Feast of Walter Rauschenbusch (July 24)   3 comments

Above:  Walter Rauschenbusch

Image in the Public Domain

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WALTER RAUSCHENBUSCH (OCTOBER 4, 1861-JULY 25, 1918)

U.S. Baptist Theologian of the Social Gospel

Episcopal feast day (since 2009) = July 2

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To concentrate our efforts on personal salvation, as orthodoxy has done, comes close to refined selfishness.

–Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianizing the Social Order (1912)

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God commands us to care actively for the poor.  Moses understood this, as did Hebrew prophets, Jesus of Nazareth, and Walter Rauschenbusch.  “Us” is plural and, in this case, includes religious institutions.

Walter Rauschenbusch, born in Rochester, New York, on October 4, 1861, shifted from his conservative upbringing.  His father, Karl August Rauschenbusch, and his mother, Caroline Rhomps Rauschenbusch, were German immigrants.  Karl had arrived in the United States as a pietistic Lutheran missionary.  He became a Baptist eventually and, from 1858 to 1890, taught at Rochester Theological Seminary, Rochester, New York, specializing in Anabaptist history.  Unfortunately, the Rauschenbusch marriage was unhealthy, filled with verbal abuse from Karl.

Our saint grew up a conservative, individualistic Baptist, mostly in Rochester.  He spent 1865-1869 in Germany, and the summers of 1869-1879 working on a farm in Pennsylvania, however.  In 1879 Rauschenbusch reported a conversion experience and made a profession of faith.  For the next four years he studied in Westphalia (and briefly in Berlin), graduating with honors in classical studies, having become expert in German, Hebrew, French, Greek, and Latin.  Rauschenbusch returned to Rochester in 1883, to prepare for ordained ministry.  He graduated from the seminary’s German department in 1885 and from the seminary the following year.

In 1886, however, Rauschenbusch, influenced by critical scholarship, had begun to question the orthodoxy of his youth.  His time as pastor of Second German Baptist Church, in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City, led our saint further to the left.  Rauschenbusch, confronted by crime, poverty, unemployment, disease, and malnutrition, first addressed those problems with warm-hearted and individualistic pietism, which he came to conclude was insufficient.  The crucible of Hell’s Kitchen led Rauschenbusch to reject the distinction between social work and “Christian work” favored by many on the Right then, as now.  In Rauschenbusch’s mind the bridge between social work and “Christian work” was the Kingdom of God, which he defined as the “reign of love.”  The church, he argued, is “the social factor in salvation.”

Rauschenbusch, who went deaf in 1888, left his parish in 1891.  For the next few years he traveled in Europe, studying Fabian Socialism in England and the New Testament in Germany.  He came to identify as an “evangelical liberal.”  Our saint, back in New York City, married teacher Pauline E. Rother of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The couple had five children.

In 1897 Rauschenbusch joined the faculty of Rochester Theological Seminary, teaching New Testament interpretation in the German department as well as civics and natural sciences in the college.  He became the Professor of Church History five years later.  Rauschenbusch was obscure when we went overseas on a sabbatical in 1907.  When he returned, however, he was famous, for Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) had sold well, going into six editions in two years.  Rauschenbusch fit in well with the Progressive Era.

Rauschenbusch, not a dogmatic theologian, was a practical one instead.  He, influenced by Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Kingsley, pondered institutional and societal sins more than individual ones.  Therefore Rauschenbusch emphasized the need for societal and institutional revolution–the spirit of Christ transforming all human affairs–while recognizing economics as part of the Kingdom of God, or “the reign of love.”  For our saint war was inconsistent with the Kingdom of God, Christianity, and human progress.

Rauschenbusch’s theology was optimistic.  In this respect it was a product of its time, La Belle Époque, destroyed by World War I.  His theology had much to recommend it, as subsequent critics Reinhold Niebuhr and H. Richard Niebuhr noted while disagreeing with its optimism.  Rauschenbusch, who published his Taylor Lectures at Yale University as A Theology of the Social Gospel (1917), lived long enough to witness the Great War and grieve over it.  He died of cancer at Rochester on July 25, 1918.  Rauschenbusch was 56 years old.

The Neo-orthodox critique of Rauschenbusch’s theology is correct; only God can usher in the Kingdom of God.  Nevertheless, one can learn much of value from our saint, for institutionalized sin does exist, and individual good deeds are insufficient to correct it.  We need for Christ to transform culture, as Rauschenbusch and H. Richard Niebuhr agreed.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

APRIL 27, 2018 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF GEORGE WASHINGTON DOANE, EPISCOPAL BISHOP OF NEW JERSEY; AND HIS SON, WILLIAM CROSWELL DOANE, EPISCOPAL BISHOP OF ALBANY; HYMN WRITERS

THE FEAST OF SAINTS ANTONY AND THEODOSIUS OF KIEV, FOUNDERS OF RUSSIAN ORTHODOX MONASTICISM; SAINT BARLAAM OF KIEV, RUSSIAN ORTHODOX ABBOT; AND SAINT STEPHEN OF KIEV, RUSSIAN ORTHODOX ABBOT AND BISHOP

THE FEAST OF CHRISTINA ROSSETTI, POET AND RELIGIOUS WRITER

THE FEAST OF SAINTS REMACLUS OF MAASTRICHT, THEODORE OF MAASTRICHT, LAMBERT OF MAASTRICHT, HUBERT OF MAASTRICHT AND LIEGE, AND FLORBERT OF LIEGE, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS; SAINT LANDRADA OF MUNSTERBILSEN, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBESS; AND SAINTS OTGER OF UTRECHT, PLECHELM OF GUELDERLAND, AND WIRO, ROMAN CATHOLIC MISSIONARIES

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Almighty God, whose prophets taught us righteousness in the care of your poor:

By the guidance of your Holy Spirit, grant that we may do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in your sight;

through Jesus Christ, our Judge and Redeemer, who lives and reigns

with you and the same Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Isaiah 55:11-56:1

Psalm 2:1-2, 10-12

Acts 14:14-17, 21-23

Mark 4:21-29

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), 736

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