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The Social Gospel and the Progressive Era

Bradley W. Bateman
Provost and Professor of Economics
Denison University
©National Humanities Center

Washington GladdenWhen Washington Gladden accepted the call to the pulpit of the Congregational Church in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1875, his parishioners had little reason to expect that their call to the thirty nine year old pastor might mark the beginning of a new epoch in American Protestantism. Gladden was a respected pastor who had held positions in New York City and North Adams, Massachusetts and had served as an editor of the New York Independent, but there was no reason to suspect that he would press the boundaries of American Protestantism beyond its well-understood boundaries. Within a year, however, Gladden would step across one of the most well respected boundaries for the Protestant ministry in America and advocate the rights of workers to form labor unions.

Throughout the nineteenth century, American Protestant ministers had been stalwart advocates of laissez-faire. Ministers such as Francis Wayland and John MacVickar wrote widely used collegiate textbooks in economics that praised the virtues of unimpeded capitalism and the rights of capitalists to the fruits of their labors. Their texts, however, were written before the Civil War and so they had written about a form of mercantile capitalism in which farmers and the owners of small shops constituted the majority of those who owned capital. When the Civil War began, less than half of Americans worked for someone else earning wages for their labor, and these were often young men who worked as farm laborers before starting their own farms. The economic world that evolved after the Civil War, however, was very different from what Americans had known in the antebellum period. As America industrialized, millions of Americans would flood into factories to earn wages.

Population of
city of Chicago









Thus, the vertical integration of American industry in the last three decades of the nineteenth century wrought monumental changes in the structure of both American industry and American culture. As giant corporations such as U.S. Steel and Standard Oil grew to dominate their industries, American cities began to grow rapidly, too. Chicago was a city of 5,000 in 1840 and 30,000 in 1850; by 1870 there were 300,000 in Chicago and in 1890 there were 1.1 million Chicagoans. This rapid population growth was achieved in part by pulling people out of rural areas, where 40% of American townships experienced shrinking population between 1880 and 1890. But the rapid growth of urban areas was also a result of large-scale immigration from southern and central Europe. All at one time, America was becoming more industrial, more urban, and more ethnically diverse.

Jacob RiisThe rapid growth of America’s cities and its urban population was matched by a rise in squalor and poverty that shocked many people. One of America’s first photojournalists, Jacob Riis, an immigrant from Denmark, made his name by publishing photographs of the living conditions of the urban poor. Riis would become especially well-known for a book entitled How the Other Half Lives (1890), which included some of his most abject photographs.

When Washington Gladden took his pulpit in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1875, he found himself unexpectedly thrust into this rapidly changing world of industrial America. During his first year in Springfield, there was a strike of workers in the shoe factories. When Gladden went to visit with the strikers, he found himself sympathetic with their plight. When he invited them to attend his church, however, they told him that this was not likely since the people who owned and managed the factories they were striking attended his church. Gladden was undeterred and the next year put his journalistic skills to work and published a book that supported the right of workers to organize unions, Working People and their Employers (1876).

Gladden’s book brought him fame and notoriety and would come to be seen by many as the beginning of a new era in American Christianity. The story of the Social Gospel movement is much more complex, however, than one man or one book. Nor were industrialism and the problems that it wrought the only concern of those who formed the Social Gospel movement.

During the early decades of the nineteenth century when the Second Great Awakening swept the nation, social reform had become an important dimension of American Protestantism. Whereas the First Great Awakening had focused largely on redeeming the souls of individual sinners, the Second Great Awakening had focused on both the souls of individuals and on social problems such as drinking, prostitution, and slavery. The revivals of the Second Great Awakening became a seedbed for social reform and helped to spawn both the temperance movement and the abolition movement. This focus on social problems in the antebellum world undoubtedly influenced the sense of purpose in post-Civil War ministers, such as Gladden, who wanted Protestant churches to address the problems they saw emerging from the rapidly changing capitalism of the late nineteenth century.

One of the institutional structures that emerged from the Second Great Awakening, the home mission societies, was also responsible for helping to shape the Social Gospel movement. In the antebellum world, home mission societies were interdenominational, Protestant organizations that sent people onto the western frontier and into the south to try to start new churches and to address pressing social problems. For instance, the American Home Mission Society, a joint operation of the Congregational and Presbyterian churches sent young missionaries into the new western territories before the Civil War to establish churches and to push for temperance and abolition. After the Civil War, when Reconstruction failed to secure the rights of the freedmen, many of the same people who had worked earlier for the abolition of slavery became passionate advocates for the rights of the freedmen. Although Washington Gladden had not been involved in home mission work, he would eventually become an advocate of the rights of African Americans and would help to form the N.A.A.C.P. Thus, although the Social Gospel movement will always be identified with the response to the rapidly emerging industrialism of the late nineteenth century, it is also the case that many advocates of the Social Gospel were also concerned with race relations and the rights of African-Americans.

Neither of these concerns made it easy to preach the Social Gospel in the late nineteenth century. The collapse of Reconstruction did not lead to a large national outrage; in fact, Reconstruction failed because white Americans found themselves unwilling or unable to deal with the new social and cultural landscape created by the end of slavery. The few voices brave enough to rail against lynching from the pulpits of white Protestant churches during the last two decades of the century raised no great social reaction against the violation of the rights of African Americans. Likewise, the political response to the plight of working Americans who had no disability insurance, no rights to unionize, and no work place protection was limited. Although William Jennings Bryan did not identify with the leaders of the Social Gospel movement, he did campaign during both of his bids for the presidency in the 1890s on a call to improve the lives of working Americans. He lost both his races in what is, in retrospect, a conservative time.

Walter RauschenbuschThe great theologian of the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, would later refer to the 1890s as a “dark time” for those who advocated the Social Gospel. The times undoubtedly seemed dark because those who preached seemed not to be reaching many of the people who sat in the pews. Following the Civil War,  American Protestantism began to split into what Martin Marty has termed “Two party Protestantism”, composed of a “private party” and a public party.” Each of these parties drew from the force and energy of the Second Great Awakening. The private party focused on saving individual souls; in revivals in the rapidly expanding cities, they attempted to get people to turn away from their own sins and to embrace personal salvation. The public party focused on the sins of society, such as poverty and inequality, and asked people to seek salvation through building “the Kingdom of God on this earth.” Through the 1880s and 1890s, the private party raced ahead of the public party in popularity and public appeal.

Each of the groups was evangelical, meaning that they drew their message from the Bible, and each of them focused on redemption. But their objects of concern were very different. So were their sources of inspiration. In many ways, the private party harked back to the traditional themes of the First Great Awakening. Although the First Great Awakening has been driven in part by concern for how a Christian polity could be sustained if succeeding generations did not embrace their parents’ beliefs, the solution hinged solely on securing the salvation of the individuals who made up that polity. If people could be made to understand their own sinfulness and repent, their salvation would guarantee their membership in the Christian polity. Like these eighteenth century Protestants, the advocates of the private party saw their work as focused on the redemption of individual souls.

The partisans of public party, however, built on the reform elements of the Second Great Awakening, while also drawing from other new nineteenth century ideas, to build a new understanding of society and the church. In particular, they were influenced by the Higher Criticism from Germany and Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859).

In the mid-nineteenth century, there was still no graduate education in the United States, so most serious scholars went to Germany if they wanted to pursue post-baccalaureate work. Many of the young men who traveled to Germany discovered the Higher Criticism while there, a method of Biblical interpretation that argued against seeing the Bible as literally true. Scholars of the Higher Criticism believed that the stories in the Bible might contain insights into the nature of the Christian God, but they believed that understanding that nature would require careful explanation of the Bible’s complicated narratives. In this view, there was no easy literal truth to be found in reading the Bible. Coupled with Darwin’s ideas, the Higher Criticism opened up a new and unfamiliar self-understanding for Protestants who were already shocked by the changes in the rural, agrarian society they had known before the Civil War.

For those who embraced both the Higher Criticism and Darwin’s work, there seemed to be the possibility to build a new world that ameliorated the dislocations of the new industrial capitalism. Darwin’s work, however, had also been embraced by some late nineteenth century American academics such as William Graham Sumner, as an explanation and justification for the outcomes of the new industrialism. When these conservative academics looked at the widespread poverty and the high levels of disease and infant mortality, they saw the work of natural selection. This so-called Social Darwinism offered an argument that allowed some people to see the dislocations of industrialism as the necessary weeding out of the weak and unfit as society evolved toward a new and higher form of social organization.

The advocates of the Social Gospel, however, saw things in a very different light. Instead of seeing the dislocations caused by industrialism as inevitable or desirable, the Social Gospelers saw them as the result of greed and the collective failure to protect people. Social Gospel leaders such as George Herron saw the terrible living conditions of workers and their families in urban areas as evidence of the beginning of a new millennium in which Christians were called to build the Kingdom of God.  Not to make an effort to build this Kingdom in the face of such human suffering would be a social sin in the eyes of the Social Gospelers.

Thus, despite the fact that the people in the pews were not often driven during the last decades of the nineteenth century to act on the new message of the Social Gospel, the theologians of the Social Gospel were compelled to continue preaching their unpopular message. On the one hand, they were driven by the association of their ideas with the most current trends in higher education to believe that they were correct in what they believed; on the other hand, they were driven by their evangelical fervor to try to help those in need.

It was not until the first decade of the twentieth century that the Social Gospel message began to have widespread appeal to the people in the pews. One reason for the shift in public opinion was that the dislocations created by industrialism were not going away on their own. It also helped that as poverty, inequality, and industrial injuries all continued to grow, muckraking journalists began to report on these grim realities. Jacob Riis’s photographs and writing were only the beginning of America’s exposure to the realities of industrialism. Like Riis, many of the leading muckrakers were followers of the Social Gospel who were driven by their faith to try to show Americans the problems of the new industrial order. Just as Protestant revivalists had believed since the eighteenth century that if people were faced with their sins they might repent and seek salvation, the Social Gospelers believed that if American society were shown the sins of industrialism, they would repent and build a more just social order. If the Social Gospel preachers had not been able to do this on their own in the 1880s and 1890s, the muckrakers were eventually able to help stir people to understand a new set of responsibilities that befell them as followers of Jesus Christ.

The confluence of Social Gospel preaching and muckraking journalism helped to form the popular support that underpinned the early Progressive movement. Early reform politicians like Theodore Roosevelt depended on socially aware Christians for much of their support.

The real strength of this support became obvious within the churches in 1907 and 1908 when The Social Creed of the Churches was adopted by virtually all the mainline Protestant churches. Passed first by the Methodists in 1907, the Social Creed called for many measures to alleviate the conditions created by the new industrial workplace, for instance, the alleviation of Sunday working hours, the elimination of child labor, and the creation of disability insurance for workers injured in factories. The next year, the National Council of Churches was founded as a part of the effort to get the other Protestant churches to accept the Social Creed. Walter Rauschenbusch also published his Social Gospel classic Christianity and the Social Crisis in 1907 and this had a profound impact on Protestants of all stripes. Whereas nineteenth century Protestants had largely turned their backs on social problems caused by economic development, they now embraced the call to address them. For theologians like Rauschenbusch, this felt like a new moment in human history and the beginning of a new American awakening. Recently, the economic historian and Nobel Prize winner Robert Fogel has called this moment in American history the Third Great Awakening.

The Social Gospel’s role in the Progressive Era was amplified by the close connection between the Social Gospel and the emergence of professional social science in the late nineteenth century. During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, economics, political science, and sociology all emerged in American universities as the result of the influence of the Social Gospel. The leaders in all three disciplines were “social Christians” who saw their work as central to showing the truth about American society and the need for reform. This often lead them to grief as there were no guarantees of tenure and academic freedom in the nineteenth century and many academic careers were ruined by trustees and college presidents who dismissed advocates of the Social Gospel from their faculties; but with the emergence of the Progressive movement in the first decade of the twentieth century, many squelched careers and silence voices were resurrected and social scientists became central in the political work of the Progressives.

This influence was perhaps most obvious in the social survey movement. The social survey had emerged as a method of social investigation during the end of the nineteenth century. Pioneered in England, Americans began to use the social survey extensively in the 1890s. Social surveyors would canvas urban neighborhoods and build careful maps of each building and what happened there. Typically, there would be a set of maps of the same neighborhoods, each one built to show different characteristics of the neighborhood. One map would show the nationalities of the occupants of each residence, color-coded to show the diversity and origin of the people in the neighborhood. Another map would show places of employment and another would show the location of churches, saloons, and brothels. The maps were meant to show several things, not least the places where there were no Protestant churches and the places where they were most needed. Both Jane Addams, one of the founders of Hull House, and W.E.B. DuBois, the great black social activist, were active in social surveying in the 1890s.

But the social survey had its greatest moment in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Economists such as Richard T. Ely and John R. Commons were active in the movement, as were interdenominational leaders such as Josiah Strong. In these two decades, the social survey became an important tool of Protestant revivals; large-scale social surveys would be undertaken in the months before a revival so that the information collected could be used during a revival to challenge people to work through their churches to try to ameliorate the bad social conditions in their neighborhood. One of the leading magazines of the Progressives was The Survey, a monthly magazine that combined Christian themes and practical advice on conducting social surveys.

One of the best examples of the melding of the social survey and Protestant revivalism occurred in 1910 and 1911 with the Men and Religion Forward Movement. At the time, the Movement was the largest evangelism effort in American history, covering revivals in 88 cities over several months. A central committee organized the work of the social survey in each city before the revival took place and a separate publicity committee spread the results of the social survey in the weeks before the evangelists were brought in to run the revival. The organizers were interested in trying to increase male church attendance and they saw this method as the best way to get men interested in the church as a way of improving their communities. The Movement was considered a major success and reshaped the landscape of revivalism.

President Woodrow WilsonThe heyday of the Protestant influence in the Progressive Era was in the first half of the second decade of the twentieth century. Progressive social Christians were especially important in the national elections of 1912 and 1916. Woodrow Wilson had studied under the Social Gospel leader (and economist) Richard T. Ely at Johns Hopkins in the 1880s, and he represented the sensibility of the mainstream Protestant churches in his approach to reform. In 1917, Wilson arranged to send one of the most radical Social Gospel firebrands of the 1890s as his personal emissary to Lenin after the Russian revolution. George Herron had preached a nascent form of Christian socialism in the 1890s before seeking exile in Italy in the first decade of the new century. As a former socialist firebrand and supporter of Eugene Debs’ presidential candidacy in 1904, Herron seemed the perfect ambassador to Lenin.

By the middle of the second decade of the twentieth century, the Progressive movement had begun to become more diverse in its sources and participants. In turn, this change led to new self understanding(s) among Progressives. On the one hand, by the second decade of the century some people had started to become skeptical of the possibility for any kind of fundamental change in human nature. While they were still disturbed by the kinds of social dislocation wrought by industrialism, they were less likely to see the possibility for their amelioration through any fundamental shift in human nature. The ethical improvement that the Social Gospelers preached as a necessary part of social reform was not obviously taking place on any large scale.

On the other hand, not all Progressives were Christians by the second decade of the century. Two of the leading progressive writers to emerge after 1910, for instance, were Jewish: Herbert Croly and Walter Lippman. Both Croly and Lippman offered a vision of political transformation that was much more clearly based on technical expertise and the possibility to gain mastery over social problems through the application of tough critical analysis to social problems. This led to the early popularity of Frederick Taylor’s time and motion studies, which were seen as a means to make the industrial system more efficient and so to provide a larger output that could be used to take care of more people. After 1918, many Christian social scientists such as John R. Commons purposely secularized their own rhetoric to make it more amenable to non-Christians and more in line with the new movement to secular expertise as the basis for social control.

But for better or for worse, the Social Gospel itself had become so widely popular by the time of America’s entry into the First World War, that its message began to be adulterated by Protestant ministers more interested in the idea of America as the Kingdom of God than they were in helping working people attain a better, more secure life. These more conservative preachers saw the potential of the Social Gospel as a tool of nationalism, rather than as a tool of reform. These men, drawing on President Wilson argument for the need to enter the First World War in order to make the world safe for democracy, often used their pulpits to advocate the war. Ray Abrams (1933) has documented the violent calls by many of these nationalistic advocates of the Social Gospel for young men to join in the trench warfare in Europe and defeat the Germans.

After the war, when the American public learned of the horrific nature of the trench warfare and realized what the young men had been called to do, the Protestant ministers who had used their pulpits to aid in enlisting young men to fight in the war lost their credibility. This loss of credibility was a part of larger public disillusionment with the ideas that had underpinned the Progressive Movement. Although there had already been some disillusionment before the war with the Social Gospel ideas of an improvement in human nature, this disillusionment became an abandonment of hope after the war. Even Progressives like Lippman who had tried to develop a more technical rationale for improving industrial society now found it difficult to gain a serious audience. Even the assumption that people might be so broadly motivated so as to want to more equitably distribute an increased industrial output came to be seen as naïve, if not quaint.

The end of the First World War is often seen as the end of the Progressive Era, and it was the end of the Social Gospel’s widespread appeal to the people in the pews of America’s Protestant churches. The loss of hope in the possibility of easily building a better world through an appeal to people’s outrage at social inequality and inequity marked the end of an epoch in American politics and in America’s Protestant churches.

The influence of the Social Gospel in American life was not finished, however. As Conrad Cherry (1995) has shown, when the Social Gospel fell out of favor in the pulpits of mainline churches, its influence continued in Protestant divinity schools. It remained a vital force there well into the second half of the twentieth century. When the young Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived at Boston University in the 1950s to study theology, he found the Social Gospel tradition alive and well. He then used the theology of the Social Gospel to build the foundations of his own arguments for the civil rights of blacks. King was assassinated at the time that he was beginning to turn his focus to questions of economic justice, but like his predecessors in the late nineteenth century, he too combined a theological passion for the freedom of America’s blacks and for the equitable treatment of America’s workers.


Bradley W. Bateman is Provost and Executive Vice President at Denison University. He began his teaching career at Simmons College and then spent 20 years on the faculty at Grinnell College. His fields of interest are the history of economic thought, monetary/macroeconomics, and natural resource economics. Bateman has an international reputation as a student of the economic thought of John Maynard Keynes and is author of Keynes’s Uncertain Revolution and co-editor of Cambridge Companion to Keynes (with Roger E. Backhouse) and Keynes and Philosophy: Essays on the Origin of Keynes’s Thought (with J.B. Davis). He became the Provost of Denison University in 2007.

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To cite this essay:
Bateman, Bradley W. “The Social Gospel and the Progressive Era.” Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <>


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