What role do rural churches have in creating a just world? Many religious leaders a hundred years ago saw the best expression of Christian ethics as Socialism.
One beauty of the Christmas story for believers, and perhaps for some nonbelievers also, is its down-to-earth, rural simplicity. A child is born to a poor couple in a stable because there was no room at the inn. Angels announce the birth of a long-awaited child-king-to-become savior not in the royal courts but to poor shepherds watching their flocks by night.
The son of a virgin mother and a carpenter grows up following a tradition of rural Judaism in the cultural crossroads of the Middle East. As his ministry attracts more followers, he illustrates his beliefs by telling stories of shepherds, farms, and farm laborers, of living water to quench thirst in a dry place. This is a man connected with the land and life on it.
Certainly his reported miracles are attracting attention, but he also is becoming known as someone who preaches peace and justice, quoting the prophet Isaiah as he promises liberation for the poor and oppressed. He challenges both the Jewish and Roman hierarchies about the powers of religion and the state, about an imperial society that suppresses and even rejects human potential.
The commemoration of Jesus’ martyrdom and resurrection mark the culmination of Christian life. The risen savior promises a better life on Earth in the church community and eternal life for those who follow his ways and words. His close-knit group of followers will continue to tell his stories, setting up what Acts of the Apostles clearly describes as Christian socialist communities.
It is a utopian approach built on the good life of community that has resonated through the centuries.
The world changed, and so did Christianity. With the rise of dehumanizing industrialization, some religious leaders expressed revulsion. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, they began to proclaim a “Social Gospel” in response to growing poverty and class struggle. These leaders advocated a church that not only ameliorated social problems but brought about social change to foster Christian democracy and economic justice in rural and urban communities.
One such movement, The Christian Socialist Fellowship, was started by Rev. E.E. Carr in 1904 in Danville, Kentucky, with publication of a weekly newspaper, The Christian Socialist. The fellowship first met in Louisville in 1910. According to its constitution, the group was “to permeate churches, denominations, and other religious institutions with the social message of Jesus; to show that Socialism is the necessary economic expression of the Christian life; to end the class struggle by establishing industrial democracy; and to hasten the reign of justice and brotherhood on the earth.”
In 1908, Dennis Hird wrote Jesus the Socialist. About a decade later, Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister and leading Social Gospel theologian, outlined the movement’s principles in A Theology for the Social Gospel in 1917. Echoing the title of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Encyclical Rerum Novarum, that sought justice for workers, Rauschenbusch wrote: “The new thing in the social gospel is the clearness and insistence with which it sets forth the necessity and the possibility of redeeming the historical life of humanity from … social wrongs…. Its chief interest is concentrated on those manifestations of sin and redemption which lie beyond the individual soul.”
The Social Gospel touched the early evolution of rural development. Although Theodore Roosevelt was in no way a socialist, his 1909 Report of the Country Life Commission was written mainly by Liberty Hyde Bailey, a deeply religious academic leader from Cornell University. Alongside its Jeffersonian rhetoric about the nobility of agriculture, the report emphasized the importance of rural churches: “The best way to preserve ideals for private conduct and public life is to build up the institutions of religion…. It is especially important that the country church recognize that it has a social responsibility to the entire community as well as a religious responsibility to its own group of people.”
Socialists or not, Christians or not, many early rural developers followed the Social Gospel’s spirit. They attempted to transform rural culture by building strong communities that enhanced the dignity of people. They believed the U.S. was a Christian nation, and they promoted “community organization” (development) because they were appalled at corporate power that trampled farmers and their communities. The vision and help they offered grew out of a religious duty to do good for the less fortunate and to make things better. Their own rural backgrounds, enhanced by professional ties to land grant universities and religious organizations, allowed them to advocate for rural life on secular and cross-denominational grounds.
The movement also took on research: for example, Warren H. Wilson’s The Evolution of the Country Community: A Study in Religious Sociology (1912), an early community study, focuses on the rural church. During the 1920s, Wilson was superintendent of the Department of Church and Country Life, Board of Home Missions, for the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America. The Catholic side of this movement included establishment of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in 1923 and the Glenmary Missionary order in 1939. That’s a whole other story.
The Social Gospel makes individuals responsible for each other in community. It recognizes social sin, but also the potential for redemption through what former Country Life Commissioner Kenyon L. Butterfield – author of many works, including A Christian Program for the Rural Community (1923) – called “the spirit of the community.” The Social Gospel’s leaders promoted cooperation and good works that supplemented moral and ethical behavior in community. Sometimes their characterizations of unhealthy aspects of rural life were pejorative. Even so, the leaders enlarged on religious views, seeking community organization to build democratic processes and an improved economy. This movement’s distinct character expressed evolving Biblical Christian faith. It put faith into action. In this sense, it was a pragmatic approach, shaped by and shaping U.S. liberal progressivism.
As one interpretation of the Bible, the Social Gospel Movement became enmeshed with conservative and fundamentalist doctrines such as temperance as well as challenges to scientific evidence by anti-evolutionists. As a product of American Protestantism, the Social Gospel’s most striking feature is its contrast to the Gospel of Individual Prosperity that makes a person’s material wealth a sign of God’s favor. Social Gospel proponents were entangled in a constant struggle against the Gospel of Individual Prosperity that appealed to self-interest and a more comfortable personal relationship with God. In another take that supports the status quo, Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows (1925) introduces Jesus as the founder of modern business, an executive who recruited talented people and put them to work effectively. As my late father, Neil Collins, used to quip, Jesus founded the first public relations firm, “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”
The simple story of a silent night in Bethlehem two millennia ago is captivating in the face of the theological gray areas and divisive struggles that have characterized Christianity over the centuries. The birth of a child in humble rural surroundings seems to be a message of peace in a world sometimes gone berserk.
The core message of the Social Gospel as a manifestation of a night in Bethlehem and the life of a child grown to manhood can be relevant for believers and nonbelievers: We live together in communities. We have a right to social justice. We also have a responsibility to assure it for others.
Sadly, this has become a debatable ethic, but simple justice is something that can give our lives purpose and meaning, whether we believe in making God’s work on Earth our own or simply believe in helping to make life better for all because it’s our reason for living.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.