Economic History

The Social Gospel and Liberation Theology: Responses to the Cries of the Poor

Alexander HURST (2009), Amherst College, B.A in Political Science.


To many it may seem obvious that Christianity would focus strongly on social justice, poverty, and human rights. And to those many, Christianity’s stance on these issues may also seem self-evident. But the Church’s response to the pressing problems of the past two centuries have been varied and steeped in controversy. I will examine two such responses to the social question of economic inequality—the social gospel movement, and the Latin American phenomenon known as liberation theology.

The denigrating poverty produced by the rapid industrialization of the United States in the 19th century beckoned to be addressed by North American Christians. Theologians and academics responded with the “social gospel,” a vision of an economically just society, spawned from the message of the Gospels. The differing views of social gospel proponents were all based on shared premises: that capitalism caused an inequality which needed to be redressed, that economic justice is a key component of the kingdom of God, and that the duty and goal of Christians should be to work towards the realization of the kingdom of God, be that on earth or after the end of history.

The road to Christ as economist began in earnest with Washington Gladden in the mid-1800’s. Gladden’s ideas hardly sound revolutionary today, and for the most part they were not. Gladden prefaces his call for justice with a hefty disclaimer; he sees nothing wrong with wealth in and of itself. Christianity generally accompanies an increase in wealth, Gladden notes, and this wealth “is not itself an evil; it is instead a blessing to mankind” (Gladden, 8). Nevertheless, the pre-Gilded Age era in which he lived showcased very serious consequences that capitalism and industrialization had on the poor and working class that Gladden could not ignore. He acknowledged that it was the duty of Christians to “do what they can by means of law to secure a better industrial system” than the then-present one, which fostered enormous gains for a select few, and left the majority unable to share in these gains.

Gladden’s road towards social justice was relatively straightforward; the social gospel mission could be accomplished through the existing social structure, by legislation, minor social adjustments, and charity. Charity was deeply important to Gladden, and he counseled that although the wealthy should give through the churches and existing organizations instead of directly, the sick, aged, and children had no less of a special claim on their largesse. If the churches were the centerpieces to charity for Gladden, then affordable housing was his pet project. He urged the wealthy to build and maintain well-ventilated and sanitary tenements, to be rented at an affordable price.

However, regardless of the amount of good accomplished through charity, it will always remain a tool for the alleviation of poverty and suffering, not its prevention. For that, Gladden went one step further in his vision of a just society. He assigned to the state two duties, to crush monopolies, and to eliminate gambling in the form of stocks. On the first point, Gladden was prescient, as all modern states attempt to prevent the formation and continuation of monopolies. On the second, he could not have been further from reality, because stock markets have become to modern economics what the churches were to his charity proposal. Finally, Gladden promotes a tool that has become well known to modern social justice advocates; cooperative factories that have dispensed with the wage based system in favor of partial ownership and shared profits.

Several decades later, Vida Scudder expanded on Gladden’s rather tame and humble beginning of the social gospel. Writing at a time when socialism was approaching its apex of support in the United States of America, and beginning to formally take root in other governments, Scudder identified Jesus as “one of the chief social idealists of the world,” (Scudder, 374). This was not a difficult statement to make, given the prominence of Jesus, interaction with the poor and teachings regarding wealth in the Gospels. However, Scudder took the somewhat dangerous step of comparing Christianity to the socialist movement, and claimed that a Christianity taught and understood in the spirit of its founder was incompatible with the existing social order. For Scudder, the ideal socialist state most closely resembled the kingdom of God. Although socialists themselves may have been ignorant of Jesus’ teachings, Scudder viewed the civilization they worked for and “its equality of opportunity, its law of non-resistance, and its protection of the individual from fear,” as bearing “the same relation which body bears to soul, to the social ideal enjoined by the Master” (Scudder, 386).

Even beyond the economic outlook, Scudder integrated Christianity with socialism. Socialism provided the best canvass for Christians to in ways consistent with the gospels, and Christianity had important things to offer a socialist state, in which the realization of Christian ideals would make religion seem less necessary. These were the doctrines of atonement and redemption, the value of human life, and the interconnectedness of all people. By integrating these two social systems beyond questions of economics, Scudder came closest to the liberation theologians, who saw their new theology as “a permanent cultural revolution” and “part of the process through which the world is transformed,” (Gutierrez, 32, 15).

The proselytizers of the social gospel iewed the implementation of their programs as a gradual process. They hoped to spread their message first to the seminaries, from whence it would trickle down through congregations from newly educated pastors. Vida Scudder, although a proponent of socialism, did not advocate for revolution. Instead, she saw the job of the social gospel movement as preparing congregations for the arrival of socialism, which would also be gradual in its coming. Scudder was wrong; there was no arrival of socialism in the United States on the scale that she predicted. But that does not mean that the movement was without its successes. Even though the Great Depression and World War II interrupted the movement, the social gospel is responsible for the end of child labor, for labor regulations, the eight-hour workday, the minimum wage, and a host of other societal shifts, eventually including social security, Medicare and Medicaid, subsidized housing, and food stamp programs.

Reinhold Niebuhr, writing during the interruption of the social gospel by worldwide social cataclysms, is largely credited with marking the end of the movement by his break from it. Although it is unclear whether or not liberation theologians directly drew from his work (and given his prominence in theological academia, one could reasonably assume that they were cognizant of him), looking back through history, one can see that he provides a bridge between the two social phenomena. Niebuhr subtly overturned the social gospel advocates’ presupposition against violence as a force for action. He held that humanity can never escape violence and strife, and therefore, the best hope for reducing it was to counsel the use of coercion where it was “most compatible with the moral and rational factors in human society,” (Niebuhr, 232). A rational society, Niebuhr contended, would place a greater emphasis on the ends and purposes of violence than the elimination of conflict, and would justify coercion in service of a rationally acceptable social end. Niebuhr claimed, “A war for the emancipation of a nation, a race or a class is thus placed in a different category…. the oppressed…have a higher moral right to challenge their oppressors than these have to maintain their rule by force,” (Niebuhr, 234). Thirty some years later, Latin American liberation theologians would argue the same thing on behalf of their economically oppressed peoples.

Although the social gospel never returned to the United States as the movement it had once been, had its original champions been alive to witness Martin Luther King, Jr. in the later stages of his activism, they would have found in him a hero for their message. After the main struggles for racial equality, King began to speak out for the poor. He spoke of societal reconstruction regarding economic issues, calling for the nationalization of industries, and connected his poverty campaign with his nascent anti-Vietnam War activism. This new phase of King as prophet is summed up by one of his most enduring quotations: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”[1]

While Scudder and Walter Rauschenbusch would have applauded these speeches, King found that America, including some of his former civil rights movement allies, was much less accepting of his new message. David Levering Lewis notes “both religion and society tended to confine their compassion and indignation to injustice and misery susceptible of attenuation without imperiling fundamental economic relationships,” (Lewis, 293). King was imperiling those very fundamental economic relationships, and this made him a much more dangerous man than he had been as the figurehead of the civil rights movement. Given sufficient time, he is one of few Americans who may actually have had the popular support, rhetorical eloquence, and organizing wherewithal to successfully change the economic structure and basis of American society. Given that, it becomes much less surprising that King was assassinated after having begun this “poor people’s campaign,” instead of during the race-based civil rights movement.

The notable thing about King is that he proclaimed a social gospel message, using the tactics of nonviolent direct action, which he had shown to be extremely effective. He also provides an interesting comparison to the relationship between nonviolence and liberation theology. King believed that it was impossible to overcome injustice with violence, which grows out of fear, the antithesis of love. King realized this; that there can be no social gospel built on fear, and thus no social gospel that utilizes violence as a tool of policy.

As the tumultuous 1960’s began, a new theological and social phenomenon arose in the third world countries of Latin America. Liberation theology, although more geographically localized than the social gospel movement, was much more broadly focused, concerning itself not just with issues of domestic economic disparity, but with international trade relations between the third and first worlds. Prefaced by a letter from eighteen third world bishops in response to Populorum Progressio, in which they argued primarily for third world self-determination, liberation theology was formalized as a movement in the very year of King’s assassination, at the 1968 Medellin conference in Colombia, and by Gustavo Gutierrez’s seminal work, A Theology of Liberation.

Marian Hillar cites both Gutierrez and Phillip Berryman in defining liberation theology. Where Berryman sees liberation theology as encompassing three main points, “an interpretation of the Christian faith out of the suffering, struggle, and hope of the poor, a critique of society and the ideologies sustaining it, [and] a critique of the activity of the church from the angle of the poor,” (Hillar, 36). Hillar narrows the focus on two significant points: That liberation theology recognizes the need or liberation from any kind of oppression, and that theology should come from “basic Christian communities” and not be imposed from above (Hillar, 37). The closest one could come to seeing the methodology of liberation theology, these Christian base communities, in the history of Christianity, is in a comparison to the earliest Christian communities[2]. And indeed it was the view of many liberation theologians, born from a critique of the institutional church, that Christianity would do well return to this initial state of being.

Finding fault with these paradigms of institutional church blessed by the state, prominent Latin American Protestant theologian Rubem Alves compared the Latin American situation to that of the Old Testament prophets, who “battled the power of the state on one side,” and “faced the representatives of official religion on the other side,” (Alves, 72). According to Alves, it became clear to these prophets that religion protected by the state was in the service of the state. Perhaps this was an inevitable conclusion for a theology that determined the causes of economic injustice through a Marxist paradigm. The role of the church as a state actor could not be overlooked or denied, but as a theology, it was impossible to find religion itself to be the opiate of the people. Therefore, liberation theologians did not take issue not with religion and its content, but rather argued that in the Latin American context, the right way to do theology was from the perspective of the poor, in these small communities of people working together to better their socio-economic situation.

The ultimate goal of liberation theology is very similar to that of the social gospel—the Kingdom of God on earth. This concept of the kingdom being attainable in history is so integral to Liberation theology that it appears on page one of Leonardo Boff’s Church: Charism and Power: “The world is the arena for the historical realization of the kingdom.” For Boff, this means “the utopia that is realized in the world, the final good of the whole of creation in God, completely liberated from all perfection and penetrated by the divine. The reign of God carries salvation to its completion,” (Boff, 1). Practically, the utopia envisioned by liberation theology is centered on the advent of economic justice: the end of exploitation of poor nations by wealthy ones, and the equitable distribution of resources within those liberated nations.

Of the various proponents of the social gospel, liberation theology most closely resembles Scudder’s view of the “kingdom” as the ideal socialist society. Like Scudder, Boff believes that Christianity and socialism are indelibly linked to each other; that socialism more than capitalism embraces the Christian ideal, and that a socialist state, when carried out in reality, better enables Christians to live the humanitarian and divine ideals of their faith. Liberation theologians saw themselves as part of a historical process towards liberation from oppression, and like Scudder who patiently awaited the arrival of socialism, sought “not only better living conditions, but a permanent cultural revolution,” (Gutierrez, 32). Yet however closely the social gospel movement and liberation theology may compare, liberation theology is much more thorough in practice and promise than what Scudder fought for—it is a complete integration of the example of the life of Christ with social and economic realities.

Practically, liberation theology focused on the remaking of the relationships between poor nations and wealthy ones. Liberation theology sought to transform the order of capitalism, which regards “profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right, having no limits nor concomitant social obligations”. (Paul VI, 26). The Roman Catholic Bishops of the Third World, while excitedly acknowledging this large step Populorum Progressio took in condemning capitalism as a system, rejected the proposal of “development” as the solution for the Third World. Gutierrez proclaimed that poor countries did not want to imitate rich countries because “the status of the latter is the fruit of injustice and coercion.” (Gutierrez, 22). Also, from a logical perspective, to a weltanschauung that saw wealthy nations as exploiting the third world for their own economic ends, it is rationally irrational to believe that those same countries are to be the saviors of the poor.

Thus, in a sharp break from a main tenet of the social gospel, liberation theology soundly rejected charity, and instead urged the poor to be their own means to justice, to, in the words of the Bishops of the Third World, “count on themselves and their own initiatives,” (Camara et al, 54). The Bishops had also argued that “Christians must even sacrifice their privileges and personal fortunes for a more equitable community, and that if some were unwilling to do so, it then became “the duty of the public authority to carry out the distribution that was not made willingly.” (55). In this last statement, the Bishops found their support in Populorum Progressio, which had justified revolution in the cases of longstanding tyranny that had violated human rights (Paul VI, 31).

It may be this last thought that accounts for misconceptions of liberation theology as a movement that incorporated violence and advocated revolution. However, as a movement that also drew connections and support directly from the Gospels and the example of Jesus, I find that it would be antithetical to the mission of liberation theology for it to have resorted to armed uprising. It was indeed controversial and dangerous to those in power, but Christ was seen as one who was understood as liberator, who did not proclaim an established order rather than privileges and class distinction and division, and who renounced power as domination, instead preferring “to die in weakness rather than to use power to subjugate people into accepting his message,” (Boff, 60).

Liberation theology is a theology from the poor, but that does not make it a theology against the wealthy. The ultimate goal of liberation theology, even beyond economic justice, is “the fullness of liberation—a gift free from Christ—is communion with God and other men,” (Gutierrez, 36). Boff described the world as “decadent and stained by sin; because of this, the kingdom of God is raised up against the powers of the anti-kingdom, engaged in the onerous process of liberation so that the world might accept the kingdom itself and thus achieve its joyous goal,” (Boff, 1). Liberation theology was an invitation to the entire church, including the wealthy, to make a preferential option for the poor, and to find their own humanity. Violence is incompatible with the aims of liberation theology and its historical and theological basis. The natural outlet for such a movement is nonviolence, which seeks dialogue, understanding, and eventual conversion of its opposition.

Looking at these two distinct responses of Christians to serious questions of injustice through the hindsight of history, the biggest issues facing me are those of truth and efficacy. Which movement more closely resembled the real message of Christ? Which movement garnered more success, and why?

Looking at their successes compared to their goals, the social gospel movement is the clear winner. Although there was never a widespread movement among the laity and congregations for a Christian based socialism, the social gospel ideals are to thank for a tremendous amount of social legislation and workplace regulation. The eight-hour workday, the end of child labor, and the general social consciousness that recognizes that Christianity should not be silent on issues of economic injustice, are all attributable to the proponents of the social gospel. In a sense, however, it can be said that the social gospel helped to save capitalism, not to restructure or replace it. In this way, it was a failure in promoting the radical message of Christ, who never said to those in power to reform slightly and to generally be nicer and more humane, but that they would be cast from their thrones. The social gospel movement was more successful than liberation theology because it demanded less of both society and of the church.

Liberation theology, on the other hand, was dangerous from the beginning. A dangerous message, coupled with the assassination of perhaps its most famous convert and spokesman, Archbishop Oscar Romero, doomed its effectiveness in achieving its goals. Furthermore, while the base communities may have been a theologically astute idea, as a tactical method for change, they were thoroughly inadequate. They served to spread the movement out through the remote places in Latin America, and thus diluted its effectiveness. A movement such as liberation theology sought to become needs large numbers of people, centrally located, from which it can emanate. Nevertheless, a generation of people, especially North Americans, were inspired by the movement to make a preferential option for the poor—a phrase that has become almost mainstream in Catholic social teaching. Also, efficacy does not equate with authenticity of message, and if the criteria for judgment are the closeness with which a movement strove to follow the example of Christ, then liberation theology is the clear victor. Jesus the liberator, who lifts up the poor and oppressed, who calls on the wealthy to give up their possessions, who proclaims a new society called the kingdom of God, is indeed the first liberation theologian.


Boff, Leonardo. Church: Charism and Power. The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York. 1986.

Camara, Helder, Joao Batista Da Mota, Louis G. Fernandez, Georges Mercier, Michel Darmancier, Amand Hubert, Angelo Cuniberti, Severino M. De Aguiar, Franjo Franic, Fransisco De Mesquita, Gregorio Hadad, Manuel Da Costa, Charles Van Melckebeke, Antonio Fragoso, Etienne Loosdregt, Waldir De Novais, Jacques Grent, and David Picao. “A Letter to the Peoples of the Third World.” Letter. 15 Aug. 1967. Beyond Honesty and Hope. New York: Maryknoll Publications, 1970. 1-12.

Gladden, Washington. Applied Christianity. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Cambridge, MA. 1896.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Orbis Books, New York. 1973.

Hillar, Marian. “Liberation theology: Religious Response to Social Problems”.    Humanism and Social Issues. Anthology of Essays. M. Hillar and H.R. Leuchtag, eds., American Humanist Association, Houston, 1993, pp. 35-52.

Lewis, David L. “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Promise of Nonviolent Populism.” Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century. Ed. John H. Franklin and August Meier. Chicago: University of Illinois P. 277-302.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics.     Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. 1932.

Paul VI, Encyclical Letter, Populorum Progressio: On the development of Peoples. Vatican, 1967.

Scudder, Vida D. Socialism and Character. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 1912.

[1] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memphis, TN, April 4, 1967

[2] Acts 2:43-47, Acts 4: 32-35

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