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A few words on the Social Gospel

July 30, 2016

The Republican National Convention concluded two weeks ago, as a convention hall full of Christian conservatives packed for the journey home to families, jobs, and the practice of their religion. For four days I watched a large and presumably representative slice of the American electorate express their views on several questions vital to the future of our country: the right to vote, to work, to receive an education, to be healthy, to make a family, and live with dignity and justice. What I heard and saw brought this project — Building the Social Gospel — to mind. Indeed, it seemed to require a few words on the late 19th century social movement that defines it.


Buildings are really nothing more than large chunks of what academics call “material culture”; the non-verbal expression of ideas broadly held and of the very institutions which constitute the building blocks of culture.

Following the Civil War, several phenomena altered the very nature of the United States. Massive population shifts — from Europe to the U.S.; from rural areas to cities ill-equipped to welcome them — applied pressure to all our social institutions. The church responded in three ways that influenced the shape of church buildings: 1) the sanctuary was reshaped for preaching rather than liturgical ritual; 2) religious education or Sunday School was reinvented as a methodology based on sound secular business practices; and 3) the “Social Gospel” re-imagined the church’s message and its purpose for the expanding urban audience.

Responses #1 and #2 were combined about 1880 into what was called the Combination Plan or the Akron-Auditorium Plan. But during the succeeding 120-plus years the first of those labels was set aside and the second abbreviated in a way the distorts our understanding of what was achieved: “Akron,” which originally referred to the Sunday School, has elided to the sanctuary-auditorium, so that in common usage it has come to mean that worship space.

Some years ago, I decided to undertake a survey of State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs), the official in each state responsible for approving nominations to the National Register of Historic Places. I sent a simple questionnaire that asked three simple questions:

  1. Are you familiar with the phrase “Akron Plan”?
  2. If so, what does it connote to you?
  3. Are there examples of it in your state that are either on the National Register or that might qualify to be placed on it?

Since this was prior to email as a common means of communication, I sent these by snail mail with a stamped return envelope and encouraged responses hand written on the questionnaire itself. I was surprised by a sixty-five percent return, and also by the breadth of understanding. One SHPO in a western state said she was unfamiliar with it and therefore knew of none in her state. Others understood it in its original “Combination Plan” sense, while many attached it only to the sanctuary-auditorium. I was also interested in the geographic distribution: New York, for example is thought would be a bureaucratic nightmare and my query would disappear into a waste bin, but they were the first to respond and included several useful examples. Lightly populated rural states I thought might be well represented; they were not. In fact my own state didn’t respond.

Innovation #3, the articulation of the Social Gospel, may be the most profound influence on these churches, because its effect can be seen in small farm communities throughout the Midwest. But it also shaped the largest examples of the A-A types: the group of churches that self-identified as the Institutional Church League and which operated complex 24/7 structures intended to address the needs of dense urban populations. In effect, and Institutional Church was the 1900 counterpart to today’s mega-church, but intent on achieving very different outcomes.

In another entry, I’ll try in my unsophisticated way to outline the theology of the Social Gospel as it emerged from the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden, as species of cleric far removed from the likes of Pat Robertson or Creflo Dollar. It probably goes without saying that, if I were a Christian, it would be in the spirit of the Social Gospel.


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