Thursday, April 27, 2006

Walter Rauschenbusch's Version of the "Kingdom of God"

On his Jesus Creed blog Scot McKnight got a conversation going about Walter Rauschenbusch being an emergent forerunner. Hopefully, the following two book reviews will add to the discussion. In them, I compare and contrast the ministries of Walter Rauschenbush and A. T. Pierson, two early twentieth century stalwarts, the former a modernist and the latter a fundamentalist, but both captured by the kingdom of God.

Occupy until I Come: A. T. Pierson and the Evangelization of the World. By Dana L. Robert. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003, 322 pp., $32.00. The Kingdom Is Always but Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch. By Christopher C. Evans. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004, 348 pp., $25.00.

These latest volumes in the Library of Religious Biography offer a vivid comparison and contrast between two of America’s most influential Christian leaders during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Arthur Tappan Pierson, recognized as the “Father of Fundamentalism,” was a successful pastor and missionary promoter whose concern for souls and strong social consciousness led him to minister both evangelistically and practically to the urban poor. Likewise, Walter Rauschenbusch, later dubbed the “Father of the Social Gospel,” had a similar two-fold approach to ministry. Both men, native New Yorkers, traced their theological roots to Puritanism and Pietism, wrote gospel hymns, served inner-city pastorates, befriended the wealthy, and focused the latter half of their ministries on bringing in the Kingdom.

In time, their theological perspectives changed. Pierson abandoned postmillennialism to become a leading spokesman for the nascent fundamentalist movement. Rauschenbusch, while continuing to affirm the need for individual conversion, picked up the gauntlet of liberalism and became its leading proponent in North America. Rauschenbusch was a lifelong Baptist; whereas, Pierson, a lifelong Presbyterian, submitted to believer’s baptism at the age of fifty-eight.

Occupy until I Come is a well-researched and thorough treatment of the life and ministry of A. T. Pierson. It traces his life from his days as a student at Union Theological Seminary to his writing of five articles for The Fundamentals, conservatism’s answer to higher criticism. Dana Robert, Professor of World Mission at Boston University, demonstrates her familiarity with Pierson’s fifty books and thousands of articles, and draws from them often to piece together Pierson’s illustrious career as a pastor, apologist, missionary strategist, prolific writer, and conference speaker. By the end of the book, the reader comes away with a profound respect for both Pierson and Robert.

Pierson was reared in New York City in a family with strong Christian and abolitionist roots. As a postmillennialist, Pierson initially believed that the church could bring in the Kingdom of God by aggressively Christianizing the world. His views changed, however, when the famous British man of faith George Mueller sat him down and explained that the Bible predicted perilous times and apostasy for the last days; a far cry from ushering in the Kingdom. Pierson became an avid premillennialist (although he never embraced a belief in a pre-tribulation rapture).

Robert points out that this was just one of several theological crises in Pierson’s life. Others included his receiving a “baptism in the Spirit” (not of the speaking in tongues variety) during the 1857-58 Businessmen’s Prayer Movement. Another came at the age of forty, while serving as pastor of the largest church in Detroit. After attending a series of evangelistic messages, Pierson realized he was prideful and greedy, and had sought the approval of the rich. As a result, he started living by faith, depending on the Lord to meet his needs. Then came his revelation in 1885, based on Matthew 24:14 and 2 Peter 3:12 that the coming of the Kingdom could be hastened by aggressive evangelism. He resigned his pastorate and took to the road as a missionary conference speaker calling for “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” Another crisis, but certainly not the last, came when he chose to be baptized by immersion. This led to his expulsion from the Philadelphia Presbytery. Each crisis led Pierson to more fully dedicate his life to the Lord’s service.

Through Robert’s meticulous research and clear explanations, the modern reader gains much insight into many nineteenth century American church customs, movements and practices, such as the pew rental system, the Women’s Temperance Movement, the influence of dispensationalism on missions, and the sense that industrialization was driving a wedge between management and labor. Many evangelicals, including Pierson, were social activists who believed that the rich had a moral responsibility for the welfare of the poor.

As a missionary speaker A. T. Pierson influenced Robert Speer, Samuel Zwemer, and John R. Mott to give their lives to missions. He was also the keynote speaker at the Mount Hermon conference of 1886, where 100 young men answered the call to missions. The Student Volunteer Movement traces its beginning to this meeting.

Besides his contributions to missions, Pierson’s most notable legacy was his commitment to orthodoxy. When liberalism began sweeping through the mainline denominations, Pierson joined other concerned Christian leaders in publishing The Fundamentals, a series of booklets designed to “contend for the faith” and answer the critics of Christianity. Because of his prolific pen and apologetic abilities, Pierson was invited to write five of the major articles. Each booklet was distributed free to pastors throughout America. This marked the beginning of the Modernist-Fundamentalist split in American churches. In time, the booklets were combined into a twelve volume set of books, which are still available today in a five volume set. Because of his contribution to the cause, Pierson was often called the “Father of Fundamentalism.” Unfortunately, Robert devotes only two pages (282-283) to this major event. She could have introduced the reader to R. A. Torrey and the other stalwarts who contributed to The Fundamentals and explained how, if any, they interacted on the project.

On two occasions Pierson successfully served as pastor of Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle. He spent the final two decades of his life “on the road,” the last ten devoted to teaching believers how to live victoriously. He was a favorite speaker at the Keswick conferences in England.

Robert has written a superb book. It should be read by all who wish to understand the contribution A. T. Pierson made to the cause of Christ.


The Kingdom Is Always but Coming by Christopher H. Evans, Associate Professor of Church History at Crozer Divinity School, is the informative biography of William Rauschenbusch, who was a contemporary of and lived in close proximity to A. T. Pierson. Ironically, Evans holds the same teaching position at Crozer that Rauschenbusch did a century earlier when the school was known as Rochester Theological Seminary. Drawing upon a treasure trove (180 boxes) of letters between Walter Rauschenbusch and his contemporaries, personal diaries, unpublished documents, and newspaper clippings, plus interviews conducted with family members, Evans gives us an intimate look into Rauschenbusch’s life and thinking. We glimpse into his heart for evangelism, his agony over his own children not being converted, his belief that the Social Gospel was the authentic gospel (“faith without works is dead”) and his understanding that the Kingdom of God was the cornerstone of Christianity. Rauschenbusch believed that the rediscovery of the Kingdom of God was as important for the modern church as justification by faith was for the Reformers.

The Kingdom Is Always but Coming is the third book written about Rauschenbusch in the past sixty years, and of the three it is the definitive biography. The first, Walter Rauschenbusch (Macmillan, 1942) by Doris Sharpe, paints her subject in glowing terms. Evans avoids such a temptation by showing Rauschenbusch’s weaknesses as well as strengths, his legitimate contributions as well as his controversial theories. For example, because of his German ancestry, Rauschenbusch had divided loyalties during WWI and called for American neutrality; he embraced religious pluralism toward the end of his life, possibly because his children were outside the fold; he became the leader in the Men and Religious Forward Movement, a 1910 version of the Promise Keepers; he petitioned the local government to build New York’s first public playgrounds; he believed a woman’s place was in the home (despite his daughter becoming a feminist); he called for a redistribution of wealth; and he stated that “the religions of Jesus and Paul were antithetical to each other” (278).

Paul Minus’s Walter Rauschenbusch: American Reformer (Macmillan, 1988) was much more factual and scholarly than Ms. Sharpe’s, but lacked some of the research data available to Evans.

Evans forcefully presents Rauschenbusch as a man in pursuit of the Kingdom, who believed that as more converts were won to Christ, the social conditions of the world would improve, setting the stage for the second coming. America would lead the way by ushering in the Kingdom. It was incumbent upon the church therefore to promote and live by Kingdom ethics. This involved promoting justice and standing for the poor. The love of Christ was to be manifested in our actions. This was often costly to the Christian, but it was through a life of vicarious suffering that God would bring about societal reconciliation and final redemption. Through two major books and numerous scholarly articles, Rauschenbusch called upon his academic and ministerial colleagues to promote “Social Christianity.” This teaching was brought down to the lay level by Charles Sheldon’s book, In His Steps, which asked the question, “What would Jesus do?”

One wishes Evans would have dealt more with the relationship between Rauschenbusch and Augustus Hopkins Strong, the noted “New Light” Calvinist theologian and president of Rochester Theological Seminary. Despite being apprehensive about Rauschenbusch’s acceptance of the moral view of the atonement and his questioning of the Old Testament’s divine authority, Strong brought him on as a faculty member. Although not stated, this may have been out of kindness to Rauschenbusch’s father who was one of the seminary’s founders. By the end of his presidency, Strong who himself flirted for a while with liberal theology, filled half of the seminary’s teaching positions with liberals. At the close of his life, he regretted it.

Like many biographers, Evans has difficulty at times presenting a clear chronological narrative. When dealing with certain major themes in Rauschenbusch’s life, Evans is forced to jump ahead of his story to carry out the train of thought. In the next chapter, he turns back the clock. This leaves the reader to sort things out chronologically.

Evans briefly mentions a few fundamentalist’s reactions to Rauschenbusch’s theological writings. Much more was needed in this area. Did he have friends in the opposite camp? Did he ever correspond with or debate his theological adversaries? Evans mentions only two: Pastor I. D. Haldeman (FBC, New York City), who believed Rauschenbusch’s theology was “clearly outside the boundaries of biblical Christianity” (225) and Pastor William Bell Riley, who Evans fails to identify as pastor of FBC, Minneapolis and President of Northwestern Schools. This reviewer knows from other reading that Rauschenbusch spoke on occasion for the Student Volunteer Movement. How did this relationship change as the Modernist-Fundamentalist debate heated up in the early 1900s? Did Rauschenbusch and Pierson ever cross paths?

Overall these deficiencies are minor and only concern the hard-nosed student of history.

When Walter Rauschenbusch died of colon cancer in 1918, postmillennialism was also in the throes of death. WWI had unofficially turned the idealistic theology on its head. Until his last breath, however, Rauschenbusch was looking for the Kingdom. A half-century later, Martin Luther King, a graduate of Crozer Theological Seminary, said that Rauschenbusch’s writings gave him the theological basis for non-violence.

The Kingdom Is Always but Coming is a fascinating read and helps us to understand the evolution of the Social Gospel in America. For many evangelicals this book will be an eye-opener. It shows how a conservative theologian becomes a liberal. This reviewer, however, came away liking Walter Rauschenbusch, despite his flaws. Rauschenbusch the man has a lot to offer evangelicals. He never lost sight of the Kingdom of God nor its ethical implications for the Church. Additionally, he was forever an evangelist, calling upon sinners to repent and be converted. If Walter Rauschenbusch were alive today, he might be considered part of the broader evangelical camp, not someone who could join the Evangelical Theological Society, but one whose books would be read by its members.

Those desiring to understand the early development of American evangelicalism and modernism, as seen through the eyes of their respective leaders, will find Occupy until I Come and The Kingdom Is Already but Coming very helpful.


Louise said...

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Sean Dennis said...

Thank you for two solid book reviews. Once I finish the two biographies I've got on my plate right now (Audubon and Dabney), I'd like to get my hands on these two works; they sound both fascinating and insightful.
What we really need is a biography on the life of G.E. Ladd! As much discussion there is these days about the Already/Not Yet, I think there is very little appreciation for the important contributions he has made in gaining an understanding about the Kingdom.

- Sean

Already/Not Yet said...


This is a great idea. Maybe someone will pick up on your suggestion, hopefully a biographer-theologian who has an understanding of the evangelism of the late 40s and 50s and one who can articulate Ladd's kingdom concepts.