Rauschenbusch 4: Concluding Analysis

This is the final installment (for the time being) covering the life and work of Walter Rauschenbusch. By profession, Rauschenbusch was a pastor and church historian, and his arguments are buttressed by historical analysis. Rauschenbusch achieved prominence with the publication of Christianity and the Social Crisis in 1907, which is why this book is being analyzed. [1] From 1907 until his death, he was the acknowledged leader of the American “Social Gospel Movement,” which had great influence in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries,

Among Rauschenbusch’s other writings are Prayers of the Social Awakening (1910), Christianizing the Social Order (1912), and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917). It is my hope to return to his thought and later in this series with a look at Christianizing the Social Order.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, Rauschenbusch was of German, Lutheran heritage. He studied in Germany and admired and respected the German People. He was sensitive about the public dislike of Germany that accompanied the run-up to American involvement in World War I. His opposition to war generally, and to the war with Germany in particular, resulted in much criticism, and his popularity waned. Rauschenbusch completed his final work A Theology for the Social Gospel, in early 1917. Thereafter, Rauschenbusch’s health declined. He was hospitalized in June 1918 due to colon cancer and died that July. [2]

The Social Crisis

As Rauschenbusch analyzed the social crisis of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, he came to believe that the Industrial Revolution and prevailing capitalist form of economic organization had stripped the working class from the land, from the security of the European Guild system, and from the dignity of ownership of the enterprises from which they gained a living. I found his discussion of the nature of pre-industrial land ownership intriguing. It was his conviction that the United States would soon see the same kinds of problems as Europe because of the centralization of land ownership and the decline of agriculture as the primary occupation of most people.[3] Interestingly, the ultra-rich of our society are increasingly purchasing farm land.

In his view, the existence of large numbers of people without significant ownership of property nor any claim on the profits earned by their labor was bound to work to the detriment of labor and their families. [4] The growth of laisse faire capitalism had so severed the social bonds and diminished the dignity of labor, that fear, not pride in labor was the primary motive of many workers. In a passage of great beauty, Rauschenbusch concludes:

For an old man to be able to look about him on the farm or business he has built up by the toil of his life is a profound satisfaction, and antidote to the sense of declining strength and gradual failure. For an old man after a lifetime of honest work to have nothing, to amount to nothing, and be turned as useless, and to eat the bread of dependence, is a pitiable humiliation. [5]

In my view, there is no question but that Rauschenbusch is at least partially motivated by a longing for a simpler, more organic, agriculture-based economy. He is taken by the notion that human beings need space, light, physical labor, and a healthy diet to remain active, all of which were lacking in the New York City of his ministry. He believes that the secret of the energy and prosperity of America was just those features lacking in an industrial (and perhaps even more in a post-industrial) economy.

In Rauschenbusch’s opinion, the crisis created by the Industrial Revolution undermined the moral foundations of American democracy. In his mind, “approximate economic equality” was a foundation of democratic government. [6] For example in Revolutionary America, most people were landowners and small farmers. Great fortunes existed, but nothing like the great fortunes that characterized the Industrial Revolution or America today. Where there is a proximate social equality, and people live in community with one another, the normal social intercourse of life bonds society together. [7]Where the rich and poor are separated by a great economic distance, and the rich live in enclaves of wealth removed from the life and problems of ordinary people, this bond is dissolved.

This is an aspect of Rauschenbusch’s analysis that coheres with current social analysis of the wealth disparity that characterizes contemporary America. We might well consider Rauschenbusch’s conclusion:

Politics is embroidered with patriotic sentiment and phrases, but at bottom, consciously or unconsciously, the economic interest dominate it always. If therefore we have a class which owns a large part of the national wealth and controls nearly all the mobile part of it, it is idle to suppose that this class will not see to it that the vast power exerted by the machinery of government serves its interests. And if we have another class which is economically dependent and helpless, it is idle to suppose that it will be allowed and equal voice in swing political power in short, we cannot join economic inequality and political equality.[8]

It may well be that political polices designed to give the middle and lower classes greater ownership in American business is essential to sustaining our democracy.

The Stake of the Church in the Social Crisis

In Rauschenbusch’s view, the social crisis has profound implications for the Christian church. The church, as a social institution rooted in the common life of a people, suffers if the society in which it is located suffers.[9] As in prior chapters, Rauschenbusch argues for the religious and moral necessity for the church to act. As a social institution, the church is bound to suffer the impoverishment of its members, the high cost of goods, the lower capacity for giving, and the loss of good pastors that economic decline causes. [10] Institutional maintenance aside, the church cannot remain indifferent to chronic and acute poverty. The church has a moral and spiritual obligation, to remedy human suffering. A loss of capacity to undertake this task would be a great loss to the church. [11] Finally, if the church cannot act to undo the commercialization of life, then the church itself will inevitably decline and be captured by commercial forces. [12]

Rauschenbusch attacks the use of Darwinian and Nietzschean theory to justify the current social order. Thus, he concludes:

With many of the Darwinian theory has proved a welcome justification of things as they are. It is right and fitting the thousand should perish to evolve the higher type of the modern businessman. Those who are manifestly surviving in the present struggle for existence can console themselves with the thought that they are the fittest, and there is no contradicting the laws of the universe. There is an atomistic philosophy crowds out Christian faith in solidarity. The law of the cross is superseded by the law of tooth and nail. [13]

Rauschenbusch goes on to reflect upon how the philosophy of Nietzsche had been used to justify the current social order with its opposition of “Christian slave morality” to the morality of self-asertion. This is not to say that Darwinian theory is not a true account of evolution, but with the emergence of the human race, a new factor is at work in the universe.

In our own society, political considerations prevents the honest admission that many of our economic and political leaders hold just such views.  In a few weeks, I will address the decline of the atomistic view of the universe to which Rauschenbusch refers, and the decline in the fundamental world view at work behind the thought of Nietzsche and others. For now, it is enough to observe that Rauschenbusch is clear about the fact that these views are not compatible with a Christian view of social relations.  A Christian view of social relations is inevitably a view based upon the goodness of God and of God’s creation, the inherent worth and value of the human person, the underlying unity of the human race, and the power of love in human social relations.

The Way Forward

Rauschenbusch concludes his great work with a chapter devoted to the broad outline of what is to be done to remedy the social crisis. The world and the Christian movement were (and are), as Rauschenbusch sees matters, at a moment of crisis, perhaps the greatest crisis of its history, as the force of industrialization and the formation of a society formed on materialistic principles becomes the dominant form of social organization.  Rauschenbusch begins with an analysis of the responses that show little promise of success.

  1. First among these unworkable responses is the vain hope that somehow human society could return to an earlier stage of development. The progress of democracy and the benefits of the scientific and industrial progress of the 19th and 20th centuries cannot be turned back. All that can be done is to rationalize and humanize the results. Rauschenbusch believes that some form of socialistic modifications of society are required for such an endeavor.[14]
  2. Secondly, it is not productive to attempt to reconstruct society on purely Biblical principles, as if the social organization of ancient Israel could be imported into the 20th or 21st In particular, the social structures of ancient Israel were created for an ancient agricultural society, distant in time and character. Rather than attempt to reconstruct ancient Israel in the modern world, the proper adaptation is to look for the timeless principles of justice and quality that motivated the Mosaic law and Jewish social organization in the years before Christ. [15]
  3. Finally, it is not reasonable for the church to retreat into a kind of monastic or communal retreat from modern society. While some of the Christian, socialistic and communal experiments of the past have proven useful, they can only make large scale changes when their ideals and principles ae put into practice on a larger scale. In particular, Rauschenbusch was aware of some of the experiments in cooperative ownership in Great Britain, which had gained much attention but little lasting influence. [16]

Rauschenbusch believes that the church should use its moral influence, but should not attempt to regain the kind of power that it possessed in the Middle Ages. The experience of the church in the Middle Ages, and the ultimate decline in its moral and spiritual power, are sufficient evidence of the temptations to power that did and would ultimately corrupt and undermine the church as a spiritual institution. The church can only assist in the transformation of the social life of a nation if it is content with inspiring a social movement on the basis of its faith. It must not attempt to control that movement for its own benefit or it is unfaithful to the spirit of Christ. [17]

The church in general, and every Christian in particular, can make their best contribution to the social restructuring of society by repenting of their own social sinfulness and receiving the spiritual and emotional power to create a more just society. Creation of a just society is ultimately based upon our common humanity and the organic nature of human society, for  no one can truly be an island or live solely for his or her own desires.[18] In the creation of this society, the church is a servant dedicated to transforming human lives in the service of a just society.

By creating a new kind of human individual, dedicated to the creation of a more just society, the church has a role to play both through its leadership and lay membership. Rauschenbusch believed that there was a need for pastoral leadership trained and willing to accept the call of using their position to enhance social righteous. [19] On the other hand, the kingdom of God can only be created when carried into social life by the common consciousness and personal faith of ordinary Christians. Therefore, any movement towards social righteousness must also be a movement of laity. [20]

One notion that runs throughout Christianity and the Social Crisis is the idea that the church has done a relatively good job of preaching and enhancing private morality, and Rauschenbusch was a believer that the private morality of his day was an improvement over prior periods in history. [21] On the other hand, he believed that the church as an institution had not been successful in promoting a social morality. Therefore, to him, there was no moral question more pressing than the question of public morality. [22]


Christianity and the Social Crisis is an important book, and its author one of the most important American contributors to any kind of a social political theology. Rauschenbusch exemplifies the best of 19th and 20th century liberal Protestantism. He never cut himself off from the evangelical roots of his childhood or the fervency of his early faith. His book walks a delicate line between bringing into the social conversation of the church new ideas and maintaining historic Christian faith. Rauschenbusch was heavily influenced by modern critical scholarship and the political winds of his day, but he never cut himself off from his Christian roots. Perhaps most important in this regard is his understanding that human society, governments and law rest on something deeper—a moral and spiritual reality without the support of which no society can endure. [23]

If Rauschenbusch was attracted to both Socialism and communism, it is to be remembered that he died before the horrific results of the Russian Revolution became known. He died before Lenin’s leadership and the emergence of Stalin. He did not see the end of the communist regimes we have witnessed. What he did see was the hope they presented for a more organic and Christian society. It is for our day and time to think through what might productively transmit of that hope to a new generation, perhaps in a different way. We must leave Rauschenbusch for now but hope to return to his thought before these blogs are complete.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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

[2] For further biographical information, see “Walter Rauschenbusch” in the online Encyclopedia Britannica at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Walter-Rauschenbusch (Downloaded March 10, 2022)

[3] CSC, 211-230.

[4] Id, at 234.

[5] Id, at 237.

[6] Id, at 247.

[7] Id, at 249.

[8] Id, at 255.

[9] Id, at 287.

[10] Id, at 287-304.

[11] Id, at 304-305.

[12] Id, at 314.

[13] Id, at 315.

[14] Id, at 344.

[15] Id, at 345.

[16] Id, at 346-7.

[17] Id.

[18] Id, at 352-353.

[19] Id, at 357.

[20] Id.

[21] I’m not sure it’s possible to agree with his conclusion, but he’s to be remembered that he lived at the time of prohibition, and the victory of conservative groups over the force of alcohol. He was actually a supporter of probation. He may have not seen that the social mores of the industrial society were becoming corrupt. In addition, he did not live to see the results of the First and Second World Wars.

[22] Id, at 358.

[23] Id, at 373.