In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Christianity and Social Work

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Overview of Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Social Work Practice by Christians with LGBT Clients
  • Social Work Practice by Christians with Other Populations and in Varied Contexts
  • Research and Conceptual Innovations in Christian Social Work Practice, Ethics, and Theory

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Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section

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  • Social Work Practice with Transgender and Gender Expansive Youth
  • Unaccompanied Immigrant and Refugee Children
  • Find more forthcoming articles...


Social Work Christianity and Social Work
Michael S. Kelly
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0266


This bibliographic treatment of Christianity and social work is necessarily incomplete, reflecting the fragmented and somewhat contested nature of the topic itself. On one level, there have always been Christians practicing social work, and identifying themselves as Christian social workers, back to the earliest 19th-century roots of the profession. While it would follow from such a historical fact that there would be a well-developed and widely accepted set of ideas, frameworks, and interventions that Christian social workers could be implementing in the early 21st century, this is far from the case. In actuality, the idea that there is even a “Christian” way to do social work is extremely unsettling for some in our field, who see the negative impact of organized Christianity on many of the vulnerable populations that social work seeks to empower. Additionally, the field itself has a somewhat ahistorical reaction to the whole topic, treating it as somehow taboo to discuss the faith life of our clients, and certainly to somehow integrate our own faith experience (or lack thereof) into effective social work practice. This article seeks to correct this parochial view of Christianity and social work practice and to replace it with a more ecumenical and expansive one, albeit one that is still at an early stage in terms of its scholarly formation. The references noted here are almost all ones that were produced since the late 1990s, and that is no accident: despite being as old as social work itself, the study of Christianity and social work in academic circles is only starting to come into its own. Christianity and social work has a long and complicated history. From the early development of social work in the West, it was clear that many (though not all) social work practitioners were called to become social workers because of their faith, and many of those early social workers were Christians from a variety of Christian denominations. The Charity Organization Societies (COS) that formed first in Europe and then in the United States in the late 19th century were led and staffed by Christians who saw their mission as employing a scientific approach to solve the problems of urban poverty. The Settlement House movement, though at times explicitly secular (e.g., Jane Addams and Hull House), and focused on different approaches to help the poor than the COS, was nonetheless also heavily informed by Christian ideas of ministry and social justice. These two strands of social work practice—the COS and Settlement House movements—helped to set the framework for social work practice well into the 20th century, even as tensions persist today about what the appropriate role for religious institutions and faith-based practitioners should be in social work. It is important for social work to consider in the early 21st century how much of its early history of Christians in social work practice is still informing what social workers do today to assist their clients, and how much of it has been simply minimized or erased from social work education, practice, and policy.

Introductory Works

This section provides some examples of crucial articles to enable interested readers to get a sense of the historical roots of Christianity in social work, as well as key scholars in the nascent development in research on Christian social work practice.

  • Bowpitt, G. 1998. Evangelical Christianity, secular humanism, and the genesis of British social work. British Journal of Social Work 28.5: 675–693.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordjournals.bjsw.a011385

    This article delves deeply into the historical, philosophical, and political context of 19th-century England to demonstrate how heavily Christianity informed the development of social work in England, and offers some thoughts about why so much of that legacy has been minimized in later discussions of social work history.

  • Keith-Lucas, A. 1985. So you want to be a social worker: A primer for the Christian student. St. Davids, PA: North American Association of Christians in Social Work.

    One of the modern founders of the approach to integrating Christian belief and practice into social work, Allen Keith-Lucas’s teaching and writings were a major influence on Christian social work scholars since the mid-20th century. His classic writing, So You Want to Be a Social Worker, has been reprinted and taught at Christian universities and colleges for decades, along with the power of Keith-Lucas’s witness and his conviction that Christians doing social work must never confuse their own faith with a desire to convert or impose on a social work client.

  • Rose, M. 2001. The secular faith of the social settlements. In Settlements, social change and community action: Good neighbours. Edited by R. Gilchrist and T. Jeffs, 19–33. London: Jessica Kingsley.

    In this chapter, part of a larger book seeking to reclaim the settlement house movement as a major feature of social work practice in the United Kingdom, Rose acknowledges that many settlement house workers were motivated by religious (mostly Christian) beliefs, but that the genius of the settlement house movement was its ability to resist becoming a conventional mission and to instead forge an institutional identity that was more closely aligned with the ideals of the progressive era than any specific denomination.

  • Scales, T. L. 2011. “Accepting a trust so responsible”: Christians caring for children at Buckner Orphan’s Home, Dallas, Texas, 1879–1909. Social Work and Christianity 38.3: 332.

    This examines archival records of the Buckner Orphan’s Home, showing the way that the early formation of social work was happening within a larger religious context, often one that was explicitly Christian. Rather than posit this as an inherent good (Scales is clear that any approach to social work that privileges religion over ethical duties to clients is problematic) the author nonetheless shows how deep the religious roots often are in social work’s history.

  • Scales, T. L., and M. S. Kelly. 2011. “To give Christ to the neighborhood”: A corrective look at the settlement movement and early Christian social workers. Social Work and Christianity 38.3: 356.

    In contrast to Scales 2011, Scales and Kelly seek to do more reclaiming of the specific Christian roots of the settlement house movements, focusing on primary historical sources of a settlement house in Louisville and one nearby Hull House in Chicago. These two settlements straddled the line between the explicitly religious focus of their sponsors and the desire to make their settlements relevant to community members who were seeking secular services to ameliorate their impoverished living conditions.

  • Schwartz, K. D., B. Warkentin, and M. Wilkinson. 2008. Faith-based social services in North America: A comparison of American and Canadian religious history and initiative. Social Work and Christianity 35.2: 123–147.

    A comparative historical analysis of how social work, social welfare policy, and faith-based organizations developed in Canada and the United States, this article shows the difference between a country that has usually supported state-sponsored faith-based social services (Canada) and one that has been reluctant to fund services directly (United States) for fear of violating the separation of church and state.

  • Vanderwoerd, J. R. 2011a. Who tells social work’s story? Social Work & Christianity 38.3: 237–243.

    In this introduction to a special issue devoted to reclaiming the Christian heritage in social work’s early formation and current practice, Vanderwoerd writes about the importance of understanding the roots of social work practice through a lens that was formed in part by devout Christians who were also social workers.

  • Vanderwoerd, J. R. 2011b. Reconsidering secularization and recovering Christianity in social work history. Social Work and Christianity 38.3: 244.

    This second of two pieces (as part of Social Work and Christianity’s special issue on social work’s Christian history and an article about secularization’s impact on that history) is represented here. As Vanderwoerd writes, “The social work profession, striving for legitimacy in the early 20th century, actively pursued scientific and empiricist methodologies that were part of a larger process of secularization widely prevalent in the 20th century. According to the secularization narrative, social work’s Christian roots were anathema to its continued progress toward professionalization, and thus the histories that were told in the textbooks and journals of the emerging social work profession downplayed its Christian roots.” These tensions and the pressures to “secularize” and professionalize social work are now being slowly clarified and elaborated on by historical records from social work’s early history.

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