- In the Spirit of AbolitionismRecovering the Black Social Gospel
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Atradition within modern social Christianity that should be renowned is the black social gospel. Long before Martin Luther King Jr. emerged, there was a black church tradition that fused the racial justice politics of abolitionist religion with the social gospel emphasis on economic democracy, comprehensive social justice, and modern criticism. King’s mentors were steeped in this tradition, and nearly all of King’s close associates in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) belonged to it. But the black social gospel is little known, despite its colossal legacy and ongoing importance.
The social gospel in general was defined by its commitment to changing social structures in the direction of social justice. White social gospel luminary Walter Rauschenbusch famously urged churches to oppose the ravages of capitalist inequality and bad politics. Otherwise, Rauschenbusch asserted, religion was irrelevant and the socialists would be right to charge that churches did not care about poor and vulnerable people. The founders of the black social gospel shared this progressive agenda but gave highest priority to the struggle against America’s racial caste system and an upsurge of racial terrorism. They included William Simmons, Reverdy C. Ransom, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Alexander Walters, Richard R. Wright Jr., and Adam Clayton Powell Sr. The black social gospel applied the spirit of abolitionism to the new era of Gilded Age tyranny, conceiving the struggle against white racism as a trump factor that refigured everything else in the social gospel reform agenda. Like the white social gospel founders, however, the black founders had to fight for the right to talk about social justice politics in religious contexts.
The black founders did not take over the churches; they provided only modest ballast for the NAACP, and some were driven out of their congregations for espousing social Christianity. But they started something new. They fought to abolish Jim Crow, lynching, and economic injustice. They established that progressive theology could be combined with social justice politics in a black church context. They implored their congregations to welcome the migrant stranger. They refuted the racist culture that demeaned their human dignity and equality. They paved the way to something stupendous, the nation’s greatest liberation movement. And this tradition remains important as a wellspring of progressive religion, liberation theology, and every form of religious progressivism that appeals to the witness of the Civil Rights movement.
Origins of the Black Social Gospel
Early black social Christianity can be defined broadly or narrowly. Broadly, there were four groups, plus a tiny socialist flank. The first group identified with Booker T. Washington, a towering figure in American life from 1885 to 1915 who advocated political accommodation, economic uplift, and social-ethical religion; Washington advised four U.S. presidents, befriended nearly every supercapitalist of the Gilded Age, dominated racial philanthropy and patronage, and forged alliances with white social gospel leaders, notably Lyman Abbott and Washington Gladden. The second group, led by Henry McNeal Turner and Alexander Crummell, contended that African Americans needed their own nation because white America was hopelessly hostile to blacks. The third group favored protest activism for racial justice, strongly opposing Washington; its early exponents included Ransom, Wells-Barnett, and Baptist pastor J. Milton Waldron. The fourth group stood against factional division, calling for a fusion of pro-Washington realism and selective anti-Washington protest militancy. They included Walters, Powell Sr., and Nannie Burroughs.
All four of these ideological factions existed before 1903—the year that W. E. B. Du Bois emerged as the intellectual leader of the protest tradition. A full-fledged black social gospel tradition coalesced from them. It stood for social justice religion and modern critical consciousness, emphasizing the social-ethical teaching of Jesus and the evil of racial injustice and oppression. This full-fledged black social gospel tradition came mostly from the Du Bois camp of racial-justice militants who opposed Washington. It shaped...