The Social Gospel in American Religion

A History

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Christopher H. Evans
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , April
     2017.
     304 pages.
     $28.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781479888573.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Conventional histories of the social gospel movement typically limit its moment to the conclusion of the nineteenth century and the opening decades of the twentieth century.  Christopher H. Evans doesn’t disrupt this telling in The Social Gospel in American Religion, but he does find antecedents for its theological particulars as far back as the 1790s.  More significantly, Evans traces the afterlife of the social gospel well into the latter portion of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, locating the roots of both contemporary mainline liberalism and the Religious Right in the social gospel’s intellectual and social innovations.  The social gospel becomes, from this perspective, not just a Protestant moment at the turn of the century, but a dominant theme running throughout the course of American religious history.

Evans identifies four different aspects that work together to make the social gospel unique.  The first, what he calls “evangelical heritage,” connects the social piety of the First and Second Great Awakenings to later reformers like Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch.  The second, theological liberalism, originates in the progressive social reforms that accompanied modernist Protestantism in the late nineteenth century and helped set the tone for eventual social gospel work.  The third, the political left, takes into account the central position of Protestantism in the sociopolitical landscape of the late nineteenth century, and the fourth, institutional legacy, involves considering the plurality of forms social gospel ideas and activism took as they manifested in different denominational frameworks.  Taken together, Evans’s portrait of the social gospel shows that it was both influenced by and an influence upon the culture within which it was enmeshed.

Using these criteria as a framework, Evans provides a textbook-like chronology of the social gospel, noting its high and low points, its central figures as well as its supporting characters.  He draws Jewish reformers into this narrative as well, like Emil Hirsch, and also Catholic figures like Edward McGlynn and Dorothy Day.  Though these individuals might not have agreed with the essential theology of the social gospel movement, they were in lockstep with the pragmatic methods and goals pursued by its leaders.  This expansive view of the social gospel is both the strength and weakness of Evans work.  On the one hand, Evans contextualizes the social gospel movement by expanding its boundaries.  The social gospel, from this perspective, is as much the character of a specific moment as it is the subject of a strictly defined social movement.  But, taking this broad of an approach detracts from the business of strict definition, which Evans is clearly interested in engaging in here.

A particular strength of Evans’s work, however, is his consideration of the legacy of the social gospel movement.  Notions of social justice stemming from works like Charles Monroe Sheldon’s In His Steps (1896) and Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), as well as the activism of groups like the Brotherhood of the Kingdom, provided an obvious template for the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and less obviously, the Christian Right in the 1980s and 1990s.  Evans draws a direct line not only between the social gospel and progressive evangelical figures such as Jim Wallis, but also conservative activists like Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed.  Though their politics and theology might be different, Evans sees a connection between certain ideas and tactics used by liberal Christians at the beginning of the twentieth century and by conservative Christians at its end.  Like liberal proponents of the social gospel, these conservatives fretted over the waning influence of the church in American culture, and argued vehemently for what would be, in their view, the repositioning of institutionalized religious moral values over and against secular ethics.

At stake in histories of the social gospel is the need to make sense of a unique kind of Americanized progressive imagination.  By drawing attention to the social gospel as a tone and theme as much as a set of theological concepts or list of important people and events, Evans does this provocatively.  The Social Gospel in American Religion is thus ripe for consideration by scholars of American religious history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adam Sweatman is a doctoral student at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher H. Evans is professor of history at Boston University and author of Histories of American Christianity: An Introduction and Liberalism without Illusions: Renewing an American Christian Tradition and editor of The Social Gospel Today, among other titles.

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