Half Finished Heaven: The Social Gospel in American literature

William Cary Graham, Fordham University


The proponents of the Social Gospel movement (1865-1920) believed that the Kingdom of God was already present in the human community, but would not flourish in society unless its structures were reformed by Christian justice and fine-tuned by charity. Their sense of social consciousness and mission stemmed from reading the Gospel of Jesus as the inspired solution to social problems.^ After the Industrial Revolution, 100-odd novels were published seeking to advance the coming Kingdom. The more popular of the novels were sold and read by vast numbers of people, an audience immeasurably larger than any theologian or preacher could expect or imagine. A study of the novels charts the development of the Social Gospel.^ The five best sellers of the period are examined in this work. Their force is not just in promulgating, but also in developing the movement. It is argued that theologians and novelists participated in a larger climate of ideas and structures of feeling that generated both formal theology and theological fiction. This fiction can then be judged and appreciated as literary efforts, as reflections of cultural aspects of the Church at work in the modern world, and as works of theology.^ First, a historiography of certain models of the Social Gospel is presented. These include the major prophets of the Social Gospel, Josiah Strong and Walter Rauschenbusch, evangelical and modernist prototypes of the movement. Next, it is discerned how the novelists were both forerunners and proponents of one of the most significant movements in American religious history.^ The optimal methodology for the evaluation of the novels in this study is a contextual approach. Because the novels reflect the era in which they were written, the contextual approach necessitates understanding events and realities outside the text which illuminate and explain the times and events which shape the era under consideration. The work is thus related to its setting.^ The novels provoked discussion about Social Gospel concerns, and were instrumental in shaping theology, directing popular interest, allaying anxiety, and promoting peaceful progress. The novelists of the Social Gospel are shown to be part of this process: seeing need, sharing a vision, provoking dialogue.^ The Social Gospel novelists painted for readers a vision of what might be. For readers today, they recall the struggle, they highlight the dream, they quicken the hope that humanity's continuing travail is an invitation to continue building, for the earth is a Half Finished Heaven. ^

Subject Area

Religious history|American studies|Theology|American literature

Recommended Citation

Graham, William Cary, "Half Finished Heaven: The Social Gospel in American literature" (1993). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9403296.