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The Social Gospel Hereabouts


“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

The Social Gospel Hereabouts

“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” (Sonmi 451)

― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Religion—by which I may mean institutionalized spirituality—has become a binary proposition in 21st century America: it depends in large part whether the things that divide us outweigh those that unite. Agincourt’s current Methodist preacher Rev Candice Varenhorst is of the inclusive sort.

There are those in the community, a significant number, in fact, who stand against marriage equality, immigration reform, and much of government’s provision for a social safety net. Even the ordination of women remains contentious; just ask Candy. [On that score, Rev Francis Manning’s grave at St Ahab’s chapel has become sacred ground.] So when the history of Asbury UMC is written, there will likely be a substantial chapter on the Social Gospel and a necessary re-acquaintance with 19th century theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden—names even too obscure for Final Jeopardy.

Among the liturgical branches of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and some Lutheran synods), the Social Gospel was little more than rumor. Rather, it was in the mainstream of Protestantism that it thrived: Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists (of the Northern species) Congregationalists and several smaller denominations, like Disciples of Christ and United Brethren. Despite doctrinal differences, they shared a view that Jesus’ brotherhood with Mankind could possibly matter more than his divinity; the belief that we are our brother’s keeper. And especially, that the church as a physical plant has far more meaning than a few hours’ service on Sunday morning. The result were churches unlike any before or since—until the  mega-church movement today, that is, where congregations occupy entire defunct shopping centers.

Ground, Second and First Floor Plans of Asbury United Methodist Church, Agincourt, Iowa

Our own Asbury UMC is a full-blown Akron-Auditorium plan church, with spacial flexibility between auditorium and Sunday school, as well as the (nearly) full complement of auxiliary services: adult classrooms, social hall, lending library, and athletic facilities (the seed for our YMCA). There are even living quarters for the pastor’s family and emergency housing for the temporarily displaced or dispossessed.  Social Gospel churches are often mistaken for civic or neighborhood centers, far more secular than sacred. So, whether Chicago or Agincourt, such facilities addressed the fullest societal needs of their communities in 24/7 fashion.

The founder of this particular feast was Rev B. D. E. Barnes, pastor of Asbury in the ‘teens and instigator of its Social Gospel programming. Working with Des Moines architects Liebbe Nourse & Rasmussen, he crafted a multi-faceted ecumenical facility that has kept pace with Agincourt’s development. The YMCA, just north on Second Street, began in its lower level, offering programs to keep young men from pool halls and other distractions. The social hall sheltered refugees displaced from the Fourth Ward by the Flood of ’34; the sesqui-centennial quilt was sewn there. The auditorium was “lent” to the members of Temple Emanu-El while their synagogue was under construction, and to the Muslim community until the Islamic Center was opened in 2004. Indeed, the parking lot they share can truly be called ecumenical, filled with cars on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

asbury UMC windows

Stained Glass Windows, Asbury United Methodist Church, Agincourt, Iowa

Next year Asbury UMC’s building will celebrate its centennial and with it the opportunity to recall a Christian movement whose need is felt across the community today.

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