Celebrating 100 Years: A Look Back in Our Club’s History During the Progressive Era

Rotary Club of Madison-Centennial LogoAs we celebrate our 100th anniversary, our History Sub-Committee is taking a look back in our club’s rich history and is sharing highlights from the past century.  This week’s message is shared by committee member Rich Leffler:

The Rotary Club of Chicago was founded in February 1905. The Rotary Club of Madison began in 1913. Both were products of the Progressive Era, a period marked by a terrible depression and war. Huge corporations and trusts came into existence. It was a time of brutal competition among businesses and business people. Labor and capital were locked in violent, bloody conflict. It saw an ever-increasing and rapid change from rural to urban America, the growth of cities in not-so-wholesome ways, leading to terrible living- and working conditions. It was also a time when people were searching for ways to control and channel all of these developments. Progressivism, which sought to use government to control these forces of change, and the Social Gospel, which sought to modify economic life and social conditions with the gentle influence of Christianity, had an important effect on Rotary.

The Social Gospel was “Built on the premise that social justice and Christianity were synonymous,” and it “emphasized the humanity of Christ, especially his concern for the poor and the destitute.” Advocates of the Social Gospel “called for major social reforms to achieve a more equitable, a more Christian society.”1

rosenberry 3An Address given by Madison Rotarian and Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Marvin B. Rosenberry (left) in 1917, “The Spirit of Rotary in Business,” demonstrates the powerful effect of combining the Social Gospel with the imperative of Service, and it explains what Paul Harris meant when he said “Rotary’s supreme purpose is to serve.”2

You will notice in the Address that Justice Rosenberry was not a supporter of service by checkbook, which is the predominant way of service for our club today. But in 1922 he became one of the founders of that quintessential checkbook service, what is today the United Way of Dane County, and he was the first chair. The size of our Foundation at $8.5 million, our annual fund raising at $130,000, and our annual giving at $500,000 suggest that service, always important to our club, has become a passion. I think Justice Rosenberry would approve.
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1. Lewis L. Gould, “Introduction,” The Progressive Era (Syracuse, 1974), p. 13.
2. Paul P. Harris, My Road to Rotary: The Story of a Boy, A Vermont Community and Rotary (Chicago, 1948), p. 253. I should also point out that while Justice Rosenberry’s ideas were obviously informed by the Social Gospel, he was not a Progressive. Actually, he was a “Stalwart” Republican, strongly opposed to the La Follette Progressive Republicans. In fact, La Follette referred to Rosenberry as “a rank reactionary,” which is clearly not true. See Ann Walsh Bradley, “Marvin B. Rosenberry: Unparalleled Breadth of Service,” Wisconsin Lawyer 76 (October 2003), online edition

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