Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


A social and political reform movement, generally placed in American politics from the turn of the twentieth century to the U.S. entry into World War I. Large-scale immigration, urbanization, and industrialization had generated concerns about the future and the character of the nation. The populist movement of the 1890s was one response to these changes, based in the threats to midwestern and southern agricultural groups. A nativist, nostalgic retreat was another response, symbolized by groups such as the American Protective Association and the Ku Klux Klan. In contrast, progressivism called upon liberal religion's Social Gospel and the newly emerging social sciences (particularly sociology; see Vidich and Lyman 1985) to fashion an optimistic forward-looking vision of a brighter future. There was confidence in progress and faith in enlightenment (Fox 1993).

Progressivism emerged from institutions outside the polity. Churches, parachurch groups, women's associations, and newly formed graduate divisions of universities (many of them church related) were the organizational bases for progressivism's reformist ideas. In that sense, progressivism was anti-institutional, focusing its attacks on the established order of turn-of-the-century society: monopolistic business corporations, urban ethnic political machines, traditional church hierarchies, and the established political parties. It saw the political partisanship of the parties and the theological partisanship of the established churches as problematic. Solutions were sought in political and educational reforms, informed by social ethics, social science, and a civil religious "religion of America" (Eisenach 1994) that fostered faith in democracy, as conceived by professional and managerial reformers. Policy programs included breaking up business monopolies ("trust busting"), deracinating the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe (e.g., Hull House), sponsoring ecumenical religious organizations (such as the Federal Council of Churches of Christ, founded in 1908), and putting a new emphasis on public schools as the fundamental institutions of the American democratic system.

The carriers of progressivist ideas were an emergent professional class of academic reformers and social workers, northern liberal evangelical clergy, and middle-class women connected to moral reform associations. Jane Addams, Ralph Bourne, Herbert Croly, John Dewey, Franklin Giddings, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch were key progressivist thinkers. Progressivism merged traditional national-millennial themes of creating the Kingdom of God on earth with a social evolutionist perspective on "progress" (Eisenach 1994, Handy 1984). It was a "theology of the fulfillment of America as a historic nation" (Eisenach 1994:66) wherein democracy became a national faith, undergirded by a social ethic drawn from a new covenant based on public theology.

In this sense, progressivism was both a secularization of Protestant theology and a sacralization of sociology and public philosophy (Fox 1993, Lasch 1991, Vidich and Lyman 1985). It was an indirect hegemonic conquest of public discourse by a merger of modernized Protestant evangelical theology and the new social sciences. And, of course, this merger help set the context for the modernist-fundamentalist split Protestantism experienced in the next decade.

Rhys H. Williams


E. J. Eisenach, The Lost Promise of Progressivism (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1994)

R. W. Fox, "The Culture of Liberal Protestant Progressivism," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23(1993):639-660

R. T. Handy, A Christian America , 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984)

C. Lasch, "Religious Contributions to Social Movements," Journal of Religious Ethics 18(1991):7-25

A. J. Vidich and S. M. Lyman, American Sociology (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500