The Social Gospel movement, which began towards the end of the nineteenth century and continued until World War I, was chiefly a response to the failure of mainline Protestant churches to address the social realities of poverty and industrialization. Their tendency had been to concern themselves exclusively with individual salvation and economic prosperity. As a theological movement, it found its chief exponent in Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). Rauschenbusch argued in A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917), a series of lectures given at Yale, that sin is more than individual. He understood sin to be the consequence of forces of evil in human society so that salvation must involve the redemption of the social order as well as the redemption of the individual. In this redemptive process, he argued, the churches have a critical role to play. The churches must exercise a prophetic commitment to redeeming the social order and show forth the presence of the Kingdom of God, which he understood as “a fellowship of righteousness.”
While it could be said that the movement itself died, its continuing impact upon Protestant churches can be seen in the social action programs which have characterized much of mainline Protestantism since World War II. Its continuing importance lies in its emphasis upon the social dimension of Christian faith over against the individualism of much American religion.
Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.