Walter Rauschenbusch (October 4, 1861 – July 25, 1918) was a Christian Theologian and a Baptist Minister. He pioneered the social gospel movement, especially in the USA although his ideas and writings gained worldwide popularity. After an eleven year ministry in a tenement area of New York City, he taught at Rochester Theological Seminary. His theological thinking was grounded in his experience as a pastor working with people who had no means of employment, lived in poor housing, who had no access to health care and whose children received inadequate education. He traveled widely speaking about the need for Christians to transform not only their individual lives, but the whole of society. He placed the concept of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice and peace towards which humanity must constantly work, at the center of his theology. Building the kingdom involves, he argued, divine–human cooperation. A strong supporter of Women's suffrage and of racial equality, he inspired, among others, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu.
Rauschenbusch was born in Rochester, New York. His father, Augustus, who was German went to the United States as a Lutheran missionary in 1846 to work among the German community. In 1858 the senior Rauschenbusch became a Baptist, attracted to their style of church organization which he thought closer to that of the New Testament. That year, he joined the faculty of the Baptist Rochester Theological Seminary. Walter spent four years studying at various schools in Germany when his father temporarily relocated there between from 1878-83, gained a Gymnasium diploma. Between 1983 and 1886 Rauschenbusch trained for ministry at Rochester Seminary, simultaneously attending the University of Rochester. His father was the fifth in a succession of ministers, and Rauschenbusch chose to follow in these footsteps at an early age, experiencing a “personal conversion” as a teenager Rauschenbusch embraced, while at Seminary, a liberal approach to such issues Biblical interpretation, rejecting a literalist view, and questioned the concept of a substitutionary atonement since he was skeptical about the need for a “sinless sacrifice” in order for God’s love to be expressed. He thought this a peculiar notion of justice.
Rauschenbusch graduated in 1886 and was ordained a Baptist minister, accepting an invitation to pastor the Second German Baptist Church in New York City. Rauschenbusch spent eleven years as pastor and preacher. He had considered missionary service in India but he was discouraged from this by one of his professors, who was opposed to his liberal views. The church was adjacent to one of the most deprived areas of the city, known as Hell’s Kitchen, where the housing was poor, unemployment rampant and illness epidemic. Rauschenbusch was particularly moved by the large number of funerals he had to conduct for young children. One the one hand, he saw his task as nurturing the spiritual health of his congregation. On the other, he was challenged to address the social problems he encountered daily in exercising his pastoral ministry. Two early influences impacted his thinking. First, like his father, he was interested in the early Anabaptists, among whom some had taught that the perfect society can be established on earth. Second, he was impressed by the words of a Catholic priest, Father Edward McGlynn, who spoke at a rally in 1897 in support of tax reforms. Rauschenbusch was interested in how the Catholic priest related his Christian faith and issues of economic reform. McGlynn’s closed his speech concluded the words, “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth” from the Lord’s prayer. This stimulated the Baptist minister to think more about the meaning of the “kingdom of God,” so central to Jesus’s preaching but largely ignored. Over the next few years, Rauschenbusch explored the notion of the Kingdom of God in his sermons, and started to write a book on this.
He soon became convinced that poverty could not be solved by piety or prayer or even by haphazard philanthropy but only by a society committed to justice and social welfare. On the other hand, he approached John D. Rockefeller for help with a new building for the church.
1891 was an important year for Rauschenbusch during which he went on study leave to Europe, visiting Germany and also Birmingham and London. He was impressed, in Birmingham, by the City’s municipal socialism, which for many elders in the city was an expression of the “civic gospel.” As a Corporation, Birmingham was attempting to improve the welfare of all citizens. In London, Rauschenbusch was impressed by the work of the Salvation Army, with their passion for individual salvation combined with meeting physical needs.
While attending a convention in Millwaukee, Rauschenbusch met Pauline Rother, a local schoolteacher, whom he married on April 12, 1892. Rauschenbusch was becoming deaf in one ear, and Pauline helped him learn to cope with this disability. They had five children, Elizabeth, Paul, Winifred, Karl, and Hilmar. Rauschenbusch's father's marriage had been strained. He placed great stress on family values but disliked any public expression of family difficulties, which he believed should be dealt with in private.
In 1892, Rauschenbusch and some friends formed a group called the Brotherhood of the Kingdom. The group's charter declared that "the Spirit of God is moving men in our generation toward a better understanding of the idea of the Kingdom of God on earth," and that their intention was "to reestablish this idea in the thought of the church, and to assist in its practical realization in the world." In a pamphlet, Rauschenbusch wrote: "Because the Kingdom of God has been dropped as the primary and comprehensive aim of Christianity, and personal salvation has been substituted for it, therefore men seek to save their own souls and are selfishly indifferent to the evangelization of the world."
In 1897 he stated to teach at Rochester, becoming professor of church history in 1902. He remained at Rochester until his death. As his reputation grew, he traveled widely, was “consulted by Presidents” and was “the best known minister in his day.” Towards the end of his life, he was saddened that diplomacy could not prevent World War I and depressed by the rise of anti-German sentiment.
It was while at Rochester that Rauschenbusch published the books that made his reputation. Although his chair was in church history, he was really a social and moral theologian. His principal works were:
Christianity and the Social Crises was a best-seller. Between 1907 and 1910 only the Bible sold more copies. “All of his books,” says Paul Rauschenbusch , involved further explication of the Kingdom of God and how we are to bring God's reign on earth.”
Rauschenbusch's view of Christianity was that its purpose was to spread a kingdom of God by substituting “love for selfishness as the basis of human society." The mission of the church was not only to get individuals into heaven, but to change life and society on earth. In Rauschenbusch's early adulthood, mainline Protestant churches were largely allied with the social and political establishment, in effect supporting the domination by robber barons, income disparity, and the use of child labor. Most church leaders did not see a connection between these issues and their ministries, so did nothing to address the suffering. But Rauschenbusch saw it as his duty as a minister and student of Christ to act with love by trying to improve social conditions.
In Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), Rauschenbusch argued that to separate the life of faith from the task of reforming society is to misunderstand Jesus. Religious life claims the authority to transform society and any social and economic institution that oppresses or favors the rich over the poor. Social justice, not only individual salvation, represents the mission of the Church. Rauschenbusch maintained a strong sense of mission throughout his life. In The Social Principles of Jesus, he wrote that the kingdom of God, he wrote,
In his Theology for the Social Gospel (1917), he argued that for John the Baptist, the baptism was not merely a mark of the recipients’ personal salvation, but a commission to work for the sake of the kingdom.
Asking whether the Kingdom is a future act of God or the work of men and women in the present, he replied that neither of these precludes the other. Rather, “we are most durably saved in putting in hard work for the kingdom” In the struggle to establish justice, anyone who shares the same goals is to be an ally, even if their religion is different. Rauschenbusch hated racism, writing:
As supporter of Women's suffrage, he also pointed out that “In every case in which the interests of women came before Jesus, he took her side… The attitude of historic Christianity,” he continued, “has been a mixture between his spirit and the spirit of the Patriarchal family.” His The Social Principles of Jesus, written as a study guide for college Sunday School classes, was co-published by the Women’s Press.
What Rauschenbusch wanted to do was to “expand the notions of sin and salvation” to embrace institutional sin as well as private, or personal sin. He did not believe that perfection could be achieved but in constantly striving for perfection.
His attitude towards the family, however, has been criticized as too conservative. He tended to differentiate gender roles, upholding the traditional view that the proper realm for women is the domestic, home-making sphere, while men earn and govern On the other hand, he believed that women possess superior gifts for nurture and that their education would ‘increase beauty in our lives’.
Critics of Rauschenbusch also argue that he neglected the needs of the individual as a moral and spiritual being in his fervor to reform society. In other words, he failed to teach that a love for one's neighbor flows directly from and is required by one's own love for God. However, Paul Rauschenbusch stresses that God’s love was the primary motive for everything that his great-grandfather said and wrote.
Others have argued that Rauschenbusch was too much a child of the Enlightenment, too confident in human goodness, taking too little cognizance of the sinfulness of humanity. On the one hand, Rauschenbusch did believe that lives of faith in action can create a better world, on the other he held that the church had taken insufficient account of institutional and social sin, which could only be tackled by social action. There were enough ministers concentrating on individual salvation from personal sin for him to focus on institutionalized sin. One biographer comments that he:
The Rauschenbusch Center for Spirit and Action, Seattle is named in his honor. The Rauschenbusch lectures at the Colgate-Rochester Divinity School also honor his memory.
Rauschenbusch's was awarded an Honorary Doctorate the University of Rochester in 1902, and from Oberlin College in 1916, from where his daughter, Winifred, graduated.
The elaboration of sin and evil in terms of the "super-personal" social forces of institutions, economic systems, powerful groups, and movements is of particular importance. There is ongoing debate about the nature of Jesus’ social teaching, and about the nature of the Kingdom of God. Theologians and biblical scholars debate whether it is future event or present reality, whether it is wholly God’s gift, the product of divine-human cooperation or even of a purely human effort. His own thinking can be seen as a reaction to the work of such theologians as Jonannes Weiss, whose Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (1892) had argued that Jesus’ kingdom had been a “thoroughly transcendental and apocalyptic” kingdom, not an “ethical relationship of love and trust for God and men,” but an “event.”
His daughter, Winifred, worked for the suffragette movement. His grandson is Richard Rorty, a leading U. S. philosopher. His great-grandson, Paul, is a Baptist minister, whose maternal grandfather was Louis D. Brandeis, a United States Supreme Court Justice, and who grew up alongside his Jewish cousins. In a tribute to his forbear, Walter, Paul cites a prayer that for him sums up Rauschenbusch's legacy:
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