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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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Rauschenbusch was an optimist. He never believed society could become perfect, but he saw humankind as progressing swiftly toward the kingdom. He embraced socialism but not as an ideology; he simply felt that socialists generally had the most practical answers to the social questions of his day.

He worked out the implications of new thinking with a group of other young Baptist ministers in the Brotherhood of the Kingdom, which met annually (and eventually included many of the nation's leaders in its ranks). In 1897 he joined the faculty of his alma mater, Rochester Theological Seminary, and was able to read and lecture more deeply on social themes. When Christianity and the Social Crisis was published, his ideas reached a larger audience.

During the last ten years of his life, further writings followed (Christianizing the Social Order, A Theology of the Social Gospel, and his most widely circulated work, The Social Principles of Jesus), as well as constant speaking engagements. He impressed audiences and readers alike with his economy of words, illuminating metaphors, fairness toward those with whom he disagreed, and a disarming sense of humor (some of it pointed at himself).

He loved Germany, hated militarism, and was deeply troubled by the outbreak of World War I. As patriotism swept the U.S. and all things German became repulsive, Rauschenbusch's popularity declined, and even more when, after the war, liberalism came under attack by neo-orthodox thinkers like Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr.

Though subsequent historical events showed Rauschenbusch to be overly optimistic, he still towers above other advocates of the social gospel. "His writings," said Martin Luther King, Jr., "left an indelible imprint on my thinking," and his understanding of the kingdom of God continues to appeal to those who want to combine evangelical passion with social justice.

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