From Social Gospel to the New Deal: A values juxtaposition that has been whitewashed by OTs

I was interested to see some comments from Dr. Elizabeth Townsend (2015) in an online forum asking "How are we building leadership for key posts at universities in support an [sic] occupation focus - both in the science and therapy of occupation?"  She asked this question in context of an open position at Dalhousie's School of Occupational Therapy in Halifax, Nova Scotia but was interested in a more general sense of how to build leadership outside of large metropolitan areas. 

This interested me because I have been studying recruitment and spread of occupation workers at the time of the founding of the occupational therapy profession.  I began to wonder if a study of this history could provide context for interpreting the current recruitment call.

An important early supporter of proto-occupational therapy was a man that is not often cited in American textbooks.  Sir Wilfred Thomason Grenfell is described as a "physician, medical missionary, social reformer, and author."  I encourage readers to visit this link and study the life of Grenfell who was quite an interesting person.  I have been reading all of Grenfell's books and have been particularly interested in what drew him to Newfoundland and Labrador to do his mission work.

In a previous blog post about the Core Values of the occupational therapy profession I stated 
There were many 'social movements' occurring at this time to counteract the changes people were experiencing during this 'Gilded Age.'  Most of these movements were taken up by the social elites and were based on charity, philanthropy, and Christian Ethics ...

A lot of change was desired.  A lot of effort was undertaken to effect those changes.  However, these efforts were not undertaken in a Rawlsian definition of Distributive Social Justice.  They were undertaken in a Christian Ethic that guided charitable deeds.

Dr. Grenfell was similarly motivated and he discusses his religious conversion and values in his books (Grenfell, 1910; Grenfell, 1927).  He knew that he had to recruit others to help him with his work, and he was impressed with Jesse Luther, who was an early occupation worker often associated with Dr. Herbert Hall (Rompkey, 2011).  Luther's roots extend all the way back to Hull House, where her 'occupation work' actually pre-dated the work of Eleanor Clark Slagle (Rompkey, 2011). 

So I was reflecting on Grenfell and Luther when I read Dr. Townsend's call for recruiting into the far Eastern portion of Canada - and I thought of what motivated the first occupation workers to that region and how different that was from Dr. Townsend's interest in social justice (1993).

There is evidence of conflation between Christian philanthropy and 'social justice' in the occupational therapy literature (Harley and Schwartz, 2013; Head and Friedland, 2011).  It is important to consider that 'social justice' was not even conceptualized until after the New Deal that placed the government into a position of resource redistribution (Rawls, 1971).

This is what makes Dr. Townsend's call to Eastern Canada somewhat ironic in context of the history of the profession and in context of Grenfell and Luther's mission work there.

Grenfell, like many of his contemporaries at that time, were interested in solving social problems.  The Social Gospel movement was an application of Christian theology to social problems.  It is very unusual that this movement is completely left out of conversation about the founding values that motivated the philanthropic work of Jane Addams, Phillip King Brown, Wilfred Grenfell, Elwood Worcester, and so many others.

It is true that the Social Gospel Movement was not cohesive, with some branches promoting philanthropy and other branches promoting collectivism and labor movements. As governments became more involved in welfare acts, philanthropy took a back seat.  This is described in excellent detail in an analysis by Harnish (2011) who writes:
Charity has long been described as an expression of God’s love as opposed to a policy measure aimed at lowering the unemployment rate or the labor hours necessary to buy a loaf of bread. As an expression of God’s love, charity knows no boundaries; it goes to friends and enemies alike—quite a difference from redistribution measures, long known to be but another means of funneling cash and favors in order to secure political reelection. Further, charity is a religious virtue and an ethical statement. It claims to be capital “G” Good and a worthy choice for human action simply because it is a reflection of God’s fixed and eternal nature. This claim the Social Gospel rejected outright. The only place left to find a justification of its welfare-state measures was...the refuge of pragmatic successes.

There is evidence that Christian Ethics motivated the majority of proto-founders who were interested in the 'occupation cure.'  Some of that may have morphed into seeking governmental programs to prop up their philanthropic efforts, particularly in context of financial stressors in trying to meet severe needs.  Some of that may have been pragmatic more than philosophic, particularly in consideration of the very overt religiosity that was expressed by those proto-founders.

So now there is a new call for OT leaders in Eastern Canada - and that call is in context of a new Social Justice that is rooted in a model of governmental control and redistribution of resources.  That call occurs in a whitewashing of our actual history that is rooted in philanthropy and Christian Ethics.

Understanding our history provides us a proper context for examining where we are.  Understanding our history also provides us with meaningful background information to evaluate the current value system and philosophic trajectory.

My how things have changed in 100 years.


(see embedded links)

Grenfell, W. (1910). A Man's Helpers. Toronto: Musson Book Co.

Grenfell, W. (1927). What Christ means to me. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Harley and Schwartz (2013) Philip King Brown and Arequipa Sanatorium: Early occupational therapy as medical and social experiment.  American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 67, e11-e17.

Harnish,  B. (2011). Jane Addams's Social Gospel synthesis and the Catholic response: Competing views of charity and their implications.  The Independent Review, 16, 93-100.

Head, B. and Friedland, J. (2011, Jan/Feb). Jesse Luther: A pioneer of social justice.  OT Now, downloaded from

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

Rompkey, R. (2001).  Jessie Luther at the Grenfell Mission.  Montreal: McGill Queen's.

Townsend, E. A. (1993). Muriel Driver Memorial Lecture: Occupational therapy’s social vision. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy,  60, 174-184.

Townsend, E. (2015, February 8). Advancing occupational science and occupation-based practices globally - how are we building leadership for key posts. Message posted to!topic/occupational_science_intl/ajdBHCjjVk8


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