April 7, 2014

Bringing Social Gospel Back

Today's post comes to us from Paul Putz, a PhD student at Baylor University. (You can find him on Twitter by tweeting @p_emory or on academia.edu through his page here.)  Paul's post is part of a series of posts at Religion in the American West. We're inviting scholars to write about their research as it intersects with or is shaped by religion in the American West. For more details or to suggest a post, please contact us at: relamwest[at]gmail[dot]com. 

by Paul Putz

The social gospel is back. It never really went away of course, but the notoriously nebulous historical subject is set to be prominent once again in scholarly discussion of American religious history. One reason for this is Heath Carter, a professor at Valparaiso who has a book under contract with Oxford that argues for a “social Christianity” from below, a working-class gospel that developed in Chicago (and other industrial cities) in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and influenced what later became known as the social gospel.

But Carter is not the only one thinking about the subject. At the American Society of Church History’s spring 2014 meeting, Ralph E. Luker, Amanda Porterfield, Wendy Deichmann, Chris Evans, and Rima Lunin Schultz joined Carter to discuss the social gospel; their comments will be published in a forthcoming issue of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture. Others, including Janine Giordano Drake, also have projects related to the topic currently underway.

Reading Carter’s work on the social gospel has caused me to consider how a view from the American West would change our understanding of the social gospel. At the Religion in American History blog, I recently discussed the intersection of the social gospel with the American West, including ground that has already been trod and five possible themes (three of which were inspired by Ferenc Morton Szacz’s work) for future research:

1) Continuity between the social gospel and the clergy’s role in helping to develop postbellum western “instant cities.”

2) Multiculturalism, or moving beyond the black/white racial binary.  Joshua Paddison’s American Heathens, although not about the social gospel, is an excellent example of how a western setting changes how we view race and religion.

3) Ecumenical social work. Did the diverse religious landscape in the West help to foster a more ecumenical spirit?

4) The West was more conducive to women's suffrage than any other region in the U.S. Perhaps the increased political freedom afforded to women in the West shaped the forms that the social gospel took, or led to increased female leadership in social gospel activity.

5) Populism. It was, after all, a former Populist from Nebraska named George Howard Gibson who helped to popularize the term “social gospel” in the first place.

Of course, as a religious “movement” (if we can give it that much coherence), the social gospel has generally been closely associated with the urban Northeast – this despite the fact that early leaders like George Herron and Charles Sheldon operated in the Midwest. But its current historiographical northeastern orientation makes an American West lens all the more important. Work by scholars like Darren Dochuk (From Bible Belt to Sunbelt) and Matthew Avery Sutton (Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America) are good examples of the usefulness of looking at a well-known religious subject from a western setting. Both challenged the dominant grand narrative of American evangelicalism, which for years depicted conservative evangelicals (or fundamentalists) retreating to the cultural margins in the time in between the Scopes Trial and World War II. Using California as a primary setting in their stories, Sutton and Dochuk demonstrated in their own ways that 1930s conservative evangelicalism was much more vibrant than historians focused on the East have imagined.  

There are challenges with any attempt to view the emergence of the social gospel from an American West perspective, not least of which is the problem of defining the very terms “social gospel” and “American West.” But even though a homogenous American West social gospel surely did not exist, the multiple regions and cultures that make up the West can provide new questions and new answers to our understanding of the early twentieth century social gospel. I know of at least one other person who would agree with me (and she’s kind of a big deal at this blog).

On a related and self-interested note, if you are currently working on a project dealing with the social gospel, or if you know of anyone who is, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to email me at paul [underscore] putz [at] baylor [dot] edu.