Where is God’s Kingdom? Some Christians believe it’s in heaven, and they look forward to going there as a reward for a virtuous life. Others believe it’s the duty of all Christians to establish the Kingdom of God here on Earth. The latter view was a core belief of the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century. The Social Gospel’s father was Washington Gladden, a pastor who sought to live, in his words, “a religion that laid hold upon life, and proposed first and foremost, to realize the Kingdom of God in this world.”
Gladden began his religious journey growing up on his uncle’s farm in upstate New York. He attended the many religious revivals in the area during his childhood, seeking a minister and a message he believed in. At age 18, while apprenticing at a local newspaper, he felt the calling to become a Congregationalist minister, and he received his ordination in 1860.
After spending about a decade as a pastor in New York and Massachusetts, Gladden became the religious editor of the New York Independent. There, he began sharing the ideas that would form the basis of the Social Gospel, writing about practical theology and providing a religious perspective on the social issues of the day. He also wrote articles exposing the corruption of Boss Tweed’s New York political machine, gaining national fame in the process.
After leaving the Independent, Gladden returned to the pulpit in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he became the first major American religious leader to support labor unions, actively advocating for workers’ rights in his sermons and writings. In 1877, he published The Christian Way, laying out the principles of the Social Gospel and calling for the “extension of Christian values into everyday life.”
The Social Gospel movement sought to “adjust Christianity to modern times” and apply the principles of Christian living to the problems of contemporary society. Gladden argued that each individual’s personal salvation was tied to the salvation of society, and that each Christian was called to do his or her part to improve the world. “[I]n truth the individual is saved only when he is put into right relations to the community in which he lives,” Gladden said.
Believers in the Social Gospel sought to improve the moral lives of the poor by improving living conditions through public health measures, universal education, and labor laws. “We are not hopelessly drifting in the current of social progress,” Gladden wrote. “we may shape our own course and choose our own port.”
In 1882, Gladden became the pastor of the First Congregational Church in Columbus, Ohio, which he would lead for the rest of his life. During his 36 years there, the congregation grew from 500 to over 1,200 people. He delivered two 45-minute sermons every Sunday. In the morning, he would preach to his flock about living the Christian life. In the evening, he would lecture on social problems. His evening sermons were frequently attended by people who didn’t even attend the church, and they would run on Page 1 of the local paper the next morning.
True to his Social Gospel beliefs, Gladden did more than preach about the need for social reform; he took active steps to create the world he wanted to see. He traveled the nation to advocate for labor law reforms and regulation of natural monopolies. He mediated labor strikes in Columbus and Cleveland. He even served a term on the Columbus city council.
Gladden also opposed discrimination in all forms. As vice president of the American Missionary Association, he met with W.E.B. Dubois and spoke out against racial segregation, saying, “Among brothers there is no distinction of superior and inferior.” In the 1880s, he led a lawsuit that caused the integration of the Columbus school system. In 1903, he delivered a sermon entitled “Murder as an Epidemic” that condemned the practice of lynching.
Gladden’s condemnation of anti-Catholic discrimination cost him the presidency of Ohio State University; the board rejected him as “too pro-Catholic.” At a church conference in 1905, he sponsored a resolution that condemned the suffering of Russian Jews under the regime of the czars. He championed women’s suffrage, and called on his powerful friends, including Teddy Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington, to do the same.
When he died of a stroke at age 82, the Ohio State Journal paid tribute to him as the “First Citizen of Columbus. Fortunately, his inspirational example of Christian social activism has not been forgotten. On the 100th anniversary of his death in 2018, the city of Columbus opened the Washington Gladden Social Justice Park. Here’s hoping that a new generation of activists and reformers will be inspired by Gladden’s example and help to establish the Kingdom of God here on Earth.
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