Civil Religion Series: Wealth, the Social Gospel, and Holy War


Civil Religion, part nine
Wealth, the Social Gospel, and Holy War

Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these.

At this point we are looking at the second book for this series: Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, by John Fea. Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

• • •

In the United States, after the Civil War and through the early decades of the twentieth century, Protestant Christianity found itself developing into three primary streams of belief and practice: evangelicals, fundamentalists, and liberals (or modernists). John Fea describes these basic groups and the sometimes surprising ways they sought to promote a more “Christian” America.

Evangelicals in those days, for example, often took the lead with regard to social concerns. It might surprise some today to learn that, in addition to such moral issues as temperance and Sabbath reform, evangelicals were leading advocates of labor reforms such as the eight-hour workday, arbitration to decide labor disputes, equitable apprenticeship laws, and settlers’ rights vs. corporations such as the railroads. They even backed establishing the bureau of labor statistics.

But it is Fea’s discussion of “liberal” Protestant Christianity in this period that I found most intriguing.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists were not the only Protestants in America between the Civil War and the 1920s. Liberal Protestants were much more open to adapting their faith to the spirit of the age. They would engage in “battle royal” with the fundamentalists for control of Protestant denominations, but in the process they never abandoned their ardent belief that the United States was a Christian nation and needed to be defended as such. Indeed, the rhetoric that liberal Protestants used to defend Christian America was considerably stronger than that employed by the fundamentalists. (p. 35)

Liberal Christianity was criticized as “modernist” theology for their approach in which they applied modern methods of reason and scientific inquiry to the Bible and theological matters. They saw the Bible more as a witness to God than the revealed Word of God. They used methods of historical criticism with regard to the biblical texts in order to develop theories about how the Bible came to be and to separate the historical background from scripture’s “myths.” A chief example of this was the Documentary Hypothesis, a theory about various sources behind the Pentateuch that led scholars to deny the Mosaic authorship of these books. Furthermore, liberals were enchanted with modern scientific progress and accepted evolution over the creations accounts in the Bible. They denied the Virgin Birth and doubted scriptural reports of the miraculous.

This type of faith fit well with the American notion of progress. As Fea puts it: “Ultimately, they tied their theological wagons to the train of progress. Society was advancing toward the kingdom of God and Christians needed to play a part in its coming.” The liberals were condemned by evangelicals and fundamentalists for their overly optimistic view of human nature, their dismissal of original sin, and their faith in the advancement of knowledge, reason, and human cooperation to bring about worldwide transformation of this world into God’s Kingdom.

Some of these liberals put their emphasis on the great economic blessings God had given to the people of the U.S. Preachers like Henry Ward Beecher and William Lawrence, for example, emphasized that the opportunities available to make and accumulate wealth in this land were favorable to the nation’s progress in virtue and morality. They encouraged the spirit of capitalist progress as a means to moral and spiritual revival. As Lawrence put it, prosperity would lead to a national character that would be “sweeter, more joyous, more unselfish, more Christlike.”

Another emphasis within liberal Christianity was on Jesus’ social teachings. Also called “the social gospel,” one of the strongest proponents of this teaching, Washington Gladden (who wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”), described his vision of this gospel for transforming the nation:

Every department of human life—the families, the schools, amusements, art, business, politics, industry, national politics, international relations—will be governed by the Christian law and controlled by Christian influences. When we are bidden to seek first the kingdom of God, we are bidden to set our hearts on this great commission; to keep this always before us as the object of our endeavors; to be satisfied with nothing less than this. The complete Christianization of all life is what we pray and work for, when we work and pray for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. (p. 37)

Some accused Gladden of being a theocrat — something rarely said of “liberals” or “progressive” Christians today!

But perhaps the most surprising feature of liberal Christianity during this era was their support for the U.S. at war.

Though there were many pacifists in their ranks, the majority of liberal Protestants at the turn of the twentieth century saw war as a means of securing a peaceful world—the kind of world that would spread God-inspired democracy and precipitate the second coming of Christ.

For example, Lyman Abbott, Henry Ward Beecher’s successor at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, believed believed that the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War was a harbinger of the kingdom of God. It demonstrated the nation’s compassion and care for the suffering and oppressed of Cuba and the Philippines. 34 Abbott offered a spiritualized version of American imperialism not unlike Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden.”

While evangelical clergy eased into their support for World War I, Protestant liberals understood it as a “war for righteousness.” It pitted the forces of God, in the form of the United States of America and its commitment to democracy and social justice, against the forces of evil, as embodied in the religious tribalism and antidemocratic tendencies of Germany. Progressive ministers led their churches in patriotic hymns such as “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” They described the war as “redemptive” and did not hesitate in portraying it as a holy war designed to usher in the kingdom of God on earth.

Historian Richard Gamble has described the liberal Protestant response to World War I as nothing short of messianic in nature. (p. 38-39)

The great spokesperson for this liberal Christian “messianic” vision was President Woodrow Wilson, an elder in his liberal Presbyterian church. John Fea describes Wilson’s combination of faith and country:

As president of the United States, Wilson blended Christianity and patriotism. Both taught people how to sacrifice their lives for something larger than themselves. There was little difference in Wilson’s mind between the United States of America and the kingdom of God. This kind of religious idealism naturally found its way into Wilson’s foreign policy. (p. 39)

Urged on by groups of liberal ministers and leaders, including Harry Emerson Fosdick, Wilson, who had originally campaigned on a peace platform, changed his mind and the U.S. went to war. For progressive Christians in the early 20th century, World War I was a holy war for the Christian faith.

32 thoughts on “Civil Religion Series: Wealth, the Social Gospel, and Holy War

  1. Stuart, i think a lot of people who are of other faiths, and/or profess no religion at all, find much that’s good in Jesus’ teachings. I think a lot of the most compassionate people I’ve met are of other faiths. Some know a lot about the Gospels, most very little.

    For whatever that’s worth… a great deal, i think, but that’s my take.


    Fwiw, i also haven’t read much of anything that makes me think Europeans believed that WWI was in any way related to religion, though certainly, various state churches and politicians were quick to co-opt religion. But America has all that near-messianic fervor that came over with many of the early English colonists, still.


  2. Glad to be able to contribute. This being the centennial I’ve been reading a lot about it and stumbled upon this book. Hard to make much sense out of it all. It’s like the world just decided to go insane for four years. In June of 1916 the war had been going on for a bit under two years with nearly two and a third more to go.


  3. I fail to follow Jesus’ teachings every day, in my interior and exterior life. I don’t give or receive physical blows, so I haven’t had occasion to turn the other cheek, not since childhood. But I certainly don’t give to everyone who asks, that’s for sure. And I certainly have all the vengeful, envious, deceitful stuff in my heart, the poison, that Jesus said is the source of every outer manifestation of evil. No, I don’t follow Jesus teachings closely; I fail at some of it on a daily basis, and the rest of it just seems impossible, and I don’t even know how to follow it.


  4. “Should belief in the resurrection be a defining characteristic of a christian? Or should following Jesus’ teachings better define a believer?”

    I think the resurrection should be a defining characteristic – it shows up in the Nicene and Apostle’s creed.
    I think following the teachings of Jesus is also very important and should be a consequence of one’s beliefs about Jesus.
    I guess it is probably a failure of my imagination but if I thought the resurrection was not true and that all the other miraculous stuff in Scripture was not true, then I probably would not be a Christian. The Bible would not have any authoritative claims on my life because I would believe it to be bunk. Jesus’s teachings are beautiful, but why dedicate myself to them if I did not think what he (allegedly in scripture) said about him was true? I find following Jesus’s teachings to be DIFFICULT because they are so radical. If not really from God why go to most of the trouble? To bring it back to the post, I therefore would not understand why the liberal Protestants mentioned would go to the trouble if they did not believe in some key things the BIble teaches us about Jesus.
    (ok, sorry for the rambling – not sure if I wrote it all out clear…)


  5. Oh, come on, HUG. Wilson had some VERY bad ideas and they have nothing to do with contemporary political alignments (excepting maybe among white supremacists, et. al.).


  6. Stuart – err, what?!! WWII – no, no no. The Naxis, Japanese and Italians co-opted religion for propaganda purposes, but their ideas were not based in or on any religion. The Rusdian revolution? Ditto. Mao’s takeover of China? Likewise. Vietnam: *so* not about religion. Korea: same.

    And so on.


  7. Possibly. Though you could argue the Spirit of Jesus died and came back within a few days. And grew and lives on.

    Should belief in the resurrection be a defining characteristic of a christian? Or should following Jesus’ teachings better define a believer?


  8. They denied the Virgin Birth and doubted scriptural reports of the miraculous.
    Did they believe that the Resurrection actually happened?


  9. I don’t know much about William Jennings Bryan’s platform, but he was a Fundamentalist Protestant who was part of the Democratic Party until he became the leader of the People’s Party. Today we know Fundamentalists to be ultraconservatives, but Bryan was a Progressive. I think one of the reason why Bryan disliked Darwinism is due to its implications on capitalism. Ironically, many Fundamentalists today support a form of capitalism that seem to me very social Darwinistic.

    Theodore Roosevelt of the Republican Party and later the Progressive Party was a Dutch Reformed, which I think is Mainline Protestant. TR was a very nationalistic progressive, and his Progressive Party platform was called the “New Nationalism”.

    There are plenty of other 19th century Christians who were conservatives, capitalists, socialists, etc. I forgot what I was trying to say, but Christian political history is very interesting.


  10. I’m sure there have always been signs of awakening, but the pattern has long since been established. And I don’t see this pattern as something any holy spirit would be controlling.


  11. In regards to Wilson, the book mentioned above, all of this…can it be rightly said that all the wars and bloodshed of the 20th century were the result of traditionalist religious conservative/fundamentalist ideas? And that over time as those ideas die, and more ‘liberal’ ideas took hold, there were fewer wars and bloodshed?

    Though that falls apart once you hit ISIS and Trump/Brexit…


  12. evangelicals were leading advocates of labor reforms such as the eight-hour workday, arbitration to decide labor disputes, equitable apprenticeship laws, and settlers’ rights vs. corporations such as the railroads. They even backed establishing the bureau of labor statistics.

    Wait. Evangelicals weren’t capitalists back then?


  13. This. The claim is one that can only be made by not reading actual leftist commentary.


  14. “But Wilson had a (D) behind his name, so His Memory Can Do No Wrong.”

    As a member of the Democratic party, I have no idea what you’re talking about, I really don’t. Seems like Wilson’s sins are broadly known and agreed upon these days.


  15. “And a parting on the Left
    Becomes a parting on the Right…”
    — The Who, “We won’t get Fooled Again”


  16. Some other things about Woodrow Wilson’s Dark Side:

    * Most white-supremacist president since Andrew Johnson; made the Federal Civil Service Whites-Only by Executive Order; these Jim Crow orders lasted until the Sixties. Before this, Fed Civil Service was one of the few career paths open to blacks other than stoop labor; the hiring by written examination was fairly color-blind for those days.

    * The American Patriotic League, a Presidentially-sanctioned organization of “Homeland Security” and draft enforcers for World War One. Literally organized thugs sniffing out traitors and Huns and spies. Oh, and acting as press gangs forcing draft-age men to enlist for the Holy Cause of the Trenches; APL themselves were exempt from the draft (National Security function).

    But Wilson had a (D) behind his name, so His Memory Can Do No Wrong.


  17. I have to second your idea of Wilson’s enduring legacy. WW I was a completely avoidable and un-necessary war which, in turn, fostered the un-natural alignment of the Middle East and, later, WW II and the Arab Israeli conflict. The bloodiest century in human history, and the bleeding continues.


  18. A general truth is that political alignments don’t map well over the decades. When we talk broadly about “liberal” or “conservative” opinions we are really talking about collections of stances on individual issues, which are bundled together, sometimes pretty randomly. The most obvious example today is how business interests, classified as “conservative,” often take a “liberal” stance on social issues such as gay rights. This is partly because many business leaders live day to day in a social context that is “liberal” about homosexuality, and partly because business want flexibility on employment. A valuable gay employee might refuse to relocate to a locale unwelcoming to gays. Many self-described “third way” “centrists” are actually conservatives on financial and/or military issues and liberals on the pelvic issues. There actually is nothing particularly centrist about this. It is simply a realignment of how various disconnected issues are bundled together.

    This happens all the time, when looking at politics of the past. The way the various stances were bundled together look weird to us today. Our grandchildren will have the same reaction to us.


  19. Woodrow Wilson not only pulled us intentionally into the disaster of WW I, he gave us the Federal Reserve and the IRS, which established the 1% firmly in control, and Wilson’s Holy War continued to take its toll thru the Great Depression and WW II, which gave rise to the Cold War and here we are today, teetering on who knows what. History may figure out that good-intentioned Woodrow did more damage to the world than Adolph Hitler.

    I wish Fea would name what he calls liberals, moderns instead. What he calls evangelicals is more like what classical liberalism was back then, and it gets confusing. What I did take away from this piece today of a positive nature was in the quote from Washington Gladden, who I had never heard of before, and who identifies the bid to seek first the Kingdom of God as the Great Commission, rather than the bid to Wretched Urgency. I realize that Gladden’s idea of the Kingdom of God does not much resemble mine and had its own wretched urgency, but I’m still going to use that.


  20. I ordered this book on the strength of it being by Philip Jenkins and I scored a cheap used copy, tho there’s a pile of books to read first. If you haven’t read Jenkins’ account of the Christian vs Christian warfare that gave us the Nicene Creed and allowed Islam to flourish with the subsequent destruction of most of the Eastern church, you have no idea how we got here today with what we like to think of as orthodox Christianity. The history of Christianity would be most depressing if there were not signs of awakening going on today. Two thousand years asleep at the wheel and counting.


  21. If may seem strange to think of WWI as a “crusade” or a “holy war” these days but if I may let me recommend

    It’ll change the way you think of WWI, that’s for sure! A terrific book.


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