Social Gospel

No clear definition can be given to the term, nor can its first use be dated, but the ideas it represents were those of the nineteenth century. The variants center on the theme of the relationship of the Christian gospel to the improvement of the social environment, and all represent a response to the Protestant doctrine that the salvation of the individual is the center of the Christian gospel, and that only through a prior reformation of the individual will society be improved through the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of individuals. That orthodox belief led some to engage in active social work as a means of Christian witness, the most notable being the Salvation Army,* and so to provide one, less common, interpretation of the term “Social Gospel.”

Its more common use can be traced to the response to a number of beliefs held by different groups in the nineteenth century. First, some Christians virtually advocated a position which minimized the importance of all things material, regarding them as passing phenomena, and so had no interest in their amelioration-the “pie in the sky” attitude so lampooned by their critics. Second, and more widespread, was a fear that participation in works of social improvement would lead to evangelistic activities being swamped in social work. To avoid the danger, the form of social work adopted was narrowed to include care for the individual but to exclude concern with forms of institutional change, especially if they involved work of a political nature. It was understandable that some reacted to these two beliefs by stressing the need for institutional and environmental changes apart from the changes in the individual. The reaction led to the adoption of a position which could easily lead to a denial of the need for change in the individual.

The move from orthodoxy was encouraged still further by a third influence of the nineteenth century, the ideas of the biological and social scientists. An optimistic doctrine of man and of his improvement in society was accepted by many in the eighteenth century, but the optimism of the psychological basis of such theories was increased by the biological studies of the nineteenth. In the Western world they could be related to the economic progress of the time, and so it became easy to adopt a position which was contrary to the orthodox Christian view, and which held that society may be improved by institutional change. Man was to be perfected through change in society.

See also

  • Biblical Criticism