Topic 9

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.


Marty: 16, The 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 in The Social Gospel?



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 America, 1870-1920.

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 Social Darwinism. 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:
bulletRussell 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.


bulletHoratio Alger (1834-1899) was the son of a Unitarian minister and graduated with degrees from Harvard 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.


bulletAndrew 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

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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. Henry 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 American wealth.

The Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, William Lawrence, gave his views on  morality and wealth in Relation of Wealth to Morals,

The Social Gospel

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:

bulletWashington 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 John D. Rockefeller's practices. Gladden served congregations in New York, Massachusetts and for many years, Columbus, Ohio. 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.


bullet 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 advocates.
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 movements.

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 philosophy called Social Darwinism. If evolution favors the survival of the fittest, they argued, why should the strong help the weak to survive?

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 presidential campaigns.

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.

When 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 chance.

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 America.

Adapted from  Fundamentalism and Social  Gospel. Check out this PBS site.