Poetry, Prose and Art in the American Social Gospel Movement 1880-1910

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A wealth of social Christian novels, poetry, and visual images came together during the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century to help Americans imagine new roles for God in a changing society. More “immanent” than “other,” God came to life in such imaginative works, and through elements of creative expression writers and artists demonstrated the ways that human drama provides believers with meaningful images of the divine. Many ministers and theologians read or viewed these works and responded with a social Christian vocabulary rich in figurative language. The ensuing dialogue produced an extraordinary moment in the history of modern American religion. To date scholars have examined only one side of the conversion, emphasizing the extensive influence social Christian theory and practice had upon popular literature and art. This works demonstrates that the creative impulse motivated almost all who participated in the movement, and it argues that the ambiguities of poetry, prose fiction, and the visual arts have helped social Christianity endure.


“This book provides the reader wit a useful introduction to new sources for the study of social Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Waldmeir addresses a wide variety of literary genres and art forms. Examples range from the social Christian newspaper The Dawn, a sampling of the works of various novelists, poets, and essayists, an in-depth study of the most famous of the social Christian novelists (Charles Sheldon), as well as the paintings of visual artists such as harry Learned and Olof Grafstrom. The most important contribution of this book to the study of social Christianity is Waldmeir’s literary analysis of this material. . . . This is a truly interdisciplinary work . . . . he has put his dual background in theology and literature to good use. I recommend this book highly for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of this important movement in American Religious History.” – Professor Dennis Castillo, Christ the King Seminary

“. . . an important contribution to American cultural criticism because it helps readers re-imagine the Social Gospel movement. . . . Waldmeir’s discussion goes beyond narrow, disciplinary thinking and presents Social Christian thought as a rich conglomeration of imaginative, diverse ad sometimes conflicting thought. Waldmeir’s method is truly interdisciplinary. He is comfortable writing about theology, literature, art, history and culture. . . . He is an astute art critic with a penchant for noticing the details of visual productions and then reading those details back into culture. . . . This study will be useful to undergraduates and graduates interested in 19th and early 20th century American literature, history and art. It will also be useful to scholars of 10th and early 20th century America, primarily for the new ways it is imagining American cultural criticism.” – Professor Eric Fretz, Michigan State University

Table of Contents

Introduction: “God Has Two Hands”: Creative Tension and the Social Christian Imagination
1. “Not Other, More”: Social Christianity and the Rhetoric of Wholeness
2. Filling in the Blanks: Absence and Presence in the Works of Charles Sheldon
3. Social Christianity and the Problem of the West
4. Christian Socialism and God’s Plot
5. The Person in Social Christian Literature Conclusion: A New Sacredness
Bibliography; Index

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