Gary Dorrien’s Social Ethics in the Making

[1] Much of the history of Christianity has been concerned with the individual’s relation to Jesus Christ and the behavior that such a relationship demands in our day-to-day living. The so-called “law of love” has focused on how individuals relate to God and one another and less on human groups and organizations and how their inherent structures often inhibit behavior motivated by principles of love and justice. Since the 1880s social ethics, whose roots are in the “social gospel,” has been concerned with social salvation. Social ethics is not only a field of study in seminaries and universities, it is also action oriented, where actors seek to change social structures in order to bring about a more just society.

[2] Gary Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University, has written a comprehensive and scintillating history of social ethics in the United States. Much as he has done in his masterful three-volume history of Book Review: Gary Dorrien’s Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition by Chuck Maynard American liberal theology, Dorrien provides keen insights into the individual personalities and thoughts of the numerous women and men who have contributed to the development of the field. Not only did these individuals teach the classes and write the papers and books that formed the intellectual and spiritual basis of the discipline of social ethics, many of them were also actors who through a variety of means sought a more just society.

[3] In the early pages of the book, there are 45 photographs of women and men who were and are prominent social ethicists — this list includes founders of the field (Francis Peabody), Roman Catholics (Dorothy Day, Charles Curran), conservatives (Michael Novak, Carl F.H. Henry), liberals (John Cobb), women (Katie Cannon), and African-Americans (James Cone, to whom the book is dedicated). In addition there are many others who are mentioned in the book’s eleven chapters. Among these many names, three individuals played major roles in the development of the field: Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Rauschenbusch is the major representative of the social gospel and Niebuhr that of its antithesis, Christian realism. King represents liberation theology, the synthesis of these two views, and in Dorrien’s opinion is the greatest figure in American Christian social ethics.

[4] Dorrien has one chapter each on the social gospel, Christian realism, and liberation disruptions. These chapters are the heart of the book and tell compelling stories about the three men who represent these three significant strands in American social ethics. Walter Rauschenbusch was the son of a German preacher who taught at Rochester Theological Seminary. His father, August, who was from a long line of German Lutheran pastors but later became a Baptist, was a difficult husband and father. While attending Rochester, the younger Rauschenbusch’s orthodox views were challenged such that social salvation became as important as individual salvation. The goal of Rauschenbusch’s ministry was to bring the Kingdom of God to the United States. Rauschenbusch was a socialist who maintained his evangelical faith while conducting his social ministry. His understanding of what he called the social crisis in America was honed by his ministry in Hell’s Kitchen, where he saw much of human suffering and tried to find ways to change the social structures that produced this misery. Despite going deaf, Rauschenbusch later taught at Rochester Theological School and wrote several significant books about the American social crisis and how the Kingdom of God could be established. The Great War as well as reaction to his German heritage dealt a severe blow to his dreams. He died of cancer at the age of 56 in July 1918.

[5] Given the demise of the social gospel, what was to become of the field of social ethics? The answer as Dorrien so deftly tells us was given by Christian realism and its most visible and brilliant representative, Reinhold Niebuhr. Like Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr was the son of a German pastor, although this one was of the German Evangelical Synod. Niebuhr’s education at Elmhurst College and Eden Theological Seminary was not particularly impressive, and he barely escaped with his masters from Yale Divinity School in 1915. Niebuhr’s understanding of American capitalism was formed by his years as pastor at Detroit’s Bethel Evangelical Church, which was attended mainly by automobile workers. As a result of the events of World War I, Niebuhr went on a national speaking tour and his reputation as a perceptive social critic grew.

[6] In his early years, Niebuhr was a pacifist and socialist, but he ultimately became skeptical of humanity’s capacity to bring about a better world. Niebuhr’s writings and his role as a journal editor led to the offer of a teaching position at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. At Union through his teaching, speaking, and prodigious writing of books and articles, Niebuhr became the leading proponent of Christian realism, which was critical of the social gospel and its naive faith in the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. For Niebuhr, the law of love demanded by the social gospel was impossible to realize in a world dominated by sin. The story of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian realism is a long and complicated one, as Niebuhr expressed many different and at times conflicting views during the course of his long career of speaking and writing.

[7] Niebuhr may have provided us with a way of seeing the world, but what hope did Christian realism offer the poor and dispossessed, who were mainly people of color and/or women? Thus, Dorrien introduces us to liberation theology and its primary representatives, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Cone, Mary Daly, and Beverly Harrison. Liberation theology represented a third paradigm in American social ethics, and can be viewed as the outcome of the dialectic of the social gospel and Christian realism. The story of Martin Luther King, Jr. is well known, but is told with understanding and insight by Dorrien. Like both Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr, King was the son of a pastor; he graduated from Morehouse College, the liberal white Crozer Theological Seminary, and Boston University where he completed his doctorate in theology. How this highly educated man applied the teachings of Jesus and Gandhi in the nonviolent struggle to change the laws and ultimately the attitudes of a racist society is one of humankind’s most moving stories. King’s later ministry moved from establishing racial justice to efforts to bring about economic justice and ultimately ended in his violent death.

[8] The hallmarks of Dorrien’s history of social ethics are its comprehensiveness; fascinating stories; clear explanations of complex concepts such as ethics, social organization, social class, and human behavior; and the ability to make sense of disparate trends and events that comprise the field of social ethics. Above all, Dorrien is a fair evaluator of the women and men whose thoughts comprise the field. He is also a prolific writer; and from his articles and books on economic democracy, it is clear that his world-view is quite different from conservatives such as Henry and Novak. Despite this, he is fair and even handed in his evaluation of these individuals.

[9] It is difficult to find fault with Dorrien’s masterful work. That being said it is important to recognize that while social ethics is primarily an American phenomenon, its roots are in the Old Testament and what it means to be a just society. This reviewer will always remember a class in Old Testament theology taught by J.V. Halvorsen some 40 years ago at Luther Theological Seminary. The class included readings from the Old Testament, Gerhard von Rad, and Niebuhr, the modern day prophet in the tradition of Old Testament prophets. Much of the Old Testament is concerned with how to build a just society, and this struggle is reflected in the work of the many men and women in Dorrien’s book.

[10] There are at least three significant social ethicists who were either not mentioned or received brief mention in the book. First, Joseph Fletcher was a Christian ethicist well known for his books about situation and biomedical ethics. While not known primarily as a social ethicist, Fletcher, one of the more distinctive individuals in the field of Christian ethics, was an ardent socialist prior to his conversion to pragmatism centered on the law of love.1 Given Fletcher’s prominence as a Christian ethicist, it is not clear why Dorrien does not acknowledge him in the book. It is understandable that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was mentioned only briefly, as he is not American and only spent a brief time in the United States. On the other hand, in his time at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer attended classes taught by Niebuhr and forged close friendships with fellow students Paul Lehman and Frank Fisher. Clearly these associations as well as his encounter with the Black Church in Harlem were transformational and influenced Bonhoeffer’s decision to return to Germany and confront the evil in his homeland. Third, George Forell, notable for his work on Luther’s social ethics 2 and social ethics in general 3 was not mentioned by Dorrien. Forell, who is now in his early 90s, received his doctorate in theology from Union Theological Seminary in 1949 and studied with both Niebuhr and John Bennett, another notable Christian realist. He spent many years at the University of Iowa and had a profound effect on many through his writings and personal relationships with students and colleagues. One wonders why Forell was not included in the book, given his importance as a student and teacher of Christian social ethics.

[11] Another drawback of this book is its list price of $157.95, although a paperback edition will be available in December 2010 for $44.95. The price of the hardback edition will probably stretch the budgets of many, but the paperback edition is reasonably priced and worth the wait for those who wish to purchase it. In the end, there are very few scholars who have the ability and the energy to write a history of such scope and complexity. We owe much to Professor Dorrien for writing the history of social ethics and the brave women and men who have contributed to the field. In a sense, his efforts to tell this important story are also heroic, as Dorrien himself is a towering figure in the field.


1. Joseph Fletcher, “Memoir of an Ex-Radical,” in Kenneth Vaux, ed., Memoir of an Ex-radical: Reminiscence and Appraisal (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster Press, 1993) 55–92.

2. George W. Forell, Faith Active in Love (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1954).

3. George W. Forell, Christian Social Teachings (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966).

Charles (Chuck) Maynard

Charles (Chuck) Maynard is a research professor in the Department of Health Services at the University of Washington.