Reverend Dr. Washington Gladden
Reverend. Dr. Washington Gladden
The Rev. Dr. Washington Gladden served as the Minister of the First Congregational Church of Columbus, Ohio from 1882 to 1918. As an advocate of social justice, he led local and national causes for civil rights, workers’ rights, voting rights, religious pluralism, school integration, and the needs of the poor and oppressed. U.S. Presidents and race leaders called him friend; the Ohio State Journal called him Columbus’ “First Citizen” at the time of his death in 1918.
Gladden embraced the premise that it was the calling of the faithful to bring the Kingdom of God to life by serving others in need. Advocating for social and religious reform, he was known as the Father of the “Social Gospel Movement.” Gladden claimed that building a dutiful relationship with one’s creator was a beginning, but not an end. Each individual was to put his or her faith to work to bring about change in the human condition. The “Social Gospel” applied Christian ethics to social problems.
Born in Pennsylvania and raised in New York, Gladden joined an abolitionist church. He commented that: “the moral law admonishes us not to make our fellow man our tool, our tributary.” He began his career as a newspaper apprentice before attending Williams College to become a minister. Although most ministers of the day sought converts based upon the fear of God, Gladden focused on the love of God and the “Golden Rule.” Initially, he served churches in Massachusetts and New York City. While in New York City, he became the editor of the New York Independent that had a circulation of one million. Gladden garnered a national following as he confronted religious and social issues of the day including his attacks on Tammany Hall. His efforts, among others, to expose government corruption led to the dethroning of “Boss Tweed.”
During his pastorate in Columbus, Gladden preached two sermons each Sunday. The morning service focused on living the Christian life. The evening service, attended by the wider community, addressed social concerns. Each Monday morning The Ohio State Journal printed his Sunday night sermon on page 1. He believed that the “Social Gospel” was more than charity and altruism. Instead, he was a practical pastor and reformer who pushed for action and solutions.
Gladden wrote numerous articles and forty books in his effort to modernize Christian thought and promote social justice. Gladden became famous when as Moderator of the National Council of Congregational Churches, he objected to a $100,000 gift from John D. Rockefeller to an affiliated denominational entity. He called the money “tainted” given the ruthless business practices of Rockefeller. Leaders of other charities took note of Gladden’s stand against one of the most powerful figures of his time.
Gladden became a national speaker fighting corporate trusts, government corruption, and racial prejudice. As the Moderator of the American Missionary Association, he endorsed the development of higher education and voting rights for African-Americans. He recruited Pastor Hugh Proctor to serve with him as Vice-Moderator of the national association. Proctor was the pastor of First Congregational Church of Atlanta, the second oldest African-American Congregational church.
Gladden supported the Tuskagee industrial education philosophy advocated by Booker T. Washington. Washington was a friend of Gladden’s and had spoken at his church. Mr. Washington saw the need for schools to create employable skills and did not focus on politics and voter rights. In time, other Black leaders began to criticize this approach. By 1903, Gladden adopted the views of W.E. B. Du Bois chastising the disenfranchisement of blacks in the south and calling for equal rights in every facet of life. Gladden saw all people as the children of God and as God loves us equally so should we love each other as one universal family. “Among brothers [and sisters] there is no distinction of superior and inferior.” As to racial segregation, Gladden said: “They cannot live together unless both races have full opportunity to live a complete human life.”
In the 1880’s, he joined Rev. James Poindexter of Second Baptist Church in suing the Columbus Public Schools to allow for public school integration. As a result, the Columbus board of education voted to integrate schools some 74 years prior to Brown v. Board of Education. In 1906 in reaction to the Atlanta race riots, 500 black leaders and citizens came to Shiloh Baptist Church to honor five white Columbus leaders who had provided “unswerving and loyal support to the end that justice and fair treatment of the Negro race may obtain all portions of our loved country.” Gladden was among the five honored that day.
As a friend of unions, he supported workers’ rights and profit sharing. Yet he admonished the racial prejudice of northern trade unions that often excluded blacks from membership. He mediated strikes in Columbus and Cleveland calling on both sides to end the war of labor and capital that he claimed was “social suicide.” Seeing the need for a solution, he joined efforts to found the American Economic Association for the study and advocacy of social and economic reform. He did not see that economic forces were merely tied to fate. Gladden said: “We are not hopelessly drifting in the current of social progress; we may shape our own course and choose our own port.”
As an advocate of women’s rights, Gladden in 1912 called upon his friend, Teddy Roosevelt, to support constitutional changes in Ohio that among other things would allow women the right to vote. When visiting Columbus, the former President often stayed at Gladden’s house. Gladden also called upon Booker T. Washington to join the cause of voting rights for women. Although reluctant to enter the political realm, Washington sent a letter to Gladden at his urging, offering support for women’s suffrage.
Gladden presided over the Inter-Church Conference held in 1905 in Carnegie Hall. He encouraged attendees to work together to address major social problems. For example, he sponsored a resolution condemning the suffering of Russian Jews by the czarist regime. Gladden recognized that Christian leaders for centuries had persecuted millions of Jews. He felt that Christians and Jews should live in peace and work together to make heaven on earth to match the heaven that they truly would share when life ends.
Bishop John Watterson and Gladden were close friends. Gladden condemned corporate leaders who fired Catholic workers for attending services. Because the threat was real, Bishop Watterson said that if a worker for the sake of his family could not attend mass then he and his family should attend Gladden’s church to hear the Gospel. In 1892, Gladden’s nomination for President of The Ohio State University by Rutherford B. Hayes was thwarted because of his pro-Catholic leanings. The Ohio Legislature intervened at the request of the American Protection Association, a leading anti-Catholic group. The Catholic News noted in an article in 1895: “For the first time in the history of the university (Notre Dame) the degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred on one not a member of the Catholic Church. The man thus honored was Doctor Washington Gladden, the Congregational minister of Columbus, Ohio, whose pen has done much to overcome the narrow prejudices of the enemies of the Catholic Church, and who is the author of one of the ablest exposures of the A. P. A. movement published.”
Locally, Gladden, in 1895 formed the Civic Federation of Columbus with the help of Bishop Watterson, Rabbi L. Weiss, James Kilbourne, Joseph Jeffrey and Ralph Lazarus. Later, he helped form and served as President of the General Council of Churches and Religious Societies of Columbus that brought together religious leaders of 20 protestant, catholic, and Jewish congregations to tackle difficult social issues. Its motto was: “The union of all who love, in the service of all who suffer.” From 1900-1902, he served on City Council. In 1905, Gladden and Ms. Celia Jeffrey founded a settlement house on the west side that later became known as the Gladden Community House.
The Washington Gladden Social Justice Park, located at Broad and Cleveland in the heart of the Discovery District, just a few blocks from the Statehouse, opened on October 28, 2018. This is the first park in the nation dedicated to the theme of social justice – bringing Columbus together to build the path to a better future through art, education, and dialogue. The park is dedicated to the memory of Rev. Dr. Gladden, and seeks to embody the spirit of his commitment to social justice and community service.