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The Social Gospel


Just over a century ago there was a movement among American clergy of various denominations and sects called “The Social Gospel.” I invite you all to look it up and consider how far we’ve veered toward its antithesis.

Simply put Social Gospelers, as they were known, held that Jesus’ message was not a vertical one—his link between humankind and the ineffable—but rather a horizontal bond between himself and the rest of us. Emphasis was put on his role as brother of humankind, rather than son of God. We were all, in the New Testament sense, our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers; no one should feel comfortable until all were given comfort. 

In the throes of the post-Civil War era and the rise of European socialism, theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden reached through the artifice of barriers, not only between various denominations of Christianity (though Catholics and the Orthodox tended to ignore those opportunities for dialogue), but also between and among the sects: Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Parsis, etc., many of whom joined a great Congress of World Religions convened in Chicago during 1893, contemporary with but distinct from the Columbian Exposition. The Unitarian divine Jenkin Lloyd Jones, founder of All Souls Unitarian Church on Chicago’s south side and uncle of none other than Frank Lloyd Wright, relocated and reinvented his congregation as The Abraham Lincoln Center, attracting both Christians and Jews to its non-sectarian services.

I have been interested in the architectural consequences of the Social Gospel movement for almost fifty years and am ready to publish research on what I believe is a genuinely American contribution to the evolution of religious architecture. Those of you who know me and sensed my passion for the so called Akron-Auditorium Plan have also been bored silly by endless tellings of that tale. So, you might well suspect the Social Gospel had reared itself in Agincourt, where I got a chance to design what might have been the last gasp of the Akron Plan—the community’s Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1913 from the design of Liebbe, Nourse & Rasmussen, Des Moines architects (who of course had nothing whatsoever to do with the commission).

Howard wants to tell us something about Asbury UMC, just a year away from the centennial of its building.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Once upon a time…

I know some of you will find this hard to believe but, once upon a time in America, religion was a force that united rather than divided; something that linked the faithful of various denominations with even the faithless.

In the aftermath of Civil War, at the dawn of massive migration from Europe into the abuses of industrializing America, a movement called the Social Gospel worked for the betterment of us all. Abstractions like this are all well and good: until they affect you or someone you know, they’ll be one of those things you remember until the first pop quiz and then they’re promptly gone, so much snow on the water.

Until you drive past the corner of Agincourt Avenue and Second Street NW, that is.


Asbury United Methodist began its life as one of Agincourt’s first five churches—denominations that gambled for the original “church lots.” Asbury received the “B” lot and built the first of its three successive buildings there in 1860. But it’s the third building of 1919—a landmark building soon to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places—that merits our attention; that not ungracious building links us with an heroic national phenomenon.

Agincourt in 1913 was already committed to progressive ideals (a YMCA, a public library) so Asbury’s new church was fitting and disproportionately large for our population at the time. Candace Varenhorst promises to share some information on her predecessor, Rev B. D. E. Barnes, and his leadership in creating the community’s largest church building—then and now. And my consultant and friend Ron Ramsay promises to put the building in its larger context of architectural history. In the meantime, Asbury is testament enough to an earlier faith that we should rediscover.

Howard has put me in the spot, I guess. Looks like there’s a National Register nomination in my future.

1 Comment

  1. […] church in Fennimore county—has been described but only sketchily designed. But the Wesleyans of Asbury UMC and the Jews of Temple Emmanu-El are closer to inclusion than most other faith traditions. In this […]

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