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The Social Gospel, Rev. Alex C. Gallimore

Bayshore Baptist Church, August 11, 2019

I would like to share something with you as I begin today’s sermon.  This is a newspaper clipping I keep in my office from the Tampa Sunday Telegraph, May 9, 1926.  This article celebrates the establishment of a new church, the first Tampa church to minister to those living south of Rome Avenue, called Bayshore Baptist Church.  This is an article about us, and our founding as a church almost 100 years ago.  I don’t own this article.  It belongs to the church.  But I keep it in my office for inspiration and accountability.  I like having those who founded this church generations ago looking over me and keeping me accountable as I do my work.  I want to be true to the vision and work they began all those years ago.  I want to honor them as I lead you as the 11th minister to pastor this church.  I like being reminded that many have come before me, and, God willing, many will come after me.  So, I want to be faithful with the time I have been given.

I also keep this article in my office to be inspired by these people who saw a need in an underserved area and left the stability and certainty of the First Baptist Church of Tampa to start a new Baptist church in an area there was not one.  And, let me tell you something, friends, their vision was for more than pretty buildings that are open only on Sunday mornings.  The vision God gave to the founding members and leaders of our church was massive, and, every time I look at this article, I am reminded that we have only begun to scratch the surface of what these people believed God called our church to be.  That inspires me to keep going.  To keep working.  To keep dreaming.

In the article, Dr. George Hyman, Bayshore’s first pastor, envisioned “a great institutional church building to serve the needs of this new Tampa area.”  For Dr. Hyman, these needs were more than spiritual, “believing that the church should not only carry a message to the people but also serve the various needs of mankind in as many fields as possible…the time will come, he said, when the Bayshore Baptist Church will assist in the establishment of a Baptist hospital.”  Imagining this work, Hyman concluded, “I believe that one of the great churches of America, will be the Bayshore Baptist Church of Tampa.”

Bayshore is a special place.  It has been since the beginning.  We are already great in so many ways.  But there is still a lot of work for us to do.  So, I let these good people remind me of that from time to time…

And every time, they remind me of our unique approach to Baptist life which was not terribly unique for them at the time, of putting their faith into action.  When I read this article I am reminded that the intentional vision for our church reflects a movement which began in the late 19th century and became mainstream during the early 20th century, a movement which inspired the founders of this church and has continued to influence our church life throughout the decades, The Social Gospel Movement.

The social gospel movement emerged during the late 19th century seeking to apply the ethical teachings of Jesus to the unjust conditions of their day. Early social gospelers proclaimed “salvation was not about escaping the sins of the world, it was about saving the world.”[1]  Proponents of the social gospel believed “a central goal of Christianity was to create a righteous society that could approximate the heavenly kingdom.”[2] Social gospelers believed their “sole concern was for the kingdom of God and the salvation of men.  But the kingdom of God includes the economic life; for it means the progressive transformation of all human affairs by the thought and spirit of Christ.  And a full salvation also includes the economic life; for it involves the opportunity for every man to realize the full humanity which God has put into him as a promise and a call.”[3]  Sharing these convictions, the first social gospelers connected the simple teachings of the Christian faith to the most complex social issues of their day.

In the article, Dr. Hyman said he “believed that the church should not only carry a message to the people but also serve the various needs of mankind in as many fields as possible,” and he envisioned “a great institutional church building to serve the needs of this new Tampa area.”  A place not just to worship God through song and prayer and bible study, but a place that is open to meet head on our community’s greatest needs.  He even saw the day we would help to establish a hospital.

When a similar Baptist visionary Dr. Len Broughton of Atlanta was asked by members of his board why he felt the Tabernacle Baptist Church should open a health clinic, he simply replied, “because there are a lot of sick people out there.”[4]  This was the spirit of the social gospel.  Wherever there is a need, let the church lead the way in meeting it, for the glory of God and the salvation of the world.

Th social gospel movement quickly began to spread across America, partnering with like-minded efforts and ultimately leading to national reforms like a woman’s right to vote,[5] the establishment of child labor laws, the 8-hour workday, and 5-day work week.  Sometimes we take for granted the fact that someone had to fight for things like that, and I’m proud to know it was the church.  Afterall, how can expect people to cultivate the spiritual life and become informed citizens if we do not give them the time to do so?

The social gospel was an ecumenical movement, uniting Christians from many different denominations and theological perspectives, but today, I would like to share 3 Baptists who were leaders of the social gospel, how they influenced Baptist life, and how we continue to be the heirs of their legacy here at Bayshore.

Providing the social gospel with its theological foundation was a Baptist minister in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, by the name of Walter Rauschenbusch.  After doing countless funerals for children who died in tenement housing or unjust working environments, Rauschenbusch led the charge, believing “men and women were capable of changing the course of history, and that a prophetic Christianity was an essential component of the effort to galvanize wider social economic changes in America.”[6]  For Rauschenbusch, God’s kingdom was best attained through a “social Christianity, which makes the reign of God on earth its object,” as “a distinct type of personal religion, and that in its best manifestations it involves the possibility of a purer spirituality, a keener recognition of sin, more durable powers of growth, a more personal evangelism, and a more all-around salvation than the individualistic type of religion which makes the salvation of the soul the object.”[7]

Rauschenbusch preached the gospel of personal salvation, but he also knew that if the gospel had truly taken hold of someone’s soul, that individual would immediately begin working towards a social salvation for all.

In the 1920s, a Baptist minister by the name of Harry Emerson Fosdick became one of the most prominent ministers of his day.  His sermons, which he preached each week at the Riverside Church in New York City were published and read around the world.  Like Rauschenbusch, Fosdick believed in the social implications of Christianity and our ability to transform our world through the ethical teachings of Jesus.  What makes Fosdick stand out to me is that he pastored a large church in the most influential city in the world, but his congregation did not always share his theological or political perspectives.  Like Bayshore, Riverside was diverse in that way, which made Fosdick’s work as a pastor particularly challenging.

Sitting in Fosdick’s congregation each week was the Rockefeller family.  Yes, those Rockefeller’s…  One of my favorite legends surrounding Fosdick is about the time John D. Rockefeller, Jr, came to Fosdick and referring to his involvement in various progressive social efforts said, “When I go to dinner at the club, my colleagues take issue with you being my pastor.”  Fosdick responded by saying, “yes, and when I go down to the union work houses, my colleagues there take issue with you being my congregant.”  Rockefeller, a republican industrialist and Fosdick, a democratic socialist, working together.  Worshipping together.  Growing spiritually together.  And would you believe that together, these two people who otherwise would have nothing in common, went on to establish schools and hospitals for the disadvantaged, and brought about social reforms because at the end of the day it was not their politics or theology that mattered most, but their commitment to following the ways of Jesus in their lives, and so their lives overflowed to make a difference in the lives of others.

We need more relationship like Fosdick and Rockefeller today.  We are living in divisive times.  Hostile times.  We are living in a time in which it is en vogue to demonize and ostracize those who share different perspectives and positions.  It is now socially acceptable hate and wish harm towards those who are members of opposing political parties.  But Fosdick and Rockefeller remind us that things do not have to be that way.  That two people from different perspectives can come together to address difficult issues simply by asking “what would Jesus do” then doing that.  May we follow in their example, amen?

By the way, Fosdick wrote the hymn we sang at the beginning of today’s service, God of Grace and God of Glory.  It’s one of my all-time favorites. 

“Cure your children’s warring madness;
bend our pride to your control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
lest we miss your kingdom’s goal,
lest we miss your kingdom’s goal.”

Perhaps the most famous of the social gospelers was none other than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It was after reading Walter Rauschenbusch that Dr. King wrote these words:

“It has been my conviction ever since reading Rauschenbusch that any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.”[8]

MLK would also declare “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”[9]

Armed with the Bible in one hand and the U.S. Constitution in the other, King preached, marched, and practiced a Christ-focused non-violent resistance which modeled not only the climax of the social gospel’s expression in American life, but THE GOSPEL of Jesus Christ, embodied in a particular time and place, to change the world as we know it, setting the captives free, reconciling all things back to God himself.

Rauschenbusch, Fosdick, and King.  All Baptists.  Do we ever need their witness today!  I believe churches like Bayshore carry on that legacy, in more ways than one.  But before I talk about that I want to you to hear what our own Baptist Faith and Message says regarding Christians and the social gospel.  Through this summer series on Baptist life we have turned to the confession of faith we embrace at Bayshore, the Baptist Faith and Message, 1963.  But today I want you to hear the social message from the original Baptist Faith and Message published in 1925, just one year before Bayshore was founded as a church.  These are the words which inspired our founders and they were readopted in 1963, just in time for churches like Bayshore to receive the words of MLK and begin imagining a ministry which puts our faith into action in the community around us.

Baptists in the south, in 1925, stood for this:

Every Christian is under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in his own life and in human society to oppose in the spirit of Christ every form of greed, selfishness, and vice; to provide for the orphaned, the aged, the helpless, and the sick; to seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth and brotherly love; to promote these ends Christians should be ready to work with all men of good will in any good cause, always being careful to act in the spirit of love without compromising their loyalty to Christ and his truth. All means and methods used in social service for the improvement of society and the establishment of righteousness among men must finally depend on the regeneration of the individual by the saving grace of God in Christ Jesus.[10]

Through the Old Testament prophet Micah, God spoke these words:

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?”[11]

In short, God says, “I don’t care about your worship.  I don’t care about your piety.  I don’t care about your sacrifices. I don’t care about all the churchy and religious stuff you do or say.  I don’t care about your Christian music or your t-shirts or you bumper stickers.  I only care that you seek justice in the world.  That you do what’s right by me and others.  That you are filled with compassion and kindness and mercy.  And that you walk humbly with me.  That you admit that you don’t have all the answers, and in humility, you turn to me, and let me lead you.”

That was Fosdick and Rockefeller.  You want to know what allowed them to work together?  They humbled themselves.  They sought God first.  They were formed by the compassion, kindness, and mercy of the gospel and out of the overflow of that life, they sought justice for the glory of God, seeking to build God’s kingdom of earth and not their own.  May we learn to do the same in our world today, amen?

This was the mark of a true spiritual life for Jesus.  This was the definition of righteousness for Jesus, that you care for the least of these.  Jesus himself said

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”[12]

Friends, the issues we face today are big ones, but they are no bigger than the issues others had to face in the past.  The question is, what will let allow to guide us?  Political opinions and parties?  Divisive politicians who think they have all the answers?  By the way, that’s all politicians, regardless of party!  Will theological preference and differences get the last word?  Or will the gospel win out?  Will we humble ourselves, and filled with compassion, mercy, and kindness, seek to serve Jesus Christ himself by serving those he brings our way, regardless of who he might bring our way?  That’s the Christian way, and it is the Baptist way too!

In the 1960s, many current Bayshore families found their way here because the Rev. Robert E. Lee did not preach a fundamentalist message and because he led an integrated ministry.  Rev. Robert E. Lee led whites and black to worship together.

In the 1970s pastor Dan Griffin led Bayshore to begin many social ministries that continue to this day, most notably meals on wheels of Tampa which began in our church kitchen. 

Since that time, we have led the way working with other churches to establish and serve through Metropolitan Ministries, the Judeo-Christian Healthcare Alliance, Faith Café, Love Inc, and on and on the list goes.  We believe the gospel has brought salvation to our souls, so we are called to let that message overflow to bring about salvation to our society.  The social gospel is alive and well, not as the social gospel, but as the gospel.  How will we continue that cause?  How will we continued to live into the vision of our founders?  How will we continue to serve the least of these in our world knowing that when we serve them, we serve Jesus Christ himself?

May we not become distracted by the politicians and their fights for votes, each promising their own plan for solving the complex problems of our day.  Instead, may we remain true to the gospel and those who have gone before us.  May we seek the presence of God as we work together.  May we model the love of Christ to all people, regardless of the space they occupy in our society.  May we be humble.  Merciful.  And just.  May the salvation of our souls led us to seek the salvation of our world.  Beginning here at Bayshore and stretching to the ends of the earth.  Amen?

As we move into our time of reflection and response, may we do so by being challenged by these words which come to us from the Franciscan Blessing.

“May God bless you with discomfort,
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships
So that you may live
Deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears,
To shed for those who suffer pain,
Rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand

To comfort them and
To turn their pain to joy
 And may God bless you
With enough foolishness
To believe that you can
Make a difference in the world,
So that you can do
What others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness
To all our children and the poor.


[1] Christopher Hodge Evans, The Social Gospel in American Religion: A History (New York: NYU Press, 2017).6.

[2] Ibid, 5.

[3] Walter Rauschenbusch and Winthrop Still Hudson, Walter Rauschenbusch: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1984). 182.

[4] Story told by Dr. Jim Hamblen at Piney Grove Baptist Church, Mount Airy, NC.  Dr. Len Broughton served as the founding pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia from 1898 to 1912.  In Tabernacle’s infirmary would later become Georgia Baptist Hospital, known today as the Atlanta Medical Center.

[5] See Frances E. Willard, Carolyn De Swarte. Gifford, and Amy R. Slagell, Let Something Good Be Said: Speeches and Writings of Frances E. Willard (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007). 167.

[6] Evans 79.

[7] Rauschenbusch, 178.

[8] Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom, 91.

[9] Martin Luther King, “A Knock at Midnight.” Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Cincinnati, June 5, 1963.

[10] The Baptist Faith and Message, 1925.  Readopted in the 1963 statement with updated language.

[11] Micah 6:6-8. New Revised Standard Version

[12] Matthew 25:31-40, New Revised Standard Version

[13] Unknown.