Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

The name of Walter Rauschenbusch is synonymous with the Social Gospel, a movement that exerted a major influence in Mainline American Protestantism at the outset of the twentieth century with the aim of mobilizing American Christians to work for a more just society for all, especially the urban working class.  Walter Rauschenbusch served as pastor to a Baptist congregation of German immigrants on the edge of Hell’s Kitchen (a neighborhood in midtown Manhattan) in New York, taught church history at Rochester Theological Seminary  (now Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School), and traveled the length and breadth of America by railroad to advocate the cause of the Social Gospel.   He was committed to the necessity of vital religious experience to transform individual personalities and political activism to make social structures in society equitable.   More than any other person Walter Rauschenbusch captured the spirit of the Social Gospel Movement, alerting his contemporaries to a perceived social crisis unfolding in America during the opening decades of the twentieth century and exhorting them to seize a unique opportunity for social progress.  He railed against the brutal social conditions that were the product of rapid industrialization, and, yet, ironically, kept company with some of the wealthiest capitalists in America.  “In reality, he was primarily a pastor whose goal was nothing short of preaching for the conversion of America” (Evans, 2004, xxv).    The disquiet he expressed at America going to war against Germany, the land of his parents’ birth and many of the people he served in his pastoral ministry, ultimately resulted in Rauschenbusch falling out of public favor in America as the First World War progressed.  He produced the definitive statement of the theology of the Social Gospel, A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917) shortly before his death.  Rauschenbusch did not live to see Germany defeated in 1918.

1. Background


Walter Rauschenbusch was born in Rochester, New York, on October 4, 1861.  His father, August Rauschenbusch, was a German immigrant to America who had been raised as a Lutheran, but became a Baptist.  August was educated at Berlin University and ordained to the Lutheran ministry in 1840.  He perceived his main objectives as a pastor to be awakening his parishioners to an awareness of their sin and the need to accept Jesus into their lives. In 1844 he sensed a calling to mission work among the German immigrants in the United States.  He crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1846 and commenced a new chapter of ministry.  Attracted to the vigor of Baptist life and increasingly persuaded that the Baptist way of being the church coincided most closely with the teaching of the New Testament, August was baptized as a believer by total immersion in the Mississippi River in May 1850 and commenced activity as a Baptist evangelist and church planter.  He married Caroline Rumps in 1854.  August was invited to lead the German Department at the recently formed Rochester Theological Seminary in Rochester, New York, in 1858. The move to Rochester coincided with the death of the second of August and Caroline’s children, Wilfrieda.  A third child, Emily, was born in 1859.  Walter Rauschenbusch was the fourth child born to August and Caroline.  He grew up in a home characterized by strict discipline, a keen commitment to excellence in education, and an experiential form of Christian piety.  August Rauschenbusch relocated his wife and children to Germany temporarily in 1865 for a period of four years.  As a consequence of his cultural background and experience Walter acquired fluency in German and English.


Walter Rauschenbusch was educated in America and Germany.   His father arranged for him to study in a German Gymnasium (similar to an American college education) for four years (1879-1883), located in GŁterslob, a small city in Westphalia, Prussia.  Augu Rauschenbusch wanted his son to experience the German system of higher education, which he believed to be superior to the American version.  He also hoped that immersion in the religious and cultural environment of his homeland would reinforce his own orthodox values and piety in his son.   Walter Rauschenbusch attended lectures at several German universities: Dresden, Leipzig, Halle, and Berlin.  He returned to America via England, spending a few weeks in London and making trips to Oxford and Liverpool.


In 1883 Walter Rauschenbusch commenced studies at the University of Rochester and Rochester Theological Seminary.  The university gave him three years of credit based on the education he had received in Germany.  He would need one more year of studies to earn his undergraduate degree.  The seminary and the university at Rochester granted Rauschenhusch permission to study for their respective degree programs simultaneously.  At seminary he wrestled with the challenge of reconciling the claims of evolutionary science and evangelical Christianity.  He considered what it meant to claim that Scripture is infallible, and, like his father, developed an interest in the Anabaptists.  Rauschenbusch probed the limits of orthodoxy in some of his seminary papers, especially the doctrine of the Atonement.  Although some of the theological conservatives on the faculty were troubled by his liberal views, the seminary was pleased with his academic record.  Rauschenbusch possessed an able mind, and graduated at the top of his class in May 1886.  Interestingly, the theme that came to dominate his theological agenda in later years, the Kingdom of God, was not especially prominent in his seminary career

Pastoral Ministry in New York

Walter Rauschenbusch was called to the pastorate of the Second German Baptist Church in New York City.  He began his ministry on 1st June 1886.  Here Rauschenbusch encountered the harsh realities of capitalist industrialization as experienced by the poor: unemployment, malnutrition, slums, and disease. His theology entered a period of flux. He was asked to intercede on behalf of church members; many were confronted by problems rooted in economic deprivation.  On one occasion he pleaded for a church member thrown out of hospital due to an inability to pay fees.  Not infrequently he was called to keep company with the dying.   The funerals Rauschenbusch conducted for children particularly affected him. Ultimately, Rauschenbusch’s experience of life, church, and ministry in New York in the period 1886-1892 was to change his understanding of what it meant to be a Christian.  He never totally abandoned the pietism exemplified in his parents; rather he enlarged the scope of what it meant to be a Christian and sought to persuade others to do the same. Most of his sermons in the early years at Second Baptist, which were preached in German, did not touch upon the topic of Social Christianity.   Rauschenbusch emphasized God’s love and the responsibility of congregants to live Christlike lives.

A Transition in Thought Begins

By 1887 he was wrestling with two issues: the spiritual care of his congregation and the social conditions of the city that created a chasm between rich and poor.  Rauschenbusch began to publish descriptions of the brutal reality experienced by the poor in New York in Baptist periodicals.  For many of the poor, no matter how hard they worked, would never rise to material and financial safety.   Ironically, as Rauschenbusch was developing a broader social vision, he was confronted with the challenge of raising funds to build a new place of worship for Second German Baptist.  He approached John D. Rockefeller to assist the building project with a financial contribution.  Rauschenbusch had first made Rockefeller’s acquaintance several years earlier, when the wealthy businessman had contributed generously to the work of Rochester Theological Seminary.  Contact was renewed when he attended the wedding of Rockefeller’s daughter, Bessie, to an old friend, Charles Strong.

Rauschenbusch attended a rally in support of Henry George’s “single tax” campaign in the first year of his pastorate.  (George advocated the abolition of all taxes except for a tax to be applied to the value of land.)  A Roman Catholic priest form New York, Father Edward McGlynn, spoke in support of the proposed program.  Rauschenbusch was struck by the way McGlynn connected Christian faith and economic reform.  McGlynn’s address concluded with the words of the Lord’s Prayer.  Something about the way the priest said the words, “Thy Kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth”, made a deep impression upon Walter Rauschenbusch. In 1888-1889 Rauschenbusch made more and more mention of the Kingdom of God in his public speaking. He began to think about writing a manuscript to articulate his ideas about the church and the Kingdom of God.

Sabbatical in Germany

Rauschenbusch began to experience a loss of hearing in one ear while at seminary.  The problem steadily grew more acute and increasingly prevented him from fulfilling all his pastoral responsibilities.  In 1891 he announced his resignation from the pastorate at Second German Baptist Church and embarked upon a trip to Germany with his family in search of medical assistance and intellectual invigoration.  Much to his amazement, the church refused to accept his resignation and generously contributed to the expense of this overseas expedition.  Rauschenhusch spent nine months in Germany from March to December 1891.  His sabbatical in Germany would give him the opportunity to set down on paper the convictions that had begun to emerge in the context of pastoral ministry in New York.  Rauschenbusch formulated his doctrine of the Kingdom of God, which became the organizing principle of his theology and life work.

Towards the end of his sabbatical, Rauschenbusch traveled to England and visited London, Birmingham, and Liverpool to learn about Anglican socialism and other forms of British social Christianity.  He was greatly impressed by Birmingham’s “municipal socialism”.  The local government in Birmingham controlled all gas and water supplies, and provided free meals in schools for children.  Rauschenbusch was fascinated by the work of the Salvation Army in London and a great admirer of General William Booth’s In Darkest England, an account of the hardship and poverty endured by the English working class, published in 1890.

Rauschenbusch did not find a cure for his deafness, but he did experience a renewal of spiritual life, conviction, and purpose.  On his return to New York, he established several new neighborhood projects.  Rauschenbusch also founded the Brotherhood of the Kingdom, an informal network of mainly ministers committed to the social transformation of American society.

Brotherhood of the Kingdom

In 1892 Rauschenbusch convened a meeting at his New York apartment of Baptist ministers interested in advancing an agenda for social justice in the life of the contemporary church in America.  The following summer ten Baptist ministers and a layman gathered at a private family summer residence to the North of New York at Marlborough on the Hudson.   From 1893 onwards the Brotherhood of the Kingdom met annually in the summer for almost twenty years at the same location.   The Brotherhood of the Kingdom served as a source of mutual support for members and think tank, a testing ground for Rauschenbusch’s ideas.

Rochester Theological Seminary 

In 1897 Rauschenbusch was offered a position on the German faculty at Rochester Theological Seminary.   The first five years of his career as a seminary professor afforded him little time to engage in academic research and writing, because he was responsible for teaching a broad range of classes.  His students were mainly German immigrants.   The sudden death of a colleague in the English department, a professor of church history, created a vacancy on the faculty that was made available to Rauschenbusch.  He accepted the invitation and found himself presented with an opportunity to pursue studies that would serve his interest in social Christianity.

Prophet of the Social Gospel Movement

The publication of Christianity and the Social Crises announced Rauschenbusch to a larger public beyond German Baptist circles.  He received numerous invitations to speak on the themes addressed in the book.  Rauschenbusch began to travel widely to advance the cause of the Social Gospel.    It was not unusual for Rauschenbusch to teach classes in seminary during the week and then travel over the weekend to fulfill speaking engagements.  His journeys took him to New York, New England, Nashville, Berkeley in California, and Chicago.

Twilight Years

Walter Rauschenbusch achieved a national profile as a consequence of the publication of Christianity and the Social Crisis.  His prominence in the period 1907-1917 coincided with the high watermark of the Social Gospel in America.  America’s decision to go to war against Germany was a bitter blow to Rauschenbusch.  His opposition to war and reluctance to demonize Germany earned him a great deal of criticism in an atmosphere of extreme patriotism and hostility towards Germany.  Although Rauschenbusch was deeply affected by America’s entry into World War One, he managed to complete the manuscript for A Theology for the Social Gospel, which was published in 1917.  His health deteriorated rapidly in the first months of the following year.  Rauschenbusch was eventually hospitalized in June 1918.  Doctors operated and discovered cancer in the colon.  The last weeks of Rauschenbusch's life were marked by considerable distress.  He died on 25 July 1918.

2. Works (Selected List)

Christianity Revolutionary (1891 [Published posthumously as The Righteousness of the Kingdom (1968)], Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), For God and the People: Prayers of the Social Awakening (1910), Christianizing the Social Order (1912), The Social Principles of Jesus (1916), A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917).

3. Themes

History rather than Metaphysics

History was the fundamental category in Rauschenbusch’s thought. In this he followed closely in the footsteps of Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf von Harnack. Rauschenbusch viewed the study of history as a search for signs of the Kingdom of God in human affairs. Although, he never wrote a significant piece of historical scholarship, Rauschenbusch nevertheless utilized historical scholarship to make his case for the Social Gospel. He also drew upon sociology. Rauschenbusch was not interested in metaphysical speculation in doctrinal matters. He did not abandon the cardinal doctrines of Christianity, but he did reinterpret them in the light of his understanding of the Kingdom of God which points to a progressive effort to establish a more just social order. Doctrine was primarily about social ethics. The main lines of his thought were laid down in the late nineteenth century. He remained firmly entrenched in the categories of historical contingency, German idealism, evolutionary thought, and personalism. Rauschenbusch critically appropriated these themes in his own theology and ministry. He welded them together with his inherited evangelical piety that recognized the presence and power of a living God to transform human lives. 

Social Transformation: Crisis and Opportunity

Rauschenbusch’s experience of pastoral ministry prompted him to rethink his theology. He believed that American Christianity was confronted by a seismic social crisis that cried out for a prophetic response to challenge those forces that exploited the working classes and made their lives intolerable. The themes of crisis and opportunity run like a repeated chorus through the books Rauschenbusch wrote between 1907 and 1917. Rauschenbusch was weighed down by the appalling conditions he witnessed in America at the turn of the century, but he was essentially optimistic that the church could rise to the occasion for the sake of the Kingdom of God. A better social order could be created, although it would never be perfect.

Evil and Salvation: Personal and Social 

Rauschenbusch never trivialized the reality of sin and evil. These were forces active in individual human beings and systemically in the institutions and structures of society. Rauschenbusch was convinced that individual human beings needed to be saved. He could recognize in Dwight L. Moody, a renowned revivalist preacher, a kindred spirit, a man who wanted to see lives changed for the better by the power of the risen Christ. Rauschenbusch wanted to expand the notions of sin and salvation. Both were intensely personal and supra-personal. Rauschenbusch articulated the concepts of systemic evil and the possibility of social redemption. He envisaged an increasing Christianization of American society, by which he meant that institutions and social relations in America could increasingly be brought under the influence of the law of Christ. Christian principles could make a positive difference to the social order, even thought they would never be comprehensively or perfectly implemented.

4. Outline of Major Works

Christianity Revolutionary [The Righteousness of the Kingdom]

Walter Rauschenbusch wrote Christianity Revolutionary over the summer of 1891 while on sabbatical leave from Second German Baptist Church in New York. Christianity Revolutionary emerged out of his pastoral experience in New York and sabbatical studies in theology, history, and sociology. The production of a manuscript proved to be a catalytic process. Although not published during his lifetime, Christianity Revolutionary articulated the theological framework and principles that would inform his ministry over the next two decades. Rauschenbsuch immersed himself in the writings of German Protestant scholarship, especially the work of Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889). According to Ritschl, Christianity is essentially a historical religion and the best way of understanding the development of Christian thought since the time of the Apostles is by means of historical study. Rauschenbusch appropriated this historical approach to studying Christianity. Ritschl was instrumental in refocusing German Protestant scholarship’s attention upon the Kingdom of God as a major theme in the teaching of Jesus. As a result of his studies Rauschenbusch gained a historical perspective on the New Testament that evoked a fresh study of the connection between the early church and the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God provided Rauschenbush with the means of making a conceptual breakthrough. “In effect, German liberalism gave him the theological framework for articulating the beliefs that he already had held for several years” (Evans, 2004, 94). Rauschenbusch did not absorb everything then current in German theological scholarship. He was critical of the social conservatism that he detected in Ritschl’s work, which seemed inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. He was also perturbed by the intense nationalism evident in both conservative and liberal theologians in Germany.

Christianity Revolutionary argues that the Kingdom of God had been central to the ministry of Jesus and the early mission of the church. Indeed, the Kingdom of God was the authentic core of Christianity. In Christianity Revolutionary the Kingdom of God is a social ideal that grows gradually, almost organically, and is depicted as a Messianic theocracy with a present hope that points forward to the realization of a transformed social order. The Kingdom of God integrates social ideal and spiritual reality:

Christ initiated his Kingdom on earth by establishing a community of spiritual men, in inward communion with God and in outward obedience to him. This was the living germ of the Kingdom…Every such step forward, every increase in mercy, every obedience to justice, every added brightness of truth would be an extension of the reign of God in humanity, an incoming of the Kingdom of God. The more men became saturated with the thoughts of Christ the more they came to judge all actions from this point of view, the more they conformed the outward life of society to the advancing inward standard, the more would Christ be the dominant force in the world (Rauschenbusch, 1891, 87-88).

Rauschenbusch believed that Jesus’ ministry stood in continuity with the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. The Old Testament prophets had declared a message of judgment upon social and political practices in ancient Israel. Christianity Revolutionary argues that the message of Jesus was, indeed, radical. The Old Testament stressed fidelity to a particular nation, Israel. Jesus enlarged the scope of the Kingdom to embrace all the nations of the world. The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed and initiated confronted society with real demands for social transformation. Rauschenbusch echoes Ritschl, when he insists that the power of the Kingdom of God is manifested gradually and not suddenly:

The fact is that the experience of all these centuries has been a long commentary on the coming of the Kingdom. The prophets expected it suddenly. The coming of the Messiah, the judgement, the destruction of the wicked, the erection of the perfect reign of God, all this they saw as one event. John the Baptist expected it that way too. Christ emphasized the gradualness of it. It was a growth like the growth of a mustard plant. It was an organic process like the fermentation of yeast (Ibid., 109).

Rauschenbsuch frequently illustrates the Kingdom of God in terms of organic development, a concept that is compatible with German liberal idealism (A movement that stressed the realization of ideas within historical processes.). Furthermore, he is persuaded that God’s love is primarily directed to the transformation of individual human personalities, a theme that is very prominent in American liberal theology at the end of the nineteenth century. The more individuals embraced and lived out the teachings of Jesus, the more society would improve for the better. Yet, Rauschenbusch was not blind to the human tendency to self-interest, which would always work against the advance of the Kingdom of God. Ultimately, Rauschenbusch offered little in the way of concrete proposals to remedy the social ills that troubled him so deeply. He did insist that Christians must be prepared to suffer for their beliefs and the cause of social justice. Social change must be accomplished by means of non-violence. Rauschenbusch showed the manuscript of Christianity Revolutionary to some of his close friends. The book did not reach the public domain until after his death. Some of the themes he addressed did see the light of day in the book that would make Rauschenbusch a household name in America.

Christianity and the Social Crisis

Rauschenbusch began to rework some of the themes he had expressed in the manuscript he wrote on sabbatical in 1891 and added material developed in subsequent published articles through the summer of 1905 and finished the new book in 1906. It was published in America under the title Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), while he was on sabbatical in Germany. The main thesis of the book is that Christianity at the beginning of the twentieth century confronts a time of immense social crisis, which simultaneously offers the disciples of Jesus Christ an unparalleled opportunity to work for the social order to fit more harmoniously with the demands of the Kingdom of God.

Why did the early church seemingly abandon Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God? In effect, Rauschenbusch responded with a revisionist history of the early church to account for the demise of the Kingdom of God as the central concept in Christian theology and concluded that the contemporary church needed to reconnect with the revolutionary teachings of the Kingdom of God.

Rauschenbusch attributed the present crisis to a conflict between the well being of the mass of the population and the vested interests of the powerful. American capitalism had produced a fundamentally unjust social and economic system. Rauschenbusch strove to create a new society in which the major structures of American society would enable a more equitable distribution of resources. He directed his appeal to the American middle-class and exhorted them to work for the improvement of the working poor. Inaction on the part of the churches meant that they were complicit in perpetuating an unjust social order. Rauschenbusch observed the effects of capitalism on the working poor:

During the great industrial crisis in the 90’s I saw good men go into disreputable lines of employment and respectable widows consent to live with men who would support them and their children. One could hear the human virtue cracking and crumbling all around. Whenever work is scarce, petty crime is plentiful. But that is only the tangible expression of the decay in the morale of the working people on which the statistics can seize. The corresponding decay in the morality of the possessing classes at such a time is another story. But industrial crises are not inevitable in nature; they are merely inevitable in capitalism (Rauschenbusch, 1907, 238).

Rauschenbusch argues in chapters 1-3 that the prophets, Jesus, and the early church had articulated a genuine vision from God, which had subsequently disappeared in the Middle-Ages (chapter 4). Chapter 5 elaborates the present crisis. In chapter 6, Rauschenbusch claims that church and society have a ‘stake’ in correcting the present dire situation. The concluding chapter 7 outlines a proposal for remedial action. The church must work for justice. Christians that toiled to build the Kingdom of God were entering a new phase of history. They were recovering the original radical spirit of Christianity that had been lost and applying it to modern industrial society. Rauschenbush did not believe that social and political progress were inevitable:

The continents are strewn with the ruins of dead nations and civilizations. History laughs at the optimistic illusion that “nothing can stand in the way of human progress” (Ibid., 279).

Rauschenbusch was especially scathing towards evangelical Christians who claimed that advocates of the Social Gospel were not serious about the depth of sin in individual human beings, but who themselves were blind and indifferent to systemic forms of evil, even mistaking them for manifestations of divine goodness and power:

Social religion, too, demands repentance and faith: repentance for our social sins; faith in the possibility of a new social order…. Those who believe in a better social order are often told that they do not know the sinfulness of the human heart. They could justly retort the charge on the men of the evangelical school. When the latter deal with public wrongs, they often exhibit curious unfamiliarity with the forms which sin assumes there, and, sometimes reverently bow before one of the devil’s spider webs, praising it as one of the mighty works of God (Ibid., 349).

Progress towards justice in society is always hard won and never perfectly realized:

In asking for the possibility of a new social order, we ask for no Utopian delusion. We know well that there is no perfection for man in this life: there is only growth toward perfection…. We shall never have a perfect social life, yet we must seek it with faith…. At best there is always but an approximation to a perfect social order. The Kingdom of God is always but coming (Ibid., 420-421).

Christianity and the Social Crisis was widely read and went through six printings in two years. The passion and clarity of Rauschenbusch’s writing captured the imagination of Protestant Mainline Christians in America. Christianity and the Social Crisis articulated what many clergy wanted to say and propelled the message of the Social Gospel out of the shadows into the broad light of a very public day. The genius of the book was the way in which Rauschenbusch linked a theological vision of social justice to a vividly described social crisis and challenged his readers to act on behalf of oppressed people (Evans, 2004, 187). Rauschenbusch had issued a prophetic challenge to his contemporaries in the Protestant Mainline churches. Ten years later he would compose a systematic theology to justify the Social Gospel.

A Theology for the Social Gospel

A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917) is Walter Rauschenbusch’s attempt to lay a theological foundation for the Social Gospel Movement: “We have a social gospel. We need a systematic theology large enough to match it and vital enough to back it” (Ruaschenbusch, 1917, 1). The first three chapters of A Social Theology for the Gospel make the case for a “readjustment and expansion of theology” (Ibid.) to supply a sufficient intellectual foundation for the social gospel. The remainder of the book attempts to show how key Christian doctrines can be “expanded and readjusted” (Ibid.) to incorporate ideas central to the social gospel.

A Theology for the Social Gospel argues for the reality of sin in both personal and social dimensions. The Social Gospel has rediscovered the social nature of sin and recognizes “the super-personal forces of evil” (Ibid., 69) ) manifested in social realities. Rauschenbusch insists that salvation also consists of personal and social dimensions. The middle segment of the book seeks to show how the Social Gospel springs from the centrality of the Kingdom of God in the mission and message of Jesus Christ. Jesus initiated the Kingdom of God, which has implications for the Christian conception of God, and the task of the church. Rauschenbusch concludes by asking how the Social Gospel sheds fresh light on the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), eschatology, and the Atonement.

Walter Rauschenbsuch in the course of his pastoral ministry, seminary teaching, and advocacy of the Social Gospel never doubted that sin exists. In A Theology for the Social Gospel he maintains that Christianity has always had a strong sense of the reality of sin. But what is sin? According to Rauschenbusch, “Theology with remarkable unanimity has discerned that sin is essentially selfishness. This is an ethical and social definition, and is proof of the unquenchable social spirit of Christianity” (Ibid., 47). Classical theology has failed to understand the social aspect of sin, and instead viewed sin almost exclusively as a private matter between God and the individual person. Human beings sin against God, and at the same time, sin against fellow human beings because as human beings we are all connected to one another. The weakness of much theology lies in its failure to see the complex matrix of sin. Rauschenbusch defends the traditional doctrine of original sin, but reinterprets it. The classic doctrine of original sin claimed a biological transmission of sin from generation to generation. Rauschenbusch asserts that “sin is transmitted along the lines of social tradition” (Ibid., 60). Sin socially transmitted and accumulated in humanity “is absorbed by the individual from his social group” ( Ibid.). Collective sins appear as “the super-personal forces of evil” (Ibid., 69) )which belong to the “Kingdom of Evil” (Ibid., 78) opposed to the Kingdom of God. What then is salvation? How can a person be saved? A person or persons can be saved only by turning away form self to God and to humanity. They will find salvation only if they give up selfishness in cooperative work with others to overcome it. A religious experience of solidarity is more Christian than a purely individualistic one. Rauschenbusch is adamant that the old, individualistic conceptions of sin and salvation must be reconsidered in the more Biblical and corporate views of humanity proposed by the Social Gospel. Rauschnebusch does not deny the significance of individual salvation as an essential part of the whole spectrum of Christian salvation (Ibid., 95). Yet, a narrowly individualized notion of salvation is deficient in two respects. First, it tends to ignore Jesus’ teachings of discipleship in the Kingdom as servanthood and cooperation, but unconsciously emphasizes personal selfishness. Second, it tends to see individual salvation as of ultimate importance and so does not recognize the necessity of the redemption of social institutions and the creation of an environment in which individuals can be transformed.

Rauschenbusch recognized that sin as a collective reality is manifested in supra-personal forces beyond the scope of individual responsibility. The state and economic institutions, as “super-personal forces” (Ibid., 110) or “composite personalities” (Ibid., 111), are proper objects of Christian salvation, and can be transformed by orienting them more and more to the law of Christ (Ibid., 117). The task of the Social Gospel is to make this comprehensive vision of social salvation happen. A narrow, individualistic idea of Christian salvation can be corrected by a theology focused on the Kingdom of God that discloses the deeper social aspects of human sinfulness. The doctrine of the Kingdom of God is the center of A Theology for the Social Gospel, around which other theological themes are placed to construct a theology to support the Social Gospel. For Rauschenbusch:

The Kingdom of God is divine in its origin, progress and consummation. It was initiated by Jesus Christ, in whom the prophetic spirit came to its consummation, it is sustained by the Holy Spirit, and it will be brought to its fulfilment by the power of God in his own time….The Kingdom of God, therefore, is miraculous all the way, and is the continuous revelation of the power, the righteousness, and the love of God (Ibid., 139.

It is “the supreme purpose of God…. It is realized not only by redemption, but also by the education of mankind and the revelation of his life within it” (Ibid., 140). “It is for us to see the Kingdom of God as always coming, always pressing in on the present, always big with possibility, and always inviting immediate action” (Ibid., 141). Long before Christ, “men of God” anticipated the Kingdom of God as the final destination for humanity. Christ offered a distinctive interpretation of the Kingdom of God, which sets Christianity apart. The Kingdom of God is no less than “humanity organized according to the will of God” (Ibid., 142). Rauschenbusch is optimistic about the possibilities open to humanity. He thinks that “the progressive reign of love in human affairs” (Ibid., 142) will bring about “the progressive unity of mankind” (Ibid., 143).

Rauschenbusch is convinced that the Kingdom of God embraces all aspects of human life. “The Church is one social institution alongside of the family, the industrial organization of society, and the State. The Kingdom of God is in all these, and realizes itself through them all” (Ibid., 145). The Kingdom of God can be progressively realized with the co-operation of the divine and the human, but the Kingdom of God can never be perfectly realized. Rauschenbusch did not expect utopia to arrive within the contingencies of human history, but he did think it was possible to create a better social order than the one offered by capitalism.

The doctrine of God follows the exposition of the doctrine of the Kingdom of God in A Theology for the Social Gospel. Rauscehnbusch claims that the Kingdom of God is “the necessary background for the Christian idea of God” (Ibid., 178). He points out that the idea of God has been historically developed and, in that sense, is a social product, created by a particular social group. The concept of God is not unchanging but can change and grow because it is socially formed. More specifically, “the social relations in which men lived, affected their conceptions about God and his relations to men” (Ibid., 174). Jesus was unique:

When he took God by the hand and called him “our Father,” he democratized the conception of God. He disconnected the idea from the coercive and predatory State and transferred it to the realm of family life, the chief embodiment of solidarity and love. He not only saved humanity; he saved God (Ibid., 174-175).

The Social Gospel succeeds to the spirit of the Reformation by liberating humanity from wrong concepts of God (Ibid., 177). Rauschenbusch contends that the immanence of God to humanity is the foundation for democratic notions of God. The democratic notion of God asserts God’s solidarity with human beings for the Kingdom of God against the forces of evil that oppress human life. “The consciousness of solidarity, therefore, is of the essence of religion” (Ibid., 186).

Jesus Christ, for Rauschenbusch, is the initiator of the Kingdom of God. Rasuchenbusch is not interested in the traditional exposition of Jesus Christ as a hypostatic union of the divine and the human. Rather, he looks to Jesus as “the perfect religious personality” (Ibid., 154) who overcame “mysticism”, “pessimism”, and “asceticism”, by virtue of his consciousness of God (Ibid., 155-157). Jesus lived out through his earthly life what he taught about the Kingdom of God. In this sense, Rauschenbusch says, “The fundamental first step in the salvation of mankind was the achievement of the personality of Jesus. Within him the Kingdom of God got its first foothold in humanity. It was by virtue of his personality that he became the initiator of the Kingdom” (Ibid., 151). Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God, Rauschenbusch firmly believes, provide a solid foundation for the Social Gospel’s understanding of the Kingdom.

Rauschenbusch defines the nature of the Christian Church in relation to the Kingdom of God; the Church must not exist for itself, but for the Kingdom, which gives the Church power to save. Rauschebusch operates with an instrumental concept of the Church; it exists to serve the Kingdom of God. For him, the Church is “the social factor in salvation” (Ibid., 118), which ‘brings social forces to bear on evil. It offers Christ not only many human bodies and minds to serve as ministers of his salvation, but its own composite personality, with a collective memory stored with great hymns and Bible stories an deeds of heroism, with trained aesthetic and moral feelings, and with a collective will set on righteousness” (Ibid., 119). Rauschenbusch was a committed Baptist throughout his life. He adhered passionately to a congregational form of the church characterized by suspicion of hierarchy and creeds, but firmly in favor of democratic government. Rauschenbusch offers little in the way of reflection upon the doctrine of the Church, because the Church is so thoroughly subordinated to the doctrine of the Kingdom of God.

The final chapter in A Theology for the Social Gospel interprets the doctrine of Atonement in the light of two modern principles: personality and solidarity. Rauschenbusch is clear that the sins of humanity caused the death of Jesus and the spiritual situation of human beings has been changed by the death of Jesus. He rejects any theory of atonement conceived as “a legal theory of imputation” (Ibid., 259) in favor of “a conception of spiritual solidarity” (Ibid.). Rauschenbusch argues that social sins ultimately sent Jesus to the cross: religious bigotry, political power, a corruption of justice, mob spirit and mob action, militarism, and class contempt. The cross “was the conclusive demonstration of the power of sin in humanity” (Ibid., 267) and “the supreme revelation of love” (Ibid., 270). The death of Jesus is an example of vicarious suffering. “It has inspired courage and defiance of evil, and sent men on lost hopes. The cross of Christ put God’s approval on the sacrificial impulse in the hearts of the brave, and dignified it by connecting it with one of the central dogmas of our faith. The cross has become the motive and method of noble personalities” (Ibid., 278). The cross inspires the cause of prophetic religion and strengthens the redemptive power of the Kingdom of God.

5. Relation to Other Thinkers

Rauschenbusch’s concept of the Kingdom of God was a product of reflection upon his pastoral experience in New York in the light of nineteenth century German liberal theology. He never embraced the new perspective on the Kingdom of God as an apocalyptic supernatural irruption into history advocated by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer at the beginning of the twentieth century. Reinhold Niebuhr similarly witnessed the hardship and poverty of the urban industrial working class as a pastor in the city of Detroit, home to Henry Ford’s automobile manufacturing plants. Niebuhr was critical of his predecessor, but, in reality, built upon his insights into systemic evil. The charge of sentimentality that Niebuhr leveled against the Social Gospel Movement can hardly be justified in the case of Walter Rauschenbusch, who was consistently alert to the reality of sin and the necessity of struggle to advance the Kingdom of God. Martin Luther King, Jr., a fellow Baptist who became the key spokesman in the civil rights movement, which strove to achieve parity for African-Americans in the 1950s, found inspiration in his fellow Baptist, when he studied Rauschenbusch’s writings in seminary. Rauschenbusch provided a great deal of the theological rationale for seeking social change by nonviolent means, an approach adopted by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement. More recently, James McClendon, also a Baptist theologian, has identified Walter Rauschenbusch as part of the community of reference that has shaped his own theological vision (McClendon, 1994, 57-58). McClendon constantly engages with American culture in church and society in the course of his three volume systematic theology and seeks to evaluate both in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. McClendon comments wryly on A Theology for the Social Gospel, “…it is a lively book because it combats concrete evil. Sadly, such evil persists; many of Rauschenbusch’s pages might have been written yesterday” (Ibid., 57).

6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Dorien, Gary. 1995. Soul in Society: The Making and Renewal of Social Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

            . 2003. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity 1900-1950. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Evans, Christopher H. 2004. The Kingdom is Always but Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

McClendon, James. 1994. Doctrine: Systematic Theology. Vol. 2. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Rauschenbusch, Walter. 1891[1968]. Christianity Revolutionary [Published as The Righteousness of the Kingdom. Edited by Max L. Stackhouse. Nashville: Abingdon Press.]

            . 1907 [Harper Torchbooks Edition 1964]. Christianity and the Social Crisis. Edited by Robert D. Cross. New York: Harper & Row.

            . 1912. Christianizing the Social Order. New York: Macmillan.

            . 1916. The Social Principles of Jesus. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.

            . 1917 [Library of Theological Ethics Edition 1997]. A Theology for the Social Gospel. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.

Robbins, Anna M. 2004. Methods in the Madness: Diversity in Twentieth-Century Christian Social Ethics. Paternoster Theological Monographs. Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press.

7. Internet Resources

Rauschenbusch Center for Spirit and Action is committed to equipping churches and their leaders to engage in social ministry,

Walter Rauschenbusch on Wikipedia

8. Related Topics



Author: Julian Gotobed, incorporating material submitted by Michelle Charles


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