The following is from A Pilgrim People: A History of the United Church of Christ and Its Antecedents by Dr. Charles A. Maxfield, Chapter 12, Part A



Preparers of the Way

Several persons prepared the way for the new theology. Revivalists Charles Finney and Nathaniel Taylor abandoned the harsher aspects of Calvinism. Mercersburg theologians left individualism in favor of a corporate, or “organic” understanding of the church, the faith, and society. Horace Bushnell identified words as approximate symbols, thus requiring greater tolerance of different viewpoints. Other transitional figures into liberal theology were Austin Craig and the Beecher brothers, Edward and Henry Ward.

Austin Craig (1824-81), the principal theologian of the Christian denomination, grew up in New Jersey, and attended Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. He served churches in Feltville, New Jersey, Blooming Grove, New York, and New Bedford, Massachusetts. He served Antioch College as President, taught at Meadville Seminary, and from 1869 until his death directed the affairs of the Christian Bible Institute, the Christian denomination’s school for training pastors. Craig wrote frequently in Christian denomination periodicals (See LTH 5:29). He opposed the use of any creed, insisting that “faith” not “opinion” was the basis of Christian fellowship. Craig actively promoted cooperation with Unitarians in higher education. Although the Bible was his life, he encouraged his students to study it critically, as a book that contained human invention as well as God’s Word. According to Craig, the words in the Bible were not God’s word, but symbols that can create in our minds ideas that only approximate God’s Word. Like Bushnell, he believed that children could grow up Christian without a conversion experience. Like the Mercersburg theologians, Craig denounced anti-Roman Catholic prejudice. Craig’s life was devoted to keeping his denomination open to persons of faith of all opinions.

Edward Beecher (1803-91), son of the evangelist Lyman Beecher, grew up never feeling alienated from God or rebelling from God. He had a religious experience of God’s grace in his youth, and many more experiences throughout life. After briefly pastoring Park Street Church in Boston, 1826-30, he served as President of Illinois College, 1830-44. He returned to the East to pastor another church in Boston, raise funds for western colleges, and edit the Congregationalist. He returned to Illinois in 1855 to serve the Congregational Church in Galesburg and to lecture at Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS). In 1871 Edward moved to Brooklyn, New York; without savings for retirement, he depended on his prosperous brother, Henry Ward Beecher.

The intellectual of the Beecher family, Edward understood the relationship between God and humanity in organic–or even cosmic–terms, rather than in individualistic terms. His lectures at CTS on “The Christian Organization of Society” examined social structures from a faith perspective.

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87), one of Edward’s younger brothers, served Plymouth Congregational Church of Brooklyn, New York, 1847-87. Ward Beecher became one of the most popular preachers in America. An advocate for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery, Ward Beecher condemned the “barbarism” of the Calvinistic view of atonement, and embraced the concept of evolution. He was not an original thinker, but used his magnetic personality to popularize liberal ideas. Described as “an adulterer, a liar and a hypocrite,” when one of his extra-marital affairs was exposed, Ward Beecher and his supporters used threats, bribery and other forms of manipulation to suppress the story. Congregational Councils were ineffective in dealing with such a popular figure.

Progressive Orthodoxy

The theology that developed in response to the changing world, sometimes called the “New Theology” or “Progressive Orthodoxy,” found many expressions, but often included the following beliefs:

On 5 September 1857, two years before he published his theory of evolution, Charles Darwin wrote to Harvard botany professor Asa Gray (1810-88) and for the first time outlined his theory of the evolution of species through natural selection. Gray confirmed Darwin’s theories with his own observations, and encouraged Darwin to publish. A Congregationalist who described himself as orthodox and a believer in the Nicene Creed, Gray took the lead in advocating Darwinism in America. From Gray’s perspective the theory of evolution and the Christian faith were in perfect harmony.

Andover Seminary, founded for the defense of trinitarian orthodoxy, became a major proponent of liberal theology. First it added German Bible study and theology to its curriculum. In 1863 Egbert C. Smyth1 (1829-1904) joined the faculty, soon followed by other liberals. In 1884 they began publishing the Andover Review, expressing their liberal views, which they called “Progressive Orthodoxy.”

Lyman Abbott (1835-1922), who succeeded Henry Ward Beecher as pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church, 1887-99, became a famous advocate of liberal theology. Abbott was most influential as a journalist, editing the journal Ward Beecher founded, Christian Union (name changed to Outlook in 1893) from 1876 to 1922, and publishing numerous books. Abbott rejected doctrines of the resurrection of the body and a literal second coming of Christ. He could not reconcile the “fires of Hell” with his understanding of a merciful God, and believed that all who did not accept Christ before death would have opportunity after death. He applied the principle of evolution to the Bible, seeing it as evolving from inferior to superior content. He saw humanity evolving, becoming more God-like, and he praised the inevitable progress of history.

Social Gospel

The social gospel addressed the gospel to society as a whole, as well as to individuals. It stood for social justice, especially in upholding the claims of the industrial laboring class and the poor. The social gospel was grounded in the conviction that the Church must move beyond charity, to advocacy for a more just ordering of society.

The idea of the social gospel was not completely new. Jeremiah Evarts had taken a stand for social justice when he opposed Cherokee Removal. The missionary movement criticized social evils in non-Christian societies. The abolitionist movement worked for a more just ordering of society by advocating the abolition of slavery. Edward Beecher had defined slavery as an “organic sin” that required a collective–not individualistic–solution. Beecher declared in 1865, “Now that God has smitten slavery unto death, He has opened the way for the redemption and sanctification of our whole social system.”2

The great social cause of this period was Temperance–an organized effort to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. Some advocated for women’s suffrage. Many linked these two issues: when men drank abusively, women and children suffered; women’s suffrage would bring Prohibition.

One did not have to believe liberal theology in order to see a need for social justice in industrial society. German Evangelical educator Daniel Irion (1855-1935) in 1897 explained the commandment “you shall not kill,”

Where people are oppressed by hard labor, poor wages, high interest, unsanitary or dangerous living or working conditions, their lives are embittered and may be shortened by the worry, overexertion or disease or accident thus brought on; those responsible for the oppression thus become murderers.
Some pietists, like Irion, responded to the social gospel, but not to liberal theology; some liberal theologians were too captive to their class background to identify with workers. However in most cases the two movements overlapped. The social gospel held in common with liberal theology: (1) a systemic (“organic”), as opposed to individualistic, understanding of social problems and their solution; (2) a concern to develop theology in response to the contemporary world; (3) an emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, and his compassion; and (4) a religion of action rather than words.

Washington Gladden (1836-1918) became the principal proponent of the social gospel in the Congregational Church. He was a liberal in theology, rejecting Calvin’s predestination, original sin, and eternal punishment, and embracing evolution and Biblical criticism. He applied the gospel to issues of labor and management when he spoke to the national meeting of Congregational Churches on “Christian Socialism” in 1889, and “The Church and the Social Crisis” (LTH 5:50) in 1907. Gladden favored a mixed economy with elements of capitalism and socialism, and constantly advocated for the rights of labor. He became a leader in the Congregational denomination, serving as Moderator of the national church, 1904-07.

Gladden was raised by his uncle in Owego, New York. He joined the Congregational Church in 1853, after a preacher told him he didn’t need a special spiritual experience to join. He was ordained in 1860, and pastored Congregational Churches in Brooklyn, New York (1860-66), and North Adams, Massachusetts (1866-71), edited the New York Independent (1871-74), pastored North Church, Springfield, Massachusetts (1875-82), then moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he served the First Congregational Church (1882-1914). Gladden served on the City Council, 1900-02, and promoted public ownership of utilities.

At the request of the American Home Missionary Society (AHMS), Josiah Strong (1847-1916) wrote Our Country (LTH 5:57) in 1885, to promote home missions. An instant success, it sold 175,000 copies by 1916. In Our Country, Strong described the perils of Romanism and immigration, and claimed a special mission for the Anglo-Saxons to the world. He went on to condemn the “aristocracy of wealth” in the face of poor working conditions for the masses. Strong pointed to the city as the church’s new mission frontier. Elected General Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance in 1886, Strong revived that voluntary society for Protestant cooperation. He organized a series of conferences bringing together social gospel advocates of many denominations. Strong awakened the church to the challenge of the city and began the process of interdenominational organization to face that challenge.

Others promoted the social gospel in the groups that became the United Church of Christ. Graham Taylor (1851-1938), ordained into the ministry of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1873, became a Congregationalist in 1880. He was called in 1892 by Chicago Theological Seminary to become the first professor of Christian Sociology in an American seminary, and taught until 1924. In 1894 Taylor and his family and four students moved into a dilapidated house in a Chicago slum, and founded Chicago Commons, a settlement house where students received first-hand experience in ministry to and with the poor.3

German Evangelicals identified with the work of Germany’s Innere-Mission (See pages 197-200), and became aware of Religious Socialism (the European equivalent of the Social Gospel) from the work of Adolf Stöcker,4 which grew out of the Innere-Mission. The Caroline Mission, a city mission founded in Saint Louis in 1913, was patterned after Stöcker’s work in Berlin. That same year Julius Horstman (1869-1954) introduced the Evangelical Synod to the social gospel, presenting a paper to the General Conference meeting, “The Gospel of the Kingdom and Its Task in the Twentieth Century.” Horstman, ordained into the ministry in 1891, after serving churches in Texas and Indiana, edited the Synod’s English-language paper, the Evangelical Herald, from 1906 to 1939.

Articles on the social gospel began appearing in German Reformed periodicals in the 1890s (See LTH 5:37). Theodore F. Herman (1872-1948), born in Güttingen, Germany, educated in both Germany and the United States, became the strongest advocate of the social gospel in the Reformed Church through his position as professor of Theology at Lancaster Seminary beginning in 1910, and as President of the school, 1939-47.


1The “y” in Smyth is pronounced like the “i” in light.

2Washington Gladden was more specific when he declared in 1876, “Now that slavery is out of the way, the questions that concern the welfare of our free laborers are coming forward.”

3A similar project, Andover House, had been established in 1892 in the South End of Boston, where Andover students ministered under the direction of Robert A. Woods.

4While admiring Stöcker’s concern for the poor, Evangelical Synod leaders never imitated his anti-semetism.

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