Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

20th C. Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics: Walter Rauschenbusch

rauschenbuschAfter a brief introductory chapter by editors Larry L. McSwain and Wm. Loyd Allen, Shapers begins with a 3-chapter section on “Foundations: A Legacy of Social Concern,” which profiles Walter Rauschenbusch (most famous theologian of the Social Gospel), Muriel Lester  (1855-1968)(British Baptist pastor, social worker, influential writer on contemplative spirituality, & globetrotting peacemaker), and Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961) (African American Baptist pioneer in education and social uplift in the Booker T. Washington tradition).  Each of these pioneering 20th C. shapers of Baptist social ethics was born in the late 19th C., in the wake of the U.S. Civil War (and the Crimean and Anglo-Boer wars), the Industrial Revolution and its resulting social dislocations, the beginnings of global resistance to Euro-American colonial imperialism, the mechanization of wars, the first international peace movement since pre-Constantinian Christianity, the birth of socialist politics (in both Marxist and non-Marxist forms), the rise of global movements of organized labor, and the international movement for women’s suffrage.  This is the matrix which gave rise to the Social Gospel and each of our 3 profiled pioneers can be seen as representing different facets of the Social Gospel. (A more complete picture of this foundation-era would have included chapters on John Clifford (1836-1923), Shailer Matthews (1863-1941), and J. B. Weatherspoon (1886-1964), pioneers all).

The chapter on Rauschenbusch is written by Paul A. Lewis, a friend of mine–and a closer friend of my fellow Baptist peace blogger, Mikeal Broadway who blogs at Earth as it is in Heaven, a blog my Gentle Readers should frequent.  Lewis is part of that generation (mine) of Southern Baptists who found themselves in the midst of seminary (in his case, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary near San Francisco) during the Fundamentalist Takeover of the SBC (1979-1994) and who sought a different way of being Baptist–which included pursuing advanced theological education in ecumenical, non-Southern Baptist, circles. Paul earned a Th.M. at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, which is related to the Presbyterian Church, USA, studying with Douglass Otatti whose “Reforming Protestantism” flows more or less directly from Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel tradition. Then Paul completed a Ph.D. at the United Methodist related Duke University, studying with Stanley Hauerwas–a profound critic of that tradition. (Paul used to say that he was a “misplaced liberal among the Hauerwasian communitarians.”) Today, he is Associate Professor of  Christian Ethics in the Roberts Department of Christianity, College of Liberal Arts, Mercer University, Macon, GA–a “moderate” Baptist institution related to the Georgia Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship–the more centrist of the two breakaway groups from the SBC. (I belong to the smaller, more liberal, breakaway group, the Alliance of Baptists.)

The chapter  begins with a biographical sketch of Rauschenbusch, the son of German immigrants whose father, August Rauschenbusch was a pietistic Lutheran missionary pastor who converted to Baptist views and helped to found the ethnic German Baptist Convention (today the North American Baptist Conference in the U.S. and Canada). Walter was born in Rochester, NY at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War and would die in the midst of World War I. His life spanned the post-bellum “Gilded Age” of U.S. Industrial Revolution extremes of wealth and poverty–which largely paralleled the contemporary Victorian era of the U.K. with it Dickensonian extremes.  His father was a professor in the German Dept. of the (then-new) Rochester Theological Seminary (now part of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School). 

Young Walter imbibed his parents warm pietistic faith, but was also disturbed by the bad state of their marriage–which others found “shocking.” (Victorian-era accounts are so veiled that it is difficult to tell, but might this marriage have even been abusive?) He desired to become a minister, even a missionary.  He was partially educated in Germany at a conservative Gymnasium (equivalent in the U.S. to a very rigorous high school, plus the first year or so of university) before earning an A.B. at the University of Rochester and his seminary degree at Rochester Theological Seminary.  But Walter’s dream of being a Baptist foreign missionary was denied by the Northern Baptist Foreign Missionary Society (today, the Board of International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches, USA). The officers of the Foreign Missionary Society found problems with Rauschenbusch’s views on the atonement–presumably that it deviated from the then-standard doctrine of “penal substitution” which evolved from Anselm to Calvin to the rigid and bloody forms of Reformed Orthodoxy.

Dismayed, Rauschenbusch became a pastor. He had been a student pastor at a German-language Baptist congregation in Louisville, KY during his seminary days, but now became pastor of Second Baptist Church at the edge of “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Tenderloin” slums in New York City.  The poverty and related problems of his congregation convinced Rauschenbusch that simply preaching about personal salvation was insufficient.  He became involved in works for social justice, calling himself a socialist (though never joining any socialist party) and joining with other socially active ministers in the “Brotherhood of the Kingdom.” He found himself part of the Victorian-era “Social Gospel” movement which paralleled the Progressive Era in U.S. politics.

The Social Gospel (which Rauschenbusch did not found), similar to movements of “Social Christianity” in the UK and Europe, connected Christian faith to Progressive or even democratic socialist politics. It firmly opposed the ideologies of “Social Darwinism” by which the Robber Baron industrial millionaires of the Gilded Age justified the peonage, child labor, dangerous working conditions, union-busting, and extremes of wealth and poverty.  Social Gospel ministers and theologians claimed that society, not just individuals, needed to be redeemed–and took on the prevailing view that saved individuals would automatically save societies. 

Rauschenbusch grew too deaf to continue serving his congregation adequately, so, after a European sabbatical in which he studied liberal theologies and biblical studies and the new sciences of sociology, took a position at his alma mater, Rochester Theological Seminary.  First, he taught a variety of courses in the German Department and, then, became Professor of Church History for the seminary as a whole.  From this position, Rauschenbusch became the major theologian of the Social Gospel. His work, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) was the best selling religious book in the English language for 5 years. Sadly, re-reading it today, far too much of it seems horribly contemporary.

Rauschenbusch wrote many other works, including Prayers for the Social Awakening (many of which wound up in the hymnals and liturgies of mainstream Protestantism),  Christianizing the Social Order (his most Constantinian-sounding title, but Rauschenbusch was not proposing any theocracy–but a “salt and light” penetration of institutions that would remake them away from greed, corruption, and oppression to mutual sharing and the common good), and his masterpiece, A Theology for the Social Gospel.

Lewis analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of Rauschenbusch for Baptist social ethics well.  He notes that MANY of the criticisms launched at Rauschenbusch are simply wrong–however rightly they may characterize others in the Social Gospel movement. Far from “minimizing sin,” Rauschenbusch had several chapters on sin in A Theology, noting the many personal and social dimensions.  He described the super-personal dimensions of institutional evil in ways that anticipated the later biblical studies of the “Principalities and Powers,” such as in the work of Jacques Ellul, John Howard Yoder, or Walter Wink.

Nor is it true that Rauschenbusch downplayed the atonement, although he did try to rethink it in ways that went beyond the objective/subjective fight that traces back to Anselm vs. Abelard.

Also, Lewis shows that the frequent criticism that the Social Gospel diluted the Christian message of personal salvation, to whatever degree it may be true of others, is certainly false when applied to Rauschenbusch.  His deep personal faith was well known and found literary expression.  He composed hymns and prayers.  He viewed his work as a kind of evangelism. And he knew that any social movement for justice would lack roots without a deep spiritual grounding–which he continued to find in the gospel, especially in the person and work of Jesus.

Rauschenbusch was a strong Baptist believer in liberty of conscience, religious liberty, and church-state separation, but NOT in apolitical, socially inactive church. His churches worked to address social evil and to influence policies–to stem alcoholism, prevent child labor, reform industry, work for economic justice, end poverty.  Toward the end of his life, in the wake of WWI, Rauschenbusch, who previously had given little thought to the gospel’s implications for war and peace, became a pacifist.  (The Social Gospel split at this point:  Parts of it were involved in the beginnings of a Christian pacifism that went beyond the traditional peace churches, and joined with the international peace movement.  Other parts of the Social Gospel movement justified WWI in terms of a “crusade for democracy” and would have sounded strangely like the U.S. evangelical cheerleaders of George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism.” Rauschenbusch went with the peacemaking stream.)

Lewis does a nice job also of showing some of Rauschenbusch’s blind spots and weaknesses. Like much of the rest of the Social Gospel leaders, Rauschenbusch shared the Victorian-era view of women and the family.  Indeed, his writings never mention the rising feminist/suffragist movement that was prominent in his lifetime–and he died 3 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment (1920) enfranchised women throughout the U.S. (But he would have seen Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, which shared much of the values of the Social Gospel, become the first national political party in the U.S. to adopt a women’s suffrage plank in their national platform in 1916). In fact, one giant motivator in Rauschenbusch’s determination that working men receive adequate pay and benefits was to make it unnecessary for wives and children to work. And he held to traditional views of male leadership in the family–though rebelling against the strict authoritarianism of his father’s example.  In this, he was simply a man of his time.

Similarly, Rauschenbusch held very negative views of Roman Catholics–as did most pre-Vatican II Protestants.  He assumed that Catholicism was the enemy of democracy and a heresy and threat to progress.  No matter how conservative or liberal, one would have been hard pressed to find Protestants with more charitable (or even accurate) views of Catholicism before the 1960s. To Protestants prior to the breakthrough with Pope John XXIII, Catholicism was a global superstition that was anti-science, anti-democracy, and firmly on the side of the wealthy against the poor.

Much of the Social Gospel was incredibly racist.  Here, also, Rauschenbusch was not guiltless. But Lewis fails to show how much better Rauschenbusch did here than many Social Gospel contemporaries. He held far too many sterotypes of African-Americans and other racial/ethnic minorities, but he did NOT share the enthusiasm for eugenics or the Social Darwinistic assumptions that “the white race” would spread while other races would shrivel and die out.  Rauschenbusch sometimes spoke out against this and opposed segregation. However, like most of the Northern Social Gospel advocates, racial issues were not on his “front burner” for good or ill. Those of his students who took the Social Gospel South (where it survived WWI and the Niebuhrian and Neo-Orthodox reaction), by contrast, made racial justice and reconciliation the number one moral issue of their lives.

Lewis also judges the Social Gospel for its supposed failure to reproduce itself, noting that while all of Rauschenbusch’s children shared his politics, none of them shared his faith.  This seems to me to be overly harsh. I have known many a fundamentalist evangelist whose children rebelled against the faith of their upbringing. Rebellion, deciding to be one’s own person, is part of the movement of one generation to another.  Most persons of faith worry that their children might not share their convictions and most parents struggle to understand the choices of their adult offspring, no matter the outcome or how close they remain.  The failure of Rauschenbusch’s children to become Christians could have much to do with WWI, which was preached as a “crusade.” Post-war periods usually show a decline in faith–as even the U.S. is experiencing now. Exposure of corruption in church and state leads to periods of disillusionment–it would have been strange if Rauschenbusch’s family had escaped the skepticism which set in everywhere after WWI.

And Lewis fails to note that Paul Rauschenbusch, Walter’s great grandson, is himself an American Baptist minister who is helping a new generation recover the strengths of the Social Gospel. See his updated edition of his great-father’s classic, Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the ChurchPaul Rauschenbusch is Associate Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel at Princeton University and a contributing editor to Beliefnet.com .  What one generation rejects is often rediscovered by another–and that is as true of the Social Gospel as of any other tradition. 

Lewis quotes H. Richard Niebuhr about F.D.R. Schleiermacher and applies this to later generations’ dismissive views of Rauschenbusch–and since I so wholeheartedly agree, I will let this quote close my post as it does Lewis’ chapter. 

Today, an ungrateful generation of theologians, which owes far more to its predecessors than it acknowledges, delights in pointing out the evil which lives after [Rauschenbusch], while it inters the good with his bones.

December 21, 2008 - Posted by | Baptists, church history, ethics, heroes, liberal theology, peace, politics, Religious Social Criticism, salvation

5 Comments

  1. […] Westmoreland-White of the Levellers blog is doing a chapter-by-chapter review of the recently released Twentieth Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics by Larry McSwain […]

    Pingback by Twenteith Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics | the big daddy weave | December 22, 2008

  2. “His father was a professor in the German Dept. of the (then-new) Rochester Theological Seminary (now part of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School).”

    Great post! For the record, the German Dept., originally part of CRDS, relocated to Sioux Falls, SD in the 1930s where it subsequently became the North American Baptist Theological Seminary. This was due to widespread sentiment in the German Dept. that the rest of the Seminary had become too “liberal.” Like the denomination it serves, the Sioux Falls seminary has since become an Anglophone institution. I learned this from Christopher Evans–the church history prof. at CRCDS–when I was on the campus a few years back.

    Comment by haitianministries | December 24, 2008

  3. Daniel, thanks for the kudos. And you’re right, NABTS did grow out of the German Dept. of RTS. I did not know that the reason for the move was the judgment that Rochester was becoming too theologically liberal. I thought it was because most German-speaking Baptists in the U.S. lived in the Mid-West and that Rochester, NY was not central enough for their seminary students.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 24, 2008

  4. […] 3 opening chapters on “Foundations: A Legacy of Social Concern,” covering the pioneers Walter Rauschenbusch, Muriel Lester, and Nannie Helen […]

    Pingback by 20th-Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics: T. B. Maston « Levellers | January 11, 2009

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