I recently studied American Theological Liberalism with Gary Dorrien, and was quite taken by a chapter (from Dorrien’s The Making of American Liberal Theology, Volume 1) on the social gospelers. As I read the chapter, I found myself saying “amen” to Walter Rauschenbusch’s understanding of Christianity, that Jesus’s message was that the personal and the political cannot be separated if we are to see the kingdom manifest ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ I was impressed that Walter could find his way out from under the abusive thumb of his father and find the joy and hope preached earlier by Bushnell – the very hope that seems truly absent in the orthodoxy of the elder Rauschenbusch.
And I found myself thinking this is remarkably familiar territory – I have never read Rauschenbusch or other social gospelers before, yet I had read these ideas, with a different spin. The light dawned when I arrived on the pages discussing the Federal Council of Churches. I knew from other study that Unitarian John Holmes and Universalist Clarence Skinner also wrote on the social gospel… yet they were absent. Mild curiosity turned to earnest consideration as I learned that the Unitarians and the Universalists were omitted from the Federal Council of Churches, all the while being frontrunners on the social gospel. So I wondered: why might that be?
As it turns out, both Holmes and Skinner were critics of Rauschenbusch and the social gospel promoted within the Federal Council. So I turned to the more familiar of the writings, Skinner’s Social Implications of Universalism, for answers.
Written in 1914 while serving as Professor of Applied Christianity at the Crane Theological School of Tufts College, Social Implications begins with a flat indictment:
The fact is that the traditional Protestant Church is dying, dying hard with colors flying and battling heroically, but nevertheless dying. The theology upon which it is built is dying; the individualism which called it into being is dying; the social order which it expressed is dying. Why should it not also die? (pg 1)
Indeed, Skinner is going after orthodoxy; he spills pages of ink arguing against the “religions of authority…who render stupid obedience to the established social order” (pg 9). He notes with derision that the traditional churches have been “so feeble” in social action because of “inertia inherited from the medieval ages when humanity lacked social dynamic” (pg 42). He argues that given the new age, “only those theologies which frankly and persistently align themselves with the world, and openly champion its potential goodness, can logically enter the great reformation of the twentieth century” (pg 48).
And it is there where Skinner shifts his attention from only skewering the orthodoxy to also calling out the liberal church. According to Skinner, any theology that sees salvation as coming “by escaping from a world which is inherently unsavable” – even in part, as Rauschenbusch promotes – is “individualistic, anti-social, medieval faith” (pg 49). He suggests that because of the emphasis on the death of Jesus, the church has inherited vicarious atonement which “has no social dynamic in it” (pg 55) – and that it is the social dynamic that is the actual ministry and religion of Jesus. “No dogmatic theologies about Jesus ever saved any one in society or out of society” he writes (pg 57), wondering why personal salvation should be necessary if the core of Jesus’s teachings are about social salvation. Instead of salvation being found in a statement of belief, a rite, or sacrament, salvation (and Christianity itself) is about “life lived in the open in the midst of the push and pull of social forces, and thus implies and demands a social context” (pg 59).
Skinner continues his arguments against the liberal church (particularly the hopeful theology of Bushnell that many social gospelers found attractive) in his section on “Hell and Salvation.” On the plus side, Skinner asserts that “liberal theology has successfully driven these nightmares [of a wrathful God and a brimstone hell] from the minds of enlightened men” (pg 63). Yet he thinks they have simply downplayed the story, doing away with “moral accountability”; rather, turning the focus on heaven and hell into the essential elements of religion. Skinner instead brings moral accountability back into focus: “Universalism has not abolished the idea of hell. It has humanized and socialized it” (pg 63, emphasis his).
It is because of the hell on earth then, that salvation is purely a social act as well; Skinner argues that “there is no royal road to salvation…it is as much subject to the natural law of cause and effect as is punishment” (65). Old ideas of heaven and hell are anti-social; thus, the need for personal salvation is anathema to the real salvation: saving ourselves in the here and now.
Skinner’s book is of course, largely an argument for Universalism, suggesting that its long history of social consciousness, open arms, and trust in a loving God will one day be at the center of a unified church. He believes that others will come around when they realize the truth of Universalism and let the medieval faith fall away completely. And obviously, that has yet to occur, if ever.
But the Universalists wanted to be at the table with the other social gospelers; that they and the Unitarians were sidelined left these two humanity-centered denominations to flounder and eventually find a strong partnership in each other.
And now, as modern Unitarian Universalists, we work alongside modern social gospelers, fighting for liberation and justice, and occasionally reminding them gently that we’ve been here for a long time – and while they may be late to the party, we’re all just glad they showed up at all.