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Christian History Home > 131 Christians > Activists > Walter Rauschenbusch


Walter Rauschenbusch
Champion of the social gospel
posted 8/08/2008 12:56PM

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"Christ's conception of the kingdom of God came to me as a new revelation. Here was the idea and purpose that had dominated the mind of the Master himself … I found … this new conception … strangely satisfying. It responded to all the old and all the new elements of my religious life."

It was the hottest selling religious book for three years after it was published in 1907; all told, some 50,000 copies were sold. More important than popularity was impact. As nationally known New York preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick put it, the book "struck home so poignantly on the intelligence and conscience … that it ushered in a new era in Christian thought and action."

Timeline

1848

Marx publishes Communist Manifesto

1851

Harriet Beecher Stowe releases Uncle Tom's Cabin

1855

D.L. Moody converted

1861

Walter Rauschenbusch born

1918

Walter Rauschenbusch dies

1934

Barmen Declaration

The book was Walter Rauschenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis, and the book catapulted Rauschenbusch and his "social gospel" into the nation's consciousness, a message he had been honing for some 20 years, since his first pastorate.

Two conversions

Rauschenbusch was born in Rochester, New York, to a Lutheran-missionary-turned-German-Baptist. "I was brought up in a very religious family, and I thank God for it," he said. "We had household religious service every day." After a period of rebelliousness in youth, he said, "I came to my Father, and I began to pray for help and got it. I got my own religious experience." Though he later interpreted this conversion experience through the lens of theological liberalism, he valued this "tender, mysterious experience," as he called it, his entire life.

He was schooled in Germany and then the United States, and after a vocational struggle, he decided: "It is now no longer my fond hope to be a learned theologian and write big books," he wrote at the time. "I want to be a pastor, powerful with men, preaching to them Christ as the man in whom their affections and energies can find the satisfaction for which mankind is groaning."

In 1885 he became pastor of the Second German Baptist Church in New York City, located at the edge of a depressed area known as Hell's Kitchen. Here the young pietistic pastor confronted unemployment, poverty, malnutrition, disease, and crime. "Oh, the children's funerals! they gripped my heart," he later wrote. "That was one of the things I always went away thinking about—why did the children have to die?" He immersed himself in the literature of social reform and began to participate in social action groups.

Slowly his ideas took shape. He had come to the pastorate "to save souls in the ordinarily accepted religious sense" but not all the problems he confronted could be addressed in this way. Though his friends urged him to give up his social work for "Christian work," he believed his social work was Christ's work.

Rauschenbusch sought to combine his old evangelical passion (which he never abandoned) with his new social awareness. He adopted critical approaches to the Bible and identified himself with liberal theologians like Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf Harnack. The kingdom of God became the theme by which he pulled together his views on religion and science, piety and social action, Christianity and culture. "Christ's conception of the kingdom of God came to me as a new revelation," he wrote. "Here was the idea and purpose that had dominated the mind of the Master himself … I found … this new conception … strangely satisfying. It responded to all the old and all the new elements of my religious life."




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