Social Reform and Applied ChristianityChristian Socialism | The Social Gospel Movement
Over the course of several decades, the Social Gospel movement developed a distinct theology which set it apart from other forms of social Christianity. Like Christian Socialism, it was born of the notion that the market economy was having a negative effect on both the social and spiritual lives of humans. Proponents and adherents of the Social Gospel believed that American society had strayed from the true teachings of Jesus Christ, allowed itself to become selfish in nature, and in doing so had become alienated from God’s will. God’s will, according to the Social Gospelers, was humanity’s realization of the kingdom of God on earth via a progressive search for and adherence to God’s truth. The movement placed special emphasis on the person of Jesus as the ideal model for both individual and social life. The Social Gospelers embraced science as an avenue for discovering the true nature of God and revealing the purity of Christ’s teachings. Evolution was of particular importance to the movement, as it embraced the idea of history as a progression toward the ultimate realization of God’s will on earth.
The Social Gospel sought to unify elements of modernity with historical Christianity. Rather than rejecting the notion of theological adaptation to modern ideas and circumstances or avoiding the problems presented to society by capitalism, the Social Gospel confronted the issues of the day by crafting a revitalized gospel. This gospel contained instructions and guidelines for humanity’s return to the teachings of Jesus Christ. It addressed the concerns of the day not only by emphasizing the role of economics in society, but also by emphasizing the role of society in the life of the individual. The Social Gospelers believed that because society played a critical role in the formation and development of the individual, the salvation of the individual was dependent upon the salvation of society. Humanity’s redemption was therefore dependent upon cooperation rather than competition. At a time of immense social change, the message of the Social Gospel struck a chord with many Americans.
Although historians frequently describe the Social Gospel movement as naively idealistic with regard to its faith in human nature and ineffective with regard to its ability to enact widespread social change, it is not typically described as radical (Visser ‘T Hooft 1963, 64; Hopkins 1940, 322-323; Ahlstrom 2004, 786 and 804). The Social Gospelers articulated a critique of certain aspects of America’s socioeconomic structure (which some interpreted as radical in and of itself). They sought to rid the world of social injustice in order to establish the kingdom of God on Earth per their theological beliefs, but they attempted to do so using traditional democratic means. They did not attempt to initiate a revolution or overthrow the government as a way to accomplish their goals (Quint 1964, 106-107). Instead, they sought to convince people that their way of thinking about and solving the world’s problems was best – they attempted to convert people to the Social Gospel rather than force it upon them. Politically then, the movement was not radical, though it can be considered liberal in the sense that it favored reform and progress.
Although the Social Gospel movement did not develop its own theology and emerge as a distinct form of social Christianity until nearly two decades after Gibson’s time as editor of the Wealth Makers, it is clear that Gibson’s reform ideology was much more in line with what would come to be known as the Social Gospel movement than with Christian Socialism. He shared the Social Gospelers’ belief in the need for the practical application of Christ’s teachings towards the creation of a Christian society, the idea of cooperation as a positive guiding principle for human interaction, faith in the ability of humans to improve society, and believed change could and should occur without the use of force. His association with Christian Socialism via Herron, like his involvement with Midwestern Populism, was a transitory phase in the development of his ideology.