Walter Rauschenbusch called Washington Gladden, “The Father of the Social Gospel Movement.” He was right. From 1882-1918, Dr. Gladden was Senior Minister of First Congregational Church in downtown, Columbus, Ohio. He was a prolific author. He was a champion of justice. First Congregational UCC opened the first Social Justice Park in America in his honor and memory in October 2018.
Dr Gladden spoke and wrote of Light all the time. In his poetry, his hymns, his sermons, he speaks of God’s Light. He talked often about filling every heart and home with light. In “O Master Let Me Walk…” he writes:
In hope that sends a shining ray
Far down the future’s broadening way…
In another hymn, “Behold a Sower,” he wrote:
“Shine forth O Light that we may see with hearts all unafraid,
the meaning and the mystery of things that thou hath made,
Shine forth and let the darkling past,
beneath thy beams grow bright,
shine forth and touch the future vast with thine unclouded light.”
Light found its way into two titles: Witnesses of the Light and Where Does the Sky Begin? He wanted people to sense and feel the Light of God in their hearts and to shine the light of God to others.
Light was important for many reasons. Gladden went through many dark days and difficult times in his life. He lost his father at six years old. He was raised by other family members. He faced considerable challenges throughout his lifetime – including a mental health crisis at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 which left him somewhat reclusive for two years. His only brother was killed in battle at Cold Harbor during the war. He had four children, one of whom died at 24, leaving his only grandchild to be raised by he and his wife (he, 54 at that time). But his sons struggled mightily with alcohol and other personal problems and each died young.
Schooled in the judgmental religion of “hell, fire, and damnation,” Gladden never felt comfortable with this style of religion – believing from his earliest childhood that the love of God in Jesus Christ could not be reconciled with the judgment of people “unto death.”
Founder of the Forerunner of the National Council of Churches, he was a True Light of the Congregational Church and the traditions of liberal Christian thought.
Let me share one story – alluded to above. During the two years that Washington Gladden was struggling with mental health issues, he was cared for his congregation. He was paralyzed by his depression. For two years, his congregation shared the preaching responsibilities for him. They visited the sick and performed funerals. They nursed him back to health through their compassionate care. The people of Morrisania, NY cared for Gladden from sickness to health. They didn’t fire him. They never abandoned him. He was in his mid-20’s when this happened and he ended up living to 82 years old and changing the world of theology and social action.
This morning I was thinking – what if every Christian congregation (or Jewish, Muslim or other faiths) did this when their spiritual leader was struggling with a mental health crisis? What if they stood by him (or her) and nurtured and cared for their return to health and wholeness?
If that happened, that person might also rise from the ashes of their despair and lead a movement of change like the Social Gospel Movement. The hinge of history hangs in the balance with people who respond well to the darkest, hardest days of their spiritual leaders. What if you and I were those kind of people -surrounding others with such love that they rise to new life. If that happened, then their light would shine on us, and in us and through us to others.
May your light shine in this season of Advent. Please receive Dr. Howard Thurman’s poem as a gift for your day and this season of descending darkness embraced by ascending light.
I Will Light Candles This Christmas
I will light candles this Christmas,
Candles of joy despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all year long.
Rev. Dr. Tim Ahrens
The Rev. Dr. Tim Ahrens is Senior Minister of The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio where he has served since January 2000. Ordained in 1985, Tim is a lifelong member of the United Church of Christ.