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The Social Gospel Movement: Definition and Goals of Urban Reform Movements

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  • 0:05 The Urban Poor
  • 2:33 The Social Gospel Movement
  • 4:22 The YMCA and Salvation Army
  • 6:53 Settlement Houses
  • 7:58 The End of the Social…
  • 10:00 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Many Americans were desperately poor around the turn of the 20th century. The Social Gospel movement emerged among Protestant Christians to improve the economic, moral and social conditions of the urban working class.

The Urban Poor

'What Would Jesus Do?' This may sound familiar to you as a pop culture phenomenon from the late 1990s, but it's actually the subtitle of a book penned a century earlier by a minister named Charles Sheldon. Sheldon was part of the Social Gospel movement, an effort among Protestant Christians to improve the economic, moral, and social conditions of the urban poor. The rapid urbanization of the late 1800s and early 1900s had overwhelmed the infrastructure of American cities. In the shadows of glittering skyscrapers and multi-million-dollar mansions were masses of workers living in squalid poverty, paid pennies a day and packed like sardines into shoddy tenements without running water, plumbing, or fresh air.

In those days, welfare as we know it did not exist at the federal level. In general, charity was in the private domain. But, in the era of Social Darwinism, many Americans applied the biological concept of 'survival of the fittest' to society itself. They felt that people who couldn't make it on their own in America's competitive society were weaker in an evolutionary sense. If the weakest members were allowed to fail, then society as a whole would improve because only the strongest members were left. Now, some wealthy industrial leaders followed a belief in Reform Darwinism, meaning they agreed that poor people were 'less fit,' but thought it was a rich man's duty to help them improve. However, Reform Darwinists feared that poor individuals would not know how to properly handle direct charity. Instead, they sponsored major efforts in philanthropy aimed at improving society as a whole, like building libraries and hospitals and universities.

So, who was left to help? The political machines provided handouts, but they had ulterior motives. Local churches traditionally provided help and social services to their parishioners. But mass transportation had allowed wealthier citizens to leave the inner cities, leaving many congregations with no financial support or means to help their poorest members.

The Social Gospel Movement

Enter Walter Rauschenbusch, a New York City pastor and theologian who dedicated himself to revising the attitude of American Christians. He believed that the church's agenda had replaced Jesus' agenda, which he called the Kingdom of God. Rauschenbusch taught that the duty of Christians 'is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven.' Like-minded Protestant leaders agreed with Rauschenbusch that social problems are actually just moral problems on a large scale, and they aggressively persuaded middle- and upper-class citizens that many social issues could be cured by what they called 'practical Christianity.' In a nutshell, they believed that if they met the physical needs of the poor, it would transform them spiritually and morally, and help them improve their lives.

As such, Protestants in America were among the first organizations to tackle urban reform and work toward social justice. The ideas for many of their lasting achievements originated across the Atlantic, but the Social Gospel movement made them part of mainstream American culture. For example, inner-city churches began to open their doors on Sunday, the only time available for the working class, to offer free literacy classes; thus was born Sunday School. And, even Americans who aren't religious are still familiar to this day with two of the superstars of the Social Gospel movement: the YMCA and the Salvation Army.

The YMCA and Salvation Army

The YMCA isn't just an affordable place to work out or a catchy song from the 1970s. In the mid-1800s, a young man named George Williams had migrated from the English countryside to London, where he faced many of the same social problems that would soon plague American cities. So Williams and a few friends started what they called the Young Men's Christian Association to provide a refuge of faith among the vices of London's slums. The organization spread quickly and soon took root in the United States.

Under the influence of the Social Gospel movement, the YMCA was somewhat revolutionary in its openness to people of every economic and racial group. What, exactly, did they do? It's difficult to pin down because the YMCA met the distinct needs of each community in the name of Christian charity, providing everything from hotel-style housing to medical care, English classes, vocational education, and summer camps for children. Today, as in the late 1800s, the YMCA provides a safe place to exercise in the cities, and YMCA volunteers are even credited with the invention of basketball and volleyball!

The story of the Salvation Army is very similar. A London minister named William Booth thought that Christians should take the message of the Bible out of the church and into the streets where it was most needed. He never intended to start an organization; Booth and his wife just wanted to bring hope to the desperately poor citizens of industrial London that traditional churches wouldn't accept - prostitutes, thieves, alcoholics - and did what he could to offer spiritual and practical guidance.

But his converts were so enthusiastic that they, too, started preaching and lending a helping hand. One of his volunteers immigrated with her parents to Philadelphia, and held the first meeting of the Salvation Army in United States. Within four years, the Salvation Army existed in twelve states to meet spiritual and physical needs without discrimination. At the time, Booth summarized his work as the three S's: soup, soap, and salvation. Today, you may recognize the Salvation Army's bell ringers outside shops at Christmastime. They raise money to provide programs and services for people in need, regardless of the causes.

Settlement Houses

The concept of the Social Gospel spread, as Rauschenbusch had hoped, and was largely advocated by middle-class women. One of their biggest efforts was the establishment of settlement houses, again, a movement begun in mid-19th century London, that caught hold in the United States, where it flourished. Settlement houses were essentially community centers located in urban slums where middle-class women volunteered to live and share their knowledge and culture with the poor around them in the spirit of charity and social justice. Their services varied, but they tended to offer things like food, shelter, daycare, English classes, and basic education in the hopes of alleviating the squalid conditions in which local residents lived. The best example of these may be Hull House, founded by Jane Addams in Chicago. Hull House became a model for more than 400 settlement houses across the United States.

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