Walter Rauschenbusch


American Baptist Preacher, Theological Professor and Key Figure in the Social Gospel Movement

Author Quotes

In a few years all our restless and angry hearts will be quiet in death, but those who come after us will live in the world which our sins have blighted or which our love of right has redeemed.

The Book of Isaiah begins with a description of the disasters which had overtaken the nation and then in impassioned words the prophet spurns the means taken to appease Jehovah's anger. "...Cease to do evil! Learn to do right! Seek justice! Relieve the oppressed! Secure justice for the orphaned and plead for the widow." (Isaiah I. 10-17.)

The prophets were the heralds of the fundamental truth that religion and ethics are inseparable, and that ethical conduct is the supreme and sufficient religious act. If that principle had been fully adopted in our religious life, it would have turned the full force of the religious impulse into the creation of right moral conduct and would have made the unchecked growth and accumulation of injustice impossible.

We shall confine this brief study of the Old Testament to the prophets, because they are the beating heart of the Old Testament.

In general, the Church has often rendered valuable aid by joining the advanced public conscience of any period in its protest against some single intolerable evil, but it has accepted as inevitable the general social system under which the world was living at the time, and has not undertaken any thoroughgoing social reconstruction in accordance with Christian principles.

The Christian movement began with John the Baptist? in his recorded teaching to the people there is not a word about the customary ritual of religion, about increased Sabbath observance, about stricter washings and sacrifices, or the ordinary exercises of piety. He spoke only of repentance, of ceasing from wrongdoing. He hailed the professional exponents of religion who came to hear him, as a brood of snakes wriggling away from the flames of the judgment... The way to prepare for the Messianic era and to escape the wrath of the Messiah was to institute a brotherly life and to equalize social inequalities.

The prophets... interpreted past history, shaped present history, and foretold future history on the basis of the conviction that God rules with righteousness in the affairs of nations, and that only what is just, and not what is expedient and profitable, shall endure.

Western civilization is passing through a social revolution unparalleled in history for scope and power. Its? coming was inevitable. ...By universal consent this social crisis is the overshadowing problem of our generation.

In so far as men believed that the traditional ceremonial was what God wanted of them, they would be indifferent to the reformation of social ethics. If the hydraulic force of religion could be turned toward conduct, there is nothing which it could not accomplish.

The Church had its own law code and its own courts of law which were supreme over the clergy, and had large rights of jurisdiction even over the laity, so that it could develop and give effect to its own ideas of law and right.

The religious ideal of Israel was the theocracy. But the theocracy meant the complete penetration of the national life by religious morality. It meant politics in the name of God.

When the machinery of [Roman] imperial administration broke down in the provinces under the invasion of the barbarians in the fifth century the machinery of the Church remained unbroken... Ancient families became extinct and the Church became the heir of their lands and slaves and serfs. Small proprietors sought security by committing their lands to the Church and becoming its tenants.

Against this current conception of religion the prophets insisted on a right life as the true worship of God. Morality to them was not merely a prerequisite of effective ceremonial worship. They brushed sacrificial ritual aside altogether as trifling compared with righteousness, nay, as a harmful substitute and a hindrance for ethical religion.

In so far as men have attempted to use the Old Testament as a code of model laws and institutions and have applied these to modern conditions, regardless of the historical connections, these attempts have left a trail of blunder and disaster. In so far as they have caught the spirit that burned in the hearts of the prophets and breathed in gentle humanity through the Mosaic Law, the influence of the Old Testament has been one of the great permanent forces making for democracy and social justice.

The Church owns property, needs income, employs men, works on human material, and banks on its moral prestige. Its present efficiency and future standing are bound up for weal or woe with the social welfare of the people and with the outcome of the present struggle.

The social effects which are usually enumerated do not constitute a reconstruction of society on a Christian basis, but were mainly a suppression of some of the most glaring evils in the social system of the time.

When the prophets conceived Jehovah as the special vindicator of these voiceless classes it was another way of saying that it is the chief duty in religious morality to stand for the rights of the helpless.

Amid the general anarchy, against the coarse vice and brutality of the barbarians, herself harried by the rapacity of the nobles and weakened by the ignorance and barbarism of her own clergy, the Church did what she could, but a thorough social reconstruction was impossible. In modern life her power is broken by the prevalent doubt and apostasy, and the current of materialism and mammonism is now too great to be stemmed.

It became one of the fundamental attributes of their God that he was the husband of the widow, the father of the orphan, and the protector of the stranger. The widows and the fatherless were those who had no concrete power to back their claims, no "influence," no "financial interest," no "pull" with the police, judges and aldermen of that time. The "stranger" was the immigrant who had no part in the blood-kinship of the clan, and hence no share in the land and no voice in the common affairs of the village.

The Church was the preserver of the remnants of intellectual culture, the sole schoolmistress of the raw peoples. Her clergy long had almost a monopoly of education, and were the secretaries of the nobles, the chancellors and prime ministers of kings.

The social revolution has been slow in reaching our country. We have been exempt, not because we had solved the problems, but because we had not yet confronted them.

Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master.

Apart from the organized Church, the religious spirit is a factor of incalculable power in the making of history. In the idealistic spirits that lead and in the masses that follow, the religious spirit always intensifies thought, enlarges hope, unfetters daring, evokes the willingness to sacrifice, and gives coherence in the fight.

It is important to note, further, that the morality which the prophets had in mind in their strenuous insistence on righteousness was not merely the private morality of the home, but the public morality on which national life is founded. They said less about the pure heart for the individual than of just institutions for the nation.

The Church, the organized expression of the religious life of the past, is one of the most potent institutions and forces in Western civilization. ...It cannot help throwing its immense weight on one side or the other. If it tries not to act, it thereby acts; and in any case its choice will be decisive for its own future.

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American Baptist Preacher, Theological Professor and Key Figure in the Social Gospel Movement