Social Gospel Movement

c. 1880s–

The Social Gospel Movement was an initiative that developed during the Gilded Age. It was driven by American Protestant ministers who aimed to apply Christian ethics to social problems caused by industrialization. The movement influenced Progressive Era politics and led to the establishment of the Federal Council of Churches in 1908. The ideology of the movement is still seen today.

Walter Rauschenbusch, Social Gospel Movement

Walter Rauschenbusch was a leader of the Social Gospel Movement in the United States. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Essential Facts

  • The Social Gospel Movement started in the 1880s.
  • It sought to apply Christian ethics to social issues caused by the industrialization of American society.
  • Key figures included Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, and Josiah Strong.
  • Academics like Francis Greenwood Peabody and Richard T. Ely played significant roles.
  • The movement supported Progressive Era causes like temperance, workers’ rights, and public health, which connected it to the Settlement House Movement.
  • The Federal Council of Churches was formed in 1908, later becoming the National Council of Churches.

Significance to American History

The Social Gospel Movement is important to American History because it integrated religious principles with social activism, addressing the effects of industrialization and advocating for social reforms. It laid the groundwork for future social reform efforts within the church and influenced political policies during the Progressive Era.

Brief History

Origin and Meaning

The Social Gospel Movement was a religious movement that started in the 1880s. Its purpose was to apply Christian ethics to solve social problems, especially those related to economic suffering caused by industrialization. 

This movement emerged among American Protestant ministers who believed that their churches should actively address these issues. The term “Social Gospel” was based on the idea of promoting a new form of gospel, which means “good news,” that conveyed an optimistic message. This message suggested that Christians could create a better society by leveraging the influence of their churches to manage the social and economic challenges of their era.

Walter Rauschenbusch and Religious Leaders

Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch from Rochester, New York, was a prominent leader of the movement. In his 1907 book, Christianity and the Social Crisis, he urged churches to prioritize addressing social problems over focusing on personal salvation. In his later work, For God and the People (1910), he emphasized that a “new social purpose” was changing the understanding of Christianity.

Other prominent religious leaders were:

  • Washington Gladden, a Congregationalist minister in Columbus, Ohio. Gladden criticized the free-enterprise system and advocated for public ownership of utilities and cooperative management of various industries. 
  • Josiah Strong, a minister from Cincinnati, Ohio. Strong organized interdenominational congresses and utilized surveys and statistics to analyze and highlight social issues.

Academic Contributions to the Social Gospel Movement

Academic leaders also played a significant role in the Social Gospel Movement: 

  • Francis Greenwood Peabody, a Unitarian at the Harvard Divinity School, introduced the first systematic course on social ethics. Peabody was the only Social Gospeler who addressed racial issues, emphasizing the need for cooperatives and a social security system to support poor minorities.
  • Richard T. Ely, an Episcopalian economist at Johns Hopkins University, examined the theory of Laissez-Faire Economics in his 1889 essay collection, Social Aspects of Christianity. Ely promoted improvements in workers’ lives and working conditions, reducing wealth and opportunity inequalities. He also advocated for government ownership of public utilities such as transportation and power facilities, that operated in the public interest.
  • Albion W. Small, a Baptist who established the first sociology department at the University of Chicago, believed sociology should have strong ethical foundations and be used to improve the human condition.

Reforming Churches and Social Commitment

Advocates of the Social Gospel Movement addressed social issues, but the ministers were primarily focused on reforming the churches. Through their sermons, they encouraged their congregations to develop a deeper commitment to social responsibility. Some congregations responded by building new facilities and Settlement Houses to assist immigrants in their communities. Further, seminaries started incorporating Social Work courses into their training programs for ministers.

Political Involvement and the Social Gospel Movement

The Social Gospel Movement led some of its leaders to become involved in politics. 

Social Gospelers supported various Progressive Era causes, including temperance, public control over utilities, and efforts to eliminate prostitution and corrupt political practices. 

They also advocated for reforms in child labor, workers’ rights, factory safety, low-income housing, public health programs, and conservation. 

The movement’s efforts culminated in the formation of the Federal Council of Churches in 1908, which later became the National Council of Churches. This council created a “Social Creed of the Churches,” which outlined the organization’s commitment to social reform.


  • 1880s — Emergence of the Social Gospel Movement among American Protestant ministers.
  • 1889 — Publication of Richard T. Ely’s Social Aspects of Christianity, critiquing Laissez-Faire Economics.
  • 1907 — Publication of Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis.
  • 1910 — Publication of Walter Rauschenbusch’s For God and the People.
  • 1908 — Formation of the Federal Council of Churches, later known as the National Council of Churches.



The Social Gospel Movement was a religious and social initiative in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that sought to apply Christian ethics to social problems, particularly poverty, inequality, and labor exploitation. Advocates of the Social Gospel believed that addressing these issues was essential to achieving the Kingdom of God on Earth. The movement influenced many social reforms and progressive initiatives, including the Settlement House Movement and labor rights advocacy.


The Social Gospel Movement is part of the following in the APUSH curriculum:


These terms and definitions are relevant to the history of the Social Gospel Movement, one of the prominent reform movements of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.


  • Jane Addams — Co-founder of Hull House and a pioneer in the field of Social Work.
  • Richard T. Ely — An Episcopalian economist who criticized laissez-faire economics and advocated for social reforms.
  • Florence Kelley — Head of the National Consumers’ League and a prominent social reformer associated with Hull House.
  • Francis Greenwood Peabody — A Unitarian academic who introduced the first systematic course on social ethics at Harvard Divinity School.
  • Walter Rauschenbusch — Baptist theologian who was a prominent leader in the Social Gospel Movement.
  • Albion W. Small — A Baptist academic who organized the first sociology department at the University of Chicago.
  • Josiah Strong — A minister of a Congregationalist church in Cincinnati, Ohio, who organized interdenominational congresses.


  • Low-Income Housing — Affordable housing options for individuals with low income.
  • Rochester, New York — A city in New York where Walter Rauschenbusch was based.
  • Seminars — Schools with programs that train individuals to become ministers or priests to help people improve their well-being and solve social problems.
  • Settlement Houses — Community centers providing various services to immigrants and the poor.


  • Progressive Era — A period of widespread social activism and political reform in the United States from the 1890s to the 1920s.
  • Settlement House Movement — A movement during the Progressive Era that was driven by groups of young people who wanted to provide services to poor urban communities.


  • Congregation — A group of people assembled for religious worship.
  • Cooperatives — Organizations owned and operated by a group of individuals for their mutual benefit.
  • Immigrants — People who move to a foreign country to live permanently.
  • Monopolies — Exclusive control over a commodity or service in a particular market.
  • Protestant Ministers — Religious leaders within the Protestant branch of Christianity.


  • Federal Council of Churches — An organization formed in 1908 to unify Protestant churches in social reform efforts.
  • Harvard Divinity School — A theological school at Harvard University.
  • Interdenominational Congresses — Meetings that involve representatives from different Christian denominations.
  • Johns Hopkins University — A prestigious university where Richard T. Ely taught.
  • National Council of Churches — The later name of the Federal Council of Churches.
  • University of Chicago — An institution where Albion W. Small established the first sociology department.


  • Christianity and the Social Crisis — A book by Walter Rauschenbusch calling for churches to address social issues.
  • Social Creed of the Churches — A declaration by the Federal Council of Churches outlining their commitment to social reform.


  • Baptist Theologian — A scholar who studies and teaches Baptist beliefs and practices.
  • Child Labor Reform — Efforts to end the exploitation of children in the workforce.
  • Christian Ethics — Moral principles based on the teachings of Christianity.
  • Congregationalist Minister — A religious leader in the Congregationalist branch of Christianity.
  • Conservation — The protection and preservation of natural resources.
  • Corrupt Political Practices — Dishonest or unethical behavior by politicians.
  • Economic Suffering — Hardship caused by economic factors, such as poverty and unemployment.
  • Episcopalian Economist — An economist affiliated with the Episcopal Church.
  • Factory Safety — Measures and regulations to ensure safe working conditions in factories.
  • Free-Enterprise System — An economic system where private businesses operate in competition and largely free of state control.
  • Inequalities of Wealth and Opportunity — Disparities in income, resources, and chances for success.
  • Laissez-Faire Economic Theory — An economic philosophy advocating minimal government intervention in the economy.
  • Optimistic — Hopeful and confident about the future.
  • Public Control over Utilities — Government regulation and ownership of essential services like water, electricity, and gas.
  • Public Health Programs — Initiatives aimed at improving the health of the public.
  • Sermons — Speeches given by ministers or priests during religious services, often addressing moral or religious topics.
  • Social Aspects of Christianity — A collection of essays by Richard T. Ely critiquing laissez-faire economics.
  • Social Ethics — The study of moral principles as they apply to social issues.
  • Social Gospel — A religious movement that applied Christian principles to social problems.
  • Social Responsibility — The ethical obligation to act for the benefit of society at large.
  • Social Security System — A government program that provides financial assistance to people with inadequate or no income.
  • Temperance — A social movement aimed at reducing or prohibiting alcohol consumption.
  • Unitarian — A member of a religious group that emphasizes individual belief and rejects the Trinity.
  • Workers’ Rights — Legal rights and protections for workers, including fair wages, safe working conditions, and the right to unionize.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Social Gospel Movement
  • Date c. 1880s–
  • Author
  • Keywords Social Gospel Movement, Who was involved in the Social Gospel Movement, What was the Social Gospel Movement, When did the Social Gospel Movement start, Where did the Social Gospel Movement take place, Why did the Social Gospel Movement happen, How did the Social Gospel Movement affect social reform during the Progressive Era
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 2, 2024