Biographer Dores Sharp reports that 3-year-old Walter Rauschenbusch responded to the common question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with the uncommon response, “I want to be John the Baptist!”
Out of the mouth of a babe came words that Baptist and Christian history is still trying to fully appreciate. By the time of his death in 1918 Walter Rauschenbusch was respected around the world as the articulate voice for the “social gospel.” His broad understanding that the gospel demands both personal piety and compassionate social involvement continues to win converts to the call of the Kingdom of God.
Born in 1861 in Rochester, N.Y., Walter Rauschenbusch was the son of a German immigrant family, which came to the United States in 1846. His father, Karl August Rauschenbusch, was a Lutheran pastor–establishing the seventh generation of pastors in the family. In America Karl August became a Baptist after deciding they were more nearly true to the New Testament than any other Christian denomination.
Walter grew up in a pietistic family that held a deep reverence for Scripture, prayer and worship, and also cultivated a broad appreciation for classic European education. He was trained in classical and biblical languages, becoming proficient in Greek and Hebrew, as well as Latin, German, English and French. While studying in Germany Walter had an overwhelming sense of a call to ministry. He returned to the Rochester Theological Seminary in New York, where his father was a professor, to embark upon a path as pastor-teacher.
During a summer internship in a German-speaking Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., Walter caught a vision of his life’s work. He wrote to his friend, Munson Ford, “I want to be a pastor, powerful with [people], preaching to them Christ as the man in whom their affections and energies can find the satisfaction for which mankind is groaning.”
The aspiration was fulfilled in 1885 with a call to the pastorate of the Second German Baptist Church in New York City’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” an industrialized section of the city dominated by slaughter houses and breweries and flavored with all that is associated with such an environment.
Hell’s Kitchen was aptly named. It was a place where all of the evil of the world seemed to gain social status. Against the “kingdom of evil” that permeated Hell’s Kitchen Rauschenbusch explored the teachings of Jesus about the Kingdom of God as a call for social action and reform.
In the cauldron of pastoral piety, splendid preparation for ministry and a growing sense of the demands for justice, Rauschenbusch found the right recipe for “a theology for the social gospel,” which became his signature phrase.
Rauschenbusch did not labor alone in Hell’s Kitchen. Two young Baptist ministers, Leighton Williams and Nathaniel Schmidt, joined him in the pursuits of living out the call of the Kingdom of God. They found common cause in the political arena as they cast their lot with mayoral candidate Henry George and his platform of the “single tax” as a way of establishing a more just society. Later Rauschenbusch would credit Henry George with his stirring his commitments to address social problems.
The merging of pietistic and political concerns in Hell’s Kitchen was a breakthrough that continues to shape Christian social ethics. Rauschenbusch became increasingly aggressive in his condemnation of piety that never enters the public sphere.
In his trenchant confession, “Why I Am a Baptist,” Rauschenbusch wrote: “But religion is not a purely individual matter. Nothing in human life is. We are social beings, and all elements of our life come to their full development only through social interchange.” And again: “Some Baptists seem to think that this separation [of church and state] is based on the idea that the spiritual life has nothing to do with the secular life. I utterly deny that suggestion and think it a calamitous heresy.”
After 12 years in Hell’s Kitchen Rauschenbusch joined the faculty at the Rochester Theological Seminary. His passion for the Kingdom of God shaped every course he taught. Rauschenbusch never became the stereotypic academic. He lectured and preached widely, all the while remaining politically active.
In his later years he published the fruits of his life of active anticipation that the Kingdom of God was near. In 1907 Christianity and the Social Crisis gave Rauschenbusch international acclaim. Christianity and the Social Order followed in 1912, and his crowning work was published in 1918, the year of his death, A Theology for the Social Gospel.
For many socially minded Christians Walter Rauschenbusch was John the Baptist. He was, at least, a fierce Baptist whose heart burned for the Kingdom of God and whose life challenged all Christians to live with such hope.
Richard Wilson is professor of theology and chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.