The life and times of John Bascom

FEW LIBERAL DEMOCRATS of President Obama’s first term possessed as much power and political savvy as former congressman David Obey. In the secular political world, he was the principal architect of the federal stimulus package, and he chaired the session of Congress that voted to enact the controversial health-care plan known as “Obamacare.”

Perhaps less well known in that secular political world is that Obey believed his actions were rooted not in secular political philosophy but in the religious traditions of his native Wisconsin. He encountered this tradition growing up in a Roman Catholic parish in Wausau and reaffirmed it in the unlikeliest of places, the seemingly secular University of Wisconsin. For Obey, this tradition was known as the Social Gospel.

Where gospel met social

The Social Gospel is the idea that Christian ethics ought to be applied to social and economic problems--that Jesus came to save systems as well as people. As defined by Shailer Mathews, one of its greatest proponents, it is “the application of the teachings of Jesus and the total message of Christian salvation to society, the economic life, and social institutions . . . as well as to the individual.”

Nowhere has this idea remained a more visible driving force than in Wisconsin, nurtured by the “Wisconsin Idea.“ This idea stated that the mission of the University of Wisconsin (UW) was to serve the needs of the state’s residents. The builder and shaper of the Wisconsin Idea was John Bascom, president of UW from 1874 to 1887. In his life and presidency, “Gospel” met “social.”

Bascom first articulated this vision in informal student gatherings at his house and in his required senior moral philosophy class. Bascom ended up in Wisconsin in part because some of his religious views troubled constituents at his previous position, teaching rhetoric at Massachusetts’s Williams College. He and other Social Gospel pioneers were northern evangelicals, largely from New England or the so-called burned-over district of upstate New York and northern Ohio (worn out by repeated revivals). They, or their families, had been active in the abolitionist and temperance movements.

Bascom himself, a later biographer said, was the author of 30 or 40 books that “cost him more money than he ever received. . . . But he also included that he was glad to have written them and is only sorry that he could not have been of more service to his fellow men.” They included everything from social theory and theology to “An Appeal to Young Men on the Use of Tobacco.” A gifted scholar and committed teacher, he fought as president for better pay for other faculty members, higher academic standards, and coeducational instruction.

Troubled by power

As a Christian sociologist, Bascom was deeply troubled by the ruthlessly competitive capitalism that had emerged during and after the Civil War. While captains of industry celebrated the unregulated and often chaotic pursuit of wealth, Bascom denounced this competitiveness. He believed the increased concentration of power in the hands of a few violated democratic- and especially Christian- morality. In response, he thought, the state needed to serve a role once reserved for religious institutions. Only thus could humanity reach the utopian goal of a perfected Christian society. Such a society would protect the weak and regulate human interaction in a manner consistent with Christian moral principles.

Why work through secular ends? To Bascom the nation’s churches seemed to be impediments to reaching a perfect social order. He saw them as tied to rigid and unchanging traditions.

But Bascom did believe in the pervasive spiritual and moral character of life. He even developed an evolution-friendly doctrine of conversion: no longer a sudden single experience of spiritual liberation but a gradual constant improvement. As scientists sought to discover the physical laws of the universe, he thought the new discipline of sociology would uncover the universe’s social, moral, and spiritual laws, and Christians should act accordingly: “A theology which seeks regeneration of society in ignorance of social laws is doomed to failure.”

Darwinism vs. the gospel

To affirm the Social Gospel, Bascom and his friends rejected two beliefs common among Americans in the late nineteenth century: the “gospel of wealth” and Social Darwinism. As advocated by many popular preachers, including America’s greatest “celebrity pastor” Henry Ward Beecher, the gospel of wealth taught that wealth is a sign of divine favor rooted in personal virtue. In a land of plenty like the United States, if one was poor, it was one’s own fault.

Social Darwinism applied Darwin’s concept of the survival of the fittest to modern life: only those most able to “get ahead” and get along deserved to survive the industrial economy. Social Gospel advocates, on the other hand, believed that human beings evolved not just physically for “getting ahead” but spiritually and morally.

Bascom believed the world was improving. Furthermore, with the availability of proper education and in the restraining hand of virtuous political leaders, he thought it would continue to improve. Still he found contemporary society sadly deficient and far from the ideal of a properly “Christian State” (the title of his last baccalaureate address at Wisconsin). Bascom feared the growing power of wealth and its ability to “easily overawe moral and social forces.”

Liquor, women, and labor

Besides his abiding faith in education, Bascom personally supported three political movements that he connected to the Social Gospel: Prohibition, woman suffrage, and labor rights. At the top of his list was Prohibition. Bascom emerged as a leader in the one political party actually committed to the cause, the Prohibition Party. He thought abuse of liquor was a serious social problem that required government action. Rejecting the notion that Prohibition violated personal freedom, Bascom argued that drunkenness harmed its victims and stood in the way of spiritual progress. He insisted that society must “overrule unreason with reason, unrighteousness with righteousness.”

In a state dominated by the Republican Party (which was divided on the issue), and with the university depending on state funds, Bascom found that political orthodoxy was more restrictive than theological orthodoxy. He was dismissed from UW in 1887. Returning to Williams College as professor of political science, Bascom left the Wisconsin Idea in the capable hands of his students. Protestant Social Gospel adherents and early Progressives universally supported Prohibition. When it died in 1931, its advocates noted that it was odd to say Prohibition had failed when it had never been seriously tried.

Not surprisingly for a champion of Prohibition, Bascom also promoted women’s rights; the two were often linked by those who felt delivering the vote to women would help rid the country of the scourge of drunkenness. He even insisted that such bastions of male privilege as UW’s law school be made coeducational.

Finally, Bascom defended the right of labor to organize. In a time of mounting labor violence, he believed that workers needed joint action to balance the power of owners. For Bascom and his friends in the Social Gospel movement, these were spiritual, not merely political, matters. Human dignity required a certain standard of living, and arbitrarily low wages oppressed workers and harmed society.

“The union of all who love”

It is hardly surprising that Bascom’s most famous student, Robert M. La Follette (1855–1925) championed the power of the state in the hands of educated and righteous leaders. He came to Madison in the 1870s with a conscience sharpened by abolitionists at a small Free Will Baptist academy in Evansville, Wisconsin. As Wisconsin’s pioneering Progressive governor, La Follette virtually made the university’s faculty into a branch of the state government.

Economics professor Richard Ely, sociologist E. A. Ross, political science professor Charles McCarthy (author of the book The Wisconsin Idea), and virtually the entire faculty of the School of Agriculture were constantly called upon to address social and practical problems confronting Wisconsin residents. The Wisconsin Idea angered both doctrinaire socialists, who wanted more state intervention, and political conservatives, who wanted less.

But as early as the 1890s, the Social Gospel notion of a cooperative Christian commonwealth governed by the Golden Rule and the ethics of Jesus was circulating widely among Populists and Christian Socialists.

(Populism represented a coalition of farmers and labor unions against elite bankers, businessmen, and railroad tycoons.) It found especially fertile ground in the failed 1896 presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan.

Many younger Social Gospel advocates, such as Ely, who founded the anti–Social Darwinist American Economic Association, were educated in Europe. In fact, British Christian Socialists, such as F. D. Maurice and editor W. T. Stead, established much of the framework for the American movement. Stead, who later perished on the Titanic after giving his life jacket to another, famously published an insightful and graphic expose of Chicago’s underbelly, If Christ Came to Chicago: A Plea for the Union of All Who Love in the Service of All Who Suffer (1894). The Social Gospel also laid the foundation for the modern Canadian welfare state, especially in the more homogenous environments of Ontario and the Prairie Provinces.

Making a living wage

In effect the Social Gospel, not just in Wisconsin but throughout North America, evolved spiritually and politically from protecting the victims of the industrial system to putting forth an understanding of the economic basis of a just society. Beginning with the notion of an eight-hour workday, the movement soon proclaimed that workers were entitled to a living wage—probably the most enduring Catholic contribution to the Social Gospel movement in America.

Drawn from the title of a book by Minnesota native and Catholic priest John A. Ryan (see “Brothers and Sisters of Charity”), a “living wage” was defined as the income needed for the head of household to provide for a family’s health and self-respect: savings, insurance, tithe, union dues, reading, and modest recreation. A critic of what he called the “gospel of consumption,” Ryan advocated “distributive justice”—a fairer distribution of wealth, not an increase in individual consumption of luxury items.

On the right, some saw the Social Gospel as a departure from Christian orthodoxy by idealistic and naïve do-gooders. On the left, it was seen as perfectionistic, naïve, and focused on the middle class. Both critiques contain elements of truth. But the Social Gospel tradition is still alive and well in America and around the world.

Let one illustration stand for thousands of others: the young Methodist Sunday school teacher and mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey insisting at the 1948 party convention that the Democratic Party repudiate its segregationist heritage and embrace a platform that affirmed civil rights for African Americans. Humphrey was a product of the Social Gospel tradition, as were other famous pioneers for racial justice like baseball executive Branch Rickey, his star player Jackie Robinson, and Georgia’s Baptist preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. All had learned the Christian vision of a world of social equality and economic justice from parents, pastors, and teachers nurtured by the Social Gospel in mainline Protestantism.

But the question remains. Did the movement come to believe that what really counted in life was not the church as an instiution but the social and economic justice for which the church advocated? Did this secular trend take away the Gospel basis of the social and economic reforms advocated by Social Gospel pioneers? Where, today, does “Gospel” meet “social”? CH

By William Kostlevy

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #104 in 2013]

William Kostlevy is professor of history and political science at Tabor College.
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