By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
Unlike the Fundamentalists, the liberal Protestant group accepted the findings of intellectuals such as Darwin. Now even within the liberal Protestant group, that is, those who accepted the fruits of modern intellectual life, there are further splits between, for example, those who did and did not adapt to what was called the social gospel.
Henry Ward Beecher
Let’s begin with the one who rejected it, Henry Ward Beecher. He was the son of Lyman Beecher, one of the most famous early 19th century preachers; and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who’d written Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the great antislavery novel. He was himself one of the most famous preachers of the late 19th century.
He had a prosperous parish in Brooklyn, and he actually took his own parishioners out of the congressionalist denomination, rather than submitting to its austere doctrinal orthodoxy. He wasn’t a biblical literalist, however. For example, he did believe that the evolutionary account was superior to that offered in the Bible.
Beecher on Jesus’ Temperance
Beecher was also a temperance man. He believed that alcohol was wrong, and he got into an anxious debate with some other clergymen about the question of Jesus’s first miracle. After all, Jesus turned water into wine.
Now, temperance people wanted very strongly to believe that Jesus would have been a temperance man had he been alive today, but of course, here was Jesus actually making wine, so that there must have been something with that. Well, some clergymen believed that Jesus actually made unfermented grape juice. That was one theory.
Beecher, though, believed that it really was wine. If Jesus were living today, though, he would have understood what a danger, what a hazard alcohol is in industrial cities, and he would have been prohibitionist as well.
He also accepted Social Darwinism. He said if somebody was poor, and there was a great deal of poverty in American cities particularly, then it was their own fault. He said, “Looking comprehensively through city and town, village and country, the general truth will stand that no man in this land suffers from poverty unless it be more than his fault, unless it be his sin.”
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
On the other side, the social gospel side, Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden were two ministers who argued for the idea of the social gospel. They said, “Don’t think in terms of individual salvation for each soul in an encounter with God; think, rather, of the collective improvement of society.”
They were aware of the business cycle, the fact that sometimes industrial conditions create a boom, and there’s work for everybody, but then at other times, an excess of supply over demand throws hundreds of people out of work, but not because they’re sinners.
Now, of course, in days when nearly everybody lived on a farm, the business cycle was far less important, because it was always possible to grow your own food, but if you are dependent on wages to buy food, and you can’t get work because of the business cycle rather than because of your own faults, clearly a new kind of social approach to that problem is necessary, and this was the approach taken by the social gospelers.
Washington Gladden said,
The Christian moralist is bound to admonish the Christian employer, but the wage system, when it rests on competition as its sole basis, is anti-social and anti-Christian. The doctrine which bases all the relations of employer and employed upon self-interest is a doctrine of the pit… It has been bringing hell to Earth in large installments.
Some urban Christians even took the further step of saying that capitalism itself was incompatible with Christianity—that we must be socialists. They claimed that Jesus himself had been a primitive socialist.
Jesus—the workingman of Nazareth—with his bag of carpenter’s tools, would go along to the union meeting and preach collective sharing. George Herron, one of the best of the Christian Socialists, said,
Christ is disappointed in this nation. We are a fallen nation, an apostate people. We have done those material and political things we ought not to have done, and left undone the social and righteous things we ought to have done. I see no other hope for our nation, no other redemption for society, than a religious revival such as the world has never known, that shall enthrone Christ in our national ideals, and give men the common will and power to put the Christ life into social practice.
Gap Between Liberal Protestants and Fundamentalists
Thus, divisions in Protestantism occurred that were destined to become sharper. Those who continued to insist upon the inherency of scripture are the people whom we now refer to as “fundamentalists”. That’s because a group of them published a series of booklets in the early 20th century called “The Fundamentals,” in which they insisted on an irreducible minimum of beliefs that Christians must hold.
One of those was the inherency of scripture, the reality of miracles, the reality of the resurrection as an actual physical event, the reality of the Virgin birth, and so on. This was the Christian realm from which the liberal Protestants were tending to distance themselves.
Common Questions About Social Gospel and the Emergence of Fundamentalists
Henry Ward Beecher was a famous preacher of he 19th century. He was the son of Lyman Beecher, one of the most famous early 19th century preachers; and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who’d written Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the great antislavery novel.
Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden were two ministers who argued for the idea of the social gospel. They said, “Don’t think in terms of individual salvation for each soul in an encounter with God; think, rather, of the collective improvement of society.”
Some urban Christians took the further step of saying that capitalism itself was incompatible with Christianity—that we must be socialists. They claimed that Jesus himself had been a primitive socialist. Jesus—the workingman of Nazareth—with his bag of carpenter’s tools, would go along to the union meeting and preach collective sharing.