Topic 9: Building the Kingdom in
Industrial and Urban America:
The Gospel of Wealth and the Social Gospel
The transformation of American
society by the rapid develop of an industrial economy and the
movement of people from the countryside and from southern and
eastern Europe to America's fast-growing cities created a new series
of problems for Protestant churches as well as Catholic and Jewish
institutions and communities. Indeed, the challenges of ethnic and
religious diversity and the intellectual challenges to traditional
faith were often connected to these new economic and social changes.
Critics of long established religious traditions argued that modern
life required a more modern faith, that religious beliefs and
practices had to adapt to modern life. Issues of economic justice,
poverty, the power of large corporations, and the role of government
engaged religious leaders and thinkers as well as political
leaders and led to the varied Progressive Movement for reform of
national life that affected politics from the 1890s to 1920.
The growth of industrial, urban
America in the five decades after 1870 made the United States a
major power. It also led to two religious visions of the new America
- the Gospel of Wealth or Success and the Social Gospel. This
session examines both perspectives and points to ways both continue
to influence American attitudes.
Dream of One Kingdom, examines the
continuing importance of the mainstream Protestant majority which
maintained a faith that God was using the American people to bring
on His Kingdom. Marty characterizes this mainstream Protestantism in
the fifty years before World War I as optimistic,
progressive, and increasingly liberal.
Porterfield: #25, Jane
Addams, A Function of the Social Settlement,
is a document illustrating one way people of
religious conviction attempted to deal with the growing problem of
poverty in the modern urban world
WEB: William Lawrence, Relation of Wealth to Morals,
This document reflects one perspective on American society in an age
of increasing wealth and growing poverty.
Note how this Episcopal bishop saw the role
of personal morality in dealing with the problems of modern
life. How does his perspective compare with William Rauschenbusch's
The Social Gospel?
|VIRTUAL CLASS TASKS:
1. Choose two passages, one from
William Lawrence, Relation of Wealth to
Morals and one from Rauschenbusch's
The Social Gospel
that you think are most useful for
comparing their different approaches to dealing with
issues of modern life. In the Caucus item, Virtual Session,
quote the passages and briefly explain your choices.
2. You are advising a film producer
who wants to make a documentary on Part III of the course,
Challenges to Protestant
A. Which of the essays in Moore or
Porterfield would you suggest has the most interesting
thesis? State the thesis and explain briefly why it
would be helpful for making an interesting film.
B. Which of the documents would you choose to feature?
Explain your choice, quoting a brief passage you would use
in the film as an illustration of the document's importance.
|The Gospel of Wealth, or sometimes the Gospel of Success, was
the term for a notion promoted by many successful businessmen that their
massive wealth was a social benefit for all. The Gospel of Wealth was a
softer and more palatable version of
The advocates linked wealth with responsibility, arguing that those with
great material possessions had equally great obligations to society. No
formal organization existed to put forth this viewpoint, but the
following individuals represent a range of viewpoints:
|Russell H. Conwell
(1843Ė1925), a Baptist minister in
Philadelphia, became an extremely wealthy man by delivering his
stock lecture, Acres of Diamonds, to paying audiences.
Conwell stressed the idea that wealth was available to all people
and it was not necessary to travel afar in search of it.
Opportunities existed in every village and town if only people would
take the trouble to look. In his view, God was responsible for
directing wealth to those who could use it for beneficial purposes.
Conwell, the founder of Temple University in Philadelphia, became
one of the great public speakers of his day and delivered his talk
more than 6,000 times.
|Horatio Alger (1834-1899) was the son of a Unitarian
minister and graduated with degrees from
College and Harvard Divinity. He was rejected for service in the
Civil War and became a minister on Cape Cod. Alger turned to writing
after losing his pulpit under somewhat mysterious circumstances. In
1867, he published the first of more than 100 short novels depicting
rags-to-riches stories meant to inspire the nationís youth. Bearing
such titles as Ragged Dick and Tattered Tom, the
novels traced the rise of street urchins to positions of wealth and
prominence. The virtues of loyalty, hard work, faith, thrift and
clean living were trumpeted. Algerís work made no pretense of
literary merit, but was intended to convey the idea that great
rewards awaited those who applied themselves and followed the rules.
Alger, whose name became synonymous with successful fortune-seeking,
sold more than 100 million books.
|Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), one of the great financial
giants of his era, published an essay titled
The Gospel of Wealth
in 1889, in which he argued that the accumulation of wealth was
beneficial to society and the government should take no action to
impede it. Carnegie believed the rich were trustees of their money,
holding it until proper public uses could be discovered. Unlike many
of his contemporaries, Carnegie practiced what he preached and spent
his last years giving away his vast fortune. One of his many
charitable ventures was the funding of more than 2,800 public
libraries. Carnegie wrote, ďThe man who dies rich dies disgraced.Ē
In the last third of the nineteenth century, American life once again passed
through some transformations that substantially affected perspectives on the
national destiny. Rapid industrialization,
urbanization, and immigration both alarmed Americans who feared that
such changes threatened the nation's divine mission and gave evidence
that in its rise to economic power and to becoming a refuge of freedom
and opportunity for the peoples of the earth, the United States was
fulfilling its destiny as God's New Israel.
Some preachers saw a religious dimension to
wealth and national progress.
Ward Beecher, in The Tendencies of American Progress,
expressed the idea that poverty more often springs from sin, than sin from poverty,
and that American destiny under God was inextricably intertwined with
The Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, William
Lawrence, gave his views on morality and wealth in
Relation of Wealth to Morals,
Practitioners of the Social Gospel were in general Protestant
clergymen who objected to the harsher realities of late 19th century
capitalism and sought to highlight the role of man as his brotherís
keeper. Leading advocates:
|Washington Gladden (1836-1918) was a Congregational
minister who criticized the excessive competition that often
accompanied the growth of capitalistic ventures. He was especially
outspoken when denouncing many of
Rockefeller's practices. Gladden served congregations in New
York, Massachusetts and for many years,
He is regarded as the founder of the Social Gospel movement and
authored more than 30 books that contained biblical solutions for
the problems of the industrial age.
Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) ministered among the
German immigrant community in the Hellís Kitchen section of New York
City. He witnessed first-hand the misery created by poverty during
the depression of the 1890s. He was convinced that all social ills
were somehow connected to poverty and that unrestrained capitalism
was the root cause. Rauschenbusch urged his church and others to
join actively in the struggle for social justice. |
The purveyors of the Social Gospel urged for government action to
accomplish social reforms and refused to hold the poor solely
responsible for their plight. These positions set them at odds with the
Gospel of Wealth
|American fundamentalism and the social gospel are two
distinct religious movements. Both began in the early part of
the 20th century. Both sprang from Christianity's attempt to
deal with modern problems. Yet they had radically different
goals. As politician and religious leader,
William Jennings Bryan played a prominent role in both
The social gospel grew out of the abuses of
industrialism. By the turn of the twentieth century American
cities had become magnets for cheap labor. Poverty bred a new
kind of hopelessness. Wealthy captains of industry, like
Andrew Carnegie and
John D. Rockefeller, were seen as indifferent to the
sufferings of the poor. Some of the rich were
philanthropists, but others justified their cruelty with a
Social Darwinism. If evolution favors the survival of the
fittest, they argued, why should the strong help the weak to
The social gospel arose to combat this bleak landscape.
Historian Paul Boyer says, "many Christians came to believe that
through reform efforts, through reform legislation dealing with
child labor, with slums and tenement houses and unsafe working
conditions, human beings really could build the Kingdom of God
on earth." This belief informed the early progressive movement.
William Jennings Bryan carried this idea into his three
To counter the argument of the Social Darwinists, Bryan
compared society to a garden. In a garden, said Bryan, you don't
let the weeds triumph over the roses simply because the weeds
are stronger. You protect the roses from the weeds. And if you
want a society where you have good people, kindness, charity,
and equality, you have to do some weeding.
Fundamentalism arose from a radically different impulse than
the social gospel. Early in the 20th century certain prominent
Christians began to see the Bible as a historical text rather
than a revealed truth. The Bible, according to these so-called
"higher critics," had evolved over time and simply reflected the
views of the men who wrote it.
Fundamentalism rose within the church to combat this modern
view of the Bible. The name comes from a series of pamphlets
called "The Fundamentals," published in 1912. "The Fundamentals"
outlined the bedrock truths that all Christians should believe.
Fundamentalists believed in a "back to basics" American
theology: The Bible was not a text to be interpreted, but the
revealed word of God.
In the beginning, fundamentalism did not attempt to reach out
and change society as a whole. It was the anti-evolution crusade
of William Jennings Bryan that turned fundamentalism into a
political movement. Beginning in 1922 Bryan campaigned across
America for laws against the teaching of
Darwin's theory. His crusade lit a fire in the state of
Tennessee, which passed a law outlawing the teaching of
evolution early in 1925.
John Scopes was arrested for violating the law, The World's
Christian Fundamentals Organization invited William Jennings
Bryan to go to
Dayton, Tennessee, to prosecute Scopes. Bryan jumped at the
The Scopes trial forever changed fundamentalism in America.
The national media, led by
H. L. Mencken, mocked Bryan and his "Bible belt" followers.
Mencken called Bryan a charlatan with a particular genius for
manipulating the "yokels" who worshipped him. Mencken's reports
from Dayton influenced historian's depictions of Bryan, the
Scopes trial, and fundamentalism itself for years afterwards.
"One of the false lessons of the Scopes trial," says
historian Ronald Numbers, "was that the
American Civil Liberties Union coming down with a very smart
lawyer from Chicago,
Clarence Darrow, could through verbal embarrassment of the
leader of the fundamentalists, discredit an entire movement. And
historians writing in the late 50s and early 60s think that
fundamentalism has disappeared from American culture."
But the fundamentalist movement had only gone underground.
Its leaders had learned valuable lessons from the Scopes trial.
Fundamentalism would emerge later in the 20th century as a far
more radical and sophisticated movement. As for the social
gospel, the phrase is no longer in currency, but the impulse
continues in the charitable works of religious people throughout
Fundamentalism and Social Gospel.
Check out this PBS site.