(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Walter Rauschenbusch held a pastorate in a rough part of New York City for eleven years and knew firsthand about the many varieties of social problems. Too often, according to Rauschenbusch, people strongly condemn activities such as drinking alcohol, dancing, playing cards, and going to the movies as sins but do not adequately condemn the impoverishment of peasants and industrial workers by “the parasitic classes of society.” The most glaringly sinful activity is war, so painfully evident in 1917 during World War I. Rauschenbusch is scornful of Christianity’s traditional emphasis on Original Sin and the fall of Adam and Eve rather than on Jesus and the prophets. To him, sin is selfishness, and selfishness is a major source of social evils, among them despotic government, war and militarism, landlordism, predatory industry, and finance.

In A Theology for the Social Gospel, Rauschenbusch argues that mainstream theology has wandered far from the social and ethical teachings of Jesus. “Individualistic theology” concentrates unduly on personal repentance and salvation:The doctrine of the Kingdom of God was left undeveloped by individualistic theology and finally mislaid by it almost completely. . . . What a spectacle, that the original teaching of our Lord has become an incongruous element in so-called evangelical theology. . . .

Rauschenbusch’s ideal is the Kingdom of God, to which people can aspire in this life: “The institutions of life must be fundamentally fraternal and co-operative if they are to train men to love their fellow men as co-workers.” In this kingdom, human beings are all called to labor for the common good.

The sins of selfishness are preserved and transmitted by social organizations and institutions, customs, and habits. Rauschenbusch sees the Church as having degenerated into a force for evil in pre-Reformation times.

According to Rauschenbusch, salvation should involve a strengthened commitment to loving and serving others. He rejects the isolation of mystical religious experience—but acknowledges the importance of prayer and meditation as resources for renewal. Christ’s teachings focus on love, not as attitude or feeling but as the energetic and zestful participation in social life characterized by service and equality. While the Jewish priestly elite concentrated on rules and rituals, Jesus envisioned the Kingdom of God as loving interactions...

(The entire section is 998 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Evans, Christopher Hodge. The Kingdom Is Always but Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004. While not neglecting personal matters (his relation with his father, his affinity to matters German) the book stresses the social as well as theological context of Rauschenbusch’s work.

Fishburn, Janet. “Walter Rauschenbusch and ’The Woman Movement’: A Gender Analysis.” In Gender and the Social Gospel, edited by Wendy J. Deichmann Edwards and Carolyn De Swarte Gifford. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Rauschenbusch felt strongly that a woman’s place was in the home as wife and mother.

Rauschenbusch, Walter. Christianity and the Social Crisis. New York: Macmillan, 1907. Detailed evidence on the social emphasis of the Bible and the early church; describes how the Church deviated from this. Develops his socialist perspective in detail.

Smucker, Donovan E. The Origins of Walter Rauschenbusch’s Social Ethics. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994. Emphasizes influences relating to pietism, Anabaptist sectarianism, social and religious liberalism, and Christian socialist transformationism.