Walter Rauschenbusch No. 1: Christianity and the Social Crisis

As I sit down to write this morning, Russian troops are in the Ukraine. I ask myself, “Why sit down today and write a blog about the role of Christianity in the history of American social thought at the turn of the century?” C. S. Lewis was once required to defend the work of scholarship and thought in the midst of the Second World War and the West’s defense of freedom. He reminded his readers that the human race has always been in some form of crisis, and civilization has always has to make progress in the midst of social change and disorder:

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have began. [1]

This quote from Lewis is a reminder that important human achievements have and always will occur in the shadow of poverty, war, and human suffering. There is a propensity among modern people to be overly-concerned with any present crisis and to lose sight of eternity. As we shall see, the work of Walter Rauschenbusch speaks to us today in the midst of our present economic, social, political, and other uncertainties with a voice important to hear.

Walter Rauschenbusch

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was born at the beginning of the American Civil War and died during the First World War. His life was bookended by conflict, and his work was dedicated to ameliorating the human suffering created by the Industrial Revolution. His father was a Lutheran minister. The son became an American Baptist minister, serving beginning in 1886 in an economically depressed area of New York City. It was an experience that changed his life, and his book, Christianity and the Social Crisis emerged from this experience and dedicated to those he pastored during these formative years. [2]

The book that made him famous was originally published in 1907 by which time Rauschenbusch was on the faculty of Rochester Theological Seminary, at the time a leading Protestant seminary in the United States. Christianity and the Social Crisis was and is the leading text in what is sometimes called, “The Social Gospel Movement” that powerfully impacted American Protestant thought in the early 20th Century and continues to influence political theology today. Rauschenbusch himself was influenced by the German theology of his day and relies on the insights of critical thinkers in outlining his position. In addition, he was influenced by the Socialist and Communist thinkers, though as we shall see, his position avoided some of their more radical ideas. His aim was to energize the Christian church in America to attack social evils.

Social Background

It is difficult for modern people to fully understand the upheaval in human society created by the industrial revolution, an upheaval that continues in some form to this day. People in the year 1700 lived pretty much as their parents and grandparents had lived as far as human memory extended. Economies were primarily agricultural and land was the primary source of economic and social wealth. With the industrial revolution, society changed dramatically. People were forced from the land and into cities, where the industrial revolution was creating opportunity, jobs and a new form of wealth. Families were fractured, as children left the land for the cities of Europe. Existing social forms were disrupted, and the burgeoning cities were often places of poverty and disease. Rauschenbusch saw the impact of all this during his years in ministering to a poor area of New York.

The Prophetic Voice in Old Testament History

Rauschenbusch uses an historical approach to building his case, moving from the Old Testament roots of the notion of the “Kingdom of God,” to Jesus’s interpretation of the Kingdom, to the early church’s embodiment of the idea, and on to the present day. Crucial to his analysis is the notion of a fundamentally political orientation of the Old Testament and especially of the prophets, and Jesus’ continuation of that tradition. In Christianity and the Current CrisisJesus is portrayed as a prophetic figure who stands against the injustice of his day in such a way as to create a permanent movement for social justice in human history. Therefore, for Rauschenbusch, “a comprehension of the essential purpose and spirit of the prophets is necessary for a comprehension of the purpose and spirit of Jesus and of genuine Christianity.” [3]

As opposed to what Rauschenbusch regards as a primitive state of religion focused on the worship of the gods to gain some control of nature, the prophetic impulse is inherently social. It urges a social reformation to create a more just society in the midst of social decay and disease. [4] The prophets saw the immorality and social decline of Israel and spoke a primarily moral and social message, calling their society to repentance and restoration. The “restoration” they had in mind was the restoration of the society of Israel as it developed from the emergence from the Egyptian captivity to the end of the prophetic age.

In Rauschenbusch’s view, Calvinism and the Reformed tradition, with its emphasis on morality in public life is the inheritor of the Old Testament prophetic tradition, which is one reason why the countries of Europe under the sway of Calvinistic ideas developed modern democracy. [5] His book is an attempt to rally the prophetic impact of Cristian faith to eradicate the social ills of his own day, similar to the way in which Christian faith impacted the society emerging from the Middle Ages.

An Organic Model of Society

Sitting beneath Rauschenbusch’s analysis is an organic view of society, which he believes that laisse fairecapitalism and industrialization disrupted, substituting an atomistic and mechanical view of society:

Our philosophical and economic individualism has affected our religious thought so deeply that we hardly comprehend the prophetic view of an organic national life and of national sin and salvation. We usually conceive of the community as a loose sand-heap of individuals, and this difference in the fundamental view distorts the utterances of the prophets as soon as we hear them. [6]

This observation is important in understanding the attraction of socialistic ideas in Rauschenbusch’s day and our own. Rauschenbusch does not want to denigrate the emphasis on the individual in modern society, but he sees the danger in overemphasizing the individual at the detriment to community. [7]

The past 400 years have seen a change in the fundamental idea of what a society is and should be from an organic ideal to a mechanical and individualistic ideal. The politics of our day is deeply impacted by this fundamental division. A truly post-modern political philosophy will not necessarily take sides on this division, so much as it may seek to transcend it by unifying an organic and individual approach, preserving the best of both. I hope to deal with this in a future blog. For today, it is important to note that Rauschenbusch yearns for a more cohesive social fabric in which the division of labor and capital, with labor impoverished is superseded by a more just form of economic organization.

Prophetic Preference for the Poor

Anticipating recent liberation theology, Rauschenbusch sees in the prophetic tradition another emphasis that should motivate people of faith to social change: The constant preference of the prophets in defending the poor and their needs against economic and political oppression. In the Old Testament the prophets condemned the tendency for land, which was the primary wealth of their day, to be centralized in an aristocracy who joined together plots of land acquired at the expense of the poor, which resulted in economic inequality and human suffering. [8] Thus, a dominant concern of the prophets was the protection of the weak and restoration of some kind of economic equality.

Rauschenbusch sees the analogy of the Old Testament situation with the economic inequality of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, just as we might well see the value of his critique as we look at the vast economic and social inequality created by the “Second Industrial Revolution” that the growth of an information-based society and economy has produced. This does not necessarily argue against private property, for the goal of the ancients was to recover a society in which people did own their homes and the fundamental property needed for some kind of economic security. It will not be “every man owning his own fig tree” in a post-industrial society, but some kind of human security based upon what I will call “personal ownership of the fundamental requirements of life” may substitute as an ideal in our post-industrial society. [9] Far from limiting the ownership of labor of the elements of capital, we should encourage its extension by every reasonable means.

Eschatology and the Perfect Society

There is an eschatological aspect to Rauschenbusch’s thought that begins with the Old Testament. I will leave to the future a full discussion of eschatology as it impacts Christianity and the Social Crisis. This week it will be enough to mention that the prophetic impulse in the Old Testament is connected to the ideal of a perfected society. [10]Rauschenbusch recognizes that the Hebrew prophetic tradition did not primarily focus on an unrealizable equality or perfection of society, but upon those improvements which lay “within a realizable distance” of current social conditions. [11] For the prophets, a return to the national freedom of the Davidic kingdom under the rule of a just and faithful ruler was within reason and ought to be attempted in order to forestall a judgement falling on the people. In their view, national repentance and a restoration of a just society was realizable.

In this insight, any Christian political theology can agree. Christians may disagree as to what improvements increase societal perfection or are within the reasonable reach of society. Christians cannot agree that no attempt ought to be made to move society to a greater level of justice. It is the duty of the church to cooperate with those elements of society and thought that would maintain and increase the level of justice in our society.


I have refrained for the most part from critiquing Rauschenbusch in this blog. This will not be possible throughout what I think will be a several-week look at his thought. This week, I would point out that his focus on the prophets in the Old Testament leave out the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament, which contains powerful political implications and foreshortens his analysis of the Torah upon which Hebrew society was built. Without the law and without the wisdom tradition, it is not possible to understand the prophets. The prophets were calling Israel back to the insights of both the Torah and the Writings.

The prophetic aspect of Christian faith is an important element in its impact on individuals and society, even at the cost of critiquing current direction of our society. In a passage that could easily be directed at our own day and time, Rauschenbusch concludes his discussion of the prophetic background of a Christian response to the suffering and corruption of his own day with these words:

[S]uppose that our country was bleeding through disastrous foreign wars and invasions, shaken by internal anarchy, terrified and angry at blows too powerful for us to avert, and in that condition a preacher should “weaken public confidence” still further by such a message? The vivid Oriental imagery of the prophets must not give us the impression that the injustice and corruption of that day were unique. It is impossible to make accurate comparisons of human misery, but it may well be that the conditions against which moral sensibility of the prophets revolted could be equaled in any modern industrial culture. [12]

Here we end the beginning of our look at Christianity and the Social Crisis. Next week we will look at the figure of Jesus and his extension of the tradition.

If we were to substitute “post-industrial” for “industrial” the critique Rauschenbusch makes might also be applicable to the injustice of our own society, an injustice that has reached the end of the earth and created an elite in every nation whose interests are not those of the common person.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] C. S. Lewis, “Learning in War Time” in The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids, MI: Eeardman’s Publishing, 1949), 44.

[2] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,1991). hereinafter “CSC.”

[3] CSC, at 3. As will become clearer in the next installment, I believe that Rauschenbusch overstated his case as regards the intentions of Jesus. Nevertheless, there is an inevitable political aspect of Jesus’ thought that Rauschenbusch correctly emphasizes.

[4] Id, at 5.

[5] Id, at 8.

[6] Id at 10.

[7] Id, at 29.

[8] Id, at 11.

[9] I have hinted at the exact way in which I think this might be accomplished. I disagree with the growing notion that we should create a society of renters on a world scale in which private ownership (and inevitably freedom) are abolished. Instead I think that worker and consumer ownership of elements of all businesses, as well as individual ownership of homes and essentials is the better course for maintenance of a free society.

[10] Id, at 33.

[11] Id, at 34.

[12] Id, at 38.