Walter Rauschenbusch

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Walter Rauschenbusch

Born October 4th, 1861
Rochester, New York
Died July 25, 1918
Religion Baptist

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was an American theologian and a major leader of the Social Gospel movement, the religious side of the Progressive Movement in the United States. He is best known for his books Christianity and the Social Crisis and Theology for the Social Gospel. At the time, he was celebrated for his reinterpretation of Christianity for a social viewpoint.[1][2][3]

Early Life

Walter Rauschenbusch was born in Rochester, N. Y., on the 4th of October, 1861. He was the child of a minister, a descendant of a long line of ministers and university graduates. His father came to America in 1845, became a Baptist, and went to work among the German immigrants who were then pouring into this country. For thirty years he was professor in the German department of the Rochester Theological Seminary. Walter was bilingual, and was very well educated in American and German schools.

For eleven years he worked in the tenement section of New York City, refusing flattering invitations to editorial and educational positions congenial to him. But he stayed to minister to the poor, the ignorant and the fallen. Caught in the toils of a Russian epidemic his ears were affected and the remainder of his life was largely spent in the silent chambers of the deaf. In 1901, he became a professor in the Rochester Theological Seminary. For five years his chair was that of the New Testament. In 1902 he took the chair of Church History (1902-1918).


Ideological Influence

Rauschenbusch was greatly influenced by the works of Henry George,[4] and attended a 'single tax' rally in the first year of his pastorate.[5] He credits George with his "awakening" to the social problems of the day:

I owe my own first awakening to the world of social problems to the agitation of Henry George in 1886, and wish here to record my lifelong debt to this single-minded apostle of a great truth.

Christianizing the Social Order, page 394.[6]

George's imprint on Rauschenbusch stimulated him to start writing.[7] In 1887,[8] he published his "first paper on the social question" titled "Henry George".[9][10]

He was also influenced by Edward Bellamy[11] and his book Looking Backward.[10][12] Other influences include Marx, Engels, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb,[13] Giuseppe Mazzini, Tolstoy, and Josiah Strong.[14]

Brotherhood of the Kingdom

in 1892, Rauschenbusch founded the Brotherhood of the Kingdom[15] with his friends Leighton Williams and Nathaniel Schmidt.[16]

This organization was mainly of the Baptist denomination, of the earnest work of two men in New York City, but it grew to become nondenominational. Its aim was to work for the kingdom of God in the most inclusive sense. The eight principles and methods of the brotherhood were as follows:[17][18]

(1) Every member shall by personal life exemplify obedience to the ethics of Jesus.
(2) Each member shall propagate the thoughts of Jesus to the limits of his or her ability, in private conversation, by correspondence, and through pulpit, platform, and press.
(3) Each member shall lay special stress on the social aims of Christianity, and shall endeavor to make Christ's teaching concerning wealth operative in the Church.
(4) On the other hand, the members shall take pains to keep in contact with the common people, and to infuse the religious spirit into the efforts for social amelioration.
(5) The members shall seek to strengthen the bond of brotherhood by frequent meetings for prayer and discussion, by correspondence, exchange of articles written, etc.
(6) Regular reports shall be made of the work done by members in such manner as the executive committee may appoint.
(7) The members shall seek to procure for one another opportunities for public propaganda.
(8) If necessary, they shall give their support to one another in the public defense of the truth, and shall jealously guard the freedom of discussion for any man who is impelled by love of the truth to utter his thoughts.

No sectarian or theological tests are required of members.

The brotherhood had an executive committee of five, with power to manage all ordinary business.

Rise from Obscurity

Prior to the publication of "Christianity and the Social Crisis", Rauschenbusch was a comparatively unknown intellectual. The book's publication established him as a leading figure in the Social Gospel movement.[1]

From this point, Rauschenbusch was a strong mobilizing force and leader for the Christian Left.[19]

Work as an author

In 1907 appeared his “Christianity and the Social Crisis,” a book recognized by the far-seeing and the in-seeing students as an epoch-making book which profoundly affected thinkers and preachers. It was a radicalism for which the times were waiting, a radicalism more searching, inspiring and imperative than that which hitherto had separated the “orthodox” from the “liberal” Christian. The Unitarian and the Universalist heresies about the nature of God, Christ, sin and the condition that awaited the soul after death, were remote and uninspiring compared to the radicalism of Professor Rauschenbusch. By the logic of the heart as well as of the head he transferred Christianity from a theological to a sociological basis. He made of Jesus not a theological abstraction but an Elder Brother troubled not with the refinements of philosophy but with the corruptions of society the wrongs of this life

In 1917, there came an enlargement and further application of this principle in his “Theology for the Social Gospel,” in which he reads into the great words of religion the new meaning.

The International Young Men's Christian Association in 1916 distributed over 20,000 copies of a little book prepared for their use by this man, entitled, "The Principles of Jesus." During the war, his books were translated into Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Japanese.

Views on Christianity

Rauschenbusch favored a less individual, more collective version of Christianity, believing that it was the future of the faith. In A Theology for the Social Gospel he wrote: "If we seek to keep Christian doctrine unchanged, we shall ensure its abandonment."[20][21]

Guided by his belief in the "social" point of view, he noted: "In our country, many of the younger men in the North who have written on theology have shown that the problems of society are a vital concern with them, and their fresh theological work consists largely in understanding the relation between social life and religion."[22] Rauschenbusch continually sought to bridge his collective point of view with what he believe to be an old, traditional, individualistic Christianity.

Quoting Josiah Royce, Rauschenbusch notes: "There are in the human world two profoundly different grades, or levels, of mental beings, - namely, the beings that we usually call human individuals, and the being that we call communities. - Any highly organized community is as truly a human being as you and I are individually human."[23] He continued: "The assimilative power they exert over their members is only their form of discipline by which they bring their collective body into smooth and efficient working order. They are the most powerful ethical forces in our communities."[24]

This view of the superiority of the collective over was a common theme for Rauschenbusch. In Christianizing the Social Order he wrote: "Christianizing the social order means bringing it into harmony with the ethical convictions which we identify with Christ. A fairly definite body of moral convictions has taken shape in modern humanity. They express our collective conscience, our working religion. The present social order denies and flouts many of these principles of our ethical life and compels us in practice to outrage our better self. We demand therefore that the moral sense of humanity shall be put in control and shall be allowed to reshape the institutions of social life. We call this "christianizing" the social order because these moral principles find their highest expression in the teachings, the life, and the spirit of Jesus Christ."[25]

So in his view "christianizing" the social order means "collectivising" the social order - they are one in the same.

Rauschenbusch's most forceful statements regarding collectivism come from his speech on The Trend Toward Collectivism, where he says of collectivism that we "we ought to move in that direction."[26]


In his death the “Forum Movement” lost one of its most conspicuous and successful speakers. Those who heard him on such occasions well know how skillful he was in lifting debatable problems to non-debatable heights. He could reason but would not dispute. His statements were so clear that he had no need for argument.


Walter Rauschenbusch is the maternal grandfather of Richard Rorty, an American philosopher. Paul Raushenbush, a former Dean of Princeton University and contributor to the Huffington Post, is his great-grandson.

In recent times, his views have started making a comeback.[19]


Further reading

  • Dorrien, Gary. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity 1900-1950 (2003) and text search, ch 2
  • Hopkins, Charles Howard. The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865-1915. (1940), the standard history; online edition
  • King, William McGuire. "History as Revelation" in the Theology of the Social Gospel," The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 76, No. 1 (Jan., 1983), pp. 109-129 in JSTOR
  • Smith, Gary Scott. "To Reconstruct the World: Walter Rauschenbusch and Social Change," Fides et Historia (1991) 23:40-63
  • Smucker, Donovan E. The Origins of Walter Rauschenbusch's Social Ethics 1994 online edition
  • White, Ronald C., Jr. and C. Howard Hopkins. The Social Gospel. Religion and Reform in Changing America (1975).

Primary sources


  1. 1.0 1.1 (1918) The New World: A Monthly Journal of Christian Thought and Practice, Volume 1. 
  2. (1918) Walter Rauschenbusch, Interpreter of Social Christianity. The American Review of Reviews, Volume 58. 
  3. (1918) A Reinterpretation of Theology in Social Terms. Current Opinion, Volume 64. 
  4. (2011) A Baptist Democracy: Separating God and Caesar in the Land of the Free. Mercer University Press, 61. 
  5. Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), Boston University
  6. Christianizing the Social Order, page 394.
  7. (1994) Origins of Walter Rauschenbusch's Social Ethics. McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP, 104. 
  8. (1937) Makers Of Christianity From John Cotton To Lyman Abbott. Henry Holt And Company, 305. 
  9. (1944) The social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch and its relation to religious education. Yale University Press, 4. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 (2015) Knights of the Golden Rule: The Intellectual as Christian Social Reformer in the 1890s. University Press of Kentucky, 148. ISBN 978-0813162898. 
  11. (1976) The Social Gospel: Religion and Reform in Changing America. Temple University Press, 36. ISBN 978-0877220848. 
  12. (1997) The Character of God : Recovering the Lost Literary Power of American Protestantism: Recovering the Lost Literary Power of American Protestantism. Oxford University Press, 160. ISBN 978-0195354690. 
  13. (2013) Chosen Nations: Pursuit of the Kingdom of God and Its Influence on Democratic Values in Late Nineteenth-century Britain and the United States. Fortress Press, 83. ISBN 978-1451465570. “Rauschenbusch, Reading list (American Baptist Historical Society, Rauschenbusch Family Archives, Box 90)” 
  14. (2004) The Kingdom is Always But Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 49. ISBN 978-0802847362. 
  15. Spirit and Aims of the Brotherhood of the Kingdom
  16. Knights of the Golden Rule, page 151
  17. William Dwight Porter Bliss (1908). The New Encyclopedia of Social Reform: Including All Social Reform Movements and Activities, and the Economic, Industrial, and Sociological Facts and Statistics of All Countries and All Social Objects, 133. 
  18. The Social Gospel: Religion and Reform in Changing America, page 73
  19. 19.0 19.1 Mobilizing the Religious Left
  20. A Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 7
  21. The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation
  22. A Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 30
  23. A Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 71
  24. A Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 72
  25. Christianizing the Social Order
  26. The Trend Toward Collectivism

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