A Brief Assessment of the Social Gospel

An evaluation of the social gospel is not a simple matter. It provided a much-needed new awareness about complex social challenges facing newly industrialized America. However, it also had serious weaknesses as well, being influenced strongly by theological liberalism.

As a positive, the social gospel did serve as a catalyst for a much needed change in the thinking of Protestant Christians in America. As Robert Handy wrote:

The social gospel contributed to significant changes in American Protestant mentality; it led many churchmen to take seriously crucial issues in American life and to rethink their philosophies of public life. Many Protestants became much more aware of the way social and economic realities operated in modern industrial society. Even where the movement, with its liberal theological and reformist premises, was specifically rejected, as it was in some churches almost completely, still it raised questions which could not again be easily evaded though its particular answers might be rejected.1

Also, the social gospel drew attention to the whole question about the role of the individual in society. The charge that most advocates faced was the oft-repeated “You can only change society by changing the individuals in society.” This is a classic half-truth and was at the heart of much resistance as the churches struggled to develop a new social conscience on issues they were facing.

In fact, John C. Bennett, in his volume Social Salvation, noted three half-truths concerning individual and social salvation:

The first is that individuals can rise above any combination of social circumstances.2 This was an enormously popular theme during this era as numerous rags-to-riches stories were preached as a possibility for everyone. While there is some truth, of course, it is also a theme that can be used conveniently to justify overlooking social problems that cry out to be addressed.

The second half-truth was that since individuals control institutions, it is enough to merely change these individuals.3 Bennett noted rightly that a conversion to the Christian faith does not always bring with it adequate wisdom and understanding about the complexity of the social order, not to mention the true inner motivation to do something about it.4

The third half-truth was that you can change society without changing individuals. Here Bennett noted that unchanged men can destroy the values and ideals of the best system in the world.5 These half-truths, so popular early in the 1900s, were a part of the churches’ struggle to meet the critical social needs they were facing, especially in the urban areas.

On the negative side, it must be said that with its emphasis on social man and Christianizing the social order, the social gospel overreacted against individualism. And while there is certainly a danger in focusing too strongly on individualism regarding the Christian faith, we must take care not to confuse personal faith with an individualistic faith. Each individual must respond personally to Christ’s invitation to discipleship. The resulting faith is not, however, individualistic. It is always accompanied by social imperatives. Wesley’s dictum that “there is no holiness but social holiness” remains timely for every generation.

Interestingly, some social gospel advocates voiced concern that a division was already taking place during the first decade of the 1900s. They realized that many Methodists reared in revivalism and the importance of a personal response to the gospel believed the social gospel was drifting away from traditional Methodist doctrine and experience. Their suspicions, we have seen, were not without justification.

One progressive, liberal-minded churchman who perceived such a division was Herbert Welch, the president of Ohio Wesleyan University and later a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Though in full sympathy with the emerging social teachings, Welch warned with passion and great foresight:

The danger which threatens the church here . . . is the danger of division into opposing camps. The peril is not that there may be too earnest an agitation of social needs, but that on one side should be a group of evangelists with a narrow conception of Christ’s mission, intense in zeal, but lacking vision, breadth, adaptation to the needs and ways of the day; on the other a group of social workers, alive to the injustice of the present situation, aflame with love to men and the desire to bring in the kingdom of righteousness and peace, but distrusting the method of evangelism and substituting Utopia for heaven. Our need is not evangelism or social service, but evangelism and social service, now and forever, one and inseparable!6

One senses in this remarkable statement Welch’s uneasiness about those who had thrown themselves wholeheartedly into social service while moving away from evangelism, and one would assume, the traditional theology of classic Methodism. Numerous historians of this period spoke of liberalism and the social gospel being efforts between the traditional expressions of the faith along with the new social theology.

However, as in most mediating positions, one side will eventually prevail. Sadly, during this period, evangelism and its theme of personal sin, accountability before God, and personal transformation through conversion would get pushed aside and displaced by the new intellectual social theology.

Francis J. McConnell, an advocate of the social gospel, also expressed a fear that something was being lost from the Christian preaching to the individual.

We concede that much preaching of the social gospel today does encourage a false belittling of the function of the individual. Some social leaders sneer at the doctrine of personal salvation as old-fashioned and proclaim that if we get the right group spirit the salvation of the individual will take care of itself.7

F. Ernest Johnson, also a Methodist advocate of the social gospel, acknowledged the misleading character of the term itself. He sensed that it was perpetuating a dualism that was false to the “history and the genius of Christianity as well as to the facts of human experience.”8 He argued that while some resisted the social gospel because they did not want to face its moral implications, there was also legitimate substance to the resistance on the part of many:

It is also in no small part due to a conviction that violence is being done to the gospel itself. Those who are close to the biblical sources find it difficult to derive from them any “gospel” that is not quite as individual as it is social. In the last analysis any effort to make the social teachings of Jesus stand independently of those precepts that are related to the culture of the personal life is doomed to failure, just as we who have been known as social gospel advocates insist that the opposite attempt must fail. There are not two gospels, but one.9

Johnson attributed part of the problem to liberalism’s false theological understanding of the Christian message and kingdom. In a powerful and thoughtful summary, Johnson wrote:

These concepts are themselves as strikingly individual in their reference as they are social. The gate to the Kingdom is a spiritual gate. One may become a citizen of that Kingdom only by the “naturalization” of his own soul. The concern of our prophetic pulpits with the rebuilding of the social order is essentially and inescapably Christian, but it becomes ineffectual if it fails to take account of the qualifications for citizenship in the City of God.10

A highly noticeable trend of the Methodist literature of this period was an oft-expressed pride in a newly achieved intellectualism. Liberalism and the social gospel were seen as evidence that reason and intelligence had won in the battle with the superstitions of the former orthodoxy. “An intellectualized Christianity is being born again,” claimed one Methodist writer whose mood was representative.11 Increasingly, sneers toward the doctrine of individual salvation were becoming more evident. Unfortunately, educational differences added to a growing condescension by those embracing the new theology toward the lesser-educated traditionalists.

Again, it must be said that theological liberalism and the accompanying social gospel movement were mediating movements in America. Early spokesmen of the movement were trying to maintain a balance between the authentic to be found in both the traditional as well as the new theologies. Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr noted, however, that no mediating theology in history has ever been able to keep the balance between the opposing elements that it seeks to reconcile. As time went on, liberal theology and most social gospel advocates leaned more toward liberalism than evangelicalism.

The result was an increasingly “vacuous theology” characterized by a loss of the sense of the broken relation between God and man.12 In his classic summary describing the theology that emerged in this period, Niebuhr wrote these stinging words: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”13

F. Ernest Johnson wrote this important summary of the weaknesses of the social gospel, a movement he, himself, supported:

The social gospel movement is criticized on the ground that it is theologically shallow; that it has missed the real meaning of the Kingdom of God in relation to history; that it is “humanistic” and lacking in recognition of the supernatural factors in redemption; that it has glorified the immanence of God at the expense of his “otherness”; that it is hopelessly romantic in its conception of human nature; that it has substituted for divine architecture the work of men’s hands.14

By any measure, this is a devastating critique of the social gospel. What is highly significant in Johnson’s assessment is that nearly every point mentioned addressed a tenet of theological liberalism.

In making reference to the lack of emphasis upon the individual, Johnson cited, with great insight, that the social gospel did not realize “the social significance of the penitential attitude which worship fosters and which keeps man under the sense of a divine imperative.”15 Each time I read that sentence, I think of two powerful examples of people who were “under the sense of divine imperative.” One is William Wilberforce, who battled against the slave trade in England. The other is Charles (Chuck) Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship International, a Christian ministry to those incarcerated in prisons around the world.16 The faith of these two Christian giants compelled them. They were not idealistic reformers or utopian dreamers. They were sinners, redeemed by God’s grace and “under the sense of a divine imperative.”

Are you interested in learning more about theological liberalism and its impact on the American Methodist church? Jim Heidinger wrote a book titled, The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism. Get your copy from our store now.

1. Robert T. Handy, A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 160.
2. John C. Bennett, Social Salvation: A Religious Approach to the Problems of Social Change (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,
1935), 46.
3. Ibid., 53.
4. Ibid., 55.
5. Ibid., 61.
6. Herbert Welch, “The Church and Social Service,” Methodist Review
90 (September–October, 1908): 714.
7. Francis J. McConnell, Christian Citizenship: An Elective Course for Young People (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1922), 7.
8. Johnson, F. Ernest Johnson, The Church and Society (New York: Abingdon Press, 1935), 37.
9. Ibid., 38.
10. Ibid., 40.
11. Ernest Fremont Tittle, “The Use and Abuse of Creeds,” Methodist Review 89 (November 1917): 874.
12. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Hamden, CT: Shoe String Press, 1956), 194.
13. Ibid., 193.
14. F. Ernest Johnson, The Social Gospel Re-Examined (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940), 3.
15. Ibid., 73.
16. Colson, a chief counsel for President Nixon, went to prison during the Watergate controversy in 1973, during which time he was converted to Christ. He spent the remainder of his life establishing ministries to people in prison. He died in 2012. Colson lived his Christian life “under the sense of divine imperative.”

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Dr. James V. Heidinger II served as president and publisher of Good News, an evangelical renewal ministry within the United Methodist Church, from 1981 to 2009. He is a retired clergy member of the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. Heidinger received the Doctor of Ministry degree from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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