Social Gospel

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In recent years, the term social gospel was more likely to be found in economic journals arguing an anti-capitalist, socialist or even a communist orientation. These writers, motivated by theological conviction, expressed a belief that the church had definite roles in advancing political or even military challenges to any autocratic governmental structure that denied its constituents basic God-given freedoms in order to accumulate personal power and individual wealth for the few.

boothSuch is not the social Gospel of The Salvation Army. It chooses a different remedy for the ills of humankind. It communicates the message of Christ with more than words. Its guiding principles are not found in economic theory. They reside, instead, in the word of God. While strong historical precedents indicate an Army unafraid to challenge a government’s abuse of power through political action and civil disobedience, the true power sought is “strength to ever do the right — grace to conquer in the fight — power to walk the world in white.” This Army has always sought to improve the worst features of the existing order rather than change it. The Army’s founder, William Booth said: “Capital is not an evil in itself, it is good.”

Instead of seeking a political or military remedy to social ills, it seeks to model the love of Christ in caring for the poor, the weak, the destitute. No matter how extensive the program, the focus is on one life at a time. It advances a confident belief that the individual, once restored to social and physical health, when confronted with a clear choice will more likely choose to emulate Christ. Moreover, Booth used this means to turn the redeemed into an army of soldiers waging war against social and spiritual ills. It is an economic determinism more spiritual than Marxist.

Roy Hattersley, in his book Blood and Fire, quotes Booth’s biographer, W. T. Stead with comments Booth made on Socialism. While describing Socialism as “unnatural, extinguishing all freedom of action–making man a slave to the majority of the community”, Booth saw himself as a “Salvation Socialist”–differing from a Fabian Socialist who sought to spread the socialist doctrine gradually. Booth described himself as tunneling at one side of the mountain, while the government works at the other side. (p.355)

In Diane Winston’s remarkable, recent book, Red-Hot and Righteous–the Urban Religion of The Salvation Army, she describes the Army of the early twentieth century with these words: “Salvationists offered a religious vision rooted in a vernacular faith and expressed in the coalescence of the Army’s Holiness theology and the culture’s regnant consumerist ideology. Salvationist doctrine instructed followers in an activist religion expressed in every day life, positing a second baptism which empowered believers to serve God by saving souls and redeeming a fallen world. Redeeming the world, according to the Army’s founder, William Booth, meant facing its challenges (poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, and prostitution) and turning its secular idioms (advertisements, music, and theater) into spiritual texts.” (p.8)

In examining Booth’s grand Utopian scheme for social and spiritual regeneration of the masses, Hattersley states: “True to William Booth’s character–and the practical Christianity which was the hallmark of the Salvation Army–In Darkest England and the Way Out devoted 76 pages to analyzing the nation’s slide into modern barbarism and 200 to prescribing a cure for the moral and social degeneration.” (p. 365)

In the book, Booth outlined a series of “essentials for success.” The first requirement was “to change the man when it is his character and conduct which constitute the reasons for his failure in the battle of life.” The second was a “change (in) circumstances of the individual when they are the cause of the critical condition and beyond his control.”

His “scheme” was definitely ambitious. He proposed a solution with three interlocking elements which Hattersley concludes were to perform different but related tasks. The first, “The City Colonies were moral and social casualty clearing stations–harbors of refuge to provide basic necessities and temporary employment. The Farm colonies were in part transit camps which prepared their more adventurous inhabitants for life in an Overseas Colony.” (p.366)

The plan’s greatest contribution was its focus on the problem not in the design of its solution. Only aspects of the City Colony are evident in Army social service programs today.

Perhaps the most supported and respected charity in America today, the general public seems to express annually its confidence that the Army will help those in need without discrimination of any kind. The Army’s donors are not asked to subscribe to its doctrines. Its universal appeal stimulates giving for varied reasons–some to help the poor, some to support Christian practices, some to delegate a caring spirit or celebrate a season. It interacts with the general population with the language of the people. Its pragmatic orientation in helping others allows it to do whatever works. Its tolerance and non-discriminatory policies brings it in non-judgmental contact with diverse faiths and creeds.


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