Local Politics: Namesake of planned Downtown park taught timeless lessons

Michael Curtin
A rendering of Washington Gladden Social Justice Park.

In Columbus history, no institution has been more steadfast in support of social justice than First Congregational Church. Founded by abolitionists in 1852, the Downtown church has been a beacon for equality, racial harmony, clean government, labor rights, poor relief and progressive ideals of each era.

In American history, few religious leaders have been as influential as Washington Gladden, the pastor of First Congregational from 1882 to 1918. Fitting then, that in 2018 – the centennial of his death – First Congregational will build Washington Gladden Social Justice Park adjacent to its Gothic cathedral at East Broad Street and Cleveland Avenue.

The church envisions “an oasis of hope where past achievements for social justice are recognized and current struggles are revealed. It is to be a safe haven for the oppressed as well as a starting point for all to build the path to a better future.”

A planning committee has secured $710,000 in pledges toward a goal of $3.3 million. The Columbus Foundation soon will have a fund to support park development and programming.

The park will showcase public art that honors events, themes and leaders in the history of social justice causes. An artist-in-residence will help children create art with social justice themes. The Gladden Lecture program will become an annual community event.

Planners hope to partner with a local theater company to develop an annual performance on a social justice theme. They also envision taking programming to various Columbus neighborhoods.

The opportunity for central Ohioans to learn of Gladden, his work and legacy promises lasting educational and cultural enrichment.

Gladden's theology, known as the social gospel, was a religious movement born of the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century.

“It was a movement in which salvation was seen as the symbiotic relationship between the personal and the social,” said Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, senior minister at First Congregational and seventh in a line of Gladden successors. “One could not separate one's own personal salvation from the salvation of the world.”

In a 2011 speech at Green Lawn Cemetery, where Gladden is buried, Ahrens explained, “The social gospel was Christianity lived out every day in the service to others,” a directive firmly rooted in The Sermon on the Mount. For Gladden, the social gospel meant campaigning against vice and a corrupt Columbus police department; and for religious tolerance, clean drinking water and pure milk.

Gladden gained national renown. He lectured at Yale, Harvard and Oxford. He delivered two sermons each Sunday: mornings on Christian life, evenings on social problems. The evening versions appeared the next day on Page One of theOhio State Journal.

Much of his writing is timeless. In 1898, on the importance of men and nations living unselfishly, he wrote: “What place has the self-seeker in the service of such a nation? So long as international law teaches that the nation is a colossal egotist, seeking only its own advantage, the citizen seems justified in making the law of the nation the law of his own life.”