Evangelical Social Reformers
Evangelical Social Movements
In the 19th Century, Evangelical Christians invested mammoth amounts of time and money into a wide variety of social reform movements. The abolition of slavery was at the top of the list, followed by the Temperance Movement. Evangelicals also founded and supported rescue missions for the poor, orphanages, Bible schools, medical missions, citadels of evangelism to the young, and preaching outposts in the inner cities.
Churches proved to be the main vehicles through which Christians could combine social work, community service, and evangelism. An idea became popular that it was futile to preach to those with empty stomachs. Presbyterian and Baptist churches in particular provided food and lodging for the needy, day nurseries, kindergartens, soup kitchens, employment bureaus, and dispensaries, as well as providing literary and athletic venues for people.
It is awesome to consider the multitudes of Christians who sacrificed the comforts of suburban or rural homes, and the possibilities of becoming upwardly mobile through careers, to instead live and work in appalling conditions among the urban poor.
Out of all this came the Social Gospel Movement that emphasized the social aspects of reform but disregarded the evangelism. From the Social Gospel Movement eventually came the enormous government programs that we have today to care for the downtrodden, which make it illegal to tell the lost the Good News.
The Social Mission in America
In the 19th Century, Christian reformers set their sights on eradicating evil from American society. Christian reformers concentrated on ending slavery and curbing alcohol consumption. They also turned their attention to the observance of the Sabbath, illiteracy, poverty, working conditions, care of the handicapped, women's rights, dueling, crime, prison conditions—and vice in general.
One reformer was a Presbyterian minister named Sylvester Graham. He preached that eating meat and drinking alcohol caused excessive lust, which led to sexual sins. Graham recommended a vegetarian diet, high in whole grains and fruit, and abstention from alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee, fried food, spicy food, and meat. He started hotels, health clubs, spas, and magazines devoted to healthy living. He is best known for inventing the Graham Cracker as a health food, and for coining the phrase "a man is what he eats."
In its first 22 years, the Water Street Mission in New York City rescued thousands of men and women from drunkenness or prostitution. As the Christian banker D. H. Warner noted: "Religion is a practical thing, when it walks down into the lowest dives of our land and takes those who have been buried in sin and wickedness, and lifts them up, cleanses them and sets to work to uplift the rest of humanity."
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Manhattan, though rather short-lived, became "one of the great mission churches of America that was valued chiefly for its ability to influence the indifferent, the destitute, and the outcast."
Baptist minister Cortland Myers of Brooklyn reminded social reformers that "The Church of Christ is not a benevolent institution nor a social institution, but an institution with one purpose—winning lost souls to Christ and being instrumental in redeeming the world."
YMCA, TWCA & the Salvation Army
The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) came to the United States from London—where it was founded in 1844—in the 1850s. The YMCA was created for "Christian discipleship developed through a program of religious, educational, social and physical activities."
The original idea was to provide a safe and cheap place to stay in a Christian environment for young men who were passing through or were homeless. The Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) was formed for the same mission in 1855.
The YMCA staff preached, and distributed religious tracts, on the streets of urban areas. The YMCA promoted "evangelical Christianity in weekday and Sunday services, while promoting good sportsmanship in athletic contests in its gyms (where basketball and volleyball were invented) and swimming pools."
The Salvation Army was started in 1876 by the Methodist minister William Booth in London to serve the needs of the urban poor. Booth had the idea that alcoholism and a lack of personal discipline caused much poverty. The Salvation Army had as its mission a ministry to the outcasts of society.
Major-General Charles Gordon (1833-1885) is mostly remembered by history as a beloved general in the English Army who met a tragic death. Gordon was courageous, heroic, and a masterful battlefield tactician. Less well remembered in secular histories and textbooks is his unwavering faith in God and tireless work for the poor.
Charles Gordon worked as a minister to poor slum-dwellers whenever he was off duty as an army officer. He rescued countless boys from the streets by teaching them the Bible and how to read and write. Gordon spent much of his personal time ministering to the spiritual needs of prostitutes, criminals, and the terminally ill.
Fulton Street Prayer Meetings
Jeremiah Lanphier moved from Albany to New York City hoping to make it big in business. God had other plans. Lanphier was saved at age 33, and in the summer of 1857 he was hired by the North Dutch Reformed Church on Fulton Street as a lay minister. Lanphier prayed earnestly that the Holy Spirit would guide him. God spoke to him and told him He wanted people in New York to pray.
Jeremiah Lanphier was moved to schedule one-hour prayer meetings for businessmen at noon each weekday. The first day Lanphier knelt to pray alone in the arranged room. No one joined him for thirty minutes, but by one o'clock six businessmen had knelt down to pray with him.
Four weeks later, a hundred men were praying in the room every day. These "Fulton Street Meetings" soon filled all the rooms at the North Dutch Church and the nearby John Street Methodist Church. Other churches—as well as police stations and firehouses—began to have noon prayer meetings too.
Within six months, ten thousand Manhattan businessmen were praying at noon each day. Other cities heard about this and replicated the idea. Within two years one million men of business were new converts to the Christian Faith.
Mel Trotter was the son of a saloon-keeper in Chicago. He grew up into a severe alcoholic, unable to conquer his addiction. His baby son died, he lost his wife, and he ended up homeless, hatless, and coatless.
In 1897, Mel Trotter sold his shoes for one last drink before he planned to carry out his suicide by drowning himself in Lake Michigan. As he made his way to the lake he fell down on Van Buren Street. A young man helped him up and took him inside the Pacific Garden Mission.
Mel Trotter accepted Jesus Christ that night and felt the shackles of despair and alcoholism fall away. For the next 43 years, he ministered to lost and hopeless men and women on the streets. His message: "God loves you in the midst of the deepest failure and despair, and his love has the power to change even the most ruined life."
In 1905, Mel Trotter was ordained, and for forty years he supervised a rescue mission in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Alumni of his mission founded sixty-eight rescue missions across the United States. Mel Trotter also became an international evangelist.
The rise of the Protestant Work Ethic made a virtue out of the personal qualities required to prosper. The Protestant Work Ethic provided the major impetus to the rise of modern capitalism, which in turn caused such a sharp rise in standards of living that it is literally unbelievable when seen on a graphic chart.
The Protestant Work Ethic shed new light on poverty. It came to be believed that there are two kinds of people in poverty. The "deserving poor" are those impoverished due to no fault of their own, such as orphans and widows, and those struck by illness, accident, or calamity. These are people who cannot rise out of poverty no matter what they might do and so deserve charity as mandated by the Bible.
The "undeserving poor" are those who are plainly impoverished through their own faults, such as chronic drunkards, wastrels, spendthrifts, the promiscuous, the lazy, and the dissolute. They deserve temporary help along with the Good News of the Gospel; they deserve a hand up along with moral instruction in Christian principles and work habits. Benjamin Franklin said: "The best way of doing good to the poor is not making easy in poverty."
In no nation was poverty considered a concern of government. How could a government bureaucrat decide between the deserving and undeserving poor from some far away office filled with endless paperwork? The charity program right in the community where the poor lived was best—it could get to know them, and so discern between them as to the causes of their problems. The classic definition of poverty is lack of necessary food, shelter, and clothing.
The Social Gospel
The Social Gospel movement was fathered by Walter Rauschenbusch around the year 1900. He did not believe in much of the Bible. Rauschenbusch rejected the Christian doctrines of the Atonement, Salvation, and Heaven. He called himself a Christian, but what he believed was that Jesus was really just a social reformer—not the Savior. Therefore, he taught, Christians should reform society not individuals. Most of the people involved with the Social Gospel promoted socialist ideas such as labor unions.
Cincinnati was the scene of one of the great debates in American history, one that is now little remembered, but one that is often replicated unknown to its replicators of today. The utopian socialist Robert Owen squared off against the fiery Scottish American preacher Alexander Campbell.
Owen argued that all human ills are caused by a wicked society, much the same as Democrats do today. Campbell argued, much as Conservatives do today, that a wicked society is the result of individual human failings, particularly by sinful habits. America would largely follow Campbell for the next hundred years, but Europeans—such as Karl Marx—would follow Owen.
A Good Christian Education
Benjamin Franklin, in his 1749 publication Proposal Relating to the Education of Youth, wrote that religion should be one of the main subjects in public schools, as well as in university curriculums. Franklin thought this would be the best way to inculcate virtuous character traits in young Americans.
The founding father of American public schools, Horace Mann, agreed that religion and education were inseparable. Mann believed that religious instruction should be taken "to the extremest verge to which it can be carried without invading those rights of conscience which are established by the laws of God, and guaranteed by the constitution of the state."
The public schools in America were thus based on lowest-common-denominator Protestantism, taught from the Bible. As Horace Mann said: "Our system earnestly inculcates all Christian morals. It founds those morals on the basis of religion; it welcomes the religion of the Bible."
Horace Mann led a movement across the nation to provide public education. From 1835 to 1850, 80,000 new elementary schools opened that had enrolled 3.3 million students. And 6,000 new secondary schools were established that taught 250,000 students.
This created a mass market for textbooks. Noah Webster was the first to respond to this need, with his Blue-Backed Spellers and Grammatical Institute. Webster said, "Textbooks must form the morals as well as improve the knowledge of youth. Education is useless without the Bible."
The most popular textbooks in history proved to be William McGuffey's Eclectic Readers. Over 120 million were sold from 1836 to 1960. McGuffey was a Scots Presbyterian minister from Pennsylvania who became known as "America's schoolmaster." It was said that McGuffey "taught millions to read and not one to sin."
Besides grammar and rhetoric, these primers taught moral lessons based on Christian ethics: education, temperance, honesty, thrift, diligence, patience, integrity, loyalty, generosity, and faith in God and country. Protestant Christianity was "the only basis of a healthy self-governing society." God was the author of the United States of America.
To quote from one textbook: "The marks of divine favor shown to our nation, the striking interposition of divine PROVIDENCE in our behalf, cannot fail to enliven the patriotic sentiments of a pious mind."
Slavery was denounced in the northern textbooks. Also denounced was Catholicism, labeled an idolatrous, oppressive religion that leads to superstition, persecution, and poverty. Spain, France, and Mexico were studied as examples of the stultifying effects of Catholicism.
The Mann system worked perfectly until Roman Catholics by the millions poured into the country from Europe. That is why Catholic schools were built across America. Catholics wanted a more Catholic based approach to education, instead of the Protestant education found in all public schools across America in 1850.
The Temperance Movement
When Alexis de Tocqueville was told in 1831 that 100,000 American men had signed a pledge to abstain from alcohol, he waited for the punch line—thinking it was a joke. 1,500,000 men eventually took the pledge.
A group of pastors started the American Temperance Union in 1833. At the time there were 14,000 distilleries in the United States (population 7 million) that sold 25 million gallons of spirits each year. Interesting word, spirits.
The consumption of beer and wine was also at an all time high. Many people starting drinking in the morning. It is estimated that per capita consumption of all forms of alcohol was seven gallons per year at its peak in 1830.
Taverns were popular as meeting places to discuss politics in those days. But they were also places where confidence men, gamblers, prostitutes, and thieves hung around to prey on the naïve.
Reformers took note of the bad effects of alcohol on the body and the mind. Also, the industrial revolution made drunken employees a danger to themselves and to others in factories or working on railroads. The reformers preached that alcohol ruined careers and marriages, leading to poverty, crime, disease, and death.
By 1840, the consumption of alcohol had incredibly dropped by 50 percent in the United States—from just ten years earlier. So the Temperance Movement was a tremendous success. But it also aroused great resentment, particularly among Catholics, who were rapidly growing in numbers because of mass immigration from Ireland and Germany. Germans and Irishmen came from drinking cultures.
The Reform Movement was a Protestant movement. Catholics saw all reform movements as an attack on individual freedoms. One person's sin can be another person's pleasure or cherished custom. Reformers countered that Christian liberty could only be maintained by morally upright citizens. True freedom was not the absence of all restraint but in fact depended upon a self-controlled, virtuous citizenry.
Neal Dow of Maine was called the "father of prohibition." He was the grandson of a Puritan named Hate-Evil Hall. I'm not kidding.
Dow led tours through the slums of Portland, where he would proclaim, "Rum did that!" His efforts and those of other like-minded people caused thirteen northern states to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages by 1855. Taverns responded by giving away booze to purchasers of crackers, nuts, and sausages. By 1860 the laws were repealed. But by then women had let it be known than manliness implied sobriety; and coffee had taken hold as the morning and afternoon drink, with alcohol reserved for the evening.
Temperance literally means moderation. The Temperance Movement would lose strength after a few decades as it became divided among those who wanted to promote voluntary temperance and those who wanted legal prohibition of alcohol.
My sources for this article include: The One Year Book of Christian History by E. Michael and Sharon Rusten; Fundamentalism and American Culture by George Marsden; and A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson.