The Social Gospel refers to the emphasis of a primarily Protestant movement in the late 19th century and early 20th century, to apply Christian principles to social problems.
Being part of the "modernism" trend with a strong emphasis on social justice, the movement is a rival to evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. Members of the movement see it as a return to the beginning of Christianity, that is to the message of Jesus.
In the United States, prior to World War I, the Social Gospel was the religious wing of the progressive movement which had the aim of combating injustice, suffering, and poverty in society. In this context, it is seen as having provided the philosophical underpinning for the New Deal. After the war, the movement shifted its focus to the civil rights arena, and later, became outspoken in its opposition to the Vietnam War.
With the ascendancy of the "Christian right" beginning in the 1980s, the Social Gospel agenda declined in the United States, but examples of its continued existence can still be found, notably the organization known as the Call to Renewal.
Sometimes seen as a branch of Christian socialism, the Social Gospel movement was especially influential in Canada and led many ministers to become active in the socialist movement in the form of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and later the New Democratic Party. It was reflected in the novel In His Steps that was written by the Congregational minister Charles Sheldon, who coined the motto "What would Jesus do?" Sheldon was committed to Christian Socialism and identified with the Social Gospel. One of the early theologians of the Social Gospel was Walter Rauschenbusch, and he indicated how Sheldon's novel inspired his theology. Social Gospel is still influential in Canada's United Church and in the Anglican Church but has less influence in the United States. It also remains influential among Christian socialist circles in Britain in the Church of England, Methodist, and some Calvinist movements.
Prominent Social Gospel advocates have included:
- Jimmy Carter
- Dorothy Day
- Tommy Douglas
- Adolf von Harnack
- Jesse Jackson
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Charles Clayton Morrison longtime editor of the Christian Century
- Walter Rauschenbusch
- Norman Thomas
- Henry A. Wallace
- Harry Ward
- James Woodsworth