Social Gospel and Missions

Gender and the Social Gospel, Wendy Deichmann Edwards and Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, eds.

This series of essays focuses on the lack of attention to women and gender within the historical discourse around the social gospel movement. General topics and themes under consideration include the work of female social gospel leaders, the conservative gender ideas of major leaders, particularly Walter Rauschenbusch, and female theological contributions, albeit through unofficial channels. The commitment to influencing social structures in order to bring about a just (millennial) society, which was sought by both male and female actors, while also being understood differently by them, is emphasized throughout the book.

The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China, Jane Hunter

Hunter’s book is an excellent study of the confluence of religion, gender, race, nationalism, and imperialism that occurred in the lives and actions of women missionaries in China at the turn of the 20th century. The main text of her study focuses on the experiences of American women in China, discussing the different gender expectations and experiences for married and single women, and the uniting desire to recreate an American domestic sphere within the Chinese context. Of particular interest are the ways single women especially found increase authority due to their position outside of the typical gender constructs of both cultures, and their increased tendency to incorporate themselves into Chinese culture.

The millennial impulse is alive and well in both of these readings, as we move through the turn of the 20th century. The various actors within the social gospel movement, as highlighted throughout the essays compiled by Edwards and Gifford, are challenging social structures because of a vision of a just social order, a vision equated with the Kingdom of God on earth. The women in Turner’s analysis are also seeking a millennial goal, convinced that once the gospel is preached throughout the world, the end of time would be at hand.

In both of these cases, understandings of gender are central to the vision of society and salvation being pursued. For many of the female advocates of the social gospel, gender equality is central to their idea of a just society, and the conflict between that goal and conservative opinions such as that of Rauschenbusch require further study. On the other side, despite the relatively conservative ideas about gender roles espoused by the missionaries, they saw themselves as bringing liberation to women in China, liberation in the form of domesticity. This liberation of women is tied to their belief that female conversion is instrumental for societal conversion, and so was central to their goal of converting the world for Christ.

While the essays in Gender and the Social Gospel begin the work of reintegrating female actors and questions of gender into the historical narrative, it is clear there is much work left to be done. Because of the variety of ideas and actions pursued under the rubric of affecting social structures to create a just society, definitions are still being negotiated. The social gospel movement, like evangelicalism, is a slippery topic, hard to pin down and classify. Also, the variety of opinions about what constitutes a just society further complicates the issues. A more focused study of gender that focuses on the efforts of people within a particular area or organization intentionally under the rubric of the “Social Gospel” would be a useful follow-up to this more general call for scholarship.

One complaint, or possibility for further work, with Hunter’s analysis is the narrow focus on the goals and experiences of the white missionaries. While her last chapter emphasizes the ways in which Chinese women actively shaped the message they received for their own ends, that line of analysis does not extend throughout the book. Instead, her focus on the missionary experience of gender leaves that aspect of the exchange in need of further development. However, this is more a request for an additional study than a serious complaint with the current.