The Social Gospel in Grinnell

The Social Gospel Movement of the late Nineteenth Century emerged in response to the critical social problems of the era:  rapid urbanization, massive immigration, child labor, poor schools, slums, labor unrest, and extreme poverty. The Social Gospel Movement called for extending Christian values to everyday life—for bringing the Kingdom of God into the present world.  The ideal of social justice permeated the movement: clergy in the more progressive wings of Protestant Churches, most notably Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Baptists, actively promoted economic, social, and political justice as Christian responses to the problems of the times.

While adherents of the movement were few in number they founded settlement houses, established educational programs for immigrants, supported labor unions and workers rights, called to end child labor, and sought to assist the poor. Progressive Era politicians of the early 20th century pursued these issues.

Grinnell, Iowa, became a center of this movement when George A. Gates assumed the presidency of Iowa (Grinnell) College and George D. Herron was appointed Chair of the new Department of Applied Christianity. While Herron became nationally known for his fiery rhetoric about bringing the Kingdom of God to earth, it was George Gates whose Social Gospel ethos transformed the college.


A portrait of a young George Gates


In 1887, George Augustus Gates was inaugurated as the second president of Iowa College, following a three-year search to replace George Magoun. Like Magoun, Gates was a Congregational minister, but there the similarity ended. Gates was relatively young (36) and theologically progressive, having been initially denied ordination for his support of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Believing that the message of Jesus was one of justice, Gates became a national leader of the Social Gospel movement through his addresses and particularly through the publication he edited, The Kingdom.


President George Gates at a desk likely in his office at Iowa College


Gates incorporated his ideals into the administration of Iowa College. He transformed the college: he supported a greater role for faculty in the curricular affairs of the college; he hired new faculty to teach in the developing areas of the sciences and modern foreign languages; he championed women faculty and students; he believed students should take responsibility for their lives and decisions (self-governance); and he encouraged the growth of athletics as a central part of college life. His inaugural address is still worth reading for its statement of the value of a liberal arts education.

Gates’ weekly journal, The Kingdom, published between 1894 and 1899, served as a voice for progressive Social Gospel proponents. At its height its circulation reached nearly 20,000. It was forced to cease publication when Gates was sued by the American Book Company for his essay attacking the company’s pricing policies. Although the Kingdom won the lawsuit, it could no longer afford to keep publishing.

Gates resigned as President of Iowa College in 1900, but later served as President at Pomona College and Fisk University.


Portrait of George D. Herron


George Herron was undoubtedly the most controversial of all the proponents of the Social Gospel. He was largely self-educated, only briefly attending the preparatory school at Ripon College. Nevertheless, he was ordained a Congregational minister and rose to national attention with his 1890 speech to the Minnesota Congregational Club, “The Message of Jesus to Men of Wealth.” Herron’s message of sacrifice and stewardship resonated with a wide audience. His benefactor, Mrs. E. D. Rand, encouraged his appointment to the ministry at Burlington, Iowa, succeeding William Salter, a member of the Iowa Band of ministers that founded Iowa College in 1846. In 1893, thanks to a generous endowment from Mrs. Rand, Herron was appointed Chair of Applied Christianity at Iowa College, shortly after he had been awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree from Tabor College.


Herron was initially a popular lecturer, but as his national fame grew, and he was frequently absent from campus on speaking engagements, that popularity waned. Herron became more radical, and his close relationship with the Rands raised the trustees’ eyebrows. President Gates, a strong supporter of Herron and of academic freedom, continued to back him against calls for his dismissal. Ultimately, however, Herron resigned and left Grinnell.


Political Comic of George Herron depicting his controversial exit from Iowa College


Herron’s radicalism eventually led him to renounce the established church and embrace Socialism. In 1900, Herron was one of the speakers nominating Eugene Debs as the Presidential Candidate for the Social Democratic Party. Eventually, Herron was discharged from the ministry and left for Italy with his wife and Mrs. Rand. Following WWI, Herron worked faithfully on behalf of Woodrow Wilson’s peace initiative, but when it failed, he returned to his villa in Italy where he lived until his death in 1925.


Portrait of Edward Steiner


Edward A. Steiner assumed the position of E. D. Rand chair in Applied Christianity at Iowa College in 1905, filling a six-year vacancy from 1899-1905 following the resignation of Herron. A Slovak immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Steiner converted from Judaism to Christianity upon arrival in the United States. He then gained prominence in the Midwest for his preaching of the Social Gospel. His rhetoric was informed not only by his conversion but also by his relationship with Leo Tolstoy, whom he visited a number of times in the years leading up to Tolstoy’s death. Steiner brought the Department of Applied Christianity into the twentieth century. His plans for the department differed from Herron’s. While Herron had focused on training ministers for service, Steiner emphasized the importance of instructing all students regardless of their future career plans.


Portrait of Edward Steiner and his wife


Carrie A. Rand (Mrs. E.D. Rand)


Photograph of Carrie A. Rand, benefactor of Iowa College


Caroline A. Rand (Mrs. E.D. Rand) had a profound influence on the college and on the career of George D. Herron.  It was Mrs. Rand who recommended Herron for the position to replace William Salter as principal pastor at the Congregational Church in Burlington.  It was Mrs. Rand who funded the position of Chair of Applied Christianity at Iowa College for Herron, and it was she who funded the Rand Lectures, which brought to Grinnell national speakers, including Jane Addams.  She was an unwavering advocate for Herron, and when he divorced his wife to marry her daughter Carrie, she paid the settlement to Mrs. Herron.  She joined Carrie and Herron in exile at her estate in Italy until she died in 1906.


Carrie Rand


Photograph of Carrie Rand Herron taken in Switzerland


Carrie Rand was Instructor in Social and Physical Culture at Iowa College but will forever be known as the woman for whom George Herron left his wife and children.  The scandal ruined Herron’s reputation, and the couple ultimately chose exile in Italy rather than living in the United States as pariahs.  She died in Italy in 1914.


Herron’s disgrace often overshadows the abiding effect on the College of the Social Gospel, particularly as practiced by President Gates. The message of social and economic justice continued to grow and the generation of leaders who followed Gates and Herron built on their legacy.


Garrett P. Wyckoff


Portrait of a young Wyckoff


Garrett P. Wyckoff graduated from Iowa College in 1894. Schooled in the Social Gospel by George Herron, he served as an instructor in the Department of Applied Christianity while Herron was on leave.  He assumed the position of Acting Professor when Herron resigned.  Wyckoff’s courses were strongly influenced by the growing field of Sociology, and he offered the first course in Sociology west of the Mississippi.


Photograph of Garrett Wyckoff playing baseball


Wyckoff’s career was wide-ranging.  Immediately after World War I, he was placed in charge of fieldwork for the International Red Cross in the newly formed Czechoslovak state.  In 1926, the President of the Czechoslovak Republic recognized his service by awarding him the Order of the White Lion.


Order of the White Lion award for Garrett P. Wyckoff


In 1920, Wyckoff was appointed the first Dean of the School for Social Work at Tulane University, where he served with distinction.


A.B. De Haan 


Photograph of A. B. De Haan in Herrick Chapel


A.B. De Haan (Arthur Benjamin) attended Iowa College from 1902 to 1906. After receiving his degree, De Haan pursued a career in ministry, completing a degree at Oberlin Theological Seminary in the spring of 1909. That fall, he served as a missionary at the Oberlin-in-China Min Hsien School in Taigu, China. While stationed there, he studied the education system and the role of foreign missionary schools. In 1910, De Haan wrote a letter back to then President J.H.T. Main proposing a Grinnell-in-China program stressing the ideals and values of the Social Gospel. Subsequent letters to trustees, faculty, students, and the local Congregational Church raised the funds necessary to begin the program. In 1916, the Grinnell-in-China school opened its doors to its first class of students. The legacy of the Social Gospel also lived on in the work of Harry Hopkins, Chester Davis, Florence Kerr, Hallie Flanagan, and other Grinnellians who served in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. The value of service, central to the Social Gospel message of Gates and Herron, continues to underlie the college’s mission: to produce graduates “who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good.”