A Deep Dive Into the History of the Social Gospel Movement

Religious teachings meet social justice reform

Women of Salvation Army singing in the street


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The Social Gospel movement was a powerful and broad religious movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that advocated many social reforms and whose ideas about social justice continue to influence policy today. This liberal Christian religious movement began after the Civil War in 1865 and continued until about 1920. Its goal was to solve social problems caused by industrialization and urbanization by applying individual Christian principles to society as a whole.

Protestant clergy became increasingly interested in social justice as they witnessed urban poverty and squalor brought on by industrialization and over-crowding, greater wealth disparity, and the decline of their congregations with the increase of Roman Catholic immigrants to the U.S. from Europe. Using the teachings of Jesus — in particular, his second commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” — Protestant ministers began to believe and preach that salvation depended not just on loving God, but also in behaving like Jesus, loving your neighbor, doing good works, and taking care of the poor and needy. They believed that wealth was meant to be shared, not hoarded. They did not believe in the concept of Social Darwinism or “the survival of the fittest,” a theory popular at the time, but rather, in looking out for the good of all.

The popular phrase, “What would Jesus do?”, used by Christians to help with moral decisions, grew in popularity as a result of the Social Gospel movement. The phrase was part of the title of a book, In His Steps, What Would Jesus Do?, written by one of the leaders of the Social Gospel movement, Dr. Charles Monroe Sheldon (1857-1946). Sheldon was a Congregational minister whose book was a compilation of stories told to his congregation about people facing a moral dilemma, to which he would pose the question, “What would Jesus do?”

Some of the other leaders of the Social Gospel movement were Dr. Washington Gladden (1836-1918), a Congregational minister and leading member of the Progressive Movement, Josiah Strong (1847-1916), a Protestant clergyman who was a strong supporter of American imperialism, and Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), a Baptist preacher and Christian theologian who wrote several influential books, among them Christianity and the Social Crisis, the most popular-selling religious book for three years after it was published, and A Theology of the Social Gospel.


At the height of the Social Gospel movement, the population in America, and in American cities in particular, was rising quickly due to industrialization and immigration from southern and central Europe. It was the era of the Gilded Age and Robber Barons. To some of the clergy, it seemed that many of the successful leaders of society had become greedy and less aligned with Christian values and principles. The increase in wealth disparity led to the development of the labor movement, supported by the leaders of the Social Gospel movement.     

American cities grew at an enormous rate while rural areas declined. For example, the city of Chicago went from a population of 5000 in 1840 to 300,000 in 1870, and 1.1 million in 1890. “This rapid population growth was achieved in part by pulling people out of rural areas, where 40% of American townships experienced shrinking population between 1880 and 1890.” Cities were unable to handle the mass influx of immigrants and others, though, and poverty and squalor soon followed.

This squalor was documented in a famous book by one of America’s first photojournalists, Jacob Riis, who captured the living and working conditions of the urban poor in his book entitled How the Other Half Lives (1890).

Certain religious groups also grew, such as the congregations of Catholic churches. There were also many new Eastern-Orthodox churches and Jewish synagogues being built, but the Protestant churches were losing many of their working-class parishioners.

Progressivism and the Social Gospel

Some of the ideas of the Social Gospel movement grew out of the ideas that came out of social sciences departments at American universities at the time, particularly those related to the Progressive Movement. Progressives believed that human greed had overtaken the benefits of industrialization and worked to cure many of the social and political ills in America.

Some of the social ills that the Social Gospel movement addressed included poverty, crime, racial inequality, alcoholism, drug addiction, unemployment, civil rights, voting rights, pollution, child labor, political corruption, gun control, and the threat of war. Progressives addressed some of these same issues, such as better working conditions, child labor, alcoholism, and women’s suffrage, but some of their other goals were less democratic. They opposed immigration and many joined the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s.


Some of the major accomplishments of the Social Gospel movement included settlement houses, such as Jane Addams Hull-House in Chicago, founded in 1889 by social reformer Jane Addams, the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Settlement houses were typically established in poor urban areas and inhabited by educated middle or upper-class residents who provided services such as daycare, healthcare, and education to their low-income neighbors. Photojournalist Jacob Riis also started a settlement house in New York which is still in existence today, the Jacob A Riis Neighborhood Settlement.

The Y.M.C.A. (Young Men’s Christian Association) was founded in London, England in 1844 as a safe haven and resource for young men working in unhealthy and unsafe cities at the end of the Industrial Revolution (ca. 1750-1850) and soon made its way to the United States. In the U.S. it was taken over by proponents of the Social Gospel movement and grew to be a powerful entity and resource, doing much good for many urban poor.

The Civil Rights Movement and the Social Gospel 

Although the Social Gospel movement was initially “a segregated phenomenon in which White denominations focused newfound commitment to charity and justice on the needs of White people,” many proponents of the Social Gospel movement were concerned with race relations and the rights of African Americans and the Social Gospel movement eventually helped pave the way for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s-1970s. Washington Gladden worked for racial justice and helped to form the N.A.A.C.P. and Walter Rauschenbusch had a great impact on Martin Luther King, Jr., many of whom's ideas came from those of the Social Gospel Movement in response to racial inequality.

Many of the thoughts and ideas of the Social Gospel movement also contributed to other movements such as anti-war organizing, liberation theology, and liberation movements in other countries. In addition, “virtually all modern laws and social institutions designed to protect the most vulnerable and defenseless people from the destructive effects of society can trace their beginnings to the time of the social gospel movement.” The Social Gospel movement elevated the social consciousness and resulted in laws, policies, and social institutions that still work to protect our civil rights and the most vulnerable among us.


1. Walter Rauschenbusch, Champion of the social gospel, Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/activists/walter-rauschenbusch.html

2. Bateman, Bradley W., The Social Gospel and the Progressive Era, National Humanities Center, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/socgospel

3. Progressive Movement, Ohio History Central, http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Progressive_Movement

4. Barndt, Joseph, Becoming an Anti-Racist Church; Journeying Toward Wholeness, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2011,p. 60.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

Resources and Further Reading

Bateman, Bradley W., The Social Gospel and the Progressive Era, National Humanities Center, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/socgospel

Barndt, Joseph, Becoming an Anti-Racist Church; Journeying Toward Wholeness, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2011.

Christian History, Walter Rauschenbusch, Champion of the Social Gospel, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/activists/walter-rauschenbusch.html

Doreen, Gary, The New Abolition, W.E.B DuBois and the Black Social Gospel, Yale University Press, 2015. 

Evans, Christopher, Ed., The Social Gospel Today, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Ohio History Central, Progressive Movement, http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Progressive_Movement

PBS.org, About the Progressive Religious Tradition, http://www.pbs.org/now/society/socialgospel.html

U.S. History, Religious Revival: “The Social Gospel,” http://www.ushistory.org/us/38e.asp

What Is The Social Gospel? http://www.temple.edu/tempress/chapters/100_ch1.pdf

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Marder, Lisa. "A Deep Dive Into the History of the Social Gospel Movement." Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, learnreligions.com/social-gospel-movement-4136473. Marder, Lisa. (2021, February 8). A Deep Dive Into the History of the Social Gospel Movement. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/social-gospel-movement-4136473 Marder, Lisa. "A Deep Dive Into the History of the Social Gospel Movement." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/social-gospel-movement-4136473 (accessed August 6, 2021).