Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
June 11, 1959

Culture Patterns: Religion

Harold Underwood Faulkner

(Editor's note: This highly interesting and significant excerpt is taken from "American Political And Social History" a college textbook by Faulkner, and was sent to us by Tom O'Neal of Butler, Alabama. It shows the "trend" from an historian's, rather than a preacher's, point of view. Churches of Christ are only in recent years following the denominational bodies into the swamps of the "social gospel" morass — an attitude that puts primary emphasis on this present world rather than the world to come.)

Religion, like every other phase of culture life, could hardly escape the influence both of the Industrial Revolution and of the era of reform. At least three tendencies during these years are easily discernible: a trend toward church unity, a further liberalization of theology, and a strong movement toward socialized religion. For the trend toward unity, the urbanization of America was in part responsible. Depleted country districts that in earlier years had supported several churches could now comfortably maintain but one, and Protestant denominations found it possible to minimize their differences and consolidate their resources. The tendency was furthered when various branches of the same church, which in earlier years had been split by doctrinal differences or by the slavery controversy, found it possible to reconcile these differences.

Furthermore, the Protestant denominations, which for many years had co-operated in such organizations as the Young Men's and Young Women's Christian Associations, now felt it possible in 1905 to found the Federal Council of the Church of Christ in America. The ratification of the constitution of the Federal Council three years later found thirty-three evangelical bodies representing 17,000,000 members tied loosely into an organization whose business it was to study problems vital to American Protestantism and make recommendations to its constituent churches. Fortunately dominated by socially minded leaders, it has always been in advance of the mass of church members and has helped to direct American Protestantism along progressive channels.

Important in minimizing the differences between sects had been the liberalization of theology, which had received such a tremendous impetus from the new swing. By 1900, modernism was well in the ascendancy among the intellectuals of the Protestant denominations and was particularly strong in the theological seminaries. It went hand-in-hand with the insistence by the leaders of the new generation that the church lay aside its theological controversies and direct its efforts toward an amelioration of the intolerable conditions existing in the social order. It might be all right to talk of the life to come, but it was more important, they insisted, to ensure a decent and happy existence here below. In the theological seminaries, courses in sociology were introduced to supplement the conventional curriculum; in the actual work of the church the "social gospel" promoted "institutionalized churches," that is, churches that supported all types of philanthropic enterprises and organized charities.

It was also noticeable that churches and church leaders were more ready to take a definite stand on social and economic question of a controversial nature. Thus the Methodist Episcopal Church asserted in 1908 "that the organization of labor is not only the right of laborers and conducive to their welfare, but is incidentally of great benefit to society at large." In the same year the Federal Council urged the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery and occupational disease, abolition of child labor, the end of the sweating system, the reduction of hours, the six-day week, workers' compensation, old-age insurance, and "the most equitable division of labor that can be devised."

If statistics of membership are to be taken seriously, it can hardly be asserted that either the growth of modernism or the social gospel had decreased the vitality of organized religion. As a social and intellectual factor the church may have declined in certain protestant sections of the Northeast, but in the rural West and South its role was undiminished. Between 1900 and 1914, church membership, according to church statistics, increased by 16,000,000. While all the churches shared, the Roman Catholic, benefiting from the large immigration from Italy, Austria-Hungary, and other Catholic countries, gained the most members. The accretion of membership went hand-in-hand with a continued enlargement of the scope of educational and philanthropic interests of the churches, as seen in the schools, colleges, hospitals, and relief organizations, and it continued despite increasing competition from the golf course, the automobile and other recreational interests that now beckoned to the church-goer on the Sabbath.