Near the end of the nineteenth century the evangelical experience of Christianity in America changed things in the church even more radically than previous movements had done within historic Protestantism. While the paradigm of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress remained deeply embedded in the evangelical conversion system a new version would soon emerge in the Protestant psyche by the first decade or so of the twentieth century. Billy Sunday (1863–1935) brought the message of Christ to multitudes in both America and Britain. The demands of conversion were “much relaxed” (An Introduction to Christianity, 252) through his preaching. On the final day of Billy Sunday’s New York revival campaign he asked: “Do you want God’s blessing on you, your home, your church, your nation, New York? If you do, raise your hands . . . How many of you men and women will jump to your feet and come down and say, ‘Bill, here’s my hand for God, for home, for my native land, to live and conquer for Christ.” The structure of Bunyan’s conversion model was clearly retained but the message had been stripped down to a few bare essentials – your inner life, your home, your church, your city and your nation. D. L. Moody had managed to reduce the good news to “the Three Rs’: Ruin by Sin, Redemption by Christ, and Regeneration by the Holy Ghost. Moody was even able to equate salvation with personal success which seems to have grown out of his business background. As a former shoe salesman he preached, “I never saw a man who put Christ first in his life that wasn’t successful.” The evangelical conversion gospel had become a fairly obvious reflection of middle-class living, right down to the dress and lifestyle of the evangelists. The evangelicalism of this era was thoroughly nationalistic and highly individualized. In a unique twist these popular preachers did not back a particular church, or denomination, but America’s greatness. They urged converts to go to church, to the church of your choice! And they had no message for society as a whole since this world was a “sinking ship” (Moody). Whatever change would come to society would be advanced only by individual changes which would come in personal behavior as converts followed Christ in simple faith. Increasingly this version of Protestantism walked away from public faith and culture.
Not all evangelists in the nineteenth century had followed this pattern. Charles G. Finney (1792–1875), in contrast, combined his gospel with social concern. William Wilberforce (1759–1853) had labored tirelessly in Great Britain to end slavery. Many evangelicals (perhaps most) viewed the gospel as effective in keeping women in their unique cultural place. Social order should be preserved they reasoned. But women were not to be kept in “their place.” The nineteenth century also saw the rise of various voluntary societies that were established for social reform. Much of this work was done by women. Think of a woman like Harriet Beecher Stowe, the daughter of a very famous white Protestant minister. Stowe’s best-selling book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, may have done as much to end slavery as any single written work in the nineteenth century. Male edited evangelical publications of the times sought to commend the women for their activist work while they also cautioned women against “zeal and activity . . . lest they sacrifice those meek and lowly tempers which are so calculated to adorn and promote the cause they love and advocate” (from the Free Church Magazine, 1844).
The Male-led Social Gospel Movement
In the latter half of the nineteenth-century Christian social action by women’s voluntary societies was ultimately overshadowed by the “male-led social-gospel movement” (An Introduction to Christianity, 256).
In Europe the social-gospel movement can be dated to 1848, a year of social revolution. Protest and unrest was sweeping across Europe at mid-century. Several English Anglicans met to plan a Christian response. F. D. Maurice’s social gospel was based on what has been called an “incarnational mysticism.” This movement believed that “every man is in Christ” thus every person and aspect of society was to be the object of Christian concern (An Introduction to Christianity, 256). These social-gospel men preached brotherhood and co-operation. They attacked, to put it simply, American individualism yet they never advocated for radical social upheaval but for small-scale initiatives that included improvements in education and the establishment of social co-operatives. This ultimately lead to the birth of what is now known as the social-gospel movement in America. This was unfolding in the 1870s. It arose, as it did in Europe, in response to the advance of industrialization and the rise of large corporations. Here in America, as in Britain, the social-gospel began with an attack on individualism and then called for a Christian-based social vision. One of the great American spokesmen for this movement, Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), put the call clearly when he said: “We are emerging from the era of individualism. The principle of co-ordination, cooperation and solidarity is being applied in ever-widening areas and is gaining remarkable hold on the spirits of men.” Rauschenbusch (photo at right) based his call on Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that could not be limited only to the world to come but one which confronted the kingdoms of mankind in the here and now. Rauschenbusch developed the American version of the social-gospel into a more radically socialist tradition (An Introduction to Christianity, 257). Christian studies scholar Linda Woodhead rightly concludes, “With the social gospel, we find ourselves squarely in the territory of liberal rather than evangelical Christianity” (An Introduction to Christianity, 257). The gulf this created would widen into the early twentieth century creating a more significant division within all of Protestantism in America. Linda Woodhead again concludes, regarding the nineteenth century, that:
Most Anglo-Saxon Protestantism tended to converge in a broad, triumphant stream in which differences were subordinated to a broader sense of common purpose. The unity of the nation . . . went hand in hand with the unity of the Protestant religion, which was believed by many to seal their triumph. . . . For much of the nineteenth century . . . that which united Protestants, both liberal and evangelical, was greater than that which divided them. The common ground can be captured in three main points (An Introduction to Christianity, 257).