Embracing another gospel

Walter Rauschenbusch father of the social gospel
Walter Rauschenbusch father of the social gospel

How are we to account for the decline of a once great missionary movement? One important factor was the acceptance of a more "relevant" gospel.

Just before World War I, the Social Gospel movement led by theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch (above) began to influence the thinking of the Student Volunteer Movement. It became a dominant influence in the SVM undermining the founding principles of the Movement.

The Social Gospel “looked beyond individual character formation to the reformation of society as a whole.” Increasingly key leaders and educators of the SVM and the YMCA promoted a Social Gospel approach.

The “Christianization” of society through the Social Gospel replaced evangelism as the priority in mission.

John Mott went with the trend. His 1914 book, The Present World Situation, was dramatically different from his previous books with its sweeping indictment of the West. He wrote, “We may seriously question whether we have a Christianity worth propagating over the world.”

The disillusionment that followed WWI was a catalyst for the growth of the Social Gospel among students. Interest shifted away from traditional religious concerns to foreign affairs — international peace, and the establishment of a federation of nations.

At the Northfield Volunteer Conference of 1918 Harry Ward of Boston University School of Theology told the students he sympathized with the socialist symbol of the red flag, as it had so much in common with “the blood stained banner of the cross.” Neither of them, he was convinced, would triumph “until each absorbs the content of the other.”

Following the conference there was “a heavy concentration on the Social Gospel message in volunteer college classes.” The nineteenth century emphasis on individual character and philanthropy gave way to the new priority of social justice. The need to advance the social gospel domestically took precedence over the need to send out missionaries overseas.

The SVM was abandoning its founding purpose. Collapse was still decades away, but it would come.

Next: A lost cause