Theologians of all ideological stripes agree Walter Rauschenbusch was a key figure in 20th-century Baptist history and that his 1917 book A Theology for the Social Gospel marked an important juncture in the social gospel tradition.
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But students of theology are divided 100 years later on whether Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) should be remembered as a friend or foe of evangelism and sound doctrine.
“Walter Rauschenbusch was born into a long line of pastors,” said Lloyd Harsch, professor of church history and Baptist studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. “His father was the first to become a Baptist. While in his late 20s and early 30s, Walter served for more than a decade as pastor of Second German Baptist Church which was located in the destitute, crime-ridden area of Hell’s Kitchen in New York City.
“It was in this context that Walter came to the conclusion that his evangelistic efforts needed to include concern for the social issues affecting the neighborhood,” Harsch told Baptist Press (BP) in written comments. “Eventually, the social concern came to dominate his ministry. Rauschenbusch reminds us that even worthy issues pursued with the best of intentions can eventually distract us, drawing us away from the important task of sharing the gospel with those around us.”
Published amid the early 20th century’s social gospel movement – which sought to apply Christian principles to social problems like poverty, alcoholism and racial tensions – A Theology for the Social Gospel argued the “old message of salvation” must be “enlarged and intensified” to address social ills.
“The individualistic gospel,” Rauschenbusch wrote, “has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God to save every soul that comes to him. But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it.
“ … The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins and to create a more sensible and more modern conscience,” wrote Rauschenbusch, who left the pastorate in 1897 to teach at Rochester Theological Seminary in upstate New York.
In developing a theology to support the social gospel movement, Rauschenbusch critiqued historic formulations of some Christian doctrines.
He argued, for example, that the doctrine of biblical inspiration should acknowledge “the human frailty and liability to error” of the biblical authors. The idea Jesus’ death was a “substitution” and that He bore God’s wrath toward sinful humans, Rauschenbusch wrote, was among a collection of “post-biblical ideas” that were “alien to the spirit of the gospel.”
Still, his emphasis on the need for Christianity to address social problems led Rauschenbusch to “a national acclaim rarely accorded seminary professors,” wrote Rauschenbusch biographer Paul Minus.
Neoorthodox theologian H. Richard Niebuhr wrote in The Kingdom of God in America that Rauschenbusch “continued to speak the language of the prophets and St. Paul.” Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1960 that Rauschenbusch “left an indelible imprint on my thinking.”
Among Southern Baptists, a former ethics professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Henlee Barnette classified Rauschenbusch in a 1968 sermon as among the “three great prophets” America had produced. The other two, Barnette said, were King and Abraham Lincoln.
Yet Rauschenbusch also drew criticism. In the mid-20th century, neoorthodox theologians like Niebuhr “declared his optimism excessive and certain doctrines deficient,” Minus wrote. King was among those who agreed with that critique.
Southern Baptists who admired Rauschenbusch knew mentioning him in some settings could alienate theologically conservative believers. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary ethics professor T.B. Maston, a noted civil rights advocate who was influenced by Rauschenbusch, said in his 1973 oral memoirs that he counseled seminary students to avoid referencing the social gospel in Southern Baptist churches.
Using the word “social,” Maston said, “arouses some opposition on the part of some people to what you’re trying to do.”
Barnette similarly wrote in his 2004 memoir My Story that “Southern Baptists had a phobia about the term” social gospel and about Rauschenbusch – “the father of the social gospel.”
That reticence about the social gospel tradition manifested itself when the Baptist General Convention of Texas established a commission in 1950 to address social issues.
Convention leaders called the new commission the Christian Life Commission (CLC) rather than follow the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) lead, which had named its commission charged with cultural engagement the Social Service Commission. Texas Baptists felt a reference to the “social” gospel tradition of Rauschenbusch could undermine support for the new commission, former Texas CLC executive secretary A.C. Miller said in his 1972 oral memoir.
In 1953, the SBC’s Social Service Commission followed Texas Baptists’ lead and changed its name to the Christian Life Commission. Four decades later, the CLC became the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Despite the varying assessments of Rauschenbusch, church historians at SBC seminaries agree a century later that he rightly urged Christians to apply scripture to social issues and that his work should be remembered.
Keith Harper, senior professor of Baptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP Rauschenbusch “engaged the social, cultural and economic issues of his day.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)