In 1852, a small group of members of the Second Presbyterian Church of Columbus decided to leave and form a new church of their own.
What began as the Third Presbyterian Church evolved and became the First Congregational Church in the capital city.
By the late 1870s, the church was looking for a new pastor. It found one in Washington Gladden, one of the more remarkable men of his time.
In the course of a 30-year pastorate, Gladden would become one of the best-known theologians in the country, preaching on social action and religious commitment.
He was born Solomon Washington Gladden in Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania, in 1836. His father died when he was 6, and he was sent to live with an uncle on a farm in Owego, New York. This was the Burned-Over District of New York and was the site of several religious revivals.
Young Gladden spent his days working the land and his evenings reading the Bible. In time, he left the farm, worked briefly for a local newspaper and joined a temperance group. Deciding he wished to be a minister, he enrolled at Williams College.
While at Williams, he wrote the school’s alma mater, “The Mountains,” and graduated in 1859. For the next several years, he held pastorates in several churches.
On Dec. 5, 1860, he married Jennie Cohoon, whom he had met while in college. The couple would have two sons and two daughters. Three days after the wedding, South Carolina seceded and the U.S. went to war with itself.
Gladden served briefly in the Christian Chaplaincy Corps and accompanied Union troops in the field, but he soon contracted malaria and returned home to recover.
After the Civil War, Gladden worked for the New York Independent newspaper. His reporting helped uncover and expose the well-established and well-connected Tweed Ring of corrupt politicians in New York, and it brought him national fame and recognition.
In 1875, he became the pastor of the North Congregational Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. During his seven-year stay in Springfield, he became concerned about the long hours, low pay and dangerous working conditions in local cloth works and spinning mills.
In 1876, he became one of the first ministers of any note to endorse unionization of workers. He was adamant in his opposition to socialism on the one hand and unrestricted laissez-faire competition on the other. He always was an advocate of applying “Christian principles” to daily life.
In 1881, he received a call to come to the First Congregational Church of Columbus. To the surprise of some, the “evangelical liberal” accepted the call.
Leaving the comfortable religious climate of Massachusetts, Gladden and his family came to Ohio’s capital city. The differences were palpable.
Columbus was a bustling community of about 50,000 people when Gladden arrived. That might not seem like much, but the town had been growing rapidly since the end of the Civil War in 1865. Linked to the Ohio canal system, Columbus was a major railroad center and home to a number of “smokestack industries.” It was to the difficult problems faced by people in those industries and others that Gladden devoted his energy and attention.
In sermons, lectures and a steady stream of books, Gladden advocated for “bargaining rights for workers, factory inspections and the regulation of monopolies.” It was a way of acting to create a “cooperative social order” and a program that came to be called the “social gospel.”
Columbus in the 1880s and 1890s was a conservative Midwestern town, and Gladden’s message was not always well-received by some of his parishioners or others in the city. But Gladden was a quiet, gentle and soft-spoken advocate. He was respected and liked even by people with whom he disagreed.
Toward the end of a long life, he summarized his hopes for the future:
“Of this I am sure, if it was ever worthwhile to live, it is worthwhile to live today. No better day than this has ever dawned on the continent. Sometimes it may have seemed as if the foundations were crumbling under our feet – the exposure of perfidy and dishonor have been so shocking. ... The blackness of the shadow proves the intensity of the light. The annals of the future will mark these days as an epoch in the ethical awakening of the American people.
“We turn our faces to the future with good hope in our hearts. There are great industrial problems before us but we will work them out; there are battles to fight but we shall win them. With all those who believe in justice and the square deal, in kindness and good will, in a free field and a fair chance for every man, the stars in their courses are fighting, and their victory is sure.”
Gladden died in Columbus on July 2, 1918. He is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery. He is memorialized in the Social Justice Park adjacent to First Congregational Church in downtown Columbus.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.