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People & Ideas: Walter Rauschenbusch

Walter Rauschenbusch

Source: Georgetown College

Walter Rauschenbusch came of age in the late 19th century, an era marked by boundless energy and optimism undercut by fear and anxiety. Advances in science and technology brought about the light bulb, the telephone, the typewriter and the steam engine. The American economy surged forward and became the most powerful on earth. Capitalists amassed great fortunes. Between 1870 and 1900, waves of immigrants nearly doubled the country's population, from 38 million to 74 million. Many of these immigrants settled in urban slums, where they toiled in factories and sweatshops and suffered from disease, poverty and chronic overcrowding. Amid the squalor, many turned to prostitution, violence, drunkenness, crime and corruption. Saloons often outnumbered churches. Social unrest erupted into strikes and work stoppages. The malignant gap between rich and poor grew unchecked.

Rauschenbusch, a seventh-generation minister whose father suffered from depression and alcoholism, became the pastor of the tiny Second German Baptist Church in New York City, on the edge of the crime-infested neighborhood Hell's Kitchen. From this vantage point, he witnessed the social ills besetting the cities -- poverty, crime and corruption.

Unlike Christian revivalists who preached a message of personal redemption, Rauschenbusch believed these to be society's sins. To Rauschenbusch, what the "present crisis" of the cities demanded was a new theology and a thorough restructuring of society. His thinking provided the underpinnings of the Social Gospel movement: religious belief must be put into practice to right society’s wrongs. "God is acting, and Christ is here now," Rauschenbusch proclaimed. It was up to men and women like him to act on the message of Christ and help create the kingdom of God on earth.

Uncovering the true message of Christ was key to enacting the Social Gospel. Like Thomas Jefferson, Rauschenbusch believed that the authentic message of Jesus had been obscured by layers of literary accretions piled on by Gospel writers, Christian apologists and the apostle Paul. Rauschenbusch welcomed biblical criticism, a new and controversial intellectual phenomenon that he believed allowed scholars to recover the true message and real personality of the historical Jesus. Stripping away this literary debris, Jesus emerged as a revolutionary fighter, a man dedicated to social reform.

Faced with inequality and social injustice, Rauschenbusch's Jesus would not simply retreat into private piety and pray; he would fight. Like the Hebrew prophets, Jesus was less concerned with the individual's relationships with God or personal morality, and more concerned with the ethics of human relations and public morality. As Rauschenbusch proclaimed: "There was nothing mush, nothing sweetly effeminate about Jesus. He was the one that turned again and again on the snarling pack of His pious enemies and made them slink away. He plucked the beard of death and He went into the city and their temple to utter those withering woes against the dominant class."

In 1907, Rauschenbusch penned Christianity and the Social Crisis, which remains a seminal statement of the Social Gospel theory.

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Published October 11, 2010

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