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Social Gospel Movement

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Social Gospel Movement

In 1896, Social Gospel proponent Charles Monroe Sheldon asked, "What would Jesus do?". And today, we can see his lasting legacy with the acronym, "WWJD," on bumper stickers, wristbands, and more. But, according to the Social Gospel, what would Jesus do?

Social Gospel Movement Timeline and Facts

The Social Gospel Movement was a religious movement among various Protestant denominations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that aimed to improve the conditions of the urban poor. Proponents believed helping the less fortunate was a means to salvation.

Social Gospel Movement Timeline and Facts: Historical Context

America was not new to religious movements when the Social Gospel movement came around. In fact, there had been not one, but two periods known for religious revival and fervor: the First and Second Great Awakening. The First Great Awakening of the early to mid-18th century focused on salvation for the individual. In contrast, the Second Great Awakening of the late-18th and early-19th centuries introduced concern for society and its problems.

The concern for societal problems during the Second Great Awakening led to movements against drinking, prostitution, and even slavery. Here, we can find Protestant origins in the temperance movement and abolition movement. Following the Civil War, reform was no longer on the main agenda. Instead, everyone was busy experiencing the boom of industry and laissez-faire capitalism of the Gilded Age.

The Gilded Age:

a period of unprecedented economic growth in the late 19th century defined by materialism and corruption

With industrialization came the growth of urban populations as rural citizens fled to city centers for work. Citizens who were once farmers or shop owners were now wage-earners competing for jobs, giving large industries the power to take advantage of them. Adding in immigrants from Southern and Central Europe, cities became overcrowded and defined by squalor.

During the Gilded Age, Social Darwinism found support as a way to write off the suffering of those in need. Social Darwinists believed that natural selection and “survival of the fittest” applied to human beings. Following this flawed logic, groups such as the poor or disabled were simply “unfit” and helping them would interfere with the process of evolution and the betterment of society. Proponents of the Social Gospel movement attacked this ideology.

Social Gospel Movement Timeline and Facts: Development Under Washington Gladden

Social Gospel Movement Timeline Portrait of Washington Gladden StudySmarterPortrait of Washington Gladden, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Social Gospel movement first developed in the 1880s under Washington Gladden. During his time, serving as a minister at The Congregational Church in Springfield, Massachusetts, he became aware of the plight of workers while employees from shoe factories across town were on strike. Having previous experience writing as an editor for The New York Independent, he wrote Working People and Their Employers in 1876, advocating for workers’ unions and appealing to Christianity.

Ever the Progressive, while working for the New York Independent, Washington Gladden often wrote pieces exposing the corruption of Boss Tweed and his political machine in New York City.

Social Gospel Movement Timeline and Facts: Elements of the Social Gospel

The Social Gospel preached the importance of good works (charitable acts) in achieving salvation. The goal was to emulate Jesus Christ by helping the less fortunate and casting aside earthly desires. Hoarding wealth was sinful as it could be used to better the lives of others. The Social Gospel movement itself focused mainly on the plight of workers and advocated for reforms that would better their conditions such as:

  • A reduced work week (no work on Sundays)

  • The abolition of child labor

  • A livable wage

  • Regulation in factories

  • Disability insurance

Social Gospel Movement Timeline and Facts: The Peak of the Movement

By the early 20th century, it became clear that the societal problems caused by industrialization were not going away. The middle class could also see the plight of workers and the urban poor firsthand as investigative journalists, called muckrakers, exposed the horrific conditions in factories and tenement houses. As a result, the Social Gospel gained popularity alongside Progressivism.


a movement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that advocated for reform in various areas, from food safety to women's suffrage

Walter Rauschenbusch

Walter Rauschenbusch was a popular theologist and leading proponent of the Social Gospel movement. In 1907, he published Christianity and the Social Crisis, which became a key text outlining the principles of the movement as well as a call to action for the average Protestant.

“There is no question on which side the sympathy of the prophets was enlisted. Their protest against injustice and oppression, to the neglect of all other social evils, is almost monotonous.” - Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, 1907

Settlement Houses

One of the greatest contributions of the Social Gospel movement was the creation of settlement houses for the urban poor. Through these settlement houses, those in poverty could get access to healthcare, education, daycare, and other necessities they would not have otherwise. Many settlement houses also had spaces for recreation and offered counseling to residents.

Social Gospel Movement Facts Portrait of Jane Addams StudySmarterPortrait of Jane Addams, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most famous examples of a settlement house is the Hull House founded and operated by Jane Addams. Although she never claimed to be a proponent of the Social Gospel movement, her work embodied its message. Many settlement houses modeled their own facilities after the Hull House.

Civil Rights

Although the Social Gospel movement did not focus on civil rights, equality was the logical conclusion and there was a clear overlap between civil rights activists and proponents of the Social Gospel. Washington Gladden, who we discussed earlier, actually played an important role in the creation of the NAACP, a prominent civil rights organization founded in 1909.

Social Gospel Movement Successes

During World War I, the Social Gospel became a mechanism for the Protestant ministers to increase nationalism and popular support for the war. After the devastation and disillusionment following the war, both the Social Gospel movement and Progressivism as a whole lost their momentum.

However, in conjunction with the efforts of Progressives, proponents of the Social Gospel movement were successful in getting reforms passed at the state, local, and national levels throughout the early 19th century. Across the United States, factory regulation laws became the norm as did workmen’s compensation. Child labor became increasingly regulated and welfare benefits appeared for the first time. And, outside of working conditions, there were the great successes of the temperance movement and women’s suffrage movement.

Social Gospel Movement Significance and Impact

The Social Gospel movement played a large role in the rise of Progressivism and the election of religious, reform-minded leaders like Woodrow Wilson. Although the Social Gospel movement lost ground among the general public following the 1920s, it succeeded in creating lasting legislation and changing the public's perspective on the plight of the working class and urban poor.

When Martin Luther King Jr. attended Crozer Theological Seminary, he learned about the Social Gospel, and it became a foundational part of his theology and ideology.

Social Gospel Movement - Key takeaways

  • The Social Gospel movement was a Protestant movement that aimed to help the less fortunate, particularly the urban poor. Proponents argued that charitable acts were a means of salvation and fought against the notions of Social Darwinism.
  • The Social Gospel gained momentum in the 1880s as urban populations grew and conditions for the working class worsened. It became clear that the problems of industrialization were not going to resolve themselves.
  • Important figures include:
    • Washington Gladden: "father" of the Social Gospel movement
    • Walter Rauschenbusch: key theologist, author of Christianity and the Social Crisis
    • Jane Addams: at the forefront of the settlement house movement
  • The Social Gospel played a large role in gaining support for Progressivism. Although proponents of the Social Gospel tended to focus on work reform, there were various other causes that found support including prohibition, temperance, and civil rights.
  • Although The Social Gospel movement lost momentum following World War I, it was successful in pressing for legislative reform and shifting the public perspective on the plight of the urban poor. The Social Gospel would later lend its ideology to Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries in their fight for equality.

Frequently Asked Questions about Social Gospel Movement

The Social Gospel movement focused on advocating for work reform, but various other causes such as temperance, women's suffrage, and civil rights found support. 

One effect of the Social Gospel movement was the growth of Progressivism. 

The concept of the Social Gospel is that helping the less fortunate is a means of salvation. 

The Social Gospel movement was successful in pushing for work reform, temperance, and women's suffrage. It also shifted the public perspective on the plight of the urban poor. 

The Social Gospel movement aligned with the civil rights movement in that both advocated for equality and helping the situation of others. Social Gospel proponent Washington Gladden played a role in the founding of the NAACP. And later, the Social Gospel would influence Martin Luther King Jr's theology and ideology. 

Final Social Gospel Movement Quiz


When did the Social Gospel movement gain momentum?

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What movement did proponents of the Social Gospel attack?

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Social Darwinism

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What larger, umbrella movement gained support as a result of the Social Gospel?

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What influential book did Walter Rauschenbusch write?

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Christianity and the Social Crisis

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Who founded the most prominent settlement house in America?

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Washington Gladden

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When did the Social Gospel movement lose momentum?

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following World War I

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Which was not a successful reform of the Social Gospel movement? 

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enforcement of a liveable wage

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The Social Gospel was a part of:

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How did the focus of the First Great Awakening differ from the focus of the Second Great Awakening?

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The First Great Awakening focused on the individual, not society. 

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Who was at the forefront of the Social Gospel movement?

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Washinton Gladden

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