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  • Breaking White Supremacy: The Black Social Gospel as New Abolitionism (AJTP Lecture, AAR, November 22, 2015)
  • Gary Dorrien (bio)

I apologize for not being William Connolly. You can get me any year, and I feel badly that Connolly had to cancel. I considered giving one of my Hegel and Whitehead talks, which would have been a poor substitute for the world of becoming that Connolly would have discussed. But nearly everyone who goes to AJTP gatherings has already heard me on things Hegelian and Whiteheadian, and I have a new book that means much more to me than those things. So this is a page from my current work on the black social gospel.

The social gospel movement of the Progressive Era is justly renowned. It established and legitimized liberal theology in American Protestantism. It created the ecumenical movement and the field of social ethics. It put social justice on the agenda of the ecumenical churches, founding the peace and justice organizations that still operate in mainline denominations. It was the greatest wave of social justice activism ever generated by the ecumenical churches. But the greatest legacy of the social gospel is not the one recounted in books about Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, Jane Addams, Francis Greenwood Peabody, the Federal Council of Churches, John Ryan, and all that.

A black tradition of the social gospel arose during the same period as the famous white one. It had its own identity and integrity, while sharing important things with white progressive Christianity. Martin Luther King Jr. was steeped in it. His role models were second-generation black social gospel leaders, and their role models were black social gospel founders. No tradition in American religious history has a greater legacy than this one. Yet the black social gospel was ignored for decades, and it lacked almost any literature until recently.

Numerous conventions have long kept the black social gospel from being remembered. Supposedly, there was no black social gospel worth noting. It had only a few proponents, who had no impact. Black churches were too provincial and conservative to support social justice politics and social gospel theology. Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois were not involved with the social gospel, so this category does not illuminate Washington versus Du Bois. Religious intellectuals no longer mattered anyway by the end of the nineteenth century, so it doesn’t matter if we ignore whatever black religious intellectuals [End Page 197] might have existed. Reinhold Niebuhr shredded the social gospel, so forget the social gospel. And the social gospel movement that did exist—the white one—did not concern itself with racial justice.

All these conventions are wrong. The black social gospel had numerous proponents in its early years, most notably William Simmons, Alexander Crummell, Reverdy Ransom, Alexander Walters, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Richard R. Wright, Jr., and Adam Clayton Powell Sr. They were an embattled minority in their denominations, because the social gospel was divisive and it threatened to get people in trouble. The founders and their successors fought hard for the right to advocate progressive theology and social justice politics. Washington versus Du Bois was at the center of the argument, until the Du Bois faction prevailed.

Some of the founders were active in the ecumenical movement, always prodding it to risk more for racial justice. They were succeeded by a generation of leaders that espoused social gospel theology from the beginning of their careers: Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin E. Mays, George Kelsey, J. Pius Barbour, Vernon Johns, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Howard Thurman. Every figure that I just named was a role model for Martin Luther King. Their legacy is immense, paving the way for the King generation of James Lawson, Joseph Lowery, Andrew Young, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, Pauli Murray, and other civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s—the heyday of the black social gospel. Some of the second-and third-generation figures, especially King, were influenced by Niebuhr, but none believed that Niebuhr invalidated the social gospel. Yet it was routinely claimed for decades that there was no black social gospel, so its founders were forgotten.

Martin Luther King did not come from nowhere, nor did...


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