Posted in discernment, theology

Henry Ward Beecher, social justice, and Eben-melech the unknown hero

By Elizabeth Prata

“I never knew how to worship until I knew how to love.” ~Henry Ward Beecher

Beecher was a minister, temperance promoter, abolitionist, social justice warrior, and the brother of famous novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. He lived from 1813 to 1887. In his ministry, he developed a new oratorical style, in which he used humor, dialect, and slang, very rare for the time. Over his career, he developed a theology emphasizing God’s love above all else. He also grew interested in social reform.

You just know this won’t end well. Any man or women who does all of the three, it’s almost a death knell for his faith. The three again:

1. New approaches to preaching (or learning if you’re a layman)
2. Emphasizing God’s love only
3. Emphasis on social reform

Think of what is going on today with a sudden heavy emphasis on social justice and you’ll see the same trajectory in many ministers and parachurch ministries.

Beecher, as some people might not know, was also a tremendous womanizer. He had affairs with many women of his congregation and many women who were not in his congregation. One colleague quipped that on any given Sunday Beecher was preaching to 7 or 8 of his mistresses. Eventually, he endured a trial for adultery that made him the “most famous man in America”. It was called the trial of the century.

Be wary of ministers and organizations that claim to love Christ but primarily exist to promote a social gospel. Look for a clear biblical objective. Otherwise, avoid.

So, what is the Social Gospel? Wikipedia describes the Social Gospel:

The Social Gospel was a movement in North American Protestantism which applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. It was most prominent in the early-20th-century United States and Canada.

The novel Christy I’d reviewed in April focused on the social gospel work of some missionaries in the Appalachians. The novel was based on a real mission and real people. There was a huge push for social gospel work in missions then that began in the very late 1800s and reached its peak in the 1910s and began to wane after WWI.

The premise of the work was that if missionaries or lay-Christians in their everyday environments could show the love of God in doing good, rectifying deplorable conditions, it would spark an attraction to Jesus in the recipients of the benevolence. Moreover, if the hindrances to faith are removed, i.e. that if the recipients did not have to worry as much about their next meal or getting coal or firewood to stay alive, it would also spark an interest in Jesus.


Of course this is backward. Promoters of the movement tended to blame sin on societal structures rather than human nature. Martyn Lloyd-Jones famously said in his Studies on the Sermon on the Mount,

The terrible, tragic fallacy of the last hundred years has been to think that all man’s troubles are due to his environment, and that to change the man you have nothing to do but change his environment. That is a tragic fallacy. It overlooks the fact that it was in Paradise that man fell.

But look at their efforts anyway!

Our purpose is “to gather a new generation of women, equip them with the tools to know God more deeply and live out their purposes and unleash a movement to promote healing and reconciliation around the world.” [If:Gathering]

Our mission is to articulate the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world“. [Sojourners].

There’s even Christian eco-justice.

is a grassroots community of United Methodists who believe that a relationship with God’s creation and a ministry of caring for and healing the earth are integral to what it means to be a Christian.” [Caretakers of God’s Creation]

“heal the world”? “inspiring hope”? “healing the earth”? So vague. Again, if there is a social justice organization or a parachurch ministry that focuses on social justice, look for their clear and specific biblical objective. If they don’t have one, avoid it.

We are to help the poor and disadvantaged. No question, I’m not saying charitable mercy is never warranted. Of course it is, the Bible prescribes it. But notice I didn’t say ‘social justice’ but instead ‘charitable mercy.’

George Crawford at Grace Community Church, in the series Sundays in July, delivered a sermon today called “Probably the Greatest Old Testament Hero You Never Heard Of”. It’s wonderful because he addresses social justice through his exegesis of a nearly anonymous man in the Old Testament in an obscure passage, regarding the rescue of prophet Jeremiah. Crawford illustrates what real biblical justice is, and how heroes who pursue such justice should act and what they should do.

Mr Crawford himself was an attorney for a regulatory agency and an administrative judge for his career of 40 years. He is highly concerned with justice, but equally concerned any kind of justice done in Jesus’ name is approached biblically. He feels this passage is the best one in the Bible that addresses the issue of social justice. I recommend it.

Jeremiah 38:1-13, “Probably the Greatest Old Testament Hero You Never Heard Of

Crawford’s main points in the sermon, which is very easy to listen to, revolve around what true social justice heroes are like, based on what the man Eben-melech in Jeremiah’s scene accomplished:

  • Heroes get over sins against them, and move on
  • Heroes have an accurate grasp of reality
  • Heroes will take action, boldly
  • Heroes take precise, specific action (There is no room in the faith for broad, general, overall passionate, unfocused, untargeted, mindless social justice).
  • Heroes are practical
  • Heroes act with mercy
  • Real concern for real biblical justice will focus on real and specific situations
  • Heroes act with prudent courage, recognizing the reality of danger but taking action anyway
  • Heroes are willing to forego credit in order to get the job done

Let’s go back to Beecher. “I never knew how to worship until I knew how to love.” This quote that opened this essay is completely backwards, of course. It’s indicative of the backwardness of the plethora of  “eco-social-racial-gender-sexual justice” organizations today. Beecher forsook God’s love whilst dwelling on it excessively, abused His grace, promoted ill-fated social causes and lost his first love (like those at Ephesus, Revelation 2:4). It happens every time.

Be wary of ministers, organizations, or parachurches that focus on God’s love to the exclusion of other attributes of God, and who set out in unfocused or non-specific manner to rectify social ills. Eben-melech got the job done because he was smart about it- he had a clear biblical objective. Unfocused zeal is not only unhelpful, it could be dangerous.

More to the point of Beecher’s quote, is that no one who is outside of Christ knows how to love. One can’t learn to love before one learns to worship. No one. That Beecher preached it thus is a tragic mistake. Our entire being is at enmity with God. Enmity means war, hatred, opposition. Only Jesus who is the source of Love, enables us to rightly love after we enter the faith. It is He we love, because we worship Him first.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. 2By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. 1 John 5:1-3.


Further Reading

WWUTT what is social justice? (90-seconds)

Sermon: The Most Misunderstood Parable

Blog post: Frequently Abused Verses: Is the Social Gospel the Whole Gospel?


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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