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Public Theology: The Social Creed of 1908 Updated for 21st Century
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The Social Creed of 1908 Updated for 21st Century
Presbyterians and others have been working to update a significant statement of Protestants concerning economic justice.

By Gene TeSelle

In 1908 the Federal Council of Churches adopted a "Social Creed" which is reproduced in the article below. The article, written by Gene TeSelle of the Witherspoon Society, a network of Presbyterians concerned with social justice, provides a very helpful history of this creed and efforts to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the creed in 2008 by adopting a new social creed for the 21st century. This article was published on 8-20-07 on the Witherspoon Society website. Notice that Max Stackhouse has said that the current phase of theological focus is called "public theology".

The Presbyterians in 2008 officially adopted a new social creed and have put together study resources for same. The National Council of Churches did so in November of 2007.

We are fast approaching the hundredth anniversary of the so-called Social Creed of the Churches, adopted in 1908 at the founding of the Federal Council of Churches. It was a dramatic statement by what we have come to call "the public church." Currently the Methodists and the Presbyterians, as well as the National Council of Churches, are looking ahead to an appropriate commemoration.

We cannot help noting the similarities between 1908 and 2008. Inequalities of income and wealth in the U.S. are now 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 this situation corporations have greater power than many national governments. Wal-Mart, for example, has forced domestic and foreign suppliers to cut their costs by lowering wages in the name of "competition." A new generation of trade agreements (NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, CAFTA) gives corporations new rights to challenge local, state, and national laws or regulations. The right of labor to organize and bargain is often challenged ! through legislation, administrative action, or private violence. Protection of the workplace and the environment against hazardous conditions is all too frequently ineffectual or nonexistent. Non-governmental organizations have urged corporations and entire industries to adopt "codes of conduct," but monitoring and enforcement have been difficult.

As we anticipate the hundredth anniversary of the Social Creed, then, we must ask not only what in it is to be reaffirmed but how it ought to be modified and strengthened to meet new challenges in national and global economies.1

Crisis and Response

The period from the Civil War to the turn of the century 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. Various labor movements and unions arose, as well as farm organizations such as the Grange and the Farmers' Alliances.

Henry George's Progress and Poverty (1879), Laurence Gronlund's The Cooperative Commonwealth (1884), Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888), Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives (1890), the journalism of Henry Demarest Lloyd starting in the 1870s and summed up in Wealth Against Commonwealth (1894), the novels and editorial activity of William Dean Howells, W.T. Stead's If Christ Came to Chicago!(1894), and Charles Sheldon's In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? (1897) all helped to alter the framework within which people looked at social problems.

This first phase, from 1880 to 1900, did not bring much change; its importance was in identifying problems, raising consciousness, critiquing existing conditions, outlining utopian solutions, and demonstrating that those affected were ready to organize and express their indignation, often militantly.

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 who was sidelined into the office of Vice-President to keep him out of trouble but soon became President after the assassination of McKinley.

In addition, the new mass-circulation periodicals brought investigative and advocacy journalism to a high pitch. Their expos└s 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 were fueled by stories in the popular press. Momentum slowed after 1906, perhaps because of their success, perhaps because of the public's satiation with this kind of journalism, but most clearly because of concerted pressure from advertisers, news distributors, and investors.

Multiple Narratives

The main narrative tends to concentrate on urban problems and especially on industry and labor, and this was also the focus of the Social Creed of 1908. It was here that the problems of unrestrained power, indifference to consequences, and violence by police and anarchists were most evident; where coordinated action could best be organized; and where the largest number of legislative victories could be gained in the political climate of the early twentieth century.

There are other narratives, however, that focus on other issues, with varying outcomes.
  • The labor movement was highly diverse, ranging from the conservative craft unions to the growing Socialist Party, which itself ranged from militant workers to middle-class and professional idealists, and the radical IWW, organized in 1905.

  • The agrarian movement in the Midwest gained political expression first among the Populists and then in the La Follette wing of the Republican Party and the Bryan wing of the Democratic Party, with needs and demands that went far beyond what could be achieved in national legislation.

  • Race was an issue largely ignored in the Social Creed and in national-level politics, though a number of Protestant leaders were deeply involved with the schools and colleges that their home mission boards supported in the South.2 The Niagara Declaration of 1905, inspired by W.E.B. DuBois, called for equal rights (they had to meet across the river in Canada, not being able to find integrated accommodations in the U.S.). The Springfield race riots of 1908, in Lincoln's own city, stimulated a number of white leaders to take action. The two groups joined to found the NAACP in 1909 on the hundredth anniversary of Lincoln's birth.

  • Gender. Women became increasingly influential during the late nineteenth century. By 1900 they were a majority of high school graduates and 20 percent of college graduates, and they were entering the professions (medicine, law, social work, government service, and, decades later in most denominations, ministry). The image of the "New Woman" emboldened many of them to transgress traditional roles; marriage vows began to omit the word "obey"; there was a growing campaign for what was called "woman suffrage" (successful only at the late date of 1920). Concern for "uplift" of the poor shifted from the activities of "charity ladies" to full-time professional activity in settlement houses and social work. This led in turn to solidarity with working women and support for unionization and labor legislation, led by Jane Addams and Florence Kelley.
The Social Gospel Years

The Social Gospel era was animated by revulsion at the evils of the time. Rauschenbusch had much to say about the "kingdom of evil," the supra-personal structures and ideologies that threaten or cajole human behavior. Theodore Roosevelt spoke of "Armageddon" during his 1912 campaign. Awareness of evil led many people to look for the potentialities, human and divine, for reform and renewal.

The churches' first response was at the local level, where poverty and social change were directly encountered. New York City was a focal point, where Frank Mason North had been corresponding secretary of the Church Extension and Missionary Society since 1892. It was he who, in 1903, wrote the hymn "Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life," first published in the Methodist hymnal in 1905.

New York experienced earlier and with greater intensity than other cities the flight of congregations from older to newly developing neighborhoods. Congregations that decided to stay began with "city missions," often involving foreign-language ministries; then moved to the "institutional church" offering a full range of services and activities; and eventually saw that such efforts would be inadequate without changing the legal framework within which workers and tenants and consumers encountered corporations and banks and landlords.

The Presbyterians were the first to set up a national-level ministry to workers and immigrants, starting in 1903 at the instigation of Charles Stelzle. Opposition soon arose, especially in Pittsburgh, where Presbyterians were not only religiously conservative but dependent upon the steel industry, and Stelzle resigned in 1913 in order to save some of the programs he had created. (He had already founded the Labor Temple in 1910 and continued to minister there.) The Presbyterian achievement was noted with appreciation in other Protestant denominations, which soon developed their own national programs.

Origins of the Social Creed

The statement that came to be known as "the Social Creed of the Churches" grew out of developments in the Methodist Church. The Methodist Federation for Social Service (later Social Action) was founded in Washington, DC, in December of 1907; its organizers were later received in the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt. As the 1908 General Conference approached, its leaders conceived the idea of a formal statement of principles concerning the social problems of the time, and Harry F. Ward jotted down the first draft on a Western Union pad. The eleven principles were adopted by the 1908 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in May.

In December of 1908 the Federal Council of Churches was founded in Philadelphia, in accordance with a Plan of Federation agreed on in 1905. Frank Mason North delivered a much-appreciated report on "The Church and Modern Industry." At its conclusion he presented a list of social reforms ! Ward's eleven, now expanded to fourteen. In 1912 it would be expanded to sixteen, and to more in 1919; various denominations adopted their own versions of the creed.

The statement was adopted enthusiastically and without dissent, after a supportive address by Stelzle, on December 4, 1908. It reads as follows:
We deem it the duty of all Christian people to concern themselves directly with certain practical industrial problems. To us it seems that the churches must stand !

For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.

For the right of all men to the opportunity for self-maintenance, a right ever to be wisely and strongly safeguarded against encroachments of every kind.

For the right of workers to some protection against the hardships often resulting from the swift crises of industrial change.

For the principle of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions.

For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational disease, injuries and mortality.

For the abolition of child labor.

For such regulation of the conditions of toil for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the community.

For the suppression of the "sweating system."

For the gradual and reasonable reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practicable point, and for that degree of leisure for all which is a condition of the highest human life.

For a release from employment one day in seven.

For a living wage as a minimum in every industry, and for the highest wage that each industry can afford.

For the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.

For suitable provision for the old age of the workers and for those incapacitated by injury.

For the abatement of poverty.

To the toilers of America and to those who by organized effort are seeking to lift the crushing burdens of the poor, and to reduce the hardships and uphold the dignity of labor, this Council sends the greeting of human brotherhood and the pledge of sympathy and of help in a cause which belongs to all who follow Christ.
This "creed" was not binding on the member organizations. The Federal Council had no such powers; it spoke only for the delegates attending the meeting. But it quickly demonstrated its convincingness, its moral authority, and it was formally adopted by several of the member denominations in the next few years. If reception and fecundity are tests of validity, then the Social Creed is a major instance, for it was widely affirmed, imitated, and adapted in new forms.

General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. responded to this "social awakening" several times, adopting rewritten versions of the Social Creed and, in typical Presbyterian fashion, adding biblical and theological backing. These were the Assemblies of 1910 (the same one that adopted the "five fundamentals"), 1914 (adopting a "United Declaration" by the four major Presbyterian churches), and 1920.

Achievements and Disappointments

The high point of the Progressive Era came in 1912, when the platforms of all four parties supported woman suffrage and a variety of reform measures. Theodore Roosevelt, disappointed with his hand-picked successor, ran a third-party campaign under the banner of a new Progressive Party. Woodrow Wilson's candidacy gave the South a major role in national politics, and his support for progressive measures began a long-lasting realignment making the Democratic Party the standard-bearer for progressive causes. It was also in the 1912 campaign that Eugene Debs received his largest number of votes.

And yet it should also be noted that voter turnout declined from an all-time high of 78% in 1896 to a low of 56% in 1912. Perhaps it was the result of procedural reforms that did away with traditional voting habits; perhaps it meant that the political issues were too complex or did not speak to the condition of everyone.

We cannot go into all the legislative achievements of the Progressive Era, for it is a long list. There were also four constitutional amendments: income tax, direct election of senators, prohibition, and woman suffrage. But many of the new laws were overturned by a conservative Supreme Court; the list of the Court's decisions is amazing and disappointing.

Entry into the First World War slowed the impulse toward reform, for reasons that were clear even at the time: disillusionment about possibilities for peace and reform, diversion of attention to the war rather than domestic issues, shock at losses in lives and costs to the federal budget, the repressive measures unleashed by the Wilson administration, and the mood of reaction following the war.

There were unforeseen consequences for social relationships, too. The wartime need for workers, just when the war shut off the flow of immigration, initiated the "Great Migration" of African Americans from the South to the industrial cities of the North. And it was the war that brought passage of both the prohibition and the woman suffrage amendments to the Constitution.

The ending of the war led to a brief period of Wilsonian idealism, with fresh attempts to shape the future according to American democratic values. Both the Federal Council and the Catholic bishops issued calls for "social reconstruction" in 1919. On the world scene, the U.S. was in a strong economic position and felt a corresponding responsibility toward all regions of the world. The Senate's refusal to join the League of Nations convinced the churches that they must take a role in shaping foreign as well as domestic policy.

In 1919 the Interchurch World Movement was organized with a start-up gift from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., independent of but cooperating with the Federal Council of Churches. It had one moment of glory. The 1919 steel strike prompted its Industrial Relations Department to form a Commission of Inquiry. Although the strike was crushed by "Judge Gary" of U.S. Steel in January of 1920, the Commission continued its work, and its Report on the Steel Strike of 1919 was issued in July. It had done better fact-finding than the press and government agencies. Despite outcries from the steel industry and other segments of the business community, the Commission's findings were generally accepted. Over the next few years U.S. Steel quietly ended the twelve-hour day and the seven-day week and raised its wages. In many respects the report was the most impressive achievement of "social Christianity," even though it was issued at a time when the public's receptivity was fading ! indeed, in the very year that is often designated as the end of the Social Gospel era.

Social Concern Continues

Max Stackhouse suggests that there have been at least five social gospels: (1) the original one, stretching at least from 1880 to 1920; (2) the "Christian realism" of Reinhold Niebuhr and others, from the Thirties into the Cold War era, which began with readiness for social conflict and then was transmuted into anti-Stalinism (often influenced by longstanding Socialist and Trotskyite misgivings about Stalin); (3) the civil rights movement, whose leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., acknowledged the influence of Walter Rauschenbusch, and which was soon enlarged to include women and other groups that were the target of discrimination; (4) liberation theology in its various modalities in the Third World and then in the U.S., moving beyond the language of civil rights to speak of domination and the need to be liberated from it; and now (5) an emerging "public theology" in the era of globalization, which has the task of simultaneously championing civil rights, fostering interfaith dialogue and cooperation, and opposing social oppression in its many modes in order to reform the common life.

The influence of "social Christianity" and the Social Creed extends, however, far beyond those forms of Christianity that can be called heirs of the Social Gospel.
  • The United Methodist Church has adopted "Social Principles" that are reviewed every four years for inclusion in its Discipline. Since 1972 the term "Social Creed" has been reserved for a brief statement that is suitable for use in Sunday worship and is included in the Methodist Hymnal.

  • Evangelicals are aware of the social dimensions of our biblical heritage. Evangelicals for Social Action has grown out of a 1973 conference led by Ronald Sider, Richard Mouw, and others.

  • Jim Wallis and the Sojourners Community have prepared A Covenant for a New America, looking for the way to move "from poverty to opportunity." It is available online at

  • The National Association of Evangelicals produced a statement, entitled "Call to Civic Responsibility," in 2004, and in 2005 a 380-page book, Toward an Evangelical Public Policy (Baker Books, $25 paperback). There are five or six chapters that discuss the biblical call for social and economic justice, in language that sounds like our Presbyterian statements.

  • The Roman Catholic bishops have issued several statements about the economy, with their own particular stress on the dignity of labor and the need for participation in decision-making.
While Christians may differ on many points of doctrine and practice, they often find themselves united in their perspectives on major economic issues.3


1. The most comprehensive survey is Donald K. Gorrell, The Age of Social Responsibility: The Social Gospel in the Progressive Era, 1900-1920 (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1988). How it should be "updated" is explored in The Social Gospel Today, edited by Christopher H. Evans (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).

2. See Ralph E. Luker, The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885-1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), and, with a more "national" perspective, Ronald C. White, Jr., Liberty and Justice for All: Racial Reform and the Social Gospel (1877-1925) (New York: Harper & Row, 1990).

3. Max L. Stackhouse, "The Fifth Social Gospel and the Global Mission of the Church," The Social Gospel Today, edited by Christopher H. Evans (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 146-59.

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Date Added: 5/8/2009 Date Revised: 5/8/2009

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