Walter Rauschenbusch, Published Works and Selected Writings, Volume III

A Theology of the Social Gospel and Other Writings

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Editor(s): 
William H. Brackney
  • Macon, GA: 
    Mercer University Press
    , October
     2018.
     356 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780881466782.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This is the final of three volumes that bring into wide circulation the major and minor works of the American Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), as well as some of his key correspondence. During his lifetime, Rauschenbusch introduced the concept of the social gospel squarely into mainstream American religious thought. This volume contains the mature writings of Rauschenbusch, with the main feature being A Theology for the Social Gospel first published in 1917 (Abingdon). That work formed a triumvirate with his earlier Christianity and the Social Crisis (Macmillan, 1907) and Christianizing the Social Order (Macmillan, 1912), the major texts contained in the previous two volumes of Rauschenbusch’s collected works in this series.

Read as a whole, these writings circumscribe the character of content of the social gospel as Rauschenbusch understood it: his trenchant theological critique of individualism as selfishness and sin; the advocacy of the “kingdom of God” as both now but not yet; and an analysis of the supra-personal, social structures of sin that have inured proper Christian responses to suffering and evil. Rauschenbusch’s popular influence declined with the rise of anti-German sentiment from the 1930s onwards. Nevertheless, his thought continued to inspire both critical rebuttal from neo-orthodox thinkers such as H. Richard Niebuhr in The Kingdom of God in America (Willett, Clark and Company, 1937), which saw the social gospel as a hopelessly liberal theological project, and later critical reappropriation in the Black social gospel tradition as inhabited by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. This third volume of Rauschenbusch’s collected writings, together with the preceding two volumes, gives readers an inexpensive opportunity to acquaint themselves with a major social and ethical voice of 20th-century Christian theology. Faced as we are with the ongoing tendency of large swathes of the western church to ally themselves with features of what Rauschenbusch would label as the “kingdom of evil,” his thought still remains a prophetic voice of reckoning for contemporary Christians wholesale.

The curated texts themselves are presented without exegetical glosses or marginalia. In order to grasp something, then, of the genealogy and character of Rauschenbusch’s thought, the reader ought to engage with the exemplary theological introduction to Rauschenbusch’s thought, penned by the general editor, William H. Brackney. If read in conjunction with the “historical introduction” that prefaces the first volume, Brackney’s exploration of Rauschenbusch’s interaction with other theologians in and beyond the social gospel tradition will help orient the reader to understand and critique the context and content of the works they will go on to read.

 

In the theological introduction, Brackney first explores Rauschenbusch’s “German Theological Genes” (x-xvii), especially in the liberal theology of Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf van Harnack, but also in the historical criticism of the long 19th century and the emergence of democratic socialist thought. Brackney then helpfully points towards the genealogical links between the social gospel and the Victorian Christian socialist tradition of F. D. Maurice and all those influenced by Mauricein the English context, both within the Church of England but also within British Methodism and wider non-conformist thought (xvii-xxxiii). Next, Brackney establishes the links between Rauschenbusch and the American theological scene, especially in relation to Josiah Strong, Washington Gladden, Shailer Mathews, and Richard Ely (xxxiii-xliv). Finally, Brackney teases out the eclectic strands of Rauschenbusch’s theological method—namely, a strong emphasis on praxis, rootedness in pietism and the church, the search for a biblical foundation for social justice, his central appeal to the social image of God’s “kingdom” to generate a “basileic” theology of the social gospel, and his commitment to the fundamentally political character of the social gospel. As such, and as Brackney concludes, Rauschenbusch represents the late ethical flowering of liberal Protestantism, “indebted to his German scholastic background, the Pietism of his own family experience, a Baptist understanding of the church, an incarnational Christology, all leading to a focus on the kingdom of God” (lxvii).

This volume also brings into circulation a number of Rauschenbusch’s minor works and correspondence. These offer an interesting insight into the concerns of Rauschenbusch’s theological communities and his attempt to create a kultur Protestantismus in his beloved United States. His correspondence shows touching flashes of pastoral concern (he often gifted his works to aspiring students), his sense of responsibility to help others in need (such as when he was faced with an outbreak of diphtheria in American cities), and his involvement with Christian leaders in Rochester as they supported an initiative that led ultimately to the first Hague Convention of 1899. The most interesting feature of this collection, however, is the inclusion of his manuscript “Christianity Revolutionary,” published only posthumously in 1968 under the alternative title of The Righteousness of the Kingdom (Abingdon). In it, one can see elements that Rauschenbusch took up and developed in the decade up until his death. In establishing the genesis of what became Rauschenbusch’s major works, the inclusion of this text will be an invaluable critical aid for those interested in the emergence and development of Rauschenbusch’s thought.

This third volume is well presented and affordable. The bibliography at the end directs readers to a wealth of disparate commentary on Rauschenbusch and the social gospel tradition. Along with the previous two volumes, this third volume brings into wide and easy circulation all of Rauschenbusch’s major and minor writings. If one thing is missing, however, it is any sustained critical commentary on the broader socioeconomic context of his thought (especially the impact of industrialization), the negative reception in certain quarters of his works, or the astigmatism around class, gender, and race in his theology, focused as it otherwise is on structural causes of injustice to which Christianity must respond. For example, Rauschenbusch’s advocacy for prohibition seems not just quaint but distastefully bourgeois when he also largely seems to ignore the brutal post-abolitionist realities of African Americans under the Jim Crow laws.

Although Brackney’s theological introduction is expansive, it is really an exercise in historical genealogy rather than a full-throated theological analysis. Yet, genealogical lines continue and grow into future generations, shaping (for good and ill) theological identities and praxis. Some critical appraisal of Rauschenbusch’s influence on later generations—the positive ethical import of his emphasis on the social, as well as his negative liberal tendency to universalize human experience rather than attend to difference—would have served the reader well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul A. Dominiak is Vice Principal of Westcott House, Anglican Theological College in Cambridge, UK.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William H. Brackney is Distinguished M.R. Cherry Professor Emeritus of Christian Thought and Ethics at Acadia University, and Director of the Acadia Centre for Baptist and Anabaptist Studies.

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