Y.

54. Walter Rauschenbusch, Lecture notes for “The Right and Wrong of Socialism,” 1914, Box 20, Rauschenbusch Papers.

55. Rauschenbusch, Walter, “Christian Socialism,” in A Dictionary of Religion and Ethics, ed. Mathews, Shailer and Smith, Gerald B. (New York, 1923), pp. 9091.

56. Rauschenbusch, Walter, Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York, 1907), p. xiii.

57. Ibid., pp. 8, 54–55, 67, 133.

58. Ibid., pp. 12–13, 82.

59. Ibid., pp. 27–31, 98–112, 152–160.

60. Ibid., pp. 47–48.

61. Ibid., pp. 81, 77, 120–133.

62. One historian considers Rauschenbusch's approach to the Bible inconsistent. More intent to find sanction for social activism than to apply the hermeneutical principles of liberal biblical scholarship consistently, he interpreted passages that fostered social passivity as “in history” and passages that undergirded activism as “absolute, timeless, infallible authority.” Altschuler, Glenn C., “Walter Rauschenbusch: Theology, the Church, and the Social Gospel,” Foundations 22 (1979): 140151.

63. Rauschenbusch, , Christianity and the Social Crisis, ch. 5.

64. Bowden, Henry W., “Walter Rauschenbusch and American Church History,” Foundations 9 (1966): 237; Sherman Barnes, “Walter Rauschenbusch as Historian,” ibid. 12 (July-Sept. 1969): 257; Massanari, Ronald C., “The Sacred Workshop of God: Reflections on the Historical Perspective of Walter Rauschenbusch,” Religion in Life 40 (1971): 261262. Believing that church historians' lack of interest in the common people had distorted their whole perspective, Rauschenbusch argued that church history must be “translated into the History of the Kingdom of God” and encompass all social groups. Rauschenbusch to Ely, Richard T., 17 04 1903, Ely, Richard T. Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Wis. (microfilm ed., 1982), reel 25.

65. Rauschenbusch, , Christianity and the Social Crisis, pp. 405408.

66. Rauschenbusch, , Christianizing the Social Order, pp. 321322, 313.

67. Ibid., p. 405.

68. Hilmar Rauschenbusch to Walter Rauschenbusch, 23 Apr. 1915, Box 29, Rauschenbusch Papers.

69. Rauschenbusch to William F. Cochran, 8 Aug. 1916, Box 30, Rauschenbusch Papers; Rauschenbusch, Walter, “The Imperative Demand,” Christian Socialist 11 (15 03. 1914): 5.

70. Herman A. Sarachan to Rauschenbusch, 3 Jan. 1915, Box 99, Rauschenbusch Papers; Rauschenbusch to Harry Laidler, 6 Mar. 1914, and to Rose Pastor Stokes, 9 Mar. 1914, Rose Pastor Stokes Papers, Socialist Collections in the Tamiment Library, 1872–1956, New York University (microfilm ed.), reel 67.

71. Many other signatories were party members. “The Case for Benson,” New Republic 8 (7 10 1916): 243245.

72. Harry W. Laidler to Rauschenbusch, 28 Apr. and 11 July 1916, Box 30, Rauschenbusch Papers; Rauschenbusch, Walter, “The Appeal of Socialism to a Christian Mind,” Intercollegiate Socialist 5 (12 191601 1917): 89, and “Combining Christianity and Socialism,” New York Call Magazine (22 04 1917) and Christian Socialist 14 (3 01 1917): 1–2. In each article he used “we” when referring to socialism.

73. Minus, , Rauschenbusch, p. 182. In one of his most poignant statements of the grief he felt over the war, Rauschenbusch wrote: “I am still a Socialist, and see the real causes of war in the exploiting classes and nations. I am still a Christian, and in the midst of the war have written an exposition of the Social Principles of Jesus, in which few Christians believe. I am more than ever a pacifist.” Rauschenbusch to W. H. P. Faunce, 11 Feb. 1917, Box 32, Rauschenbusch Papers.

74. Charles A. Ruby to Rauschenbusch, 29 Oct. 1912, Box 26; Anna Rochester to Rauschenbusch, 23 Mar. 1909, Box 25; Herbert T. Cash to Rauschenbusch, 27 Oct. 1908, Box 25; and J. G. Lauderbaugh to Rauschenbusch, 12 Apr. 1910, Box 25; Rauschenbusch Papers.

75. “I got it from you in the first place,” Cochran wrote, “that the highest duty of a millionaire is to make the future rise of millionaires impossible, or something to that effect.” Rauschenbusch promised to buy a typewriter with one gift and “hammer as much good Christianity and Socialism out of it as I can.” William F. Cochran to Rauschenbusch, 10 Mar. 1915, and Rauschenbusch to Cochran, 11 Mar. 1915, Box 29, Rauschenbusch Papers.

76. Frederick I. Bamford to Rauschenbusch, 1 Nov. 1907, Box 25; Margaret W. Thompson to Rauschenbusch, 16 May 1912, Box 93; Charles E. Forsyth to Rauschenbusch, 19 Feb. 1908, Box 25; John Hughes to Rauschenbusch, 4 Dec. 1914, Box 28; and A. E. Breckenridge to Rauschenbusch, 7 Jan. 1914, Box 93, Rauschenbusch Papers.

77. Clarence L. Wright to Rauschenbusch, 15 June 1909, Box 25, Rauschenbusch Papers.

78. “Current Literature,” Christian Socialist 4 (1 06 1907): 67. Representative letters include Weeks to Rauschenbusch, 22 Mar. and 28 Apr. 1904, Box 24, 4 and 7 June, and 26 Sept. 1907, Box 25, Rauschenbusch Papers.

79. Scudder, Vida D. to Rauschenbusch, 21 09 [1912], Box 93, Rauschenbusch Papers.

80. In 1900–1918 John and Laura Rockefeller gave the Rauschenbusches about $8,000 for personal use. Minus, , Rauschenbusch, pp. 5960, 9697, 133134.

81. Ibid., pp. 52, 90–91, 100, 162–163, 173–174.

82. Scudder to Rauschenbusch, 9 Oct. [1912], Rauschenbusch Papers.

83. Once he understood that the ISS promoted the study of socialism, he identified himself with it. Rauschenbusch to Algernon Lee, 17 Apr. 1911, and to James Franklin, 17 Aug. 1911, Box 26, Rauschenbusch Papers.

84. Rauschenbusch to L. B. Avery, 12 June 1914, Box 28, Rauschenbusch Papers.

85. Pauline Rauschenbusch to Eugene V. Debs, 3 May 1926, The Papers of Eugene V. Debs, 1834–1945 (microfilm, ed., 1983), reel 4, Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Ind.

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