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  • An Ohio Leader of the Social Gospel MovementReassessing Washington Gladden
  • Paul Boyer (bio)

To understand the historical significance of Washington Gladden, the senior pastor of the First Congregational Church of Columbus, Ohio, from 1882 to his death in 1918, we must place his career in a larger historical context. In the late nineteenth century, America was transformed by industrial growth and a tide of immigrants seeking work in the nation's humming factories. As immigrants poured into the cities, slum conditions worsened. Millions of native-born Americans moved to the cities as well, staffing corporate offices, retail shops, and department stores. As a nation of farms and small towns faced the explosive growth of cities and factories, and as Catholic, Jewish, and Orthodox immigrants transformed an overwhelmingly Protestant society, America's churches faced a crisis.

Protestants responded in various ways. Some evangelicals saw city missions as the answer. My paternal grandparents, William and Susanna Boyer, for example, opened a mission in a working-class district of Dayton, Ohio, in 1912 under the auspices of the Brethren in Christ Church, a small Mennonite-related denomination. Others turned to mass evangelism. Dwight L. Moody's urban revivals drew throngs of middle-class churchgoers—but the immigrant masses stayed away in droves.1

Another Protestant response came to be called the Social Gospel. In the 1870s, a few liberal ministers began to preach that if Christians took Jesus' [End Page 88] teachings seriously, they would address conditions in America's factories and immigrant slums, with their appalling rates of injury, disease, poverty, and infant mortality.

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Washington Gladden (1836–1918). Source: Washington Gladden, Recollections (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909), frontispiece.

The social gospel impulse took many forms, including campaigns for child-labor laws, factory safety legislation, stricter tenement house codes, and public health regulations. When Jane Addams founded Hull House, a Chicago settlement house in 1889, she described her motives in social gospel terms. In Kansas City, Congregational minister Charles Sheldon advised his congregation to ask themselves "What would Jesus do?" as they confronted the immigrant city. Sheldon's 1896 novel In His Steps remains a social gospel classic. The reform-minded British journalist William T. Stead, in his 1894 book If Christ Came to Chicago, criticized the city's churches for their self-regarding passivity in the face of rampant vice and corruption.

In 1882, as immigrants poured into New York's Lower East Side and well-to-do parishioners fled, the Reverend William Rainsford (backed by vestryman [End Page 89] J. P. Morgan) transformed St. George's Episcopal Church into a social center offering recreational activities, language classes, and other services to the newcomers. The social gospel's great theologian, Walter Rauschenbusch of Rochester Theological Seminary, argued in such works as Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) that the Kingdom of God could be achieved in the present age if Christians would unite to combat suffering and social injustice. Other social gospel figures moved further to the Left and embraced socialism.2

One of the social gospel's most prominent early leaders was Washington Gladden, born in Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania, in 1836. When his schoolteacher father died in 1841, his mother returned to her family in Oswego, New York, in the heart of the so-called "burnt over district," famous for its religious revivals. Gladden later recalled his vivid memories of the harangues of Jacob Knapp, a popular Baptist revivalist of the day: "I shall never forget some of his descriptions of the burning pit, with the sinners trying to crawl up its sides out of the flames, while the devils, with pitchforks, stood by to fling them back again. It was intended, of course, to frighten sinners. . . . For myself, though a small boy, I distinctly remember that it made me angry."3

Here Gladden attended school, worked for a local newspaper, and gained his first taste of politics working for prohibition and antislavery candidates. He shared his family's evangelical faith, once boycotting a funeral sermon preached by a Universalist minister. But he encountered more liberal religious views and gradually came to reject "individualistic pietism" in favor of a religion dedicated to achieving "the Kingdom...


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