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From the December, 2005 issue of Touchstone

 

Social Gospel Apostle by Eric Miller

Social Gospel Apostle

The Kingdom Is Always but Coming by Christopher H. Evans

The Kingdom Is Always but Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch
Eerdmans (Library of Religious Biography series), 2004
(348 pages, $25.00, paperback)

reviewed by Eric Miller

At first glance, Walter Rauschenbusch’s life and times seem worlds away from ours. An American theologian and historian who lived from 1861 to 1918, he emerged in the first decade of the twentieth century as an eminent, impassioned advocate for what became known as the “social gospel.” He insisted, in chorus with Washington Gladden, Josiah Strong, and others, that in the face of the unprecedented social and economic convulsions of the era, the gospel of Jesus Christ demanded a fuller social embodiment than nineteenth-century Evangelical Protestantism had in the main imagined.

It is not this contention that separates Rauschenbusch and his time from ours. If anything, his critique of industrial America and his vision of a more socially robust faith have, over the course of the past three decades, won the day among Christians across the great divides.

Huge Chasm

Take, for instance, this prudent, intelligent warning, issued in 1912: “A private business that employs thousands of people, uses the natural resources of the nation, enjoys exemptions and privileges at law, and is essential to the welfare of great communities is not a private business. It is public, and the sooner we abandon the fiction that it is private, the better for our good sense.” A century later, corporate capitalism’s disastrous ecological record alone makes Rauschenbusch’s point difficult to argue with.

But it is the title of the book in which this quotation appears that underscores the huge chasm between his day and ours: Christianizing the Social Order. Rauschenbusch and his companions fervently believed that what he termed the “principle of association” inherent in the gospel was in their day making the United States progressively more Christian.

“Perhaps these nineteen centuries of Christian influence have been a long preliminary stage of growth, and now the flower and fruit are almost here,” he intoned in the closing paragraph of 1907’s Christianity and the Social Crisis. The gospel that he and the others preached was, for them, both manifestation and catalyst of the grand, world-historical transformation they believed to be underway.

It was a powerful, if transient, vision, as Christopher H. Evans’s study makes clear, and his sympathetic portrait of Rauschenbusch gives an illuminating sense of both the excitement and the confusion of the age. Rauschenbusch fought, Evans shows, to advance the older understanding of personal salvation alongside the need for “social salvation.” In Evans’s words, Rauschenbusch “genuinely sought a theological integration between a spirit-filled evangelicalism centered on individual renewal and a liberal theology that insisted on the ethical renewal of society.”

What, precisely, did Rauschenbusch mean by “individual renewal”? And what did “liberal theology” then entail? Precision in articulating these (one would assume) biographically and theologically fundamental matters unfortunately eludes Evans, a professor of church history at Rauschenbusch’s own Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, throughout his study. That Evans is lauding Rauschenbusch for his “liberalism” is apparent. But just what Rauschenbusch at the height of his influence believed about, for instance, the deity of Christ, or his resurrection, is less than clear.

Academic Vision

More clear is Evans’s concern to elevate Rauschenbusch as a champion of progressive politics, a forefather in the development of the moral vision that Evans here, in awkward academic cadences, advances. Even in exposing Rauschenbusch for the man of the times he was—he was “chauvinistic” in his view of women, Evans feels compelled to point out, and a would-be imposer of middle-class sensibilities on the lower classes—Evans both clears himself of any possible suspicion of his own (similar) moral poverty and shows us the direction that Rauschenbusch’s more enlightened heirs have taken.

“Although he did not go as far as some of his contemporaries in his idealization of women,” Evans writes in a typical passage, “his message was nevertheless clear: the task of realizing the kingdom of God in America was the primary task of married women who insured the well-being of the nation through their roles as wives and mothers.”

This approach to biography has a certain formulaic quality; the main task becomes to score the subject’s understanding of the world against the biographer’s own (or, as seems to be true in this case, that of the academic and theological community the biographer is concerned to please), dutifully noting all points of departure while underlining the ways in which the hero was preparing the way for a new day. How does this earlier form of Protestant progressivism match up with our own? This seems to be the driving question in this story.

There are other ways for a biographer to go, ways that honor more fully the deep, human dimensions of any life, regardless of time or place. If biography affords the opportunity for anything, it is the chance for long and hard wrestling with another human being and his moment in time.

Who was Walter Rauschenbusch? Who are we? How do this man and his moment help us to see more clearly our own lot, our own circumstance, our own possibilities? One leaves Evans’s book wishing he had allowed such questions to seep deeper into his own authorial vision. But instead of finding the fundamental assumptions of our own age challenged by his study, we mainly find them confirmed.

Left Wondering

So we are left wondering what it really would have been like to sit under Rauschenbusch’s preaching, or to dine with his family, or simply to have a conversation with him. Rauschenbusch once wrote that “to concentrate our efforts on personal salvation, as orthodoxy has done, or on soul culture, as liberalism has done, comes close to refined selfishness,” adding that “a religion which realizes in God the bond that binds all men together can create the men who will knit the social order together as an organized brotherhood.”

This is no mean observation. Who was the man who made it? After reading Evans’s book, I would like very much to know.


Eric Miller is an Associate Professor of History at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (www.geneva.edu). He is writing a biography of Christopher Lasch.

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