The black social gospel emerged from the trauma of Reconstruction to ask what a “new abolition” would require in American society. It became an important tradition of religious thought and resistance, helping to create an alternative public sphere of excluded voices and providing the intellectual underpinnings of the civil rights movement. This tradition has been seriously overlooked, despite its immense legacy. In this groundbreaking work, Gary Dorrien describes the early history of the black social gospel from its nineteenth-century founding to its close association in the twentieth century with W. E. B. Du Bois. He offers a new perspective on modern Christianity and the civil rights era by delineating the tradition of social justice theology and activism that led to Martin Luther King Jr.
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About the Author
Gary Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University, both in New York.
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The New Abolition
W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel
By Gary Dorrien
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2015 Yale University
All rights reserved.
Recovering the Black Social Gospel
The black social gospel is wrongly and strangely overlooked. One might expect there to be dozens of books on a tradition of thought and activism that began in the 1870s, that included the mentors and allies of Martin Luther King Jr., plus King himself, and that remains relevant today. Instead there are none. Few books even refer to the black social gospel, and there are no books that deal with this tradition as a whole. In recent years scholars have begun to rectify the former situation, but it is no easy task to overcome decades of stereotypes about a tradition that supposedly had few proponents and was best left for dead for other reasons too.
The civil rights movement began in 1884 with a call for what became the National Afro-American League in 1890, and it had a brilliant moment of hope in the Niagara Movement of 1905 to 1909. It entered a second phase of activism in 1909 with the founding of what became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It entered a third phase in December 1955 by exploding into a historic mass movement. In every phase it had leaders who espoused the social ethical religion and politics of modern social Christianity.
But the name "civil rights movement" is usually reserved for the movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and most scholars have ignored the black social gospel that supported civil rights activism in all three of its historic phases, struggled for a place in the black churches, and provided the neo-abolitionist theology of social justice that the civil rights movement proclaimed and sang. This book describes the tradition of black social Christianity that arose in the Progressive Era, gave leaders and ballast to the civil rights movement, provided much of the movement's intellectual underpinning, and remains a vital perspective.
The white social gospel movement is renowned and heavily chronicled. It arose during the Progressive Era and was already a movement by the mid-1880s, with national organizations and a movement agenda linked with Progressivism. It had its heyday from 1900 to 1917, and by the 1930s it was mostly a peace and ecumenical movement. The black social gospel arose during the same period and had its heyday in the King years. It lacked movement organizations during the early struggle for civil rights, but the black social gospel gave church leaders, intellectuals, and activists to the civil rights movement, advocating protest activism within reluctant religious communities and helping to create an alternative public sphere of excluded voices. Later, as a succeeding book will recount, black social gospelers Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, Benjamin E. Mays, and Howard Thurman influenced King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Still later, the black social gospel influenced the development of liberation theology and progressive black theology. But most of its founders are forgotten, and the work of remembrance is strewn with obstacles.
The black social gospel arose during the trauma and abandonment of Reconstruction, resuming the struggle for black freedom in America. Like the white social gospel and Progressive movements, it espoused principles of social justice, conceived the federal government as an indispensable guarantor of constitutional rights, struggled with industrialization and economic injustice, and grappled with the Great Migration. Like the white social gospel, it also wrestled with modern challenges to religious belief. But the black social gospel addressed these things very differently than white progressives did, for racial oppression trumped everything in the African American context and refigured how other problems were experienced.
The black social gospel affirmed the dignity, sacred personhood, creativity, and moral agency of African Americans and responded to racial oppression. It asked what a new abolitionism should be and what role the churches should play within it. Like the white social gospel, it had numerous ideologies and theologies, but here the trump concern was distinctly given, obvious, and a survival issue: upholding black dignity in the face of racial tyranny. Here the belief in a divine ground of human selfhood powered struggles for black self-determination and campaigns of resistance to white oppression.
The early social gospel heralded the growing prosperity and democracy of U.S. American society during the very period when black Americans were stripped of their constitutional rights in much of the nation and terrorized by an epidemic of racial lynching. This contradiction did not stop black social gospel leaders from employing the rhetoric of progress and idealism, but it shaped their understanding of how the church should struggle for social justice. White social gospel theologians took for granted their access to the general public. Black social gospel theologians could barely imagine what it felt like to address the general public. They had to create a counterpublic sphere merely to have a public. White social gospel theologians sought to be stewards of a good society and usually preached a moral influence theory of the cross. Otherwise they played down the cross of Jesus as problematic for modern Christianity. The black social gospel arose from churches where preaching about the cross was not optional, because black Americans experienced it every day as a persecuted, crucified people.
Like any tradition, the black social gospel can be defined broadly or narrowly. I will do both, describing four streams of black social Christianity and a full-fledged progressive black social gospel that emerged mostly from the third stream. All four of these traditions have rich legacies, but the black social gospel that led to King came mostly from the protest group aligned with Du Bois and some figures in the fourth stream, plus a tiny Socialist flank. The full-fledged black social gospel combined an emphasis on black dignity and personhood with protest activism for racial justice, a comprehensive social justice agenda, an insistence that authentic Christian faith is incompatible with racial prejudice, an emphasis on the social ethical teaching of Jesus, and an acceptance of modern scholarship and social consciousness. Reverdy Ransom, Alexander Walters, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Richard R. Wright Jr., Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, Howard Thurman, Benjamin E. Mays, Pauli Murray, and Martin Luther King Jr. were exemplars of it, comprising an ample tradition by themselves.
I could have made things easier by restricting my focus to this line of figures, plus Du Bois. But to confine this work to the figures that joined Du Bois in the Niagara Movement and the NAACP, espoused liberal theology, and led to Mays and King would miss nearly half the story. Du Bois himself had an ambiguous religious standpoint, though he had a huge influence on what became the black social gospel. The same thing is true, very differently, of Booker T. Washington, who epitomized the social gospel to a vast audience. Moreover, Henry McNeal Turner dismissed the black social gospel, but he and William J. Simmons paved the way to it. Ida B. Wells took no interest in modern theological scholarship, but she gave the black social gospel an unsurpassed example of righteous Christian militancy. Thus, this book begins with a broad rendering of black social Christianity before narrowing to the specific version of it that fired America's greatest liberation movement.
Certain things that define the category "social gospel" apply across racial and denominational lines. The social gospel was fundamentally a movement, not a doctrine, featuring a social ethical understanding of the Christian faith. It taught that Christianity has a mission to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice. This idea was rooted in the commands of the Bible to lift the yoke of oppression and to build a just order. At its best it refashioned the demand of antebellum abolitionism to break the chains of racial caste. The social gospel, however, had something that previous socially oriented forms of Christianity lacked — modern social consciousness, especially the idea that there is such a thing as social structure. The concepts of "social structure" and "social justice" came into being in the 1880s with the rise of the Socialist, trade union, and Progressive movements. Not coincidentally, so did the social gospel, the fields of sociology and social ethics, the idea of social salvation, and the idea that theology had to be modernized to deal with social salvation and the modern world. Only with the rise of modern social Christianity did Christian thinkers begin to say that salvation had to be personal and social to be saving. If there was such a thing as social structure, salvation had to be reconceptualized to take account of it.
In Europe this idea was called Christian Socialism, a movement radiating out of England and Germany. In the United States it had to be called something else. Until 1910 it was usually called "applied Christianity" or "social Christianity." Afterward it was called the social gospel. In the social gospel, society became a subject of redemption. Christianity had a mission to transform society as a whole, building the kingdom of God on earth. Ransom, Wright, Walters, Powell Sr., and George Washington Woodbey spoke this language with full self-consciousness and conviction. In the succeeding generation, so did Johnson, Mays, Thurman, Murray, King, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and many others. These black Christian leaders spoke of "Christianizing" American society, calling America to fulfill the Declaration of Independence and the Reconstruction Amendments. Many of them believed that "advanced" societies got to be advanced by submitting to supposedly universal laws of civilization, attaining the inevitable social progress that came with submitting to the laws. Much of black social Christianity was procapitalist, equating capitalism with freedom and economic self-determination, but the full-fledged black social gospel stream was usually critical of capitalism, holding out for equality and economic democracy. The black social gospel had radical wings that espoused democratic Socialism and/or anti-imperialism, and it had accomplished proponents that were wrongly forgotten.
The founders of Afro-American social Christianity were products of the bitter defeat of Radical Reconstruction, who were forced to imagine a new abolitionist politics and Christianity. For them, Christianity had no social relevance if it did not lift the struggle for racial justice above everything else. It was not simply a matter of reclaiming the abolitionist religion of David Walker and Sojourner Truth, for the new struggle for racial justice took place amid the turmoil of the modern social problem. The legacy of abolitionist "radical religion" was foundational for black social gospelers, but they lived in a time of new problems, ministering in churches that for the most part did not support the idea of social justice ministry.
Turner and Simmons lived through the drama of Reconstruction and went on to pioneer forms of social Christianity in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and the American National Baptist Convention. Turner is usually understood, rightly, as the last of the nineteenth-century black religious radicals, a throwback to the abolitionist era who found himself living in a time of Gilded Age smallness, the evisceration of the Fourteenth Amendment's "privileges or immunities" of citizenship, and the betrayal of the Fifteenth Amendment's right to vote. But to view him only as the symbol of a shattered liberationist or nationalist dream is to perpetuate the misreading that there was no black social gospel. Turner also marked the beginning of something, as did his Baptist peer, Simmons.
The racial crisis of the 1890s yielded four versions of black social Christianity, plus a tiny Socialist flank, before and after Du Bois rose to prominence. Booker T. Washington became a colossal figure in American life by bargaining with white elites for a season of peace and economic opportunity for blacks. He had a vast national following among blacks and whites, counting black and white social gospel leaders among his strongest allies. For a while, the Washington group was so dominant that many Bookerites believed there was no such thing as a legitimate alternative or opposition; Washington believed it adamantly. His black supporters included powerful denominational leaders such as AME bishops Wesley J. Gaines and Abram Grant, African Methodist Episcopal Zion (hereafter AME Zion) bishop George W. Clinton, and Baptist officials E. C. Morris and R. H. Boyd.
The second group of socially active black Christians took the Turner path of nationalist separation and/or African emigration. The only hope for African Americans was to have their own nation. This group had a distinguished leader in Episcopal missionary and intellectual Alexander Crummell, an equally Anglophile leader in Episcopal bishop and missionary James T. Holly, and a loyal follower of Turner in AME missionary Alfred L. Ridgel. Then as now, there were different kinds of black nationalism. Broadly defined, black nationalism is the view that all people of African descent share something as a nation or people. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the posited basis for national belonging was sometimes biological, rendering the nation as analogous to a biological organism; and/or ontological, making a claim about the distinct being of blackness; and/or cultural or sociohistorical, making a claim about black cultural authenticity or distinctiveness. Defined broadly, however, there were nationalists in all four streams of black social Christianity. The second group espoused stricter and more emphatic forms of nationalism, contending that blacks were a distinct people that needed to create a sovereign nation-state and, even if the statehood project failed, a black civilization.
Some nationalists devoted themselves to the hope of colonizing West Africa, following Turner, or Haiti, following Holly, but many eventually gave up on emigration, following Crummell. Much of the nationalist tradition shared the emphases of Crummell and Turner on moral uplift, authority, elite leadership, and the shortcomings of ordinary black Americans. Despite its rhetoric of separation, the nationalist tradition ironically played a major role in transmitting assimilationist values into African American culture. Most black nationalists were politically and culturally conservative, and most had a conflicted relationship with Washington after he rose to prominence. But some combined protest egalitarianism and separatist politics. Baptist minister Sutton Griggs and Congregational minister William Henry Ferris, for example, each had one foot in the Niagara Movement. Black nationalism had an electrifying moment after World War I, with the rise of Marcus Garvey and his movement. A generation earlier, Crummell and Turner clashed over the question of whether nationalists should continue to strive for a separate nation-state. Turner became the dominant figure in this school of thought and activism by saying yes.
The third group vehemently opposed Washington's strategy and his "Tuskegee Machine," calling for a new abolitionist politics of racial and social justice. Boston journalist William Monroe Trotter had church-based allies in this cause before Du Bois emerged, notably AME minister Reverdy Ransom, AME journalist Ida B. Wells (later, Wells-Barnett), and Baptist ministers J. Milton Waldron and William Henry Scott. After Du Bois emerged and cofounded the Niagara Movement, there were numerous black social gospelers that identified with Niagara protest activism, notably Ransom, Wells-Barnett, Waldron, AME minister Richard R. Wright Jr., Baptist ministers James R. L. Diggs and Peter James Bryant, Congregational minister Byron Gunner, Episcopal rectors Robert W. Bagnall and George Frazier Miller, and Baptist layman and historian Carter G. Woodson. Eminent Presbyterian minister Francis J. Grimké was an ally of this group, as was his brother Archibald Grimké, a prominent attorney with ties to Trotter. Diggs, while serving as president of State University in 1906, boasted to Du Bois, "I am indoctrinating our students with the Niagara spirit."
Excerpted from The New Abolition by Gary Dorrien. Copyright © 2015 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ONE Recovering the Black Social Gospel, 1,
TWO Apostles of New Abolition, 34,
THREE The Crucible: Du Bois Versus Washington, 124,
FOUR In the Spirit of Niagara, 221,
FIVE New Abolition Bishops, 297,
SIX Separatism, Integration, Socialism, 393,
SEVEN Resistance and Anticipation, 483,