Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: The Social Gospel, Sunday School, and the Third Great Awakening

passioncartoonI never heard of the social gospel growing up or in college, even though I graduated from David Lipscomb College, where I had a daily Bible class and daily chapel. In fact, the first time I heard the term was many years later in a deacons meeting. Some guys wanted the church to help pay for T shirts for the college ministry’s intramural football team. An older deacon objected, “We can’t pay for social events. That’s the social gospel!” I had no idea what the “social gospel” might be, but I sure didn’t think he had it right. And he didn’t.

I’ve also heard Church members condemn church fellowships as sinful “social gospel” … as though Jesus never ate with anyone … or we were never commanded to offer hospitality to one another.

So I looked it up. And it’s very important. Indeed, many debates going on in Washington DC today are all about the Social Gospel. It’s driven American politics for over 100 years. And it’s not about football or potlucks.

Sunday school

It all goes back to … Sunday school. Some reader may not know that there are actually Churches of Christ opposed to Sunday school. But for most of us, we figure Jesus was the first Sunday school teacher. I mean, it’s near the core of who we are. But it actually goes back only a couple of hundred years to the work of Robert Raikes, an English publisher, beginning around 1780.

In those days, children from poor families worked six days a week. Schooling was in private schools and had to be paid for, and so there was a large class of children growing up with no education at all. Many turned to crime, and certainly very few went to church. Raikes opened a Sunday school, that is, a school open on Sunday for children to be taught how to read and write in the mornings and to then attend church and study their catechism (basic Bible) in the afternoons. By 1831, over 1,250,000 boys and girls were enrolled in free Sunday schools — 25% of the population — which should give you an idea of the depth of poverty many suffered in England at the time.

As the Wikipedia states,

The schools were derisively called “Raikes’ Ragged School”. Criticisms raised included that it would weaken home-based religious education, that it might be a desecration of the Sabbath, and that Christians should not be employed on the Sabbath. “Sabbatarian disputes” in the 1790s led many Sunday schools to cease their teaching of writing.

Ponder that one for a moment. Many Christians considered it more important to honor Sunday as the “Christian Sabbath” — a very questionable doctrine — rather than teach Bible and literacy to child laborers! But we haven’t changed that much, have we?

The idea quickly moved to the United States in areas where factories used child labor. But over time, many states, and eventually the federal government, banned child labor. And then the states began offering free education, eliminating the need for literacy classes on Sundays. The churches, however, continued to teach children in conjunction with Sunday worship.

You see, until the Sunday school movement, Bible education came either from private schools (public schools didn’t become standard until the 20th Century), catechism classes (a series of classes taught before confirmation), or the preacher’s sermons. There were no weekly classes for most church goers. But once Sunday schools began, churches found classes to be both popular with the members and helpful for instructing members on doctrine.

Interestingly, Sunday school classes are now in decline in American evangelicalism, as many megachurches have eliminated classes in favor of small groups. How this change will impact the children in these churches remains to be seen.

The Salvation Army

Most people don’t realize that the Salvation Army is a denomination that spun off Methodism in England. The Wikipedia tells the story —

The Salvation Army was founded in London’s East End in 1865 by one-time Methodist minister William Booth and his wife Catherine. Originally, Booth named the organization the East London Christian Mission, but in 1878 Booth reorganized it along military lines when his son Bramwell objected to being called a “volunteer” and stated that he was a “regular” or nothing. [“Regular” meaning a soldier in the standing army.] The name then became The Salvation Army.

When William Booth became known as the General, Catherine was known as the “Mother of The Salvation Army”. William preached to the poor, and Catherine spoke to the wealthy, gaining financial support for their work. She also acted as a religious minister, which was unusual at the time; the Foundation Deed of the Christian Mission, stated that women had the same rights to preach as men. William Booth described the organization’s approach: “The three ‘S’s’ best expressed the way in which the Army administered to the ‘down and outs’: first, soup; second, soap; and finally, salvation.” …

The Salvation Army’s main converts were at first alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes and other “undesirables” unwelcomed into polite Christian society, which helped prompt the Booths to start their own church. …

As the Salvation Army grew rapidly in the late 1800s, it generated opposition in England. Opponents, grouped under the name of the Skeleton Army, disrupted Salvation Army meetings and gatherings, the usual tactics being the throwing of rocks, rats, and tar, and physical assaults on members of The Salvation Army. Much of this was led by publicans who were losing business due to the Army’s opposition to alcohol and targeting of the frequenters of saloons and public houses.

The Salvation Army’s reputation in the United States improved after it began disaster relief efforts after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Notice how this story fits the scriptures —

(1 Pet 2:12)  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

The Salvation Army is, of course, a bit odd. They wear uniforms and have military titles. Nonetheless,

The Salvation Army is the second largest charity in the United States, with private donations of almost $2 billion for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2007.

Has anyone ever seen a Salvation Army church building? They have worship services like any other Christian denomination, but they obviously prefer to spend their money on things other than large, prominent buildings. As different as they are, their good works are so well respected that they’ve become a honored part of society.

The Third Great Awakening

After the Civil War, American Christianity was faced with many challenged —

* In the South, Reconstruction and vast numbers of freed former slaves.

* In the North, vast numbers of European immigrants.

* The so-called Second Industrial Revolution, which brought many people to the cities from farms to work in factories. 12-hour shifts and child labor were common.

* Theological liberalism, arriving from Europe, in which inspiration of the scriptures was being questioned.

* Darwinism, which led to social Darwinism, the idea that the strong should survive and the weak should not.

* The rise of socialism and communism as political theories.

* The rise of big government. Many Americans began to see government as the solution to the woes of mankind.

Many denominations split over liberalism. A new movement called “Fundamentalism” was founded. Unlike how the term is used today, “Fundamentalism” was originally an effort to preserve Christian orthodoxy against liberal views.

Billy Sunday

At the same time, the great revivalists Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday traveled the country, preaching to vast crowds, and converting thousands.

Billy Sunday had been a professional baseball player, and he used his fame to become the Billy Graham of his day, preaching to over 100,000,000 people, with 1,250,000 responses. Sunday preached to crowds so large that special buildings — tabernacles — had to be built to hold them all. He often preached meetings that lasted for a month.

Sunday may have been the first to have preached the “sinner’s prayer,” declaring his listeners saved as soon as they spoke the prayer inviting Jesus into their hearts.

Like Charles Finney, Sunday was nominally a Calvinist, but he believed Christians could be converted by their free will response to the word preached.

Dwight Moody

Moody was another great revival preacher, who traveled with hymn writer Ira Sankey. The story is told

Just at a moment when [Sankey] was in considerable doubt as to the suitable course [whether to travel with Moody], a card was brought him which on examination proved to be from Mr. Moody. It requested him to meet Mr. Moody at a certain street corner that evening at six o’clock. Mr. Sankey did not know what he was wanted for, but he accepted the invitation, and, accompanied by a few friends, met the appointment promptly. In a few minutes Mr. Moody appeared, and without stopping to speak, walked into a store on the corner and asked permission to use a dry-goods box. The permission granted, the evangelist rolled a large box out to the edge of the sidewalk, and then calling Mr. Sankey aside asked him to climb up and sing something. Mr. Sankey complied. A crowd began to collect, and Mr. Moody getting upon the box began to preach. Mr. Sankey says of that sermon, “He preached that evening as I had never heard any man preach before.” The hearers, most of them workingmen on their way home from the mills and factories, were electrified. They hung on every word, apparently forgetting that they were tired and hungry, and when Mr. Moody closed, which he was forced to do by the density of the crowd, he announced that he would hold another meeting at the Academy of Music, and invited the crowd to accompany him there. Arm in arm with Mr. Moody, Mr. Sankey marched down the street singing hymn after hymn as he went, the crowd following closely at their heels. Mr. Sankey has since declared that this was his first experience in Salvation Army methods. The meeting in the Academy of Music was necessarily brief because the convention was soon to come together, oddly enough to discuss the question, “How shall we reach the masses?” and as the delegates came in Mr. Moody, with a short prayer dismissed the meeting.

Here’s another Moody story —

In the same place one day, as Mr. Moody was working in the after-meeting, he came to a man in the centre aisle and said, “Are you a Christian?” To this question the man replied, “Yes sir. I am glad to say, Mr. Moody, I am.” Passing on, he came to one who was not a Christian. He suddenly turned to one of the ushers and said, “Tell that man to come here” (referring to the one who was glad he was a Christian). As he approached, Mr. Moody said, Sit down there and talk to this man.” Whereupon the man replied, “You will have to excuse me, Mr. Moody; that is something I never do.” Mr. Moody turned to him quickly and said, ” Either sit down and talk to that man, or else sit down and let some one talk to you.

And so we see America being pulled in two directions. The great revivalists of the time were saving souls across denominational lines, preaching to thousands at a time, while others were pushing American Christianity more and more toward a liberalism that removed miracles and God from the Bible, turning the Bible into a self-help handbook.

(Sankey wrote over 1,000 hymns, including the “Ninety and Nine,” “Why Not Tonight?,” and “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.”)


8 Responses

  1. Much opposition to the social gospel came because it had replaced the gospel of Christ in churches that had abandoned the doctrines of biblical inerrancy (or accuracy), inspiration, and authority. When those churches no longer had a real reason to believe in Christ as the unique Lord and Savior, they needed something to replace their reason for being. They chose to replace teaching the gospel with a social gospel since they no longer had sufficient reason to believe the gospel of Christ.

    Some Christians overreacted by denying the social implications of the gospel. However, most Christians are eager to accept the social implications of the gospel because they know that God is glorified in caring for others physically and spiritually. God is honored when we care for the vulnerable and oppressed, and when we care enough to share the gospel that will mean a difference for eternity for them. And the glory of God is their primary concern.

  2. Today the social gospel is being played out in the White House and the halls of congress.

    Thanks Jay for these honest reminders of great men and women of the past, though different in many ways and employing different methods, they preached Christ and loved sinners. Who can disagree with that approach to ministry?


  3. Success often leads to failure. Caring for the poor by churches led to everyone caring for the poor in the form of government programs. This is evidenced in the phrase “charity is not needed in a just country” which explains why many wealthy liberals (political not theological sense) give nothing to charity. Instead, they vote for people who would raise taxes and increase government programs.

    Calls for giving to help the poor are nowadays met with, “that is what our tax dollars do.”

    Hence, the success of churches in caring for the poor has led to the government caring for the poor for us. The government has become the benevolent arm of the church.

    At least it all seems this way to me.

  4. I am very concerned that many churches are moving away from bible classes in favor of the small group format -or- as a means to get more adult volunteers to do other things in ministry. The importance of teaching bible is being de-emphasized.

    I believe that we may be “dumbing down” the church and it’s members by eliminating biblical teaching.

    “How can I know what I am reading – unless someone show me?”…….

    In order to have a social gospel, you need to have the gospel. I would hope that the gospel would be the one emphasizing Christ. To insure that we must know and teach that gospel.


    Jim K.

  5. Jim, does that still make Bible school the best way to teach the Bible? Furthermore, I’m not so sure a little simplification of the Gospel is not in order since it’s been so maligned by teaching as doctrine the commandments of men. Not dumbing down, mind you; just simplifying.

  6. Bible school may not be the best way, but it may be the most convenient way we have at present. Worship is the most attended so far where I am, then attendance in bible class, then attendance in small groups.

    My preference is the small group format where people are interacting. This take leadership and oversight to insure it keeps going, just as a bible class would. It really takes all of them, if there are people to reach and teach.

    How can we be assurred that the bible is being taught? Do we simply throw it out there and let people do it for themselves or do we use some process, simple or otherwise to assist them through it. The eunich asked to be shown the word, and he was. I think in our society today that we may also be faced with many people who need to be “shown”.

    I do agree that it needs to be simple. The gospel was simple enough that an everyday fisherman dropped his net and found it. So too, can we.

    My comments were directed to those of us today who believe that we can teach the bible, and in so doing we impart probably only 50 to 70% of knowledge to those we teach. They then go and teach it and impart their knowledge to others – probable only about 25 to 25% of what they were taught, so we may be dumbing down the gospel.

    My preference would be that all would simple get into the book and read it –

    Jim K.

  7. Dwayne,

    I think you’re spot on. Many churches have a bad case of “that’s what we pay our taxes for” — said by the same people who complain about how injurious welfare has been to the people receiving it.

    You can’t have it both ways.

  8. Jim K,

    I agree. I attended a class at the Atlanta ElderLink a couple of years ago where the teacher said some churches that had dropped Sunday school had come to regret it, but couldn’t put it back in their program once the members had gotten used to not having it (and many of those churches have a 1 1/2 hour worship).

    I think this part of the problem Willow Creek came up against shown by the Reveal study. It’s awfully hard to go deep into the word through a sermon and small group Bible study.

    On the other hand, lots of churches with Bible classes teach at the 4th grade level — or teach the same stuff they taught 30 years ago, over and over and over.

    So far, at my church, we’ve managed to stay away from that (I’ve posted our adult class materials on the blog for the last several quarters.) But I’m heading toward the idea of the Church of Irresistible Influence. They require 3 years of classes and then send their members into the community to serve.

    I’m thinking we might develop a carefully designed curriculum that covers the core, and then offer more specialized classes from time to time (parenting, marriage, Christian evidences), and then give them back the hour the rest of the time on condition they invest that time in service to others.

    On the other hand, there’s new stuff being published every day. And there’s so much to teach. And people enjoy their classes. And in the Churches of Christ, we often have more un-teaching than teaching we need to do.

    So it’s something to think about.

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