Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Jesus of the Emerging Canadian Social Gospel Movement

This is a paper I wrote for one of my classes at the U of A. Since a number of people I talked to were interested in reading it, I thought I would post it for all to read. It think it's pretty self-explanatory, but please let me know if you have any questions. There was a lot of research I did for this paper that I didn't use, so if there is something I didn't touch on that you're interested in, there's a chance that I have already researched the answer to it. Enjoy!



The turn of the twentieth century was a time of crisis for the Protestant Church in the West. Attendance was continually dropping, and the new generations were finding the happenings inside the church doors to be less and less relevant to the problems they faced in their daily lives. In Canada, the dominant Protestant denominations were Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, and Methodism.[1] It would be primarily out of the Methodist Church that Canada’s Social Gospel movement would emerge. According to Richard Allen, the most prominent contemporary historian of the Social Gospel in Canada, “No major Protestant denomination in the nation escaped the impact of the social gospel.”[2] The two most prominent figures in the movement were both Methodist ministers based in Manitoba, Salem Bland and James Shaver (J. S.) Woodsworth. They were both strongly committed, as the movement as a whole was, to reducing social inequality in Canada.The main point this paper will set out to prove is that the Jesus of Canada’s Social Gospel movement was one focused on the social issues of its day, based on a simple, yet firm, intepretation of the Jesus of the New Testament.
In addition to the trials faced by the Protestant Church, the same time period was also a time of flux in society more broadly in the industrialized nations of the West. On the Canadian Prairies, where agriculture had been the overwhelmingly dominant occupation since the European settlers arrived, the factories were drawing more and more people away from the farms to the cities. At the same time, wealth inequality was increasing drastically. Individual workplaces employed more and more workers as the factories grew. With bigger factories came more power for the factory owners, but a counterbalance was growing that prevented the owners from exercising absolute power over their employees. Organized labour was gaining influence as workers across industries formed organizations that would serve to defend their collective interests against the often opposite interests of their employers. Most significantly, the Trades and Labour Congress (TLC), a pan-Canadian labour organization, was formed in the late nineteenth century.[3] The rise of organized labour would play a major part in the direction, development, and theology of the Social Gospel, and to it I will return in a moment.
Before getting into the details, I should clarify two factors. The first is the time period. The scope of this paper is limited to the time period from the emergence of the Social Gospel movement in Canada until about 1920. Before that year, it can reasonably be argued that the movement was still developing and determining what direction it would go. That is not to say its path was rigid after 1920 or that it did not continue to develop, but major events in the early 1920s drastically changed the movement and would require a much larger or separate work to analyze. Salem Bland’s work which laid out the fundamentals of Canada’s social gospel, A New Christianity, was published in 1920. In 1921, J. S. Woodsworth, along with his Methodist colleague and former fellow student at Wesley College, William Irvine, was elected to Parliament. The shift of focus from the pulpit to institutionalized politics brought important changes to the Social Gospel movement. The Social Gospel movement certainly did not end in 1920 and arguably is still present in Canada today; however, those developments are beyond the scope of this paper.[4] The second clarification is that this work will not deal with the later movement starting in the 1930s within the Church in Alberta led by William Aberhart and formulated around the ideas of Social Credit. In sum, the Social Gospel movement I am referring to throughout this paper is the one clearly on the left of the political spectrum and is restricted only to the developments of the movement up until about 1920.
The Social Gospel’s interpretation of Jesus, as can be expected from most Christian movements, was at the core of the movement.There is a contemporary debate among some historians of the Social Gospel about whether the movement’s primary motivation was to tranform Canadian Protestantism’s theology of individualism into one of addressing social issues or if its main impetus was to save the Protestant Church from fading into irrelevance in the lives of Prairie Canadians. Allen has been the most prominent proponent of the former view, while Ramsay Cook espouses the latter.[5] It may be useful to begin with a commonality between the two scholars’ views on the theology of the Social Gospel. Both agree that Woodsworth, undoubtedly the most prominent figure of the Social Gospel, held views that can be seen “as an escape from theological perplexities.”[6] Indeed, Allen writes, “The social gospel could be described as a movement in search of a theology.” Cook’s view is that those who founded the Social Gospel movement were motivated by the need for the Church to change in order to survive.[7] This view downplays the theological beliefs of the Social Gospellers, I think without sufficient justification. Granted, they tended to, either explicitly or implicitly, de-emphasize the importance of a complex theology, but at the heart of their interpretation of Christianity was a very firm, though simple, theology based largely on the concept of brotherhood taught by Jesus.[8] The call of the Social Gospellers was not to dispose of theology but rather to cast aside what for them were unnecessarily complex theological debates in favour of a theology free from complications, allowing Church members to focus their time and efforts on social issues rather than theological ones. It was precisely the Social Gospellers’ firm confidence in the core aspect of their theological beliefs that allowed them to turn so much attention to the social issues of their day.
While it can be argued that the works that laid out the substance of the Canadian Social Gospel were published relatively late in the movement’s history, the views of others who wrote earlier outside of Canada had provided the theological underpinnings for the movement at least until it could develop its own.[9] Cook’s view is that the Social Gospel removed the theology from Christianity and replaced it with sociology, a substitution he pegs as the movement’s primary weakness.[10] While it is quite clear the Social Gospel had a strong sociological emphasis, it is something entirely different to suggest that social concerns displaced theology’s role in the movement. In Woodsworth’s work My Neighbor, he urges his readers to think on the phrase “Re-Christianize the Church” and suggests that the Church must take part in what he believes is a coming “great social and religious reformation.” While at first glance, this statement may seem like Woodsworth’s impetus is solely to go along with what he believes are inevitable changes in the social and religious realms, in the next paragraph he provides a theological rationale for wanting to fill that role. He cites an article by Prof. Graham Taylor which says, “...the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount should govern” society.[11] Woodsworth’s strong feeling that the Church must stay relevant to stay alive is not exclusionary to theology, and in fact is based on it.
The focus of the theology of the Social Gospel was the life and message of Jesus in his most human, and therefore least supernatural, form. The Reverend A. E. Smith, a contemporary of Woodsworth’s and also a Methodist minister, gave the following description of his view on Jesus:
In my sermons no miracle was required to explain the birth of Jesus or His life and teachings. Jesus was not the founder of the church. He never formulated its harsh theologies. The mumblings and genuflections, the robes and censers and incantations of the church were completely foreign to Jesus, the Nazarene Carpenter. His name was to be cherished because He died as a leader of the people, for His principles and in protest against the unjust rulers of His day.[12]

An argument can be made using a narrow definition of theology that the above quote does not constitute a theology because it does see Jesus as a divine subject; however, if that is Cook’s point, he does not make it clear.
                Rather than declaring that theology did not have a role to play in the Social Gospel movement, aside from being a means to the end of saving the Church from irrelevance, it would be far more accurate to say that theology was not oft discussed in detail, nor was it held in any complex form. It could reasonsably be said that although a theological underpinning was present and held quite strongly by the movement’s most prominent figures such as Woodsworth and Bland, their presentations of their Christian message did not have theology as the primary focus. Indeed, a skim through either’s best-known works, My Neighbor and The New Christianity, respectively, leaves the reader dwelling primarily on social issues. Rather than being the focus, the teachings and actions of Jesus are held up as a firm foundation from which the social problems of the day could be addressed. As Allen writes, the Social Gospel forged “links between proposed reforms and the religious heritage of the nation, in the process endowing reform with an authority it could not otherwise command.”[13] Similarly, historian Walter Young writes that Woodsworth’s Protestant background, teachings, and presence with his followers in the labour movement assured them that the radical reforms they were calling for were acceptable, and even essential, within the realm of Christianity.[14] The fact that Woodsworth was a Methodist minister with a family history in the Methodist Church helped to give legitimacy to the Social Gospel for many, or rather, they felt legitimized in their social activities because there was a theological justification for their activities. In other words, the teachings of Jesus through the existing institutional Church served to validate the proposed social reforms. Allen goes on to write, “The social gospel rested on the premise that Christianity was a social religion, concerned...with the quality of human relations on this earth.”[15] It was a belief that went to the very core of the Christian message for the Social Gospellers.
                More than anything else, for the proponents of the Social Gospel movement, Jesus was about social change. Bland’s The New Christianity concludes by saying that the key aspects of Jesus’ teachings are “love, and a willingness, like His, to find a throne in a cross.”[16] In other words, love and sacrifice are the keys to Jesus’ teachings. Love, for Bland, is most sincerely expressed in the pursuit of social equality.
As Bland was one of the key figures in the Social Gospel movement and the core of his theology pointed to social equality, it is worth looking in some depth at his justification for that belief. In his work The New Christianity, Bland broke the history of the Christian Church into three different phases, which were each accompanied by parallels in social order. He began with what he called the “Aristocratic phase”, which was characterized by a social order dependent on the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. He characterized the Catholic Church as the Roman Empire’s mirror image in the religious realm.[17]
The Aristocratic phase ended, according to Bland, at the beginning of the sixteenth century with the beginning of Protestantism. This next phase was called the “Bourgeois phase” and took the Church up to 1914, very close to the year he was writing (1920). As the bourgeois began to form out of disillusionment with the aristocracy, Bland drew a parallel with the Protestant movement forming out of disillusionment with the Catholic Church; the middle class was taking authority from the Emperor and the Protestants were taking authority from the Pope. What Bland saw as lacking in bourgeois Christianity (and certainly in its earlier aristocratic form as well) was the “passion for brotherhood,” which as mentioned earlier was for him the most fundamental teaching of Jesus.[18] This passionate brotherhood only existed at the level of the working class for Bland. He saw the Catholic and Protestant churches as ignoring the working people, who were the people society should be built to serve. The bourgeios were the least class-conscious for Bland because their chief concern was trying, as individuals, to move up to the upper class – to become the aristocracy.
The working class, conversely, was beginning to organize collectively through the organized labour movement, which was growing at an unprecedented rate with the large-scale industrialization happening in the West. As with the two previous phases, Bland saw the Church going through a parallel transformation with the social order. He predicted that “...institutional Christianity will undergo a third transformation and, in a society dominated by Labor organizations, will become democratic and brotherly.”[19] He believed both Protestantism and Catholicism would necessarily fade away and be replaced by this new form of Christianity, which would have a deeper affinity with “the Christianity of Jesus” than either of the two previous forms. Therefore, the true Jesus, for Bland, was the Jesus embodied by the twentieth-century labour movement. The message of brotherhood that was at the heart of Jesus’ teachings for Bland, had taken hundreds of years to manifest itself in both the Church and in society, but with organized labour it had finally arrived. The deepest meaning of Jesus’ message was that the members of the lowest classes of society were to live in brotherhood with each other and work collectively to improve society as a whole.
Bland’s view was that throughout the history of the Church, the Christian message had been kept secret and was only in his time being revealed. He quotes Jesus in Luke 8:17 (“Nothing is hid that shall not be made manifest, nor anything secret that shall not be known and brought to light.“) in order to explain his method for extracting what he considered the true message of Christianity out of the scriptures.[20] He goes on to explain that Paul “hid” in his writings his personal views of “contempt of marriage and lack of reverence for women.” In other words, Paul wrote his own personal views into his letters and disguised them as the views the Christian Church itself should hold. Likewise, he says Christ also hid something in the scriptures – “the equality of brotherhood.” This concept, for Bland, was the very heart of Christianity. He calls it a “the secret force, the most deeply vital essence of Christianity.” For Bland, social equality was the most important message Jesus delivered.[21]
                It is true that the Social Gospel meant widespread engagement with those outside of the Church without the primary goal of converting them to adopting a Christian theology. The reason I specify “theology” is that the Social Gospel would try to recruit followers to its version of Christianity. The difference is that the Social Gospel tended to see living by the Christian principles of love and brotherhood as living the Christian life, despite what one’s theological beliefs might be. It is in this way that the movement attempted to have appeal across the theological spectrum. Its proponents did not want the movement’s goals to be limited to a shift within Methodism or Presbyterianism, nor even a shift within the whole of Christianity, but rather a shift in the entire society. This idea is perhaps shown most clearly by Bland in his analysis of organized labour.
Before the Christianization of the labor movement was complete, he said, two things must happen. First, it needed to broaden its base to include others of the same social class who were not already part of organized labour. Second, and most importantly for our purposes in this paper, he said “Labor must recognize the Christianness of its own principles.”[22] He went on to say that he did not mean the movement, or the members of the movement, needed to convert to Christianity, but rather that it needed to recognize that its principles had as their basis the teachings of Jesus. For Bland, the organized labor movement already was Christian by its very nature. Because it was a movement based on the brotherhood of humanity, it embodied what was at the very heart of Jesus’ message. Therefore, it was not coincidental in the least that the key message of Jesus corresponded with the working class in Bland’s own time; rather, the organized labor movement was a Christian movement because Jesus himself was from the working class. It is worth quoting this section of Bland’s book verbatim because it is the key to his interpretation of Jesus:
It is not strange, after all, that among working men should arise the Church which is to give the truest interpretation of Christianity. The Lord Jesus was Himself a working man and brought up in a working man’s home; His chief friends and chosen apostles were mostly working men. How can He be fully understood except through a working man’s consciousness?[23]

Organized labour clearly was the primary vehicle in Bland’s theology through which the future of the Church would realize its main purpose: to address issues of inequality in society.
                J. S. Woodsworth had his own views on how Christianity fit into society, and although the implications of his theology resulted in a similar approach to how one is to live in the world, he framed it much differently. Woodsworth put a much bigger emphasis on “Kingdom” theology, which shows the strong influence Walter Rauschenbusch had on him.[24] The idea of Kingdom theology was essentially that instead of God’s kingdom, referenced a number of times in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, being a goal for the afterlife, the teachings of Christ were to turn the present society into the Kingdom – another word for the ideal society. According to McNaught’s biography of Woodsworth:
[The Social Gospel’s] central purpose was to work for ‘the Kingdom’ in this world. It laid heavy emphasis upon the doctrine of love and proclaimed the principle of co-operation as opposed to that of competition. It asserted the brotherhood of man and decried excessive individualism and the adoration of the profit motive in economic life. It placed greater emphasis upon the temporal welfare of individuals and society than upon the salvation of particular immortal souls.[25]

The purpose of the kingdom theology was to teach churches about “the social content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”[26] Woodsworth took great pride in the official stance of his Methodist church that it recognized its “specific the establishment of the Kingdom of God on the earth.”[27][28] Establishing the Kingdom heavily involved loving one’s neighbour as oneself, popularly known as the Golden Rule of Christianity. For that reason, Woodsworth’s book on his view of the Christian role in society took on the title My Neighbor.
Early in this book, Woodsworth wrote, in reference to the parable of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, “And who is my neighbour?”[29] He did not answer the question directly but used the parable as the foundation for the views he expressed in the rest of the book by interpreting it in his own contemporary context of early twentieth-century urban life in Canada. Rather than applying the parable to helping only individuals one by one, Woodsworth believed his contemporary social context called for helping many individuals at the same time by reforming the system.[30]
Both Bland and Woodsworth formed their views, and informed the views of their followers, based on an interpretation of Jesus that saw him primarily as an ethical teacher. For them, he was not simply a good ethical teacher; he was the best. The life and teachings of Jesus were held up as ideals for everyone to follow in society. The goals of Bland, Woodsworth, and the Social Gospel movement more broadly, were not to convince people of a particular view of the relationship between Jesus and the divine, nor were they much concerned with the divine at all, at least in the traditional sense of the term. They were, however, extremely motivated to convert people to their point of view that the teachings of Jesus, or at least the ones they emphasized, should be followed. The shift this motivation caused, for those going from traditional Protestant views to those of the Social Gospel, was necessarily about changing the way people thought about Jesus and God, not as an end but as a means. The primary goal, the end they set out to achieve, was about changing the way people lived.  The Jesus of the Social Gospel movement was not a complex one; for many social gospellers, he was the most remarkable man ever to have lived, and his life served as a model for how one ought to treat one’s neighbours. It may have been a movement rife with utopian idealism, but one cannot deny that the Social Gospel movement in Canada had an immense impact on the Church and on the country.


Allen, Richard. The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada, 1914-28. Toronto,
                University of Toronto Press, 1973.

Allen, Richard. The View from Murney Tower: Salem Bland, the Late Victorian Controversies, and
                the Search for a New Christianity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Bland, Salem Goldworth. The New Christianity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973.

Cook, Ramsay. “Ambiguous Heritage: Wesley College and the Social Gospel Re-considered.” Manitoba
                History Number 19 (Spring 1990): 1-34.

Fraser, Brian J. The Social Uplifters: Presbyterian Progressives and the Social Gospel in Canada,
                1875-1915. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1988.

Irvine, William. Can a Christian Vote for Capitalism? Ottawa: Labour Publishing Company, 1935.

McCormack, A. Ross. Reformers, Rebels, and Revolutionaries: The Western Canadian Radical
                Movement, 1899-1919. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

McNaught, Kenneth. A Prophet in Politics: A Biography of J. S. Woodsworth. Toronto: University
                of Toronto Press, 1963.

Smith, A. E. All My Life: Crusade for Freedom. Toronto: Progress Publishing Company, 1949.

Woodsworth, J. S. My Neighbor: A Study of City Conditions; A Plea for Social Service. Toronto:
                The Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, 1913.

Young, Walter D. The Anatomy of a Party: The National CCF, 1932-61. Toronto: University of
                Toronto Press, 1969.

[1] Allen, Richard. The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada 1914-28. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973, p. 8.
[2] Allen, The Social Passion, p. 15.
[3] Until about 1900, the TLC was somewhat of a regional organization, but by the turn of the century it had expanded to cover most of the nation.
[4] A recent example of note is former Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert’s paper, “Beyond the Social Gospel”, presented in 2009 (
[5] Cook, Ramsay. “Ambiguous Heritage: Wesley College and the Social Gospel Re-considered. “ Manitoba History Number 19 (Spring 1990), pp. 30-31.
[6] Cook, “Ambiguous Heritage,” p. 18.
[7] Cook, “Ambiguous Heritage,” p. 11.
[8] The implicit downplaying of complex theological matters is clearly evident in the works that provided the foundations for the Social Gospel, such as Woodsworth’s My Neighbor and Bland’s A New Christianity. Both works are filled with commentary on the social situation of their day while discussions of Jesus and theology fill very little space.
[9] Woodsworth and Bland did not publish their books on the foundations of the Canadian social gospel until 1911 and 1920, respectively. However, both were influenced by Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, first published in 1907, and the theology of the German scholar, Albrecht Ritschl, who lived only until 1889.
[10] Cook, “Ambiguous Heritage,” p. 20.
[11] Woodsworth, J. S. My Neighbor: A Study of City Conditions; A Plea for Social Service. Toronto: The Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, 1913, p. 336.
[12] Smith, A. E. All My Life: Crusade for Freedom. Toronto: Progress Publishing Company, 1949, p. 43.
[13] Allen, The Social Passion, p. 3.
[14] Young, Walter D. Anatomy of a Party: The National CCF, 1932-61. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969, p. 158.
[15] Allen, The Social Passion, p. 4.
[16] Bland, Salem Goldworth. The New Christianity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973, p. 92.
[17] Bland, The New Christianity, p. 42.
[18] Bland, The New Christianity, p. 50.
[19] Bland, The New Christianity, p. 54.
[20] Bland, The New Christianity, pp. 22-23.
[21] Bland, The New Christianity, p. 23.
[22] Bland, The New Christianity, p. 54.
[23] Bland, The New Christianity, p. 55.
[24] Rauschenbusch was the author of what is probably the most widely-known theology of the Social Gospel, his 1907 book Christianity and the Social Crisis, which placed a strong emphasis on Kingdom theology.
[25] McNaught, Kenneth. A Prophet in Politics: A Biography of J. S. Woodsworth. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963, p. 49.
[26] McNaught, A Prophet in Politics, p. 59.
[27] Woodsworth, My Neighbor, p. 172.
[28] It is important to note that not all prominent Methodists coming out of Manitoba were a part of the Social Gospel movement. Clifford Sifton, as one of the most prominent examples, was one of Woodsworth’s contemporaries; like Woodsworth, he had been a part of the Methodist Church in Brandon, MB, and also had attended Victoria College in Toronto. However, Sifton took a very different path from there by joining the Liberals and later becoming a key member of Prime Minister Laurier’s government (McNaught, 38).
[29] Woodsworth, My Neighbor, p. 19.
[30] Woodsworth, My Neighbor, p. 21.

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