Power in American Millenarianism: the Social Gospel

Marc Fonda, Centre for the Study of Religion, University of Ottawa

In New Heaven New Earth (1971), Kenelm Burridge asserts that all religious activities are, to some extent, concerned with power (1971:5). People involved in such activities are interested in the discovery, identification, ordering, and moral relevance of different kinds of power. They are also concerned over how power is manifested. Millenarian movements, moreover, have a special relationship to power. They tend to be critical of the means by which power is distributed and the relative access that the people of a society have to power, be it of a spiritual or more secular nature. It may be said that millenarian activities are undertaken as attempts to re-order power (Burridge 1971:5).

Millenarian movements arise in inherently competitive situations. They constitute a challenge to current conditions that, in turn, invite suppression by a more powerful regime. They are a power anathema to politically oppressive regimes (Burridge 1971:34). With these things in mind, we may observe that millenarian activities are attempts to reformulate assumptions about power so that they may better account for a widening of experiences and concurrent new modes of redemption, as a society changes. In this sense, it may be claimed that millenarian groups are potentially new cultures in the making among other possibilities (Burridge 1971:9). Finally, as millenarian movements represent new cultures in the making, they also represent new approaches to understanding what a human being is (Burridge 1971:11).

Concern with various kinds of power, of course, implies that different sets of rules are in place. But since religious activities seek to organize and understand the use and control of power, rules about its use and control are grounded in the interplay between 1) faith, 2) experience, and 3) social or cultural assumptions (Burridge 1971:5). As social, economic, political, religious, or even philosophical innovations alter a society, faith, experience and social assumptions expand their boundaries. In such situations, some rules and assumptions about power will be re-assessed and qualified. Others may be abandoned altogether (Burridge 1971:6). In either case, space is left for the reception of new truths that in turn may become the working assumptions of future generations. Such assumptions are community truths or socially conditioned ideas that command a consensus among a community’s membership (Burridge 1971:5).

Community truths imply that sets of moral obligations and rules of conduct to which people subject themselves are in place. These moral obligations and rules of conduct help to form a consensual set of moral discriminations that promotes the realization of one’s moral nature and potential. This is "no less than a ‘redemptive process’" (Burridge 1971:6). The redemptive process is reflected in a society’s activities, its moral rules and its assumptions about power. These assumptions are taken on faith and permit two things: 1) to help people perceive the truth of things and 2) to guarantee that people are indeed perceiving the truth of things (Burridge 1971:7). Burridge argues that by analyzing

the kinds of redemption or releases from obligations that are offered by particular kinds of millenarian activity, we might be able to see more accurately what assumptions and rules are currently not revealing the truth of things, [and] what kinds of redemptive processes would be more in tune with an actual or desired distribution of power (Burridge 1971:7).

The purpose of this paper is to present a tentative investigation of one instance of American millenarianism in light of the distribution of power. This papers also examines to some degree the relationship between power and access to redemption. I would argue that concerns regarding the use and misuse of power are a significant motivation in at least one period in the 350-year history of American millenarianism. I will propose a model to help illustrate various types of power, including social conditioning, which have been confronted by American millenarian movements and employed by them in turn. Finally, I will explore the redemptive process in light of social assumptions about the distribution of power during the time of the social gospel. While one example provides limited evidence, I suspect that the whole history of America’s millenarian activities may be analyzed through a theoretical framework that accounts for power.

Why Power?

Secular modes of redemption include the accumulation of money in American society. As Burridge notes, millenarian activities occurring within the great moneyed economies turn significantly on money: it is used as a measurement of the moral qualities of a person (Burridge 1971:41). "And, because attitudes to money can so readily found out the man [sic], defined what is meant by integrity, millennial aspirations often find their focus in money" (Burridge, 1971:46). Money, as the saying goes, brings power and the broader social access, the less likely to find millenarian activities. Under such conditions, there would be no need to develop differing views on power and redemption, especially if all of that society’s members can share in its mode or redemption. However, class conflict arises in politically permissive societies (i.e., societies that allow many different notions of power and redemption) in which there is an underprivileged class without or with only restricted access to redemption. In such cases, one can find the motivation to make new assumptions about power and redemption. And if these assumptions are introjected and symbolized in the person of a ‘prophet,’ the possibility of a millenarian movement developing is heightened (Burridge 1971).

Prophets embody such new assumptions about power and redemption. When a prophet appears to solidify such ideas, a new and moral community may emerge. This new community is not only defined by new assumptions about power and redemption. It is also defined by the new conception of what it means to be human and a new ritual is used to bring the community together, to express the new notion of self and community, and to solidify the new ideas about power and redemption. Thus, it is possible for the development of a millenarian group to feedback into and revise those assumptions held by the larger social unit. However, we must keep in mind that such activities are only partial solutions to the problems of power. Furthermore, we need to account for the possibility that the overarching structures of a society may be such that it encourages millenarian activities as a response to unjust power distributions, which may be found in a social conditioning (Burridge 1971).

Burridge suggests that social conditioning is important through his discussion of the ‘common assumptions’ or ‘community truths’ about self, community, power, and redemption. But in The Anatomy of Power (1983), John Kenneth Galbraith offers a model of the interrelations of the sources and instruments of power that deals significantly with social conditioning. Before proceeding to a narrative of the social gospel, I will briefly outline Galbraith’s understanding of the interrelationship of the sources and instruments of power (see: Figure 1). Galbraith also provides us with a historiography of the relative weight of the sources and instruments of power during the time in which the social gospel had influence, the period of high capitalism. This will be a useful means of structuring our discussion.

The three sources of power Galbraith identifies are personality, property or wealth and organization. Personality is described as the "quality of physique, mind, speech, moral certainty, or other personal traits that give access to one or more of the instruments of power" (1983:6). In primitive societies personality is often understood in terms of physical strength and associated with the condign exercise of power. In modern societies personality is more closely allied to conditioned power–e.g., the ability to persuade or create belief. This is, in part, one of the features of authority given to a prophet. Property or wealth provides an aspect of authority, a certainty of purpose, and this can invite conditioned submission. However, wealth and property are principally associated with compensation as an instrument of power, insofar as it allows for the purchase of submission. Organization is said to be the most common source of power in modern societies. Its foremost relationship is found in conditioned power. "From the organization, then, comes the requisite persuasion and the resulting submission to the purposes of the organization" (Galbraith 1983:7).

Galbraith’s instruments of power include condign, compensatory, and conditioned power. Condign power refers to the means of gaining submission by "the ability to impose an alternative to the preferences of the individual or group" in such a way as to force people to abandon their preferences (1983:4). There is an overtone of punishment that is appropriate, because it "wins submission by inflicting or threatening appropriately adverse consequences" (1983:4). People are aware of submission to condign power. Compensatory power wins submission by offering an affirmative reward. It gives something of value to those who submit. Praise is a form of compensatory power. In modern economies, however, "the most important expression of compensatory power is, of course, pecuniary reward–the payment of money for services rendered, which is to say the submission to the economic or personal purposes of others" (1983:5). People are also aware of submission to compensatory power. Conditioned power "is exercised by changing belief. Persuasion, education, or the social commitment to what seems natural, proper, or right causes the individual to submit to the will of another or of others" (1983:6). Conditioned power is the most central of the three instruments of power enforcement in modern economies and polity in both capitalist and socialist systems alike. Submission to it reflects the preferred course of action but it is not recognised; however, this is not to say that all conditioning is unconscious. It may also be recognized on occasion. Thus, Gailbraith notes that conditioning may be either explicit, as in formal or parental education, or implicit, as in Burridge’s ‘community truths.’

Galbraith notes that there is "a primary but not exclusive relationship between each of the three instruments by which power is exercised and one of the sources" (1983:7), e.g., personality with the condign, property with the compensatory, and organization with the conditioned. However, such relationships may change over time as political and economic practices also change. In most cases, we will find that personality, property and organization will all be used but different emphases may be placed on each depending on the social context. Furthermore, we can find varying combinations of the instruments used in the enforcement of power (Galbraith 1983:7). Finally, we can find symmetrical reactions to power, which are not necessarily equal in force but are opposing the status quo.

A critical word needs to be said about the theoretical framework employed in this presentation. While Burridge’s perspective on millenarian activities and movements being intrinsically concerned with power is a fruitful and interesting one, it is one based on sociological analysis. For this reason it is effective in describing the relation between power structures and social change and can provide a good deal of insight into how a society finds redemption as well as what a society thinks about the distribution of power.

However, Burridge does not offer any comprehensive categorization of power other than to distinguish between spiritual and secular power. Furthermore, it cannot speak to one crucial point: the individual’s relation to his or her society’s assumptions about power and redemption or, for that matter, an individual’s interrelation to millenarian activities and movements. A more thorough modeling of the role that power plays in millenarian activities, I propose, would need to account for the reactions, relations, and recriminations of the individuals effected.

Naturally, the same criticism may be applied to Galbraith. Yet, Galbraith’s anatomy of power offers us a model that shows the interrelationship among three basic forms of power and their instruments of enforcement. More importantly, Galbraith provides us with a historization of power that is applicable to whole of American millenarian history. Thus, we may use his breakdown of different periods and constellations of the sources and instruments of power as a point of departure when looking at power in American millenarian history. However, Galbraith’s division of power does not classify certain forms of power often considered important to millenarian, such as rhetorical power, charisma, and individual empowerment (e.g., as in how a millennial movement provides solace and strength to its members).

While rhetorical power may be classified under social conditioning and charisma under personality, I do not believe that in either case this would be adequate. Personal and social empowerment are both assumed by Burridge–if a movement is successful, it will alter the culture and (presumably) the individuals participating in that culture. At any rate, millenarian activities have the potential of altering the way we see ourselves, which itself may be viewed as a form of empowerment. Finally, neither Burridge nor Galbraith makes a distinction between power, influence and authority. This lack of a certain definition of power is problematic as it leaves the reader with the dilemmas of 1) defining the limits of power versus authority and influence and 2) negotiating his or her own understanding of the difference between power, authority and influence with respect to the descriptions of power offered by Burridge and Galbraith.

It should also be noted that people in positions of power have used millennial rhetoric for sundry purposes. Millennial rhetoric has been used as a means of maintaining the status quo and this is roughly equivalent to maintaining power relations as they exist. In such cases, while there may be little desire to confront unjust distributions of power, this is not to say that power as a motivating factor is not present. At best, we must augment Burridge’s theoretical framework to include the use of millenarian rhetoric as a means of maintaining the status quo as a complement to millenarian movements that would restore a more just power distribution.

In a related issue, one can find instances in which individuals undergo voluntary impoverishment in this world. While it is not immediately obvious how giving away goods and status leads to power as was the case, for example, in the burnt-over district in 1844 (see: Barkum, 1986) or with Heaven’s Gate. However, we may still impute a motive based on power in such cases. By relinquishing one’s worldly goods, a person ensures their purity and appropriateness to God. We may therefore suppose that such activities represent a hope to better one’s position when the Kingdom comes and ensure one a place among the resurrected. This is an instance in which Burridge’s distinction between spiritual and secular power comes into play. While such individuals may be giving up on secular power of a sort, they are doing so in a bid to gain a larger degree of spiritual power that would benefit them in the world to come.

This suggests one further point, that many individuals who become prophets or join millenarian movements may not be seeking power for themselves personally. Rather, they seek the power to alter the world and make it a better place. However, while individuals or millenarian movements may not be motivated to gain power for themselves, this does not absolve such individuals or movements from being motivated by power. They may merely be motivated by the misuse of power and a desire to set things right, as they perceive things should be. This is to say that a motivation for gaining power for oneself is not the only possible relationship that power has with millenarianism.

The remainder of this paper will develop a narrative on the rise and fall of the social gospel. Then follows a critical discussion of the relationship the social gospel's millennium had with power. This places us in a good position to test some of Burridge's arguments regarding the relationship of millenarian activities to power.

Power and the Social Gospel

According to Charles Howard Hopkins (1967), the social gospel is America’s most unique contribution to the ongoing stream of Protestant Christianity. Originating as a reaction to modern industrial society and scientific thought following the Civil War, Hopkins defines the social gospel as the application of Jesus’ social teachings. He also locates the roots of the social gospel in some Unitarians, who in 1826 worked with Boston’s ‘unchurched masses’. This was one of the first examples of religious social service in the United States. It was also the first real attempt to deal with what were becoming the burning issues of the day: the social and religious problems heralded by the new urban and industrialized world.

The social gospel’s primary concern was with the problems of industrialization, urbanization and the ethics of wealth. Thus, it might be said that it was American Protestantism’s critical and socially inspired reaction to the ethics of capitalism (Hopkins 1967:319). Yet, the social gospel was also concerned with the problem of salvation as expressed by its Puritan heritage. The traditional way of looking at salvation was that it existed for the soul after death or in a holy community in a world to come. There was no salvation from sin while in the here and now in a physical body and in human society (White & Hopkins 1976:11; Schneider 1964). Now, the social gospel neither rejected specific doctrines nor was iconoclastic. Rather, it sought to understand the bible in a more ‘natural way’ versus the literalism that seemed so prevalent at the time (White & Hopkins 1976:31).

The social gospel has been called "American Protestantism’s response to the challenge of modern industrial society" (Hopkins 1967:318). It was also a liberal challenge to the conservative character of most American churches. From the point of view of the social gospel, orthodox American Protestantism had frozen society into complacency. While the conservative church was smug in its preoccupation with salvation in the form of personal regeneration, the attitude that there was little wrong with American society and, thus, no recognition of a need to do something about it left them with dwindling numbers of parishioners. Thus the social gospel argued that the church should become socially relevant and take into account the changes wrought by industralization and urbanization. These more liberal churches changed their tactics and spoke about the burning issues of the time, leaving conservative churches with dwindling numbers. Yet, the social gospel borrowed at least one thing from evangelical Protestantism: the belief that crisis in human life was correlated to the divine initiative to accomplish the necessary changes leading to the New Jerusalem. The Kingdom of God was now seen not as a place but as a state of society which would be initiated by "spontaneous development" (Hopkins 1967:14-20).

The conservative church, in its part, challenged the social gospels’ new ideas. It appears to have been most suspicious about the new form of socialism emerging from the religious left. During the 1880s, the religious right rejected socialism on the grounds that it may be classified as economic and political and that it had no ethical or religious authority. Furthermore, made wary of political claims made during the period of railway and empire building that followed the Civil War, conservative ministers saw the socialization of land, resources, capital, and the means of production to be an unwarranted centralization of power. Some also claimed that the socialist arguments about poverty were false. Others criticized the social gospels revolutionary attitude, claiming socialism ought to be evolutionary and not revolutionary. Still others could not get past the need to believe in personal regeneration. Social change, they argued, would never appear until everyone had been regenerated (Schneider 1964).

During America’s Nineteenth century industrial empire building, corruption became so widespread that the moral indignation of the country took over popular sentiment. It wasn’t until after the depression of 1873, which brought breadlines to the city streets of a nation that was on its way to being one of the richest countries in the world, that the general population started to sense something was amiss. However, the czars of finance and industry paid little attention to the communities surrounding them. With an exaggerated display of excessive individualism inspired by classical economics, they ran roughshod over human rights, economic justice, and the moral law. Even the eruption of working-class discontent in 1877 was hardly reason for pause (Hopkins 1967:11f). Other events of this nature included the Haymaker Riot in Chicago and the Pullman Strike of 1894. Such events shocked the nation and the Protestant church’s complacency almost as much as the social convulsions of the 1960s upset contemporary American society (White & Hopkins 1976:63).

The pattern of American urbanization that began in the 1860s was still working itself out in 1915 when half of the country’s population lived in cities. American cities had begun as trade centres for an expanding agrarian society. However, industrialization altered the rural course of the American economic situation and cities now became the ‘storm centres’ of a new industrial economic order and, hence, the prime theatres of social maladjustment and unrest (White & Hopkins, 1976:51). Let me expand upon the situation somewhat. Between 1884 and 1894 more than fourteen thousand labor disputes involving over four million workers took place. By 1900, unemployment due to technological changes, immigration, and other factors left a standing army of over a million unemployed workers, most found in the cities, whereas thirty years earlier there weren’t enough people to fill all the jobs. Moreover, between 1860 and 1890 wages decreased by twenty-five per cent while women and children were forces in to factory labor. In light of this situation, there was little choice for the conservative churches but to acknowledge the realities of the time and join in the movement for social reform (Hopkins 1967:79f).

While the roots of the social gospel can be located in the urban social work a group of Unitarians conducted during the late 1820s, it was also rooted in the work and insights of other denominations, i.e., the Congregationalists and the Episcopalians. Furthermore, there were a number of ideational and social innovations during the nineteenth century that added fuel to the fire, as it were, and helped develop the character of the movement. The abolition movement of 1830-1870 was vastly influential on the later social gospel. The men and women fighting against slavery were interested in all sorts of reforms including economic ones. Numerous antislavery associations were started to help in the fight for anti-caste reform. Such activities were rooted in a desire for the formulation of a socially relevant religion–one that reflected the American faith in democracy and a desire for the end the contradiction of slavery in a free republic (White & Hopkins 1976:14-19).

Another influence on the social gospel was the Women’s Temperance Union, which helped to open the way for women to participate in political party deliberations and eventually gain the right to vote. Also affecting the character of the social gospel was the emergence of the social sciences and population statistics. The rise of socialism was also felt in the social gospel, but only after the strike of 1894. Other influences on the social gospel include progressivism, evolutionism, and scientific methods. Progressivism was used to argue that as society moved along it would eventually become perfect, thus operating as an invitation to God to set up His Kingdom. Evolutionary theory was employed to argue the immanence of God, an organic view of society, and the presence of the Kingdom of God on this earth rather than in the heavens above. The result was a non-literal approach to the Bible. They believed that God had provided all the materials for building a perfect world here on earth. One had only to accept the inevitability of progress and work toward creating the good society. Thus the social gospel’s Kingdom of God was seen as the regenerated society and not a society of regenerates. Instead of sponsoring images of a heaven on high, the social gospel envisioned a heaven on earth as the ultimate goal of the human race (Hopkins 1967:123-128).

It might be said that the social gospel was interested in at least four things: they challenged the prevalent rationalization of unrestricted competition in classical economic theory; they believed that the problems between labour and capital were at the center of the social problems emerging in America’s industrial age; they condemned the business ethics of the period, and they attacked the problems of urban life, especially with respect to how the American church related to the masses (Hopkins 1967:24). The attitudes of the social gospel eventually won over most of America’s churches but the conservatives’ shift from the notion of personal salvation or regeneration did not happen overnight nor was it a smooth transition.

Eventually, some conservative ministers began suggesting that the church change its tactics and become the guide and inspiration of society in order to increase their congregations (Hopkins 1967:110). Once the conservative churches admitted to the reality of urban corruption and modern capitalism, they moved towards what was called a Practical Christianity. Many conservative churches eventually accepted the social gospel’s theology of an evolutionary Kingdom of God, which was to be built upon this earth by people of good will progressing towards this end (Hopkins 1967:121). When leaders of more pietistic and separatist groups like the Baptists and the Methodists adopted the social gospel, the call for social reform became millenarian (Hopkins 1967:319). For the people of the social gospel the Kingdom of God was held as a dear truth and the marrow of the gospel. Social reform was seen as the earthly realization of the divine society and that at the Parousia the Church and the Kingdom would merge (White & Hopkins, 1976:255).

By the 1890s, the social gospel had entered the main-stage of American consciousness. The traditional view of personal regeneration then became a minority position as more and more members of the American public turned toward social redemption. At the turn of the twentieth century, it appeared as if the social gospel was in decline but it was mainstream enough to have direct influence over federal politics. The social gospel’s spirit of progress expressed itself in the vigorous ‘trust breaking’ of Theodore Roosevelt and the idealistic crusades of Woodrow Wilson (Bailey 1977). These two presidents won significant battles over issues like suffrage and prohibition. They established the Federal Trust Reserve, the income tax amendment to the Constitution, they tightened controls over the railroads, and developed policy on the public ownership of forest-lands not yet exploited (Hopkins 1967: 203).

As the twentieth century progressed, however, an undercurrent of fundamentalism concurrently emerged which would effect the continued acceptance of social gospel ideals. Other events like the First World War caught the social gospel unawares and its theology was unable to explain the base character of humanity as displayed in that war. The aftermath of the First World War and the excesses of the Roaring 20s were publicly associated with the social gospel’s liberal ideas. Both events helped lead to the rejection of the social gospel. However, with the appearance of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the social gospel was reinvigorated. Its spirit appeared in F.D.R. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ and the social safety net that still exists (in some degree) to protect the material salvation of all Americans (Hopkins 1967:257ff; see also: Bailey 1977; Szaz 1982). Furthermore, the social gospel has not quite gone away in the latter half of the twentieth century. It appeared in the form of the civil rights movement of the 1960-1970s (White & Hopkins 1976:xi, 273f; Benne & Hefner 1974).

Power and the Social Gospel

In remaining pages, I would like to analyze the social gospel’s millenarianism by examining what Galbraith had to say about the relationship of the sources and instruments of power set in the period of high capitalism (approximately 1850-1930). According to Galbraith, during high capitalism there were marked advancements in organization as a source of power as well as a new and important use of conditioning, which helped to radically alter the state’s attitude towards industrialists from that of before. With changes in the sources of power, there was a concurrent alteration in the instruments of enforcement. Condign power did not disappear. However, it was of relatively small importance when compared to the massive use of compensation, both in terms of the power held over millions of factory workers as well as in terms of the power producers had over consumption. The most significant change appears in a continuing resort to conditioned power. High capitalism was extremely successful in accommodating capitalist economic ideas to current need and reality. But it resulted with a system in which different participants were treated in radically different ways.

During this time, inequality in terms of living standards and redemption was dramatic and it required considerable social conditioning to maintain this state of affairs. The social conditioning of high capitalism was significant, as was the countering response to it. The conditioning Galbraith refers to appears in the form of what capitalists did to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776). By identifying the pursuit of economic interests with the utilitarianism of the public good, capitalists set the stage for the reduction of regulations, as industrialists saw themselves as under no obligation to present themselves as public benefactors (Galbraith 1983:110f).

We have already seen that the social gospel was in part a reaction to the laissez faire economics of the time as well as the behaviour of capitalists and the social conditions that emerged during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The capitalists’ adoption of a utilitarian approach to economics and individual responsibility helped justify their rapacious behaviour. Consequently, Americans developed the assumption that the activities of capitalism alone will result in a perfected society. However, the result was a widening gap between those few people who had access to (economic) redemption and those many people with no hope for such forms of worldly salvation. Thus, we may find in the social gospel an expression of Galbraith’s symmetrical reaction to the assumptions surrounding power at the time. It advocated the need to revisit current definitions of self, community and moral responsibility. It argued for salvation here in this world and against the conservative biases towards individual regeneration as the means to perfecting society. Here we find an instance in which the rules and assumptions about power and redemption are not revealing the truth of things, as they are experienced.

Just as this period displayed a new and important shift in power to that of social conditioning, the social gospel used its own form of social conditioning to fight for the rights of urban workers. With nineteenth century innovations in printing technologies and the emergence of popular culture (Grabler 1998; O'Leary 1994), the social gospel had new access to the means of presenting its challenge to current assumptions about the rationale of classical economics, the relationship between capital and labour, the business ethics of the period, and the problems of urban life. The leaders of the social gospel realized that their new way of seeing things would accomplish little if the message did not get out to people. So, the social gospel’s message appeared in many different popular forms, including fiction, Sunday-school lessons, magazines, prayer and hymnbooks and courses of study. While many social gospel novels appeared, such as The Republic of Man by Nathaniel Schmidt, Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, Joshia Strong’s Our Country and E. Tallmadge’s telling title The Profit of Many, only Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps reached a market circulation that is still impressive to this day. By 1933, Sheldon is reported to have estimated himself to have sold over 23 million copies of the book world-wide and that it had been translated into twenty-one different languages (White & Hopkins 1976:143-146).

During this period there were more than twenty periodicals published to help spread the social gospel’s word, including such titles as Equity, The Labor-Balance, The Andover Review, Our Day, and Walter Rauschenbusch’s For the Right (White & Hopkins 1976:147). Some were fanatical, some were dedicated to a specific range of social reforms, and others took on the whole gambit. Very few reached large audiences of the unconverted and could be said to have had national influence. Many lasted only a short time while others lasted longer. However, the growing popularity of reform during the 1890s demonstrates that the social gospel’s use of explicit conditioning was a successful challenge to common assumptions regarding prestige and redemption. (White & Hopkins 1976:148-151). The result of the social gospel’s publishing and organizing was a rise in America’s consciousness of the inadequacies of then-current assumptions about the distribution of power, prestige, redemption, and moral responsibility. It’s rhetoric and organizational style may be seen as responses to assumptions about self, community and redemption. It strove to replace the excessive individualism characteristic of America’s Puritan heritage and its capitalist leanings with a more socially relevant and progressive notion of an immanent self and god.

Galbraith informs us that during high capitalism the role of personality as a source of power also changed. At this time, "spectacular and highly motivated personalities" appeared on the scene; in the United States they were such people as Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Carnegie among others. In support of these personalities was a massive aggregation of the property they commanded. While property was an important source of power, organizations were ceasing to be the mere extension of the boss. Rather, organizations were now beginning to be governed by administrative structures and soon personality would be subjected to the organization itself (Galbraith 1983:111f).

The emergence of organization as a source of power was also reflected in the social gospel. While it is true that the social gospel never organized itself as a mass movement, it did organize many different groups, all of which helped lobby via the popular press and through political activities for the social gospel’s interests. Thus the social gospel was a loose association of movements operating in different contexts such as the Brotherhood of the Kingdom, the Christian Social Union, the Knights of Labor and women’s suffrage movements. All of these different movements shared two things in common: 1) they believed in the ultimate goodness of America and 2) their reform goals were mostly moderate in conception and strategy. On the whole they were optimistic about America’s ability to harness industralization and the social sciences to the good of human life (White & Hopkins 1976:xviii).

The social gospel had little choice but to view community differently as urbanization brought new challenges to previous assumptions about the nature of community. Progress, evolution, socialism, democratic freedoms, and the social sciences all helped the social gospel develop a new idea of community in at least three forms: 1) the social gospel theory of community composed of imperfect human beings needing more than mere regeneration to ensure heaven on earth, 2) the social gospel’s tendency of involving itself in organizations with the goal of social reform, and 3) the social gospel’s perspective on the ills of urbanization challenged the common notion of community.

With respect to redemption, the social gospel was a reaction to the belief in personal regeneration leading to a perfected society of regenerates. In so doing, it argued for a new form of redemption that claimed social and economic reform was a necessary, ‘evolutionary’ step towards salvation. In advocating such changes to America’s understanding of what it means to be human, in a community and to find redemption, the social gospel adopted a variety of new assumptions found in scientific and technologically based concepts of progress and evolution. The social gospel’s perspective on self, community and redemption was also significantly influenced by the ideological gains of religious and republican freedoms that swept the nation during and after the Revolutionary War as well as by the social sciences and socialism during the nineteenth century.

The social gospel offered America a new conception of what it meant to be a human being. The individual was located in a community of others and has a certain responsibility to ensure that the community remains a fair and just one. This is particularly evident when one considers that labor action of the sort found at this time was a relatively new form of intervention leading to what was hoped to be social as opposed to individual redemption. It also indicates that the social gospel’s new form of redemption was one that advocated the social efforts of human as opposed to the Puritan bias towards divinely inspired personal regeneration. This in itself is a significant departure from the main tenor of American millenarianism before the social gospel.

We may follow the suggestion that the social gospel appeared because there was an emerging awareness that there was a problem with how redemption and power was distributed in American society. The social gospel pointed out that the dictates of classical economics were not working, as the predominant form of secular redemption was ensured for the rich, leaving the majority of Americans up the millennial creek without a redemptive paddle. The movement and its form of conditioning appeared as a means of testing the new hypothesis of self and society. Its aftermath appears in public acceptance of social gospel theology at the turn of the Twentieth-century. The evidence consists in the fact that the social gospel’s perspective on self and community entered the highest levels of the American political system. This resulted in various legislative reforms designed to ensure social salvation for all people (e.g., anti-trust laws, welfare legislation and the New Deal, the right to vote given to both women and blacks). Evidence also appears in the form of American Protestant churches adopting an official social action commission and a similar co-ordinating strategy of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America (Hopkins 1967:319). In this sense, then, the social gospel’s emphasis on social reform activities may in itself be viewed as a new ritual form.

The social gospel may be viewed as millenarian insofar as it argued for a new and desired mode of redemption that included more than the small segment of America’s population that was wealthy. It made new assumptions about power and moral responsibility that presumably would better account for the widening of experience (urbanization, socialism, as well as scientific and technological advances). We may conclude that the social gospel was, indeed, a new culture in the making. Unfortunately, the old culture of classical economics still persists. This suggests two things: 1) so long as classical economics persists so to will the millenarian spirit of the social gospel; and 2) that such solutions, as Burridge suggests, are only partial ones.


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