A Brief History of Progressivism: Episode 4

Christianity and the State

Individuality means tyranny

Walter Rauschenbusch

While Woodrow Wilson “evolved”, a great deal was happening in Progressive circles; there were many voices from various points of view. In all of the noise, something fascinating began to take place, Christianity became as one with Progressive socialism. In time, Woodrow Wilson would personify the union of the two.

Of course not all Christians would have anything to do with such things, but a movement began to take place, a movement that came to be called the “Social Gospel Movement”. The driving force behind the Social Gospel was that society’s many problems needed Christian solutions that were applications of Christian “laws” to social circumstances. Problems such as poverty, alcoholism, child labor, employee rights and crime ran counter to the teachings of Scripture, and the leaders of the Social Gospel believed that the only way to correct these social problems was by the imposition of the “Christian ethic” on the State, and the State imposing it on the population.

In the early days of the Progressive Era, this was a popular and well received idea.

Walter Rauschenbusch put it this way:

“New forms of association must be created. Our disorganized competitive life must pass into an organic cooperative life.”

Rauschenbusch and the other leaders of the Social Gospel believed that the State was the right arm of God and the means by which the Nation and the world would be redeemed. 1  You might guess at this point that there was more involved theologically in this, and there was: The Social Gospel, in its early days, was based upon a Postmillennial understanding of the New Testament, which holds that before Christ can return to the earth in the Second Coming, the world first needed to become purified and uncorrupted by sin, and that their Social Gospel, with the State as its right arm would eventually usher in Christ’s return.

To be quite fair to the early Social Gospel, this was also the view of several of the framers of the Constitution back in 1787, although they sought a radically different path to accomplishing it.

Many people, especially in the middle class, found this new view of things frightening, and did not go along with it. This group Included such well-known preachers as Dwight Moody who believed that the Gospel was about receiving salvation for the soul, rather than a basis for State control of everyday life. With that, the battle lines were drawn.

The Social Gospel Progressives began early in an effort to separate children from their families ideologically, expanding greatly public schools and supporting compulsory education, which on the surface seems great; we needed to educate our young of course, but there was a more sinister side to it, for children were then taken into something completely new: Kindergarten. Many people objected to this, and as time went more and more people began to notice that what many children were learning in school was at sharp odds with what their parents believed in many areas of life. As we all know, these issues are still controversial in the early 21st century. Woodrow Wilson himself would comment on the nature of education as president of Princeton University: “Our problem is not merely to help the students to adjust themselves to world life… [but] to make them as unlike their fathers as we can.”

As our story continues in upcoming episodes, we will see a great deal more about how the Social Gospel became an important part of early Progressivism, and how it was later purged. To wrap up this episode, I am going to put a number of links in this post for those who are interested in finding out more about the early Social Gospel Movement and its leaders. Please note that these are Wikipedia links, and Wikipedia is not the most reliable source of information. In reading these articles, I think they are more than fair, but the more important resource than the articles themselves, is the links they contain at the end, which lead to some very good online sources, for your further review.

The Social Gospel Movement

Early Leaders:

Washington Gladden

Walter Rauschenbusch

1  Rauschenbusch, Walter. A Theology for the Social Gospel. New York: Abingdon Press, 1917.


About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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14 Responses to A Brief History of Progressivism: Episode 4

  1. daylerogers says:

    The subtlety of the sin of control is incredible–and insidious. What an eye-opener.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Great post. Thank you! I always suspected it, but could never prove it. It’s insidious and cowardly. Cowardly because they chose to undermine the country rather than allowing citizens to choose.

  3. BelleUnruh says:

    It is always dangerous to mix politics and religion. Well, Conservative Christians are in charge in the U.S. now. I don’t think there is much danger they will want to fix …” economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war.” (Wikipedia) No, that’s not on their agenda.

    • Don Merritt says:

      I could be mistaken of course, but I suspect that Conservative Christians might tend to be surprised to hear that they are in charge in the US. 🙂

      • BelleUnruh says:

        Trump has 12 Spiritual Advisors. They are telling him what Christians want, because it was Evangelical Christians who were a huge bloc of voters that got him elected. You can google it and there is a list of his advisors. I think Dobson and other big names are there.

  4. paulfg says:

    Interesting – thank you!

  5. Mel Wild says:

    Fascinating history. Thanks for sharing this. Of course, the idea of the state representing the Kingdom of God goes back to the time of Constantine in the fourth century. The progressives are just building on this ancient foundation. In fact, much of our “Christianity” is still based on this paradigm.

    What interests me is the push back by Moody and the mindset behind the arguments. It sounds like both sides took something biblical and made it fit in their narrow view. Both were right and both were wrong in some respects. While the progressives did take the idea too far, equating Jesus’ teachings with humanistic social engineering, Jesus did come to save the world, not just the human soul. Although it must start with the transformation of the human soul.

    This idea of rejecting anything material (social, natural) actually comes from a Greek gnostic view of salvation (which originally came from Babylonian mythos). But the “world” (system) is not evil, it’s fallen. The material world is intrinsically good. It’s been high-jacked by the evil one. Its salvation can be affected by the Church, although it certainly won’t be totally free of sin free before Jesus returns! But, regardless, we should be salt and light, transforming it with grace and truth wherever we are in this world.

    My point is, when we only look at the individual human soul as the point of salvation, we ignore all of Jesus’ teachings to transform our culture through the love of the other. The early church saw it this way and transformed much of their world.

    • Don Merritt says:

      Interesting Mel, thank you for your thoughts. In thinking about this, there is one distinction that might be importance, and I’d be curious for your thoughts on this…

      The early Social Gospel movement was all about political action i.e. using the State as the right arm of God. Yet neither Jesus nor the Apostles ever called for anything remotely approaching political action. The early church seems to have made it their business to help the poor and needy on their own, yes, and Jesus certainly taught that it was our responsibility to do so as well. Yet none of them every sought to pass the buck to the State, and send the bill to someone else and call it good.

      Am I crazy?

      • Rebecca says:

        I’ll weigh in. I think the difference is when the state does it it’s called an entitlement and this can lead to the ruination of the soul. When the Church does it is it’s called charity and mercy and can lead to the salvation of the soul.

      • Mel Wild says:

        It’s a hard question to answer because the early church was being persecuted by the state because they wouldn’t worship Caesar as god. But I would agree with your point, it would not have been politically motivated, and they probably would of never passed the buck to the state. Even so, within the Roman Empire, more and more Christians were in influential roles and they actively changed much. There’s a great book by Dinesh D’Souza titled, “What’s So Great About Christianity’ where he outlines Christianity’s pervasive influence on culture.

        An argument could be made that the church (with a few notable exceptions) didn’t do its part in changing the deplorable conditions during the Industrial Revolution, which opened the door to the progressive alternative. The same with the slavery issue, etc. Those who did stand up tended to be postmillennial or amillennial in their eschatology.

        If our theology is that we’re leaving any moment and the world is going to hell in a handbasket, we’re not going to do much to be actively involved in changing it.

        • Don Merritt says:

          Mel I always appreciate your thoughtful comments, and this is no exception; thank you. I think you’ve hit the nail on head here because you are so correct that as time went on, there were Christ followers in places of influence where the values of their faith began to rub off on those around them, to the betterment of the community as a whole, for where ever the Kingdom goes there is healing and wholeness and mercy and justice. Lives were changed, hearts were changed: Communities were changed.

  6. Don, will you be continuing this series?

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