Norman Thomas: Socialism and the Social Gospel

by Elizabeth Balanoff

Dr. Balanoff is professor of history at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she recently presented this paper at a symposium in observance of the 100th anniversary of Norman Thomas’s birth.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, January 30, 1985, pp. 101-102. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Norman Thomas’ thought and action was an outgrowth of the 19th-century Social Gospel theology as developed by Walter Rauschenbush. His pacifism had some limitations, and his socialistic stance violated all traditional images of normal socialist behavior.

Thomas’s thought, wrote one biographer, was a mixture of Christianity, anarchism and Marxism (Bernard J. Johnpoll, Pacifist’s Progress: Norman Thomas and the Decline of American Socialism, Quadrangle, 1970). The biographer might just as accurately have characterized it as an outgrowth of the 19th-century Social Gospel movement. Walter Rauschenbusch, who developed a Social Gospel theology most thoroughly, had a profound influence on Thomas.

Born in 1861, Rauschenbusch experienced an adolescence and young adulthood that coincided with the end of Reconstruction (accompanied by Klan violence), the last of the Indian wars, the rapid settlement of the West, tremendous industrial expansion and centralization, marked by widespread, often violent, labor strife, and the greatest wave of immigration in American history. It was also an era of major farm and labor organizations based on Christian fraternalism and engaged in experiments with the cooperative production and distribution of goods: the National Labor Union, the Knights of Labor, Patrons of Husbandry and the Southern Farmers Alliance. Rauschenbusch absorbed Henry George’s Progress and Poverty and Edward Bellamy’s utopian novels. He studied in both Germany and the United States, read Marx, Mazzini and Tolstoy, and visited Sidney and Beatrice Webb in England, where he became acquainted with the Fabian Socialists.

The key to Rauschenbusch’s theology was his concept of the Kingdom of God. To him, this Kingdom was not located in another place called heaven or in a future millennium, but could best be described in modern terms as a level of consciousness in which one recognized the immanence of God in human life and the interconnected, interacting, interdependent nature of the entire human species. His vision was like the ancient concept of the organic community that underlay tribalism, feudalism and early American Puritanism, but it expanded the community to include the whole earth. Walter Rauschenbusch was convinced that this was the original Christian vision which had been distorted and lost with time, and that it was possible to regain it.

The social and political implications of such a view were radical indeed. A socialist economy fit comfortably into this scheme, while laissez-faire capitalism led to a situation where, Rauschenbusch said, "the larger part of the members are, through solidarity, caged to be eaten by the rest and suffer what is both unjust and useless." (A Theology for the Social Gospel, McMillan [1917], p. 20). Rauschenbusch believed that social institutions should be "fraternal and cooperative," and raised the question of "institutionalized sin" 50 years before King’s young followers discovered institutionalized racism. The anarchist component of his thought lay in the high value he placed on each individual human life and his opposition to coercion. If socialism was desirable, Rauschenbusch argued, it must be chosen voluntarily, not imposed. Individual conscience must be respected. Anti-imperialism, pacifism and respect for all races were implicit in this teaching.

Thomas met and married a young nurse from a wealthy, socially prominent family. She shared his views, and they settled down to what they expected to be a lifelong ministry to the urban poor. At East Harlem Church on 116th Street (in a neighborhood with New York’s highest homicide rate), they ministered to people who faced a combination of high unemployment and low-paying jobs, which oppressed both body and soul. The couple planted inner-city gardens, opened workshops and begged from the rich to feed the poor.

World War I and Thomas’s public expression of pacifism unexpectedly curtailed his ministry. Although he was not yet a socialist, the minister was an ardent pacifist, a position for which his church gave little support. Attracted to the Socialist Party primarily because it opposed World War I, he endorsed Socialist candidate Morris Hillquit for mayor of New York in 1918. In a letter to the press, Thomas wrote:

I believe that the hope for the future lies in a new social and economic order which demands the abolition of the capitalistic system. War itself is only the most horrible and dramatic of the many evil fruits of our present organized system of exploitation and the philosophy of life which exalts competition instead of cooperation. I am convinced that the hope of peace lies not so much in statesmen, who have already shown themselves bankrupt of ideas, but in people of all countries who demand the cessation of war in which they pay so horrible a price [W. A. Swanberg, Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist, Scribners (1976) p. 58].

He soon paid the price for his letter, as contributions to his church and its charitable activities declined abruptly. When it finally became clear to Thomas that "his poor" would not be fed until he resigned his post, his Social Gospel ministry came to an end. Soon after that, he was appointed secretary of the newly-formed Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Thomas’s strong pacifist stand distressed many friends and relatives. One brother promptly joined the Army. But another brother, Evan, announced when he was drafted that he refused to kill. Evan was imprisoned, brutalized and placed in solitary confinement, where he was forced to stand on tiptoe for nine hours each day. From that time on, Thomas championed the right of exemption from the draft based solely on individual conscience. He worked for the release of Eugene Debs and others who were imprisoned for verbal opposition to World War I. Thomas was slow to accept the necessity of entering World War II, and quick to denounce the Vietnam War. However, he did not oppose the United Nations-supported police action in Korea.

Thomas joined the Socialist Party in 1918, and quickly rose to prominence. As a party leader, he violated all traditional images of normal socialist behavior by warring with the party’s labor faction leaders. Quite simply, their ethics did not meet his standards. He found them unconcerned about the unorganized poor, too wedded to promoting only self-interest when organizing, and too ready to wink at racketeering within their ranks. The labor movement that might have shared his Social Gospel vision -- the Knights of Labor -- died before he rose to prominence in socialist circles.

While Thomas had strongly advocated and supported certain New Deal legislation, such as Social Security, he attacked the New Deal for failing to help America’s most economically depressed people: sharecroppers. He helped to organize the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU), an interracial group which demanded, among other things, that government payments for plowing-under crops or leaving land idle be split with tenant farmers, not paid solely to land owners. He helped raise money for STFU members who were beaten and evicted. And he traveled to Mississippi where STFU members were being terrorized, and where he and his fellow workers faced the same treatment.

In the late ‘30s Thomas vigorously supported the new Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), whose early policies were more in line with his social views than were those of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). He gave public speeches in New Jersey, defying a ban on CIO speakers in that state, and was twice forcibly deported to New York.

Thomas was vocal and controversial on issues of his times. When Spain’s civil war broke out in 1936, he opposed Franco early, even bending his pacifist principles to support armed aid for the resistance. Eventually he gave critical support to U.S. participation in World War II, while still upholding the rights of conscientious objectors and pointing out that the Allies were not themselves innocent of imperialism. He especially supported Gandhi’s struggle against the British government in India. For quite some time, Thomas stood almost alone in left and progressive circles in the United States in expressing outrage at the internment of Japanese Americans at home. He also objected to segregation within the army.

Although frequently in bitter conflict with Communists and Trotskyites, Thomas opposed government interference with those groups’ right to travel. He opposed the 1940 Smith Act, which made it a criminal offense to be part of any group that advocated violent overthrow of the government, and he asked for clemency for Smith Act victims and for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, though he believed they were guilty of spying. Thomas personally helped various left-wing individuals, even while opposing their views.

Although Thomas did not oppose the CIO role in overturning the communist Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954, he totally rejected Rafael Trujillo’s cruel and absolute dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and expressed grave concern about the United States’s general failure to oppose right-wing Latin American dictatorships.

When the civil rights movement blossomed in the 1960s, Thomas was delighted. Twice he flew to Mississippi to speak for it despite his advancing age, and was chased by night riders -- just as he had been 30 years earlier. But his admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr., was unbounded. He envied King, Thomas said, because King’s life and movement were so firmly rooted in his religion.

Although Thomas and his brother Evan did not formally resign from the Presbyterian Church until their mother died in 1931, both referred to themselves as agnostics after their church failed to support their pacifism during World War I. But in the 1950s Thomas still said, "I am no atheist. Indeed, I am almost haunted by religion and often wish that I could regain the comfortable Christian theology of earlier years" (Swanberg, p. 367). In the end he asked for a Christian burial rather than a socialist funeral. "I am not an orthodox Christian," he said, "but the Christian tradition is so much a part of our life, of my life, and Christ is to me so commanding a figure who so released all that I care most for that I feel justified in asserting a Christian service which should not play up personal immortality" (Swanberg, p. 407)

Thomas remained an activist until his death in 1968, and his last crusade was for world peace. He called arms control a delusion and insisted on the need for real disarmament. He believed that neither the Soviet nor the American government is trustworthy, but that the people in both nations cherish peace and life. And he added that while the Soviet Union had been guilty of heinous crimes, so had all governments, and the United States’s present stance was the more provocative of the two superpowers positions.

Six times the Socialist Party’s candidate for president, Thomas is sometimes seen as a disaster in terms of his political leadership. Certainly he presided over a continuously dwindling membership. He lacked interest in -- perhaps even skill for -- the organizational work required for party-building. He distrusted even that part of the labor movement closest to him, denouncing Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers, among others, for supporting the arms buildup.