During the late 19th and early 20th century, a period of time often referred to as the Third Great Awakening (Ferre`, 1988), a movement known as the Social Gospel infiltrated the religious front. Preceded by the influence of Charles Darwin and operating with the edgy thinking of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, American culture was rife with a progressive appeal. As the Social Gospel permeated poverty-stricken streets, the modern Pentecostal movement was developing as well. However, then as of now, many Pentecostals have steered clear of the teachings and doctrines of a Social Gospel. However, closer examination will reveal that there are some beneficial aspects stemming from the Social Gospel that would not only assist the evangelistic effort of the Pentecostal church, but also, fulfill Biblical mandates.
The Social Gospel
Opinions are divided among historians and students of religion as to the origin and development of the Social Gospel movement. However, a broader consensus agrees that the development of the movement more than likely took place soon after the anti-slavery crusades of the 1830’s (White & Hopkins, 1976). Emerging from the struggle that sought to abolish injustice and slavery a social awareness began to awaken in the hearts of men and women. The reasoning was simple; if the Gospel were for all, breaking past all racial and socio-economic statuses, should not the religious system also reflect a form of Christian socialism?
The awakening that began to sweep through American religion was bolstered by the fervent preaching of Charles Finney who “encouraged converts to move from the personal regeneration of an ‘anxious bench’ experience to the social mission of the growing antislavery crusade” (White & Hopkins, 1976, p. 5). Soon, a collective effort began to develop a unified front of varying missionary groups. The collective groups endeavored to engage the injustice, racial segregation, and the poverty of the forsaken lower classes dwelling in the shadow of American success.
At the apex of the Social Gospel movement the world of literature was saturated with novels that engaged the reader and sought to awaken an empathy toward the issues of injustice, church apathy, and the need for a Christian social touch. It is estimated that at least 3 to 4 novels pertaining to the Social Gospel from 1886 to 1914 were published each year (Ferre`, 1988). Among these authors was none other than Charles Sheldon of Topeka, Kansas. Clearly the Social Gospel was a mainstream ideology that had captured the American evangelistic campaign.
On the poverty-stricken streets of Topeka, Kansas the term Kansan ethos began to emerge as a 19th-century term (Robinson, 2014). The cry of those in the Social Gospel sought to liberate the overlooked inhabitants of the world. However, concurrent with the Social Gospel movement that had been gaining in popularity, another cry began to echo much of the same calls of the Social Gospel, and yet, this voice was that of Charles Parham who had opened the door to what would become known as the modern Pentecostal movement.
For Charles Parham, “the cry of socialism that is sweeping the world is the heart-cry of Jesus….churches need to descend from the fashion show” (Robinson, 2014, p. 11). He, like many proponents of the Social Gospel, believed that some form of political reform was crucial in the hour of sinful decadence. However, where Parham broke from those of the Social Gospel was to be found in another element he felt most important of all, the Spirit of regeneration.
Perhaps the most obvious dividing line between the Social Gospel and the fiery Pentecostal movement was the Spirit of God. Humanity needed more than just a hand-out they needed a hand-up. Pentecost, though strongly involved in a Social outreach, felt it extremely important to involve the work of the Spirit, allow for Divine Healing, and the ability of God to change the person regardless of the environment they lived.
Pentecost and the Social Gospel
One can see today the far-reaching effects of both movements that began to develop concurrently with one another. Often times, based upon the differences two movements can maintain, there is a tendency to trivialize one or the other depending on the side one stands. Thus, advocates of the Social Gospel have become, to some degree, cessationist’s who strongly oppose gifts and operations of the Spirit of God. Likewise, Pentecostals today have become strongly opposed to much of the activities and ideologies of the Social Gospel. However, at least for Pentecost, one would be remiss to ignore some of the premises a Social Gospel teaches.
One of the most fundamental ideologies of the Social Gospel that Pentecost could benefit from would be how the community is interacted with. Far too long Pentecost has retreated into the corner of isolation and cried out the demand for separation. Sadly, it was not separation that Pentecost was embracing, but rather, isolation. As the years progressed, the constant call for separation had isolated God’s people on the earth from impacting the very earth that God had called for them to impact.
Perhaps this was borne out of insecurity or ignorance but the effects of this mindset are still prevalent today. The Social Gospel movement impacts millions of people on a regular basis because it is working in the trenches of where humanity lives while Pentecost as a larger whole remains fortified within the citadels of holiness and separation. Jesus was relational regardless of the acceptance of His message by those who heard. Jesus was no stranger to the hurting, the broken, the rich, the poor, the unclean, and the despondent.
A relationship is the derivative of true love. One cannot declare a love for the lost and yet become apathetic to developing relationships with those outside of grace. Therefore, it would benefit Pentecost greatly to engage their communities, assist in charities, and become a common name that engenders admiration and appreciation. Regardless of salvific response Pentecost, as the Social Gospel practices, needs to care for people simply because they are people. To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and satiate the thirsty was to minister to Christ Himself. As Jesus declared, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Mat 25:40, King James Version).
Another aspect overlooked in relation to the Social Gospel is the simple fact that Scripture expressly commands and advocates much of what the Social Gospel does. Constantly throughout the New Testament the operation of the church is found in assisting the widows, feeding the poor, and ministering and uplifting the weak and those considered less honorable. Too often, Pentecost has used Peter’s expression of “silver and gold have I none,” (Acts 6:3, KJV) when this is contrary to the truth! If anything, Pentecost has reached a state in which too often the opposite could be declared for Pentecost is indeed increased with goods and abundantly blessed.
God forbid spirituality becomes an excuse to avoid the temporal conditions and plight of humanity. Yes, Pentecost needs to emphasize the need for regeneration and the power of the Spirit but Pentecost must not forsake the ever-present needs of now! If Pentecost is not careful, it could easily become identified with the rich man in purple that ignored the present physical needs of the beggar at his gate.
Ferré, J. P. (1988). A social gospel for millions : the religious bestsellers of Charles Sheldon, Charles Gordon, and Harold Bell Wright. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press.
Robinson, J. (2014). Divine healing : the years of expansion, 1906-1930 : theological variation in the transatlantic world. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications.
Sheldon, C. M., & Chadwick, H. J. (2000). In his steps. North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers.
White, R. C., & Hopkins, C. H. (1976). The social gospel : religion and reform in changing America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.