Walter Rauschenbusch

Essential Spiritual Writings

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Walter Rauschenbusch
Editor(s): 
Joseph J. Fahey
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , November
     2019.
     144 pages.
     $24.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626983465.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

One of the principal figures in the Social Gospel movement is Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918). Although Rauschenbusch, as a Baptist pastor and theologian, worked more than a century ago, the primary ideals of the Social Gospel espoused in his theological writings continue to exercise influence in present American culture and political/progressive thought. He was not the first American pastor and theologian to formulate the basic structure of this theology, as Josiah Strong and Washington Gladden preceded Rauschenbusch in preaching and teaching its principles. Rauschenbusch, however, remains its most noted proponent and his work has made an impression on noted American religious/political figures such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Sider, Jim Wallis, and Cornell West.

Walter Rauschenbusch: Essential Spiritual Writings, edited by Joseph J. Fahey, is a collection of material from Rauschenbusch’s writings that seeks to convey essential tenets found in the Social Gospel. The book’s editor has done an admirable job with this task. The overriding theme found in Rauschenbusch’s works is the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, which he believes was central teaching of Jesus Christ. Rauschenbusch’s theological convictions were solidified when he served thirteen years as a pastor in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City, where he saw his economically poor parishioners exploited by predatory capitalism. It would lead him embrace a Christian Socialist worldview. His worldview was also formulated through study of the social sciences of political economy, sociology, and psychology.

Rauschenbusch saw Jesus as a revolutionary teacher who began his ministry of liberation during a time when Rome and the Jewish religious establishment are the oppressors. The characteristics found in Jesus’s preaching of the kingdom of God are love, nonviolence, universality (rejection of division of ethnic groups and classes), and the perils of wealth (6–7). This message resulted in the authorities putting Jesus to death. Jesus, according to Rauschenbusch, is a successor to the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament who were the revolutionary men of their age who condemned Israel’s social treatment of the poor and widows (26–27).

Jesus’s ministry around the idea of the kingdom implies, first, a social ideal of a perfect community and, second, the fulfilment of that ideal on this earth (39). Rauschenbusch believes Jesus’s true message was lost when the New Testament church adopted a nonpolitical message of individualistic and other-worldly salvation focused on the promise of a better life in heaven after death. The emphasis on personal salvation led to an indifference on spreading the spirit of Christ in political, industrial, social-scientific, and artistic dimensions of human existence (41). Given the time in which he lived, Rauschenbusch believes the emphasis on individual salvation caused the church’s influence in society to wane and its message go largely unheard. The kingdom for Rauschenbusch includes both the individual’s relationship with God and a Christian commitment to a higher social order that seeks to fulfill the will of God on earth.

The church’s primary mission and “new evangelism” is the call for all social classes to adopt a love of neighbor and thirst for justice for the economically oppressed (53). Although Rauschenbusch believed the church must stand with the trades-union movement seeking better wages and shorter hours, he was also convinced the division between the capitalist and working classes will not be bridged until a Christian political socialism is adopted in American society. It is only then that the working class will have ownership of the means of production and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Christianity should ally with the rising working class and assist in promoting a gradual equalization of social opportunity and power (66). Rauschenbusch calls upon those of the wealthier class to adopt Christian values that seek to champion the cause of the poor and oppressed. He is aware, however, that utopia on earth will never be reached since there is no human perfection reached in this life, only a growth toward a perfection. Despite assertations from some of his critics, Rauschenbusch did not believe the sin of selfishness and greed would be eliminated from human affairs (94) and, therefore, in reality the “kingdom of God is always but coming” (72). The Lord’s Prayer taught by Jesus is a call for God’s reign on earth to bring about a transformation in the “social consciousness” of humanity in moral and religious matters (79).   

The book will provide a solid introduction to Rauschenbusch’s theology of the Social Gospel to students, pastors, theologians, and laypersons who might be unfamiliar with his work. Such an introduction, of course, should open the path to reading Rauschenbusch’s primary works as well as exploring secondary sources that give greater attention to his life and thought.
 

About the Reviewer(s): 

William T. Chandler is the pastor of Rock Haven Baptist Church in Brandenburg, Kentucky.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was a Baptist minister and theologian in Rochester, New York.

Joseph J. Fahey is emeritus professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. He is the author of War and the Christian Conscience (Orbis).

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