Presbyterians responded by adopting their own versions of the Social Creed at the General Assemblies of 1910 (the same one that adopted the five “fundamentals”), 1914 (a joint statement by five Presbyterian churches), and 1920. Contrary to what you might hear from some quarters in the church, social concern is a venerable tradition among Presbyterians!
Crisis and response
The period after the Civil War had seen a growth in industrial capacity, the size of corporations, and opportunities for employers to put new pressures on industrial and railroad workers, farmers, and small businesses.
When we look at the period 1880-1920 as a whole, we find three
The first phase, from 1880 to 1900, was not so much a time for change as a time of identifying problems and outlining solutions (sometimes in utopian form). Books appeared, like Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, and Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?
The second phase began around 1900. The reform agenda that had
been building since the 1880s became effective when new political leaders caught the public’s attention and captured its loyalties — Robert La Follette, a Republican; William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat; and especially Theodore Roosevelt, a maverick Republican who was shunted into the office of vice president to keep him out of trouble and then became president with the assassination of William McKinley. Roosevelt was the symbol of public activism to many Christian leaders during the first decade of the century.
In addition, the new mass-circulation periodicals brought investigative and advocacy journalism to a high pitch. Their exposés of corporate malfeasance and urban poverty were read and heeded by middle-class people throughout the country. These started in 1901 and 1902 and had their heyday during the Roosevelt administration, whose reforms (including the first pure food and drug laws) were fueled by stories in the popular press.
We should not overlook a third phase. Even at the height of the Progressive Era there was a penumbra of discontent, expressed in non-political ways through religion and culture. It was a time of cultural and artistic rebellion, starting after 1890 and becoming a major force after 1912. And for a large number of people outside the avant-garde, the Progressive agenda was, if not exactly alien, not at the center of their concerns.
Perhaps the most identifiable group was made up of evangelical Christians. Some were withdrawing into the new Holiness and Pentecostal movements, while others were responding to the appeal, new at precisely this time, of fundamentalism and millennialism. Obviously political reform does not meet all human needs. The crucial question, of course, is how that reform will be supplemented, and sometimes opposed, in popular culture.
From then to now
This year’s anniversary observance was triggered at the 2004 General Assembly, when two commissioners at opposite ends of the theological spectrum offered a resolution. Since then a Presbyterian “resolution team,” chaired by Lidia Serrata of Nueces County, Texas, has drafted a new “Social Creed for the 21st Century.” The United Methodists have written a creed that is set to music (very appropriate to our post-print culture). And the National Council of Churches, working from the Presbyterian document and making some changes, has already adopted its own version.
It is certainly not unrealistic to think about a new social statement. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) produced a “Call to Civic Responsibility” in 2004, following it up with a 380-page book, Toward an Evangelical Public Policy. Jim Wallis has been an evangelical voice for social concern for several decades now, formulating a “Covenant for a New America.”
The Catholic bishops have emphasized often the dignity of labor and the need for participation in decision-making.
Christians may differ over “wedge issues” like sexuality, gun control, and abortion, but we agree on much more.
This year has seen the re-publication of Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, with contemporary commentary by a number of well-known figures. Soon to come off the press at Westminster-John Knox is Prayers for the New Social Awakening.
We cannot help noting the similarities between 1908 and 2008.
Inequalities of income and wealth in the U.S. are greater than they have been since the “Gilded Age” of the late nineteenth century. Corporate and government scandals are approaching the same level, too. Many of the principles enunciated in the Social Creed and in the general mood of the Progressive Era, such as a “living wage” sufficient to support a family, are being reasserted; but they are also regarded as unfeasible by many shapers of public opinion today.
There are also significant differences.
The problems addressed by the Social Creed were national in scope; because these problems could not be addressed adequately at the local or state level, new kinds of federal legislation were advocated and eventually adopted. In our own day we see a further broadening of scope as the much-
celebrated globalization of the economy brings all the workers of the world into potential competition with each other and requires a new kind of global response.
In addition, the new social creed is far more multi-dimensional than the original one.
It is set in a biblical and theological framework, something that Presbyterians especially found lacking and tried to supplement in their 1914 joint statement. It deals with issues that leaders in 1908 were afraid to tackle
despite their urgency, especially race and women’s rights. It ventures into new areas such as human trafficking, the criminal justice system, education, health care, immigration, and sustainability. It was too early to deal with the worldwide “food crisis” that has just erupted.
Although the document tries to listen, as our Brief Statement puts it, to “the voices of peoples long silenced,” it is still a U.S. voice, and inevitably a middle-class voice. It is likely to be criticized from a Third World perspective. But our hope is that it will help to form “common ground” for concerned Christians, and that it will be, like the original Social Creed, the beginning of an ongoing conversation.
For further reading:
Prayers for the New Social Awakening, edited by Christian Iosso and
Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, (Westminster-John Knox, $19.95).
Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church, by Walter Rauschenbusch, with current responses by Phyllis Trible, Tony Campolo, Joan Chittister, Stanley Hauerwas, Cornel West, James A. Forbes, Jr., and Jim Wallis
Toward an Evangelical Public Policy, edited by Ronald J. Sider and Diane Knippers (Baker Books, $24.99).
The Call to Conversion: Why Faith Is Always Personal but Never Private by Jim Wallis, (HarperSanFrancisco, $13.95).
Eugene Teselle was a historian consultant to the “resolution team” that drafted the new Social Creed for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).