Washington Gladden

The American clergyman Washington Gladden (1836-1918) was a pioneer of the Social Gospel and a key spokesman for liberal Protestantism.

On Feb. 11, 1836, Washington Gladden was born in Pottsgrove, Pa. Much of his childhood was spent in western New York, a district famous for its religious enthusiasms. This fact, coupled with his family's piety, aroused in young Gladden strong spiritual interests. In the mid-1850s he entered Williams College, where he received a degree preparatory to entering the ministry. In 1860 Gladden accepted his first pastorate in a Congregational church in Brooklyn. For the remainder of his life he devoted his principal energies to ministerial duties in urban areas, first in New York City, then in Massachusetts, and finally for over 30 years at the First Congregational Church in Columbus, Ohio.

From the outset Gladden was influenced by the new theological and social concerns animating American Protestantism in the late 19th century. Though lacking formal theological training beyond college, he kept abreast of current developments through wide and systematic reading. He was deeply affected by the writings of Horace Bushnell. Gladden preached the need to adapt Protestant theology to the new developments in biblical criticism and the natural sciences, especially Darwin's theory of evolution. He published several books espousing these views; as a member of the staff of a national journal, the Independent, he disseminated his ideas to a broad national audience. He also contributed frequently to the Congregationalist, a widely respected periodical.

Gladden quickly recognized some of the more destructive tendencies of city living. He urged that the church minister to the needs of working people, the poor, and those hurt by the impersonality of urban life. Thus he was an early exponent of what was eventually called the Social Gospel. He urged support for labor unions to protect the working man, identified with the settlement house movement, and entered into politics in Columbus, Ohio, to represent those seeking reform of municipal government.

Gladden's most spectacular act in support of the Social Gospel occurred in 1905, when he roundly condemned the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a powerful national body of the Congregationalists, for accepting a $100,000 gift from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. He denounced the gift as "tainted money," an attack similar to those being leveled by secular "muckraking" journalists at big business and the great captains of industry.

Although not an originator of new ideas and trends, Gladden nevertheless pioneered in the theological views he adopted and in the social causes he espoused. By the time of his death in Columbus on July 2, 1918, he was considered one of the leading spokesmen for liberal Protestantism and the Social Gospel.

Further Reading on Washington Gladden

Gladden's autobiography is Recollections (1909). A sound, comprehensive biography of Gladden is Jacob Henry Dorn, Washington Gladden: Prophet of the Social Gospel (1967). An interpretive account of the man and his influence is Richard D. Knudten, The Systematic Thought of Washington Gladden (1968).