Lessons from the Social Gospel that support 21st century Eco-commoning

by | April 13, 2019

The social gospel emerged in the early 20th century as a response to the abuses of capitalism and the need to understand how the church, and state, could be part of building God’s Kin(g)dom on earth. A hundred years later, we continue this struggle but with the added need to ensure the earth’s wellbeing as well. This article details some of the social gospel’s influence back then so that we might be inspired to carry it on now.

Eco-commoning offers The United Church of Canada (UCC) a 21st century refresh on its formative social gospel emphasis in the first part of the 20th century. In this earlier time it gave the founding denominations of the UCC a collective focus on social betterment so they could put aside their theological differences and work together to make Canada God’s Kin(g)dom on earth. They employed emerging social and political economic sciences to help understand the social and economic injustices of the day and to work concretely with others to find solutions. This work helped enable a welfare state in Canada.

Since the 1980s the UCC, along with many other “interest” groups, have been fighting a losing battle to keep the welfare state fully functioning. “Neoliberalism,” with its focus on “free” markets and government deregulation has been overwhelmingly successful in weakening many elements of the welfare state- health, education, living wages and social benefits, etc.,  in favour of for profit models and lessening government regulations on corporate responsibility. While the post-WWII welfare state had represented a win-win for both business and societial wellbeing, neoliberalism has unbalanced this in favour of a “free” market.

In these early decades of the 21st century, as we seek to again balance social and ecological wellbeing with economic wellbeing, does our social gospel energy go to defending the advances of the 20th century or do we become more proactive in seeking new ways to describe our pursuit of the common good?

The eco-commons and eco-commoning represent this new pursuit. This is described more fully in other articles on this website. In the remainder of this article I’d like to take us back to the social gospel efforts of the last century to demonstrate the value of the church’s work in social betterment. These were different times, and the church had more social prominence then now, but the lessons of engaging with others in building coalitions of support for the common good remain important to today’s efforts.

This analysis is drawn from my doctoral dissertation entitled: Institutionalizing the Social Passion. In it I sought to demonstrate how the social gospel helped the UCC be part of social democratic efforts to have the state become a catalyst for seeking the social wellbeing of all. Until this time, governments primarly saw their role as promoting economic development and maintaining law and order. This new idea resulted in what came to be known as the welfare state.

I hope the lessons for these earlier times inspire the church’s organizing efforts in the early decades of this century.

The Lessons of the Social Gospel for Community Organizing in the 21st Century

In the opening decades of the 21st century The United Church of Canada (UCC) is challenged to reaffirm its relevance and mission as part of the Missio Dei. So too, a hundred years ago the three founding denominations of the UCC sought to understand and live into God’s mission in the changing context of the 20th century. What became central to their missiology was joining with others in seeking the “social betterment”of all or what we might now call the common good.

A brief review of how these denominations engaged with others, and within their denominations, on these social betterment priorities helps to identify the founding ethos and institutional development of The United Church of Canada. As the Canadian welfare state creaked into existence over the first 70 years of the 20th century the UCC can be seen as a major advocate for its development to both counter the abuses of the capitalism and to provide services and benefits for the wellbeing of all.

Before turning to this period in the 20th century it should remembered that the church was not always engaged in social change. As E. H. Oliver in his book, The Social Achievements of the Church, points out: “at times the church has been a conservative force resisting change, sometimes moderating, other times reactionary, and only recently engaged in social change.” He says that it is only in the 20th century that Protestants have begun to work to “Christianize the whole social order.” (Oliver, 1930. 5) According to Oliver, it was the industrial revolution that pushed the church to act.

The effort to Christianize the whole social order has been only a comparatively recent development, an ideal programme set up by most of the Protestant churches, provoked to do so by the Industrial Revolution, the accentuation of wealth and poverty, the political economy in the state, its favoured wealth and industry, and new Science which seemed to endanger the idea of the worth of individuals. (Oliver. 165)

The exploitative conditions created by industrial developments and the state’s complicitous relationship with capital provoked Protestants to examine this social situation in light of their rediscovered social Christian theology and values. Their efforts to organize society based on Christian social values came to profoundly shape the theology and practice of the three denominations that formed The United Church of Canada.

Church Union Movement

While the idea of church union had been around since the 1880s, it was not until 1902, when Principal William Patrick of the Presbyterian Church took the opportunity at the General Conference of the Methodist Church to again propose the idea of union, that the time seemed right for “the forging of a new instrument for social betterment.” (R.J. Wilson, 1929. 33) These social betterment objectives of union marked a shift in theological thinking from 19th century emphasis on predestination and Christian perfection to a more evangelical liberalism or social gospel theology that put new emphasis on divine eminence, a more critical approach to the Bible, and realization of God’s kingdom on earth through participation with other social reform movements and organizations in transforming Canadian society. As John Webster Grant said,

Union was to reflect the spirit of the age, fulfilling human aspirations as much as biblical prophecies. It was to embody the rising social gospel that understood the kingdom of God not merely as the transformation of society through the conversion of individuals but as the inauguration of a new political and economic order. Above all, many unionists urged, the United Church should be rid of the shackles of the past and free to seek new solutions for emerging problems. Union was to represent not merely the fulfillment of an old dream but the birth of new possibilities. (Grant, 1990. 126)

Of particular importance in shaping the ethos of the United Church was the strong role that the Boards of Evangelism and Social Service (BESS) played in the years preceding union and then after union in 1925. Inherent in their name and mandate (evangelism and social service) was a creative tension and reframing of these words. This tension of balancing evangelical practice (concern for personal salvation) and social service/action in one portfolio spurred the church’s zeal to be a spiritual and social organizing force in Canadian society.

BESS secretaries writing their annual reports on evangelism often described efforts to broaden evangelical definitions to be action oriented. In their social service reports they offered commentary on the connection of social service to faith as the root of their action. In this late Victorian Christian context this two-sided approach helped to draw the extremes of evangelical pietism and radical social action into the mainstream functioning of the church and its mission. The resulting evangelical zeal for Christianizing the social order became a central tenant of church union. Today, we’d shy away from “Christianizing” language because of its imperialistic implications but the intention of investing in society the values of Jesus towards mutuality (love with justice), equity and a redistributive ethic (i.e. progressive taxation) remain relevant to our present context.

The Canadian church union movement was further encouraged by the growing worldwide ecumenical movement. Other liberal Protestant churches in western countries were also involved in union talks and even grander schemes about a worldwide church. A unique twist in the Canadian story is that the UCC movement leaned towards the “life and work” end of the ecumenical discussion more than the dominant “faith and order” end. John W Grant reports that most church unions were being considered for theological and ecclesial logical reasons, whereas the UCC broke new ground with its emphasis on the church’s role in social transformation. The UCC provided a trail–blazing example for the 1937 Life and Works conference in Oxford, England, where the church’s relation to community and state were central questions.

Looking more closely at these social betterment objectives the founding denomination’s BESS began to collaborate with others in forming the Social Service Council of Canada (SSCC). This Council helped pioneer the practice of social work in Canada and became the church’s main voice in advocating for social and economic reforms.

The Social Service Council of Canada (SSCC)

The SSCC was launched in 1913 as the successor of the Moral and Social Reform Council of Canada. The earlier Council was formed in 1908 by an alliance of church and labour who had come together to lobby for the Lord’s Day Act. The nascent labour movement had joined with the churches on the “Sunday observance” campaign because of their own efforts to win workers the right to a day of rest and re-creation. Their success spurred both church leaders and labour leaders to become more involved in social reform issues. As the SSCC formed, it broadened its collaborations to include organizations such as The Trades and Labour Congress of Canada, The Dominion Grange and Farmers’ Association, The Canadian Purity Education Association, The Dominion Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and a number of other Christian denominations.

An important first step was to hold the first Social Service Congress in Ottawa, March 3-5, 1914. It is recognized by historians of Canadian social work as a premier event in bringing public attention to the problems of the emerging urban–industrial society and in developing the practice of social work in Canada. It was the first large-scale national gathering of social welfare advocates from across the country with parliamentarians, labour and church leaders.
An impressive list of speakers included Prime Minister Borden and Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the leader of the opposition. Both political leaders accentuated the importance of the gathering and its potential impact on social legislation.

The editorials in the Ottawa papers spoke highly of the event. The Ottawa Citizen reported:

The Congress was, to its mind, one of the greatest assemblages ever held in Canada to grapple with the social and economical problems confronting all nations of the civilized world. Never in Canada has there been a gathering which attracted so many eminent clerics of all denominations, labour leaders, socialists and champions in a variety of reform movements. (6 March 1914)

In a number of speeches these prominent social sector leaders, including clergy, called upon the state to take an increased role in social welfare responsibilities. While it would take almost 30 years before the state saw itself as having these responsibilities, these early calls to action lay the groundwork for the Canadian welfare state. In the meantime, they suggested that “morally–driven solutions can be found” to assist those in need and address injustices in Canadian society. The list of issues discussed at the congress included topics such as a weekly rest day, aboriginal concerns, radical tendencies among workers, child welfare, problems in urban and rural life, commercialized vice and the white slave traffic, immigration and humanizing of religion, temperance, prison reform, and gambling.

In a speech by Rev. C.W. Gordon (better known in the 1920s as novelist Ralph Connor), The New State and the New Church, he describes the new movements in science, industry, the state, and the church that promised to make Canada a very different place. He did not think that the state or church was dealing with these new changes adequately. Gordon suggested that the state begin to think of itself as an organism–“an organism as opposed to a mere aggregation of units–it is a thing with life in it, that its members are held together by bonds that are vital; and for the good of all, not all for the highest good of one, nor all for the highest good of a few, but all for the highest good of all.” (SSCC. 1914. 193) He asserted that both state and church had failed to develop institutions and attitudes appropriate to the common good of all. Further, he criticized the economic elite’s dominance of the state and the church’s exercising authority through a wrathful God. He urged the church to overcome its 19th century pietistic ethics and become a religious institution inspired by the concrete realization of God’s reign on earth, particularly in Canadian society.

The concluding resolutions of the congress point to a list of social and economic policy reforms that will occupy the church and its social reform collaborators for the next fifty years (and even to the present day). These include:

  • a Royal commission to deal with the question of unemployment
  • an old-age pension system
  • creation of the Canadian Department of child welfare, pensions for needy mothers
  • extension of the franchise to women
  • the policy of fitting our Indian wards for full citizenship as soon as possible the formation of a Canadian Association of friends of the native races
  • the establishment of a Bureau of social surveys and research by the Social Service Council of Canada

Post-Congress Developments

By 1918 the SSCC had reached a peak in its own institutional development. It had established regional offices across the country and became a hub for all kinds of research and action on issues. In addition to provincial councils, 21 national affiliates (such as the Canadian Prisoner Welfare Association, the Canadian Association of Trained Nurses, the National Council of Women, and the Victorian Order of Nurses) joined the churches in directing the SSCC. It began publishing Social Welfare in late 1918. In the first year six articles concerned industrial matters, seven dealt with social questions such as housing, abolition of poverty, social insurance, and one declared for universal peace. Over the next year, 55 articles were written on social questions, 36 on industrial matters, and 23 on moral reform. The only change in this mix of articles over the next decade appears to be a decrease in the number pertaining to moral reform (drinking, gambling, sexual vice) and an increase in articles on social questions. Social Welfare did not engage in much theological or political speculation but remained focused on being a legitimate source of factual information on social and economic concerns. (Social Welfare 1918-32)

The SSCC sought solutions to these problems through the application of scientific means of social work and through democratic participation of communities; this extended to advocating for industrial democracy. At this point in Canadian history there were few expectations that the state would do more than regulate the worst abuses. Therefore, the SSCC sought to provide churches and social work organizations with analysis of the problems they were facing and recommended methods of addressing these problems. Inevitably, this involved seeking regulatory legislation to prohibit the worst abuses; but primarily it sought community–based methods of improving the conditions of those living in hardship.

In the years between the initial agreements on church union and its actual consummation (1908–1925), the SSCC functioned as a bridge among the UCC denominations as they worked together towards social betterment. Its collaboration with a variety of groups and movements challenged the churches to keep their constituencies engaged in social reform issues. It provided an early model of an ecumenical coalition, serving the churches by providing well-researched materials and articulate spokespersons to lobby governments. By the time of church union, this experience put the Board of Evangelism and Social Service at the forefront in providing key leadership to the new church. Moore, who had been general secretary of the Methodist BESS became general secretary of the General Council, D .N. McLachlan of the Presbyterian Church took charge of the new BESS. George Pidgeon, also of the Presbyterian Church, became the first moderator, followed by S.D. Chown of the Methodist Church. Both Pidgeon and Chown had long associations with social service work in the church.

In Richard Allen’s The Social Passion, he describes the moderating and intellectual qualities that these progressive BSS secretaries brought to the new church as a “new, more radical and realistic social Christianity.” (Allen 1973. 311) He credited them with bringing a broad range of social reforms within the sanctions of Canadian Protestantism, and for bringing the multitude of social programs making up the Canadian welfare state into the main channels of Canadian social attitudes. Through their diligent work throughout the courts of the church and in numerous public forums they spoke of the connection between faith and its concrete ramifications in building a democratic, mutuality-based, and redistributive social order. In other words, they sought to institutionalize[1] their social passion in the structures of the church and society. (Allen 352)

Responding to the Great Depression

While the momentum of this progressive reform work established the UCC as a major cultural force in Canadian society when the economic collapse of the 1930s arrived the church suffered like most other volunteer organizations. For instance, ministers’ salaries were cut by one-third, and the church was forced to operate with a large deficit budget. Missionaries were called back from overseas; educational and welfare operations were handed over to government agencies. Church finances were greatly affected in spite of the 10% increase in membership and 19% increase in the number of pastoral charges, support for the Mission and Maintenance Fund fell 49% and support to Home Missions fell 58%. The church was having a hard time meeting its own institutional needs aside from the increased need for relief assistance. While money was in short supply, people contributed in numerous other ways. The Yearbooks and Annual Reports provide details of hundreds of boxcars filled with clothing and food from Ontario being sent to destitute farm families in the West. Thousands of unemployed men were fed at church sponsored soup kitchens. Food hampers were supplied to impoverished families and pastoral care given to people facing cutbacks, layoffs, and disillusionment with the state of the economy. Congregations across the country offered practical assistance throughout their communities.

This need to cut back internally and to stretch dollars and volunteer efforts also led to strong criticism of the economic causes of this hardship. Even during the supposedly good economic times of the 1920s, the UCC knew from its members, missions, and associations with social service and social reform movements, that many Canadians were not benefiting from the run-up in the stock markets. After the collapse in 1929, and throughout the 1930s, it was widely accepted that capitalism was not working. As years went by, the economy remained stalled with capitalist and political elites (often the same people) remaining aloof and militantly resistant to change while the hungry and desperate increased their demands for change. In 1935, unemployed men and women from across the country organized the “March on Ottawa” to demand government action. It was a time of bold pronouncements and calls for radical changes.

The Commission on Christianizing the Social Order was organized by the BESS to help UCC members understand the socio–economic crisis and give some direction as to the church’s views on these matters. The presentation of this commission report in 1934, at the heart of the Great Depression, solidified the church’s critique of capitalism and presented a positive social and economic vision of how society could be organized. As the lead question of the study guide asked: “what did Jesus mean in bidding us pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?”… Dare we pray those words and leaves society as it is?”

Of equal importance, 10 years later during World War II, the Commission on Church, Nation and World Order (CNWO) affirmed and promoted the basic tenets of the postwar Canadian welfare state. Each commission had a distinctive theological perspective, method of researching, consulting, and drafting of the report that matched their time and context. In both cases, widespread consultation with partner social reform organizations in Canadian society were essential to the formation of the church’s recommendations.

The Commission on Christianizing the Social Order (CSO)

The first section of the CSO report affirms a progressive-radical social gospel theology asserting the social transformation impetus of Jesus and the organizing role of Paul in bringing this message to a wide cross-section of peoples. The second section draws upon the analysis of professors of economics from the University of Toronto who categorize the advantages and disadvantages of capitalism. The two advantages were decreased physical exhaustion by workers and the increase in a middle class in Canada. The five “defects” or “disorders” of capitalism were:

  1. fear and insecurity
  2. recurrent and widespread unemployment
  3. inequitable distribution of national income
  4. spiritual deprivation
  5. social conflict

Going further they explore some of the destructive underlying values of capitalism which lead them to conclude:

The combination of these various elements, the false view of wealth and of property, the covetous desire for acquisition, the desire for power and domination, and the search for privileged position in the quest for gain, has produced in the world of business an unsocial attitude to life, not it is true shared by all, but by its prevalence dragging into conformity with itself many who in aim and spirit are alien to it.… Against a civilization thus debased the Church must set herself in uncompromising opposition. (CSO. 243)

It’s hard to imagine a stronger critical statement from a commission comprised of people with differing theological and socio–economic views. While this criticism is reminiscent of earlier critiques of capitalism by social gospellers such as Salem Bland, to have a representative group from the wider church make a similar statement reflects the institutional acceptance of this criticism. Furthermore, to have the church’s views publicly presented under the names of Sir Robert Falconer and Walter Brown, presidents of the University of Toronto and Victoria University brought high-profile public consideration of the church’s statement and helped legitimate it among middle-class Canadians. It sent a strong public message that the economic status quo was unacceptable and that middle-class Canadians were pressuring for radical alternatives.

In a third section on the church’s response, the commission is less directive on how the national church should respond beyond its resounding critique of the current economic context. This may have been because communism and corporative nationalism (fascism) were also offering strong critiques of western economic systems. They distinguish their perspective by asserting the role of democracy in creating a just society.

They are more encouraging about organizing at the local level; suggesting clergy and congregations hold public forums and work with others for reforms. This was an obvious follow-on from their earlier consultative process in which they had engaged groups across the country in discussing the content areas of the report. Articles in local papers and in Year Book and Annual Reports point to discussions across the church following the 1934 report. Some took exception to its critique of capitalism while others such as the newly formed Fellowship for a Christian Social Order thought the church should go further. As Professor John Line of Emmanual College says in a paper commissioned by the FCSO, there is a need to strengthen the connections between religious practice and social transformation. He pointed out that the “nature of the social order” was a religious issue because “an economic world different from the present, one made from humane and just, ruled by friendliness and providing amply the means of life for all… would be revelatory of God.”  (John Line, “The Fundamental Unity of Spiritual and Social Religious Values,” Address to Ministerial Association, March 1931)

The Commission on Church, Nation, and World Order

Later in the 1930s when the federal government was becoming more open to an understanding of the state’s role in providing more broadly for its people, the UCC offered significant briefs to government commissions such as the Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations. Keynesian economics was demonstrating that governments had a positive economic role to play by working towards full employment and getting as many people as possible participating in the economy. “New Deal” ideas and policies in the United States also made Canadian politicians more open to socialist ideas.  While few welfare state reforms were actually instituted until after the Second World War, and a number not until the 1960s, the door had been opened to a different view of the state and the social sectors (including the church) relationship to it.

The Commission on the Church, Nation and World Order, reporting in 1944, represented this shift in the church’s relationship to the state. The radical social gospel theology and critique of capitalism was mostly replaced by a neo-orthodox theology (a renewed emphasis on a divine-individual ethic rather than a social transformation eschatology) and a critique of social and economic reforms that were in the public realm for discussion. To formulate the church’s positions an elaborate consultation and drafting process was organized over four years. The BESS produced a “source book” that contained a number of significant political, economic and social policy documents that was widely distributed throughout the church for study. Regional groups that included community representatives from the  social services, labour, academics, and reform movements were organized to systematically work through these documents and to add regional social and economic interests to their reporting. For instance, the Ottawa group had representation from groups like the National Child Welfare council and so wrote more extensively on social policies. After two years of consulting, the drafting of the reports began. This took over a year and went from nine pages to over seventy as more and more people had input to the document. Another year was then dedicated to further study and building support of the document throughout the church and community. In this way the UCC acted as a strong mediating[2] influence in middle-class Anglo Protestant society and beyond.

The Canadian Welfare State and Beyond

As Canada entered into its welfare state era after the Second World War the church adopted a more reform-minded approach to its public advocacy. While it continued to draw upon its wide network of congregations, missions, and partnerships with social service agencies and social reform movements, its approach to government was more of supporting certain policy directions and arguing against residual types of welfare reform or regressive economic policies. For instance, in the long years of debate about health care initiatives it argued for publically-funded hospitals and later for the medicare system. It endorsed a much more robust level of public funding and against the doctor-driven insurance plan that came to be adopted in the late 1960s. But during these prosperous economic times and relatively progressive government policies and programs in Canada, the UCC had more confidence in the democratic processes of change and felt it’s voice was generally heard along with all the other “interest groups” of the day. Its energies were more focused on supporting widespread congregational development to meet community needs in the growing suburbs of Canadian cities.

As mentioned at the beginning of this history, the socio-economic context changes in the 1970s and Canadians have witnessed the systematic dismantling of the welfare state developed over all those years in the 20th century. In response is the whole story of the partnerships that formed the thirteen ecumenical coalitions in the 1970s and 1980s. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to detail this rich experience of partnership it is another example of how the UCC, and other Canadian denominations, worked with a wide group of interest groups, as they were called in this era, to again resist the abuses of capitalism and the increasing indifference of governments to the welfare of all it’s citizens.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the church in the 21st century must again choose how to direct its mission efforts at seeking God’s commons on earth. There were many successes in the 20th century and these need to be remembered and learned from, even while we realize the differences in struggles now. Hopefully, the lessons of this last century can inspire the hard work of faithful action as continue to seek God’s goodness for all.

[1] In social policy terminology a distinction is made between institutional and residual welfare state policy. Residual refers to “means-tested” welfare that puts the onus on recipients to prove their need whereas an institutional understanding does not stigmatize those in need and recognizes the social factors in poverty. While Max Weber categorizes Protestants as being residual-minded, the UCC’s policies and actions demonstrate that not all Protestants take that perspective.

[2] Sociologists Berger and Neuhaus utilize this term to describe “those institutions standing between the individual in his private life and the large institutions of public life.” (Berger and Neuhaus, 1977, 2)

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