Gary Dorrien has written an expansive history of black religion between Reconstruction and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A much needed corrective to stories of the social gospel that often focus primarily on white Christianity, The New Abolition argues that black American Christian individuals, ideas, practices, and institutions are an essential part of the social gospel story. The New Abolition has been honored with the prestigious 2017 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. This coming fall, Yale University Press will publish a sequel, Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel, continuing the story that The New Abolition begins into the civil rights era.
Dorrien engagingly narrates the details of fascinating black lives. He tells stories of childhood escapades, influential grandparents, the intellectual climates on colleges, ecclesial power struggles, and now-forgotten books that once commanded wide attention. For important but often overlooked black church leaders, such as the Methodists Reverdy Ransom and Richard R. Wright, Jr., Dorrien’s book succeeds brilliantly at drawing attention to the complex lives of men who put their excellence at oratory and practical wisdom in the service of their churches and their communities.
The New Abolition spotlights the most politically and socially engaged elements of black religion in the era before the civil rights movement. Dorrien is interested in black religious leaders who struggled for racial justice, though the form this struggle took ranged along the spectrum defined by Booker T. Washington (vocational education, self-help, and self-segregation) on one end and W. E. B. Du Bois (humanistic education, collective betterment, and integration) on the other. Du Bois’s long and active life intertwined with many of the other figures Dorrien considers, and the book periodically returns to Du Bois as it ambles through the life stories of various more or less religious political leaders, ministers of the three black Methodist denominations, and black Baptists. While some of the book’s protagonists advocate a return to Africa and others advocate for laws to end lynching, they are united by a commitment to publicly advocate for positions that grow out of their faith commitments.
There are many ways to bring faith commitments into the public square, and Dorrien displays this variety to the reader, often abstaining from direct judgment (with a few notable exceptions, as in the case of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.’s homophobia). The New Abolition suggests that black religion, when it intervened in public, essentially promoted justice. While Dorrien is more comfortable in the role of historian than that of constructive theologian, his book hints at a constructive claim – at a claim about the black church. Dorrien does believe that there is something greater than the empirical institutions and individuals that we refer to when we say church. This has to do with a fundamental commitment to a vision social justice, and to the ethical imperative to organize toward that vision here on earth, today.
Just as important as the corrective it offers to social gospel historiography is the way that The New Abolition frames abolitionism as a movement that continues after the laws of slavery have ended. Angela Davis makes a similar claim when she develops her vision of “abolition democracy,” the re-weaving of the social fabric through energizing democratic and human rights institutions, and Dorrien shows how religious ideas have historically been part of this story. Today, as the rhetoric and identity of the abolitionists is increasingly being embraced anew – for example, by such groups as Critical Resistance, Project NIA, and Southerners on New Ground – Dorrien implicitly offers a much-needed invitation to young organizers and activists raised in a secularist culture to consider what might be possible when religious ideas are woven into their vision of social justice.
The essays that follow elaborate on various dimensions of Dorrien’s expansive work. Laura McTighe invites us to think more deeply about the gendered dimensions of the black social gospel tradition. Terrence Johnson meditates on the concept of double consciousness as a way to move beyond an easy distinction between theistic and non-theistic participants in the tradition. Brian Bantum pushes us to think about the contradictions in black social gospel: the push for inclusion that, at the same time, excludes or diminishes the role of others (such as black women and queer blacks). Finally, Heath Carter asks whether the black social gospel story could be told with a sharper focus on the grassroots, taking the intellectual contribution of those without conventional learning even more seriously. Altogether, these essays show how generative Dorrien’s book is – and how it will surely serve as a cornerstone for future generations of scholarship on these issues.