Walter Rauschenbusch: Social Gospel Prophet
Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918 ) is one of the greatest of Baptist theologians and too often vilified by self-styled conservatives. Born in Rochester, NY, Walter was the son of August Rauschenbusch, an immigrant German Baptist pastor. August was one of the founders of the German Baptist Convention in North America, now called the North American Baptist Conference and no longer an ethnic denomination.
Walter was educated both in the U.S. public schools and in the Gutersloh Gymnasium in Germany. He graduated from the University of Rochester (B.A., 1884) & Rochester Theological Seminary (1886) with additional graduate study in Germany. He volunteered to be a missionary for the Northern Baptist Convention (now American Baptist Churches, USA), but was rejected because of doubts about the orthodoxy of his views on the atonement (the mission agency considered him too subjective in his view).
For 11 years (1886-1897), Rauschenbusch was pastor of Second German Baptist Church in the “Hell’s Kitchen” area of New York City, a section of the city now called “Clinton.” There he encountered the ravages of the industrial revolution: poverty, unemployment, insecurity, malnutrition, disease, and crime. Rauschenbusch became active in social reform. Finding his inherited pietist theology (stressing individual conversion and salvation and expecting society to be changed automatically by redeemed individuals) to be inadequate, Rauschenbush became one of the founders of what came to be known as “The Social Gospel.”
The Social Gospel has been criticized for neglecting individual salvation. However accurate that description may be for others, it is false when applied to Rauschenbusch. He sought to revive the full gospel with both individual and social salvation. Influenced by the German theologian Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), Rauschenbusch helped to recover the centrality of Jesus’ proclamation of the “Kingdom of God.” In Rauschenbusch’s life and faith, the individual and social dimensions of salvation were never separated.
Growing deafness led him to accept a call to leave his congregation and return to Rochester Theological Seminary to teach in the German department in 1897 and become Professor of Church History (English and German departments) in 1902. His most significant writings include Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) which, unfortunately, sounds remarkably contemporary, Christianizing the Social Order (1912), which presented a program of progressive, democratic reformism as moving society closer to the Kingdom of God on earth (defined as “the progressive transformation of all human affairs by the thought and spirit of Christ.”), A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917); For God and the People: Prayers of the Social Awakening (1910), The Social Principles of Jesus (1916). He died of cancer in 1918.
If conservative Christians criticize the Social Gospel for neglecting individual salvation (not true of Rauschenbusch), later progressives have criticized it for holding to Victorian family models which subordinate women, and neglecting the issues of race and war. Rauschenbusch’s writings show awareness of the problem of racism, but it is true that this issue did not become central for him (unlike for some Southerners influenced by him such as Henlee H. Barnette or T. B. Maston). He also wrote little about war and peace, but his distress over WWI (in which the nations he loved, the U.S. and Germany, were at war!) did lead him to study the biblical question of war and become a pacifist late in his life. Many, if not most, of Rauschenbusch’s students became pacifists and active members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He completely shared the Victorian family views of his age, however, showing that even prophets fail to transcend their era in everything.
Still, the judgment of Martin Luther King, Jr. remains true: “Rauschenbusch gave to American Protestantism a sense of social responsibility that it should never lose.” (From King’s essay, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.” ) The real Rauschenbusch, not the stereotypes, should become a vital conversation partner in contemporary churches.
For further information on Rauschenbusch’s life see Paul M. Minus, Walter Rauschenbusch: American Reformer (Macmillan, 1988); Christopher H. Evans, The Kingdom is Always But Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch (Eerdmans, 2004).
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