Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel (1)

Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.



Outside of fundamentalist Christianity, the social gospel has come to dominate the thinking of the church.

Characteristic of the social gospel is the idea that the work of the church can best be described as a concentrated effort to make this world in which we now live a better place, so that the kingdom of God can be realized here on earth. If the church fails to work towards the alleviation of the sufferings of the poor, the oppression of the downtrodden, the eradication of mayhem and murder, of greed and hatred between men, of war and its accompanying destruction, indeed, of all the social ills that afflict man, the church has become a non-entity, an irrelevance, a useless institution not worthy of notice by those “called to a nobler task.” We must, we are told, love all men. This is our calling. And, without doubt, this means that the place where the action is cannot be found within the walls of the church sanctuary, but out on the streets, in the marketplace, and down there in skid row.

Behind the social gospel is a whole set of beliefs, a sort of false theology, a terrible misinterpretation of Scripture. The social gospel speaks of the brotherhood of all men, a universal love of God, a suffering Jesus who gave us an outstanding example of suffering for one’s beliefs, and a gradual transformation of this world into the kingdom of heaven.

Liberalism promotes the social gospel. But other theological positions share in the errors of a social gospel doctrine. Postmillennialism and Reconstructionism, while speaking of the universal adoption of the Reformed faith, nevertheless share with social gospelers the dream of the kingdom of Christ here in the world. Those who follow the logic of Dr. Abraham Kuyper’s view of common grace and the philosophy of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven have bought into the social gospel and likewise find the calling of believers to be defined as working towards the kingdom of Christ here in the world.

The subject that we treat is an important one.

Walter Rauschenbusch is considered by many the father of the social gospel. And, if that name is not apt, he is surely considered to be an outstanding leader in this movement that has come to dominate so much thinking in our day.

The Early Life of Rauschenbusch 

Walter did not have much of a home life when he was a child. He was born on October 4, 1861 in Rochester, New York. But his parents were not natives of this country. His father, Augustus, took his family to America from Westphalia, Germany. The Rauschenbusch family had produced five generations of ministers in the Lutheran Church, but had also come under the influences of German Pietism.

Augustus had had a singularly good education. He had studied under Augustus Neander, the noted church historian. Neander had, in turn, studied under Schleiermacher, had been heavily influenced by his theology, and had passed on Schleiermacher’s influence to his students. Augustus Rauschenbusch was also a contemporary of Philip Schaff, another noted church historian with whose views Augustus was acquainted.

When he took his family to America, he did so as a missionary for the Lutheran Church. His zeal and dedication to Lutheranism could not have been very strong, for he was in America only a short time when he became a Baptist. Augustus was only shortly in the pastoral ministry, however, for soon he was summoned to become a professor in Rochester Theological Seminary.

Walter’s parents did not get along very well, and Walter’s mother took her family back to Germany in 1865, two months after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The father followed them after a few years, but spent very little time at home, more interested in his research on the Anabaptist movement than in caring for his family and giving them the spiritual training they needed. In 1869, Walter’s father took the family back to America, where they lived the rest of their life.

Walter was, not unexpectedly, a rebellious son who was frequently in trouble with his teachers. The tension in the home increased his tendency to rebel. Yet, he completed his high school studies in 1879 and graduated the second in his class. After his graduation, his father took him back to Germany, where he studied for four years before returning to Rochester, where he completed his university studies, entered the seminary for ministerial studies, and graduated from the seminary in 1886. He was ordained into the ministry in that same year.

Influences on Rauschenbusch’s Thinking

A man’s thinking and life are formed by his education and early life. So it was with Walter Rauschenbusch. Many different influences were instrumental in making him the father of the social gospel.

Walter’s university training was conservative. In this country it was even Calvinistic to some degree. But during his seminary training, his reading and studies led him in different paths. The seminary itself was probably not directly responsible for this shift in thinking, for his rather free-thinking style caused deep concern in the seminary. In his reading he came across the writings of Horace Bushnell, an outstanding liberal thinker of the nineteenth century who had his roots in New England Puritan thought, but who was in a measure responsible for the destruction of orthodoxy throughout the New England States.

It was from Horace Bushnell that Rauschenbusch acquired his view of the atonement. Bushnell, and Rauschenbusch following him, denied the substitutionary nature of the atonement—that is, that Christ died on the cross in the place of those whom the Father had given Him, so that He bore the sins and guilt of His people and satisfied God’s justice by paying the price due to them. Such a denial strikes at the heart of the atonement and is, in fact, whatHebrews 6 calls a crucifying afresh of the Son of God and a putting of Him to open shame. Yet it is the necessary starting point for a social gospel.

In 1886 Rauschenbusch became minister of the gospel in the German Baptist Church in New York City. New York was the intellectual capital of the world at that time, and Liberalism was beginning to make its mark, though mostly among the intelligentsia. Rauschenbusch took hold of their thinking and immersed himself in it.

Liberal thinking at this time was suspicious of capitalism, and charged the economic theory on which America was founded with creating all the social, economic, and cultural problems that afflicted the country. Added to this was the heavy immigration that brought tens of thousands of the world’s poor to America’s shores, and the industrial revolution during which greedy industrialists became rich at the expense of the poor who worked long hours for little pay and who had to put their little children in factories in order to have enough bread to eat. More and more, Liberalism saw the gospel in terms of helping the poor.

At the time of his ordination into the ministry, Rauschenbusch was already worrying his parents by his liberal views, for their thinking had not gone that far—although they were not what we would call orthodox. The pastorate that Rauschenbusch assumed was in a tenement part of New York City adjacent to what was called “Hell’s Kitchen.” It was the slum of the city, the high-crime area, the core of poverty, oppression, and entrepreneurial tyranny. He saw his work chiefly as helping these poor.

It did not help Walter’s drift towards Liberalism that his mother, finally unable to endure the constant warfare that went on at home, left her husband permanently and came to live with Walter, her unmarried son.

Rauschenbusch’s Early History as a Social Reformer 

Having committed his ministry to solving the problems of poverty in New York City, Rauschenbusch developed his social gospel.

He formed a fellowship with two other nearby pastors with similar views, so that they could work together in social welfare programs among the poor. During this period, he was influenced by the social emphasis of John Wesley, Dwight L. Moody, and J. Hudson Taylor, who succeeded in combining what was thought to be a conservative theological position with social work, and with an emphasis especially on helping the poor. So committed was he to this work that he turned down a request that he take up professorial duties in the same seminary in which his father had taught. This was 1888.

By the late ’80s Walter suffered an extremely traumatic experience. He lost almost all of his hearing. Because of the severity of this handicap, he resigned from his pulpit, although his congregation refused to accept his resignation and insisted he continue his calling in “Hell’s Kitchen.” Walter became a friend of John D. Rockefeller, a Baptist who was instrumental in establishing the University of Chicago, and persuaded Rockefeller to donate $8000.00 towards the construction of a new church building in Walter’s parish. During this same period he cooperated with Ira Sankey in preparing a new hymn book by translating the old hymns into German, the only language that many of his parishioners knew.

In 1891 Walter traveled to Germany, in which country he spent nine months drinking at the fountain of German higher critical thought. Upon his return, he married, which marriage produced five children. He seemed to have the same wanderlust that his father had, for he went to Europe without his family, content to live alone and leave his family responsibilities behind. It is not surprising, therefore, to learn that all his children forsook the Baptist religion, turned their backs on their father’s evangelical piety, and broke entirely with the church.

In 1897, partly because a growing family required an increase in his income, Walter accepted a position as a professor of German in the Theological Seminary in Rochester, where his father had taught and where he had pursued his theological studies. He was to remain in Rochester the rest of his life.

By 1912 both Walter and his wife were suffering from exhaustion and were, for a time, unable to do much work. Walter died in 1918, at the end of World War I, disillusioned by the war and the smashing blow it gave to Walter’s hope for a better world. He died of colon cancer.