Symposium Introduction

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.

Brian Bantum

Response

Black Women and the Black Social Gospel

Reading Gary Dorrien’s The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel I was reminded of just how crucial history is when we are attempting to discern a difficult and turbulent present. History uncovers the patterns and swings of a society helping us see the sobering truth of how little changes, even when everything around us seems unprecedented. The legacies of white supremacy are clearly visible in our contemporary moment, whether in the candidacy of Donald Trump or the seemingly daily recurrence of police brutality or the devastating effects of the war on drugs in African American communities. But we also see the legacies of protest and resistance in student movements, Black Lives Matter, and the Moral Mondays campaign, to name a few.

Dorrien’s account helps us to see the many strands that are moving in and out of our current protest movements and just what is at stake in remembering that we are part of a long line of disciples trying to declare the humanity and dignity of the black body in a world built upon its exploitation. Recounting the forces at work as Du Bois returns to the United States after World War I, I was reminded of conditions that feel eerily familiar, even nearly one hundred years later. “A hellish backlash was about to explode when Du Bois returned to New York in April 1919. Northern cities seethed from failing to accommodate the Great Migration and America’s recent foreign immigrants, Southern newspapers warned returning black soldiers that expectations of decent treatment would be handled swiftly” (293). In many ways, this is a book speaking our moment.

Even more than W.E.B. Du Bois, The New Abolition highlights the powerful figures and ideas that continued the traditions of black resistance into the twentieth century. But at the same time Dorrien displays the profound complications that make resistance such a difficult endeavor. Patterns of contestation regarding strategy, ideology, class, and gender emerge again and again as the story of new abolition unfolds.

Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Nannie Burroughs and the many other new abolitionists, much like the original abolitionists, pressed for the full humanity of black lives in the midst of white interests, class, religious and theological difference, and contestation regarding gender in the midst of the burgeoning suffrage movement. The accounts of Wells and Burroughs particularly highlight the ways gender overlapped these movements, sounding again the paradoxical echoes of freedom organizations that reinscribe patterns of oppression and exclusion within its structures.

Intentionally or not, Dorrien has drawn us into a web of complex intersections of race, gender, and class that shape the black social gospel movement. With one eye in our contemporary moment, as protest movements and churches continue to struggle with questions of access versus agitation, acknowledging and centering the leadership of women, the recognition of LGBTQ as leaders and active participants—Dorrien’s work presses a critical question, can a movement work toward freedom in a truly holistic way? Or, does a movement necessarily require a piecemeal prioritization of race over gender, or gender over class in order to truly liberate the oppressed?

I realize this is not the question Dorrien is trying to address in the book. And yet, Dorrien claims early in the book “black social gospelers tended to converge on the pragmatic verdict that the best way to overcome the pernicious doctrine of racial inferiority was to build strong black institutions” (33). Though seemingly straightforward, this claim was complicated. To what extent should black institutions be independent and to what extent should they be advocating for fuller participation in wider society? What is the role of women? Is this a movement of elite Northerners or working class people? Does the NAACP even get off the ground without the patronage of Northern white men and women? And at what cost? Just as the black social gospel movement sowed the seeds of the Civil Rights movement, it seemed to perpetuate the marginalization of women’s voices just as easily as its predecessors.

The strong black institutions that were the focus of black social gospelers were also complicated mosaics of whites and blacks, men and women, with dynamics of power that oftentimes perpetuated oppressive dynamics. In a fascinating account, Dorrien highlights just how instrumental white men and women were in the founding of the NAACP. “Sixty people signed the call, released to the public on Lincoln’s birthday, launching the National Negro Conference. Eight were African Americans” (250). Du Bois and others skillfully maneuvered this reality to foster the organization into a significant and powerful voice for civil rights.

Dorrien’s work is a sober testament to just how difficult and complicated this work is in a violently racialized American society. The complications are not due simply to how deeply racism is engrained in America, however. The depth of racism is seen in the various modes of resistance African Americans have had to adopt. Reconciling these varied and contested modes of resistance is the heart of the challenge because, as Dorrien displays so adeptly, oppressive implementation of power is not an external factor in these movements. The processes of racial formation and deformation existed within the communities that were trying to get free. As black social gospelers resisted racial violence and segregation, their attempts to organize, communicate, and advocate were laced with patterns of racist ideology and/or patriarchy and classism.

Dorrien’s account gestures toward a structure that maintained imbedded racial or class tension. Two particular passages highlight strains of gender and race that were present within these movements. Describing Wells-Barnett’s interactions with the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) Dorrien suggests, “Her militant politics and loner-hero style did not wear well in the club movement” (119). Dorrien describes this dynamic of anger or inability to work well throughout his descriptions of Wells-Barnett.

Womanist theologians have often cited how such characterizations serve to perpetuate their marginalization with black church and other institutions. A particularly powerful passage in this recounting describes Du Bois’ position in the formation of the NAACP.

DuBois was fine with being the only African American on the nominating committee, as he hoped that this venture would turn into exactly what Wells-Barnett suspected—a vehicle for him to shine. Du Bois had no peer relationships with strong black women like Wells-Barnett or Terrell, he had no interest in being bossed or admonished by a black heroine who did not look up to him, and he enjoyed being admired by white feminists like Ovington, Eaton, and Woolley. (255–56)

While Dorrien notes Du Bois was equally difficult to work with, the ease with which Du Bois partnered with white men and women seems to remain unanalyzed in The New Abolition. I wonder how differently this account would have been had Ida B. Wells or Nannie Burroughs been the central figures of the New Abolition movement.

Accounting for the interrelationships between race, class, and gender makes the task of telling a story infinitely more complicated. Dorrien serves us well by demythologizing the heroic figures of Washington, Du Bois and others. The black social gospel movement was animated by an unrelenting belief in the humanity of black men and women, even as this vision was obscured by political expediency, power, and bias of class and/or gender. But how do we recount this movement in a way that most truthfully displays these pressures? Is it possible that, by positioning Du Bois and Washington as the central figures, the very structure of the history cannot adequately deal with the intersections of gender and class and colorism that plagued endured within these movements?

In our current moment, we continue to see these pressures writ large. Some activists run for office or accept offers to “sit at the table” of national candidates, while others vehemently refuse, demanding more comprehensive or radical changes to the systems of oppression that dominate our country and world. Who represents these movements and whose voices are excluded or included, remain active questions. Dorrien’s book helps us to see that as we advocate for the freedom of our brothers and sisters, we can remain blind to the ways we imprison one another in the very same movement. And while this was not the center of Dorrien’s book, he displays this pattern in his careful attention to how these movements unfolded.

I say all of this not to leverage a critique of the text, per se. Instead, I offer it as a point of conversation. I wonder if there is another way we need to tell this story if we are going to truly glean its deepest lessons. To fail to do this has significant consequences, I fear. Because if we continue to tell the history of freedom movements as mythically justice-oriented communities we lose sight of just how difficult this work is.

For example, Dorrien writes, “The theologians of the black social gospel had to make a case the church was still relevant to the struggle for civil rights and social justice, even as this struggle increasingly employed ideological, political, and cultural modes of discourse that marginalized Christianity” (294–95). This is an inspiring summation of the black social gospel. Sign me up. But how do we account for the very exclusions that underwrote these very same movements and institutions? Do we need to tell the story differently? What would have been necessary to tell the story of The New Abolitionists: Nannie Burroughs and the Black Social Gospel?

This question of who we place at the center of the story bothered me throughout the book, but I had not intended to make that the center of these remarks. But the concluding epilogue changed my mind. I couldn’t quite let these gaps go as I read Dorrien’s stirring assessment of the black social gospel movement, its leaders who “inveighed against passivity and defeatism wherever they encountered it in their congregations and communities” (520). Except, they didn’t, not always. The history of the new abolition movement is as fractured and uneven as the protest movements that preceded it and the movements we find ourselves in today.

I wonder if we will find ourselves more thoroughly instructed by a history that is courageously willing to reflect on its own theological and ideological limitations, a history that is willing to suggest that the figures that we have presumed to be so central are, in fact, not the most instructive in showing us the depth of what we have inherited from black social gospelers, or what dangers persist.

 

  • Gary Dorrien

    Gary Dorrien

    Reply

    Response to Brian Bantum

    I am deeply grateful for these rich, perceptive, and illuminating review essays by Brian Bantum, Heath W. Carter, Terrence L. Johnson, and Laura McTighe. All interrogate aspects of The New Abolition on which the reviewer holds special expertise and has produced distinguished scholarship. All describe the book’s overall argument and framework accurately. And all make valuable points about how this subject might otherwise be approached in future scholarship on black social gospel and black freedom traditions.

    The New Abolition has unusual problems that I had to address in the opening chapter, alongside the customary table setting. If the black social gospel is a tradition of thought and activism with its own identity and integrity, why is there so little literature about it? If it was routinely ignored for decades, and brushed aside by others as insignificant, how can it be anywhere near as important as I claim? I was compelled to begin with a case for the very existence of a black social gospel tradition, both in the broad sense of the four traditions that I described and concerning the distinct line that led to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). My framing and table setting go on about certain things that Carter emphasizes, McTighe mentions, and Bantum and Johnson pass over. It delights me that some of these arguments can now be taken for granted, at least by many younger scholars. But for me, chapter 1 was no mere formality. It registered and reflected many years of being advised, even by close friends, that I had no subject.

    Numerous conventions kept the black social gospel from being remembered. It was said that only a handful of black church leaders, at most, espoused the trademark social gospel fusion of social justice politics and social gospel theology. They had little influence, they imitated white social gospel rhetoric, and nothing came of their labors. Black churches were said to be too provincial and conservative to support social justice politics or social gospel theology; on this point, some of the lions of African American historiography offered very quotable support. Moreover, it was said that Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois were not involved with the social gospel, so this category did not illuminate Washington versus Du Bois. Historians said that religious intellectuals no longer mattered anyway by the end of the nineteenth century, so it didn’t matter if they ignored whatever black religious intellectuals might have existed. And as Carter notes, historians wrongly claimed that the social gospel was a species of white Progressive era idealism that didn’t concern itself with racial justice.

    I took the risk of showering readers with too many figures and organizations in order to knock down the deadliest conventions, “only a handful” and “had little influence.” The founders fought hard for their right to advocate progressive theology and social justice politics, emphasizing racial justice. They did so in distinctly African American cultural and religious idioms, usually in black churches, sometimes in predominantly white churches, and always in repressively racist contexts. They were an embattled minority in their own denominations, because the social gospel was divisive and it threatened to get people in trouble. “Only a handful” does not describe even a narrow rendering of the third black social gospel group—the church leaders who joined Du Bois in espousing protest politics for racial justice, joined the NAACP, and sponsored NAACP chapters. Washington versus Du Bois was at the center of the argument about black social gospel politics, until the Du Bois faction prevailed.

    All four ideological factions of what became the black social gospel already existed before Washington versus Du Bois crystallized the argument about the politics of racial justice. The founders were heroic individuals who refused to be denigrated and who usually struggled falteringly to build strong organizations—William Simmons, Alexander Crummell, Henry McNeal Turner, Reverdy Ransom, Ida Wells-Barnett, Lucy Wilmot Smith, and Alexander Walters. By the early twentieth century there were many others, notably Nannie Burroughs, Richard R. Wright Jr., Adam Clayton Powell Sr., and James R. L. Diggs. But the problem of the protest vehicle lingered until 1909, because Washington sabotaged the Afro-American Council and the Niagara Movement floundered. The coming of the NAACP was enormously important for the black social gospel. It created a protest vehicle with political power that needed the support of religious communities. By 1919, the NAACP was run almost entirely by black leaders and officials. The black social gospel, as a gathering social and political force with movement aspirations, was still in an early ascending phase in 1919, while the famous white version faded precipitously. Then the black social gospel acquired a generation of leaders that assumed the social gospel from the outset of their careers.

    My forthcoming book, Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel, will start with the generation that inherited a black social gospel legacy and exemplified it to Martin Luther King Jr. The figures that influenced King stubbornly believed that ordinary, prosaic, humble, flawed, usually conservative religious congregations were the key to changing American society. They also shared with Ransom and Powell Senior a fascination with the revolt against British colonialism in India. Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman, and William Stuart Nelson constantly invoked Gandhi in the 1930s and 1940s, getting King’s attention. My rendering will be long on fissures, quandaries, and contestations, because the black social gospel has never been theologically or politically monolithic. But Breaking White Supremacy narrows my focus from four historic black social Christian traditions to the one that gave ballast to the NAACP, boasted numerous Christian socialists and Gandhian internationalists, and led to King. For McTighe is exactly right about my purpose. “King did not come from nowhere” is the key to both books.

    I take a strong view of King’s importance while emphasizing that he was lifted to prominence by a freedom struggle that long preceded him. I believe that King’s early formation and his graduate education were both important to his identity, thinking, and career. Any reading that minimizes one or the other misconstrues King, which is what happens when scholars fail to credit the black social gospel that enabled King to play his unique mediating role. King soared to fame because he distinctly bridged the disparities between black and white church communities, between middle class blacks and liberal whites, between black nationalists and black conservatives, between church communities and the academy, and between the Northern and Southern civil rights movements.

    He was the product of a broadly black social Christian family and church that prepared him for this role. King was nurtured in the piety and idioms of an urban, middle-class, black Baptist family and congregation. He deeply absorbed the evangelical piety and social concerns preached by his father. He got a more intellectual version of both things when he studied at Morehouse College, where Mays influenced him. At Crozier Seminary and Boston University, King adopted a Socialist version of social gospel theology and a personalist version of post-Kantian idealistic philosophy, and he acquired a conflicted attraction to Gandhian nonviolence. Throughout his movement career King was committed to democratic socialism, personalist theological liberalism, and Gandhian nonviolence. More importantly, King got more and more radical and angry as a consequence of failing to break white supremacy. He was more radical and angry in 1960 than in 1955, more in 1965 than in 1960, and more at the end than ever. At the end he spurned his access to the establishment in order to stand with the poor and oppressed—struggling against intertwined forms of racial, economic, national, and imperial power.

    Cornel West, delineating the principal intellectual and existential sources that shaped King, rightly names four, in order of importance—prophetic black church Christianity, prophetic liberal Christianity, prophetic Gandhian nonviolence, and prophetic American civil religion. West says that King embodied “the best of American Christendom” by synthesizing these sources. But this mission was not unique to King, for it defines precisely what the black social gospel had become before King emerged. King stood in a tradition of black social gospel founders and mentors who heard the prophetic gospel in the black church, appropriated social gospel liberalism, engaged Gandhi as soon as the Gandhian revolution began in India, and called America to stop betraying its vaunted ideals.

    The weakest link in this chain was the one that white America lifted up after King was gone: King the dreamer who called America to its own creed. King himself played down this trope in his later life, as it did not comport very well with the surging tide of black anger that he shared with the Black Power movement. It became even more problematic as soon as King was gone. The more that white liberals embraced King as a hero, the more ambiguous he became for African Americans still denigrated by white society. It became hard to remember that King, at the end, was the most radical person in the SCLC.

    King did not become the most hated man in America on a misunderstanding. Getting him right is distinctly important to me, because King was my exemplar of prophetic Christianity long before I became an academic, and he still is. In my early career I wrote books on post-Kantian idealism, Social Democratic politics, and Christian Socialism, and I puzzled over why early black Christian Socialists such as Ransom and Woodbey were completely forgotten. Why were there no books on the convictions that linked Ransom, Woodbey, and Du Bois to King? That was the wellspring of what became my interest in the broader black social gospel tradition.

    My friend and role model, Michael Harrington, had worked with King and Bayard Rustin, and I was a sponge for Mike’s stories about King’s personality, movement leadership, and worldview. The King scholarship of that period did not capture the person that Mike described. More important, neither did it convey the Southern black Baptist sources of King’s genius, partly because it relied on King’s seminary-oriented account of his story. The revisionist King scholarship of the late 1980s and early 1990s corrected the latter deficiency, yielding richer accounts of King’s development and character. But it also yielded books that downgraded King’s graduate education and intellectualism in order to play up his early formation and/or explain his personal flaws.

    Meanwhile I filled the gaps in my knowledge about King’s black social gospel forerunners and mentors. By 1995 I had a strong conviction that scholarship on the black freedom movements, progressive Christianity, and US American history wrongly overlooked the very existence of the black social gospel tradition, much less its immense importance. I sprinkled this conviction into various books and cheered as numerous scholars advanced similar arguments. The roll call is too long for this occasion, but the key scholars for me in the early going were Lewis V. Baldwin, Taylor Branch, Clayborne Carson, James Cone, Michael Eric Dyson, Walter Fluker, David Garrow, Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Ralph Luker, Peter Paris, Albert J. Raboteau, Barbara Dianne Savage, and David Wills.

    I have one last general comment to make before moving to specific points. I am a social ethicist, a theologian and philosopher of religion, and an intellectual historian. My books and teaching curriculum range across these four fields, and I am easily shamed for working in too many fields. Despite my interdisciplinary transgressions, however, I have never aspired to be a social historian. That is a bridge too far for me, even though The New Abolition contains a fair amount of social history. We need, very much, a full-fledged social history of the black social gospel. It would lift up the many outreach organizations that sustained the black social gospel at the grassroots level and made it possible for figures like King and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to become famous. It would describe the women who ran the mission societies in most black congregations and the many others who kept institutions like Abyssinian Church alive and thriving. It would delve into the 35,000 black congregations where the NAACP actually existed across the country, overcoming the usual focus on how a New York City-headquartered organization marched through the federal courts. It would contain micro-histories of the church settlement ministries and institutional churches that I merely summarized.

    One of my objectives in The New Abolition is to recover Ransom, Wright, Wells-Barnett, Walters and others as important public intellectuals, conceiving intellectual history, in this case, as an approach soaked in politics, everyday life, and social struggles. I believe that intellectual history of this sort and social history are complementary and even necessary to each other. But my approach is limited by its focus on people who wrote books, founded magazines, spoke for movement organizations, and preached on Sunday. I hope, by providing a history of the black social gospel focused on public intellectualism and arguments about social justice politics and theology, to encourage others to take up other approaches to this subject.

    All four of the reviewers make comments pressing toward this end, and I take special delight in Bantum’s call for a book on Nannie Burroughs and the Black Social Gospel. That would be a tremendous project. As for whether I should have gone that way, the answer for this book is no, because Du Bois is like the sun—radiating in all directions. Almost everything that goes with this subject is addressed by Du Bois somewhere, and many of the key players defined themselves in relationship to Du Bois. Ransom sought to be the Du Bois of the black church, Wright described himself as a follower of Du Bois, Powell Senior carefully positioned himself between Du Bois and Washington, and Du Bois stood at the center of broiling debates over socialist criticism, what to make of Gandhi, and how to think about the significance of race. Du Bois changed the conversation and made everybody deal with him. He inspired a revolution of consciousness that defined the problem of the twentieth century. He provided a language for the problem of the color line, struggled mightily to overcome the assimilation versus separatism binary, and helped to launch the pan-African movement, the Niagara movement, and the NAACP. He helped to radicalize the black social gospel through his influence on Ransom, Wright, Walters, Powell Senior, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Johnson, Mays, King, and others.

    One might say that this is the problem with the black social gospel—too many male ministers and intellectuals trying to be more or less like Du Bois. But that is what happened in the religious and political organizations in which the black social gospel exerted some influence, as Burroughs protested. Burroughs did not care for intellectuals, and she especially disliked Du Bois. She persisted in blasting his Talented Tenth conceits after he dropped his neo-Lamarckian Social Darwinism, stopped trying to quantify essential racial groups, ceased referring to double consciousness, and converted to radical democratic socialism. Burroughs scored against Du Bois on some of his weakest points, and she spoke with extraordinary personal authority as a passionate advocate of working-class black women.

    Today Burroughs usually registers as being more interesting and relevant than the social gospel stalwarts who made bishop. In class I have to stump hard for Walters to get noticed, and sometimes it happens with Wright too. With Burroughs and Wells-Barnett, it never happens. I just walk into class and discussion erupts. Still, it was Burroughs that Evelyn Higginbotham held in mind when she named and interrogated the politics of respectability. Much that Burroughs said about housekeeping, colorism, and unemployed men evokes an awkward silence in class.

    I am grateful for Bantum’s comment that The New Abolition is in many ways “a book speaking our moment.” I fully intended to draw readers into what he calls the “web of complex intersections of race, gender, and class that shape the black social gospel movement,” and I know what Bantum means about keeping one eye on our time. His important book, Redeeming Mulatto, and more recently his article in the Christian Century on Black Lives Matter give eloquent two-eyed attention to the intersectional complexities of opposing white supremacy. There he argues that no form of government or economic policy inherently resists white supremacy, so there is no alternative to waging constant, specific, concrete, and strategic opposition to it, sometimes foregoing respectability. And there, as here, he presses on the tensions between building independent organizations and advocating for full participation in society as a whole, emphasizing that many black social gospel leaders internalized and perpetuated racist ideology, patriarchy, and/or classism even as they struggled against racial violence and Jim Crow.

    The New Abolition runs long because it contains detailed accounts of these dynamics in every chapter. The nationalist tradition was doubly ironic. It harshly chastised ordinary black Americans even as it emphasized racial pride. It espoused conservative values and policies, and thus promoted assimilation, even as it asserted that black Americans had no home in America. Yet the nationalist tradition was so important as a bedrock home and option in a hostile society that there were nationalist currents in all four of the black social gospel traditions. Outright nationalists such as Turner and Crummell influenced the entire spectrum of black social gospel thought. Du Bois and Washington both employed nationalist tropes, as did Simmons, Ransom, Wells-Barnett and Burroughs. The New Abolition builds toward a next-to-last chapter in which the denomination that most emphasized its independence made a belated entry into the story and nearly took it over. The National Baptist Convention wanted two things that did not go well together: a separate identity and a significant role in national politics. Both were mediated by Booker Washington politics, which ramped up the contradictions. Every page of the black social gospel story shows church leaders and intellectuals negotiating the home and society tension. Nearly always they said that they had to build strong black organizations to make an impact on society.

    What did that mean for women? It usually meant that women ran the mission societies and outreach ministries, and were barred from playing public roles. The women who broke through to exercise public agency (most notably Burroughs, Wells-Barnett, and Molly Church) had to build their own organizations. Was this a movement of elite Northerners? From the second generation on, most black social gospel leaders in the churches, academy, and YMCA/YWCA were Southerners from very modest backgrounds who came to the North (or Washington, DC) for a college or graduate education. They touted the life-changing blessings of education for the rest of their lives. Would the NAACP have gotten off the ground without the white progressives who cofounded it? Definitely not. The NAACP was the brainchild of two white socialists, William English Walling and Mary White Ovington, and one rich, connected, white liberal, Oswald Garrison Villard. All were versed in the history of black-only and black-and-white attempts to build a protest organization for racial justice. Du Bois was eager to cut a deal with them because he and they understood the obstacles, and he was sick of failing. The miracle of the early NAACP was that white liberals and socialists soon pulled back from running it, even though some were against racial consciousness of any kind, and many disliked Du Bois’s idea of a global liberationist movement for all people of color.

    Without question, the civil rights movement inherited sexism from its black social gospel legacy. Bantum puts it gently, saying that the civil rights movement “seemed to perpetuate the marginalization of women’s voices just as easily as its predecessors.” Actually it was worse. Ella Baker, a better organizer than anyone at the SCLC, who saved the organization during its falling-apart chaos of 1958, got demeaning treatment from the ministers who spoke for the organization, including King. Her exclusion from a leadership role in the SCLC exemplifies the sexism that every woman who worked for it experienced. Women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) got similar treatment, even though SNCC was more radical and it had a few women who crashed the barriers to leadership.

Heath Carter

Response

Not Movements, But Traditions!

Gary Dorrien’s magnificent new book, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel, drives home, once and for all, that it is time to dispense with any notion of the Social Gospel. In too many cases, even today, the category remains virtually synonymous with Walter Rauschenbusch and the handful of other elite white Protestant men who first popularized it. Their intellectual and practical contributions, while unquestionably vast, have been overrepresented in the historiography as long as there has been one. The field of social gospel studies emerged in the 1940s, well before the social history turn, and its earliest luminaries, including Charles Howard Hopkins, Henry May, and Aaron Abell, set the pattern with their focus on how the “articulate leaders” of the nation’s white Protestant denominations responded to the class conflict that accompanied industrialization.1

This overarching framework has enjoyed remarkable staying power through several rounds of revisionism. More than thirty-five years after Hopkins published The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism (1940), he collaborated with fellow historian Ronald C. White Jr. on a volume whose declared purpose was “to restate and re-vision the social gospel.”2 The Social Gospel: Religion and Reform in Changing America (1976) contained thematically organized sets of primary documents interspersed with context and commentary by the authors. Notably, the book included a section devoted to “Neglected Reforms and Reformers” as well as a subsection entitled “The Souls of Black Folk.” Hopkins and White reflected, “Later climates of opinion have played a part in sensitizing us to the contours of such issues,” and went on to explain, “The civil rights activities of the 1960s . . . encouraged new research into earlier episodes of racial strife and reform.”3 But tellingly, while the part named for Du Bois’s classic work made reference to both he and Booker T. Washington, it included no documents penned by black reformers. Instead, Hopkins and White chose to feature an excerpt from a Washington Gladden sermon and two others from Willis D. Weatherford’s book Negro Life in the South. Even in the post-Civil Rights world, historians long imagined that there was a singular Social Gospel and that it was lily white.

These assumptions are no longer intellectually defensible, as Dorrien’s book definitively underscores. The first of two planned volumes on the black social gospel, The New Abolition traces an ambitious narrative stretching from the Civil War to the cusp of the modern Civil Rights movement. The book unfolds as a series of mini-biographies of key persons in the rise of this theological paradigm, which Dorrien argues had four major variants. There was a black nationalist incarnation, embodied by African Methodist Episcopal (AME) bishop Henry McNeal Turner, who already in the late nineteenth century was arguing “God is a Negro” (74). A second stream reflected the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, whose message of incremental racial uplift through economic development included an emphasis on the ethical dimensions of Christianity. Indeed, Dorrien observes that Washington “epitomized the social gospel to a vast audience” (3). His most formidable rival was Du Bois, who had a more complicated religious identity and who appears in Dorrien’s story not as a social gospeler but as an inspiration for the other two veins of the black social gospel. One of these, represented by the likes of Ida B. Wells and Reverdy Ransom, rejected Washington’s strategy altogether and called instead “for a new abolitionist politics of racial and social justice” (6). The other variation, advanced by figures such as Nannie Burroughs and Adam Clayton Powell Sr. mediated between Washington and Du Bois, modeling an approach that fused their best insights. In addition to these four streams, the black social gospel had a much smaller “socialist flank,” as Dorrien styles it, propelled energetically, if somewhat quixotically, by Baptist ministers George W. Woodbey and George W. Slater Jr (5).

Collectively, these black social gospelers “paved the way to the civil rights explosion of the 1950s,” Dorrien contends, by casting a Christian social ethical vision every bit as impressive as that espoused by Gladden, Rauschenbusch, and the like (9). There were striking affinities between the two. Perhaps most importantly, both the white and black social gospels were imbued with a “modern social consciousness” which insisted that sin was not only individual but also structural and that salvation was therefore not only personal but also societal (4). Yet, as Dorrien writes in the preface and makes clear throughout, whatever the similarities, “the black social gospel is a distinct tradition with its own problems, figures, history, and integrity” (xiii). More than any other single factor, racism was responsible for the divergence. Black social gospelers did not enjoy the same access to the general public as their white counterparts and were moreover appalled by the latter’s tendency to minimize or altogether neglect issues of racial injustice; while Wells, Washington, and a handful of others made inroads into white social gospel circles, they were never treated as coequals. As a result, in the Jim Crow United States there was no unified Social Gospel, only social gospels.

Dorrien’s book adds to a growing body of work that exposes the fundamental deficiencies of the old historiographical synthesis, which accepted more or less at face value the “classic” social gospelers’ branding of themselves and their activities as “the Social Gospel movement.” The reality is that Gladden, Rauschenbusch, and company were one of many constituencies that argued the church’s mission was inescapably social. Numerous white middle-class women, wage earners, and African Americans—situated in and around evangelical, Pentecostal, Catholic, and Mainline Protestant denominations—did the same.4 These groups shared in common certain ideas, rhetorical moves, and frustrations with churchly institutions, and a category such as social Christianity may be capacious enough to encompass them all. But between these groups and even within them, there were also any number of competing interests and emphases, not to mention distinct communities of conversation and praxis. Consequently, whereas Dorrien argues that “the social gospel was fundamentally a movement, not a doctrine,” I would say it was neither (3–4). The full breadth and impact of both social Christianity writ large and the black social gospel in particular come most fully into view if we conceive of them not as movements—with the greater degree of self-consciousness and coordination that word implies—but rather as more diffuse traditions, shaped and sustained at different levels through near-constant contestation.

To be sure, Dorrien himself sometimes refers to the black social gospel as a tradition and there is no shortage of internal tensions in his story. He foregrounds them in his discussion of the four different streams and they are present moreover in his accounts of the infamous struggle between Washington and Du Bois, the lesser-known tug-of-war between Ransom and the AME hierarchy, and any number of other moments besides. Yet Dorrien’s sense of the social gospel as a movement is nevertheless deeply inscribed in his narrative, which closely follows the lives of relatively well-known people who, in many cases, knew one another personally. The book’s magisterial treatment of this vital network of activists and religious leaders represents an invaluable contribution. However, by the end one cannot help but wonder whether “the orbit of black social Christianity” was in fact even more expansive than it appears here (7). He is certainly right to eschew the fiction that “the black church” has always been overwhelmingly progressive and no doubt right also in asserting that through the entirety of the book’s period only a small percentage of African American congregations preached and practiced social gospels. But even still, as he acknowledges, “nearly every U.S. American city with a sizeable black population had a few large, socially conscious congregations that developed programs offering child care, health care, garbage removal, and employment counseling” (20). How might a more sustained look at life on the ground in these churches have altered the sense of both who and what black social Christianity was?

Greater attention to the grassroots dimensions might also have shifted the book’s plotline. One could imagine a story arc for this first volume, for example, that begins where Dorrien’s does but that ends instead with a bottom-up account of the Great Migration, a mass movement framed by many participants in social gospel terms. Indeed, some migrants chalked the words “Bound for the Promised Land” on the side of the railcars that carried them from the South to the North, a journey countless more interpreted as a “second Exodus.” The overwhelming majority of migrants were desperately poor and ill-educated, but if they were not religious intellectuals in the formal sense, they nevertheless possessed a keen sense of the sinfulness of social structures. They burnished their modern social consciousness every time they talked or sang about the South as Egypt and the North as the promised land.5 In this alternative ending Ransom and Richard R. Wright Jr. might still appear as lonely prophets in their high-powered circles, but marching straight into the heart of their northern wilderness would be a throng of everyday social gospelers following what they believed to be God’s liberating lead (little could they have known that devastating disappointment lay in wait).

If Dorrien’s book does not entirely explain how that throng came together around an intuitive social Christian vision, it is nevertheless the place where anyone who wants to understand the black social gospel should begin. The New Abolition is a breathtaking achievement, which should inspire a new wave of scholarship on the vibrant and too oft neglected tradition at its heart.


  1. Henry F. May, Protestant Churches and Industrial America (New York: Harper, 1949), x. See also Charles Howard Hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940); and Aaron Ignatius Abell, The Urban Impact on American Protestantism, 1865–1900 (London: Archon, 1943).

  2. Ronald C. White Jr. and C. Howard Hopkins, The Social Gospel: Religion and Reform in Changing America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976), xi.

  3. Social Gospel, 101.

  4. For a few examples of a growing literature on this front, see Ellen Blue, St. Mark’s and the Social Gospel: Methodist Women and Civil Rights in New Orleans, 1895–1965 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011); Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake, eds., The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016); Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); and Jarod Roll, Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010).

  5. Here I’m drawing especially on Milton C. Sernett, Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997).

  • Gary Dorrien

    Gary Dorrien

    Reply

    Response to Heath Carter

    Heath Carter is steeped in the generations of social gospel historiography, to which his wonderful book, Union Made, is a major corrective. Union Made recovers the working-class social gospel in moving, detailed, and vivid fashion, focusing on Protestant and Catholic labor organizers in Chicago that brought their Christianity into the struggle for the rights of workers, comprehensive social justice, and a National Labor Union. Along the way they also tried to save the soul of American Christianity, realizing it was pointless to defend Christianity if the churches didn’t care about the suffering and vulnerability of working-class human beings. This book exemplifies social history at its best, and I greatly appreciate Carter’s emphasis, there and here, that Progressive era social Christianity was a capacious phenomenon at the grassroots level.

    Here he takes up the distinction between movements and traditions, and I might as well cut straight to the difference between us instead of building up to it. I am an old Lefty who spent fifteen years founding and leading chapters of the two socialist organizations that succeeded the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas. In every organizing speech that I gave, I explained the concept of a multi-tendency organization that marshals various discourse traditions, ideologies, and identities toward the end of—or at least hoping to build—a movement for social justice. The idea that a democratic movement for social justice necessarily draws upon multiple traditions and identities is deeply ingrained in me, as is the presumption that no one who cares about social justice can rest content with having a tradition or a personal identity. The idea of building a movement, or at least of hoping to be involved in building one, is there in almost every organizer I’ve known across labor, peace, anti-racist, feminist, anti-imperialist, LGBTQ, and socialist organizing. I’ve known a few community organizers that were half-exceptions, and some black nationalists opposed movement activism on nationalist grounds; Crummell exemplifies this position in The New Abolition. But I definitely do not read the history of the Afro-American League, the Afro-American Council, the Niagara Movement, the NAACP, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), the racial justice wing of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the SCLC, SNCC, and other organizations associated with the black social gospel as lacking in movement aspiration.

    Almost every person that I featured in The New Abolition and Breaking White Supremacy called for movements that fired a game-changing surge for racial justice. Some moved from one organization to another in search of one that lit a fire. They worked very hard at protecting select traditions, identities, and groups, but did so without settling for the politics of mere survival. To be sure, this outcome is baked into my focus on movement leaders, and Carter is right that the orbit of the black social gospel was more expansive and less movement-conscious at the grassroots level. My extensive discussions of the NAACP are pertinent to this issue. I have sought to show that the early NAACP was subversive, indispensable, and shot through with neo-abolitionist movement consciousness. The founders wanted to call it the New Abolition Movement, but they also wanted Southern chapters, so they adopted a clunky name that implicitly endorsed Du Bois’s idea of the organization’s mission. Du Bois had a stormy run at the NAACP, and then its legal wing morphed into such a powerhouse that it obscured everything else that the organization did. But everything else took place in or through 35,000 black congregations, and many clerical leaders of what became the SCLC had backgrounds in NAACP organizing.

Terrence Johnson

Response

Black Social Gospel and the Epistemic Value of Double Consciousness

Scarred by a sustained effort among whites following Emancipation to legalize segregation based in part on the cultural beliefs in black inferiority and inherent criminality, the black social gospel tradition emerged during the “trauma” and “abandonment” of the Reconstruction Period and developed a radical Christian message of hope and justice developed by formerly enslaved Africans. Unlike the themes of peace and ecumenical solidarity that reflected the “social ethical understanding of the Christian faith” preached in the white social gospel movement, black social gospel adherents grappled with religion and religious belief through the lens of anti-black racism and racial subjugation. This hermeneutical turn envisioned the Bible as a “talking book,” a characterization formulated by New Testament scholar Vincent Wimbush more than a century later, to cultivate a political language and religious imagination informed by the Hebrew narratives of liberation and New Testament themes of hope, love and redemption.

The founders of the black social gospel tradition developed, according to Dorrien, 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.” The move toward racial justice within Afro-Christianity was not simply rhetorical, i.e., appropriating biblical tropes to justify God’s solidarity with blacks; instead, it signified the buried and rarely articulated nature of the religion and religiosity of African Americans: black thought and consciousness as the sites in and through which the divine and religion are imagined, interpreted and defined. In other words, African Americans in religious settings took for granted their central role in imagining religion, God and the language they constructed to express their religious strivings. Historians Al Raboteau (Slave Religion), Sterling Stuckey (Slave Culture) and Charles Long (Significations) are exemplar examples of the competing and overlapping scholarly approaches developed to describe the epistemic value of African American religions. Indeed, within these early investigations into the religion of formerly enslaved Africans, what is resoundingly clear is the degree to which blacks asserted themselves as co-creators in the development of American religion in general and religion’s role in social justice in particular.

In The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel, Gary Dorrien, author of the award-winning Kantian and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology (2012), provides a compelling and provocative account of the understudied, and often ignored, black social gospel tradition. Combing through personal letters, newspapers, essays and sermons, Dorrien pieces together an impressive narrative of African American intellectuals, preachers and activists, whom he calls “black apostles,” to build a case for linking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the modern Civil Rights movement of the 1950s to “black social Christianity.” As far as Dorrien is concerned, contemporary debates concerning religion and politics are misguided without an understanding of the black social gospel’s role in democratizing America and liberating Christianity from its history of navel gazing at the expense of racial justice. The framers of the tradition “wrung a liberating message from the Christianity of their time. They did not settle for making segregation more tolerable. They rebelled and endured, taking the long view, laying the groundwork for something better than the regime of oppression and exclusion they inherited” (11–12). Religion for these black social gospel leaders had everything to do with cultivating and sustaining the “gospel norms about the sacred personality of God and all human beings” (31).

Dorrien casts a wide range of preachers, writers and scholars within what he calls the “four versions” of black social Christianity, including Ida B. Wells, Reverdy Ransom, W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Nannie H. Burroughs, Kelly Miller, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., and George Woodbey. These leading figures within African American intellectual thought are characterized as torn philosophically between assimilation and integration, capitalism and socialism, in their efforts to achieve human dignity alongside acquiring political liberty and freedom.

The political tension described by Dorrien materialized largely from the philosophical clash between what he calls Du Bois’s “radicalism” and Washington’s “conservatism.” The debate between Du Bois and Washington is significantly important to Dorrien’s narrative of the social gospel tradition as Du Bois fundamentally changed the terms, writes Dorrien, of the national debate on race and racial subjugation. Indeed, Du Bois “did not merely take up an existing critique of Washington’s strategy, putting it more colorfully and memorably. He inspired a revolution of consciousness that defined the problem of the twentieth century and provided a language for it” (15). The Du Boisian revolutionary consciousness gave birth to responsible radicalism with the black social gospel tradition, a kind of reasonable revolutionary Christian paradigm that sought to redeem a racist society.

In a rather striking move, Dorrien retrieves Du Boisian double consciousness as an analytic category for exploring its historical and normative role in shaping what Dorrien implicitly characterizes as the double-minded nature of black political thought at the turn of the twentieth century. This is evident in his descriptive accounts of the tensions between Du Bois and Washington, Black Nationalism and social integration, and the NAACP and Pan-Africanism. In his extraordinary historical account of the above debates, Dorrien paints them as a war between two clashing ideals: radicalism and conservatism, black isolationism and racial integration, and racial liberalism and global liberation. In the normative sense, for instance, he describes black social gospel leaders as “gospel-centered theological progressives committed to the inward and outward flourishing of God’s kingdom” (295). This reflects the positive outcome of a lingering debate emerging from Du Bois’s biting criticism of the Negro church: the other-worldly versus this-worldly tension in Afro-Christianity.

Dorrien’s reading of Du Boisian double consciousness is intriguing. He imagines it as a poetic device that serves as a “source of creativity in” Du  Bois to affirm “his own tortured double-consciousness” (16). This subjectivist reading of double consciousness leaves unaddressed an important aspect of Du Bois’s reformulated category: the longing to collapse the warring American and Negro identities into a “better and truer self.” If we envision the Du Boisian longing to suggest an ongoing dialectic employed to dismantle and disrupt the warring tensions, we may soon discover overlooked traditions within African American religions and raise new questions in our scholarly pursuits. For instance, why must the tension between Du Boisian radicalism and Washington’s conservatism remain locked within Christianity and inside a black social Christian paradigm?

Dorrien’s monumental narrative of the black social gospel tradition may leave scholars such as Anthony Pinn, Yvonne Chireau, Tracey Hucks and Dianne Stewart wondering if The New Abolition provides a substantive account of the non-Christian and non-theistic explanations of radical religious meaning and social movements at the turn of the twentieth century. For Victor Anderson and William Hart, the writings of Ida B. Wells, Washington, and Du Bois may reflect a moral imagination rooted in social criticism that is linked to but not fundamentally Christian. Nannie H. Burroughs is a case in point. Though she clearly comes from a Baptist affiliation and employs references to God to support her feminist/womanist beliefs in black women’s radical agency, I am not sure this portrayal necessarily means she embraces Christianity. In one instance, she admonishes black women to embrace racial pride and black beauty. “It is the duty of Negro women to rise in the pride of their womanhood and vindicate themselves of the charge by teaching all men that black womanhood is as sacred as white womanhood” (412). Burroughs’ writings sound more like a social critic, encouraging women to rely on their intellect and radical human agency, than an evangelical compelling women to place their faith in a salvific and redemptive God.

The extension of double consciousness from an affirmation of black dread to a reflective ethical model of struggle to transgress racial categories and boundaries denotes the epistemic value of double consciousness and creates the possibility for imagining the epistemic depth and reach of African American politics and religions. For instance, reading double consciousness as a reflective ethical model—and by ethical model I mean the varying ways people disrupt, dismantle and reconfigure politics—opens the possibility for exploring the double-minded nature of black religion beyond the this-worldly versus other-worldly paradigm. Within the model of double consciousness I have proposed, the binary between the heavenly and temporal world is dismantled when the preacher mediates on behalf of the people between the two worlds. This move acknowledges the religious and theological dynamism within African American religions and provides some meaning of the unique religious and cultural traditions within the Du Boisian veil.

In addition, interpreting double consciousness as an ethical model and hermeneutical lens through which to explore religious meaning allows us to raise new questions regarding the nature of black religion. For instance, why do we assume the debate between Melville Herskovits and E. Franklin Frazier is fundamentally over the role (if any) of the African gods in slave and black religion? Double consciousness might also interpret the debate as grappling with religious pluralism within African American religious traditions and what Tracey Hucks and Dianne Stewart noted in a recent article as the multilingual nature of black religious practitioners in the United States and African diaspora (“Africana Religious Studies: Toward a Transdisciplinary Agenda in an Emerging Field,” 2014). Put differently: double consciousness serves as a tool to disrupt the white/black binary and Christian versus pagan model of envisioning politics and religion to a radically reconfigured conception of religion. Maybe this is the reason Du Bois adored the faith of black people and their religious strivings: they embodied the ongoing human struggle to pursue beauty in the midst of human tragedy without losing sight of the social and religious charge to demand justice for all.

My effort to push Dorrien’s employment of double consciousness is not designed to undermine the scholarly depth of his exceptional book; instead, I raise the issue to start a conversation of the multiple ways knowledge is produced and shaped in African American religions. Specifically, double consciousness serves as a discursive tool in and through which we might begin to imagine the Christian and non-Christian sites of the black social gospel movement and make sense of the lingering trauma of a disinherited people. This is the beginning a Du Boisian reflective ethics—not a set of prescribed rules or doctrines of right actions but an ongoing longing for and praxis of dismantling, disrupting and reconfiguring social injustice.

  • Gary Dorrien

    Gary Dorrien

    Reply

    Response to Terrence Johnson

    I am grateful to Terrence Johnson for his accurate summary of the book’s argument and the turn he subsequently makes on Du Boisian double-consciousness. The latter discussion contains echoes of his superb book on the repressed realities of race and religion in American democracy, Tragic Soul-Life: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Moral Crisis Facing American Democracy. There he argues that American political liberalism helped to win select social and political gains for African Americans by excluding religious arguments from consideration, including the historic role of religion in constructing the nation’s racist idea of race. Political liberalism is a form of strategic forgetting that secures select rights by limiting politics itself to matters of individual right and inclusion. Johnson makes a Du Boisian argument about the kind of liberal democracy that comes from refusing to deal with the historic ravages of racism, the role of religion in fostering racial bigotry, and the moral poverty of liberal forms of democracy. Du Bois, in his rendering, was a powerful moral theorist of black sorrow, despair, and hope, and deeply religious in the sense of religiousness as tragic soul-life. Johnson invokes Du Bois’s retrieval of hope amid suffering and despair to argue that these realities should be as deeply inscribed in liberal thought as the principles of liberty and opportunity.

    Johnson’s book on Du Bois thus takes up, with sparkling persuasiveness, the point he raises in the present forum about whether Du Bois achieved a synthesis of his double consciousness, an integral idea of a true self. I believe he is right in pressing so strongly on the ethic of hope amid suffering and despair. In The New Abolition, however, I was careful to introduce numerous interpretations of Du Bois on double-consciousness before offering my “source of creativity” interpretation, and this rendering was not meant as an alternative to all other readings. Commentary on this trope is so profuse because the trope itself is extraordinarily fluid and suggestive.

    Hegel said that self-consciousness exists only in being acknowledged. When self-consciousness encounters another self-consciousness, it comes out of itself, finding itself in an other being; and it supersedes the other in doing so. Du Bois never said that he took this idea from Hegel or that he was thinking of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s protest that all Americans lived parasitically off European culture. But we know that Du Bois shared Emerson’s idea of culture as a commonwealth of value and aspiration. Americans, in this telling, needed to unleash their inward spiritual capacities to create a beautiful culture based on genuine self-knowledge, fulfilling the American ideal of self-creation and individuality. As Du Bois put it famously, the very end of human striving is to be a coworker in the kingdom of culture.

    Henry Louis Gates says that double-consciousness was a singularly illuminating metaphor for the psychology of citizenship faced by all African Americans. Lawrie Balfour says it was a trademark rhetorical device marking Du Bois’s experience as a symbol of uplift and a member of an oppressed caste. Robert Gooding-Williams says that Du Bois used this idea to criticize the failings of black leaders. Joel Williamson says it was Du Bois appropriating Hegel—the spirit of freedom realizing itself behind the veil of color. Cornel West says that Du Bois rightly fixed on the dialectic of black self-recognition—in-but-not-of—but he oversimplified the cultural predicament of black Americans. Lawrence Bobo and Adolph Reed say we should stop talking about this idea, because Du Bois dropped it anyway. It didn’t explain anything (Bobo), or it smacked too much of nineteenth-century Lamarckianism (Reed).

    Ernest Allen says it was merely a tactic to ease the fears of Talented Tenth achievers that their success in the white world would be discredited. The early Paul Gilroy said it was the key to everything—the dialectic of fulfillment and transfiguration—but the later Gilroy said it was too nineteenth century to matter anymore. Double consciousness cannot handle the postmodern experience of cultural multiplicity and multiple identities. Eboni Marshall Turman says that Du Bois left a problematic legacy for black moral agency by pathologizing black embodiment. An “is” that only “is” insofar as it is established by an other is toxic for black selves under the furious attempts of white supremacy to maintain its dominance.

    If I were to pick three of these interpretations to fuse together, I would go for Balfour, West, and Turman. This trope was enabling for Du Bois, however briefly he employed it. The dialectic of recognition is a reality, whether for good or not. And any argument that makes black bodies invisible or of secondary importance is not liberating. I suspect that one reason why we keep returning to the double consciousness trope is that it mirrors how we talk about race. Race is a social invention, yet it is terribly real and embedded in psyches, social structures, and communal legacies.

    My gloss on this debate, which Johnson cites, is that double-consciousness was a truth of Du Bois’s experience and a source of creativity in him. He was simultaneously black and American. He railed against the evils of white civilization while affirming the intellectualism and progressive social ideals that he internalized from Harvard and Berlin. He fashioned an alternative to the draining debate between nationalists and integrationists by affirming his own tortured double-consciousness. African Americans had to stop arguing about which of their selves to give up, opting for a robust, full-bodied struggle for—what? I agree with Johnson’s attempt to construct a normative moral meaning from the double-consciousness idea, and I agree with how he does it, although I place more weight than Johnson on Du Bois’s deepening political radicalism—his adoption of a radical democratic socialist perspective. However, when Du Bois said that black bodies were gifted with second sight, he was thinking like Emerson—privileging powers of mind over embodiment as a mechanism of resistance. That is a problem for every embodied self that struggles with the problems of identity and communal belonging, as Turman says.

    On the question of representing non-Christian and non-theistic versions of the black social gospel, this is not quite identical to the same issue in my trilogy on liberal theology, where I had extensive discussions of non-Christians and non-theists. In liberal theology, the category definitely ranges outside Christianity. The black social gospel, however, was overwhelmingly Christian, “gospel” is a Christian word, and representing the Christian varieties of the black social gospel was subject enough for one book. Moreover, the theistic issue must be distinguished from the Christian one, because otherwise, many of the greatest theologians of the past three centuries do not qualify as Christian.

    One might say that I gave ample space to non-Christian representatives anyway in The New Abolition, because I interpret Du Bois as being religiously ambiguous and double-minded; Johnson refers to arguments by Victor Anderson and William Hart that Du Bois, Wells-Barnett, and Washington were fundamentally social critics, not fundamentally Christians; and Johnson makes a similar argument about Burroughs. On Du Bois, I take a third way between Ed Blum (Du Bois was a Christian forerunner of liberation theology) and Jonathon Kahn (Du Bois was a non-Christian, pragmatic religious naturalist). I believe that Du Bois was double-minded and purposely elusive about his personal relationship to Christianity, and I agree with Blum, Kahn, Johnson, and West that Du Bois had a passionate religious spirit. I do not claim that Du Bois was a social gospeler because I do not claim that he was personally a Christian. On the other hand, Du Bois made quintessential social gospel arguments about Jesus and what constitutes good religion, and he wanted black churches to espouse social gospel religion.

    The same thing might be said of Wells-Barnett, Washington, and Burroughs, as Johnson says. However, since all of them were churchgoing Christians who emphatically self-identified as Christian, I am very much disinclined to say that they were “fundamentally” not Christian or “fundamentally” something else. Johnson applies the critic-or-Christian distinction to Burroughs, explaining that evangelical norms about placing one’s faith “in a salvific and redemptive God” define what it means to be Christian. I strenuously disagree with any definitional equation of Christianity with evangelical modes of expression. Some figures that I featured in The New Abolition were evangelical in the sense of invoking a fundamental norm about a saving otherworldly God, and a few censured the social gospel tendency to give priority to social criticism and politics. But others emphasized social criticism, relativized otherworldly salvation, and did so in the name of Christian faith, all in the customary fashion of the social gospel. One does not have to be evangelical, or even a theist, to qualify for inclusion in the social gospel, because a great many social gospelers on both sides of the color line were theologically liberal, and the social gospel itself had a pronounced tendency to subordinate doctrinal claims to social criticism. Liberal theology is a disruptive and relativizing force in this discussion, and the social gospel acquired theologically liberal adherents as soon as both movements existed in the United States.

    For me, this is a big piece of what commends the social gospel, then and now. The social gospel tradition included, and was willing to work with, a variety of theologies and ideologies. It raged against tyranny and oppression, calling for cooperative activism. It had a built-in openness to liberal theology, but it could also be theologically conservative. It invoked Christian norms about the sacred dignity of every human personality. And it stuck insistently to Christianity because it was determined not to lose the religious ground for saying that every human being bears the imprint of the divine Creator or the divine good. I confess to being somewhat sensitive about how liberal theology is construed in this discussion, and in the academy generally, because distorting it as an impossibility, or as something irrelevant, is the first move that anti-Christian academics make when they stereotype what Christianity is or has ever been.

Laura McTighe

Response

On Moments, Movements, and Women’s Work

In late summer 2014, the people rose up in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown had been shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson with a brazen callousness that shook the nation. When Brown’s body was left baking in the August sun, black people in Ferguson took to the streets. Their steps were matched nationwide, as walkouts, vigils, marches, and moments-of-silence cascaded from New York to Washington, DC, to Atlanta, from Chicago to Detroit to New Orleans, from Los Angeles to Oakland to Seattle, like the steady falling of dominoes. A sign from France Francois, a Haitian-born/US-raised writer and activist, became one of the most iconic of protest images: “I CANNOT BELIEVE I STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SHIT!!” The hashtag beneath her words refused the now familiar murder roll call: #TooManyToName. At a speaking engagement in December of that year, Mary Frances Berry, the eminent legal historian and former chairperson of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, brandished a sign with the same slogan, “I CANNOT BELIEVE I STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SH*T!!” Days earlier, a grand jury chose not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown.

I begin with this scene from our own near present to introduce a longstanding debate around social change that is at the heart of Gary Dorrien’s The New Abolition. In the months that separated Francois raising her sign and Berry displaying hers, the nation was embroiled in a debate over whether Ferguson would “be a moment” or “become a movement.” Pundits, organizers, and scholars alike charged respectability against the “be a moment” camp, which tended to depict protesters in Ferguson as disorganized, reckless, even dangerous. They pointed out that a sanitized version of the civil rights movement—stripped of its poor, young, and female leadership, stripped of its vibrantly radical and rebellious Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—undergirded such critiques. Through these civil rights fables, we were made to believe that Ferguson must “be a moment,” because real movements did not look like this. The language “become a movement” hardly offered an alternative to this sanitizing gaze. It smuggled in another series of assumptions about how social changes happens—what I call the “jack-in-the-box approach” to social movement history. In this theory of change, real movements pop up when people make a demand, and they go down when that demand is met. Social movements are thereby exceptionalized, and so, too, are the conditions they seek to address. By this logic, we could only ask if Ferguson would “become a movement,” because we were already telling a story of United States history in which there was no continuity of black struggle, much less a need for it.

Dorrien’s The New Abolition is set amid the violent disassemblage of Radical Reconstruction and the institutionalization of Jim Crow modernity. In this masterful work, he gives us a moving and poignant biography of the black social gospel tradition through its foremost leaders, innovators, and critics. With careful attention to theologies, practices, and politics of black Methodists and Baptists, Dorrien excavates a set of figures who were as politically powerful as they were religious. This is no mere narrative exercise. In a methodical and (roughly) chronological account, Dorrien connects the people, places, and things of the long history of black organizing to abolish slavery to the decades-honed work of black organizing for civil rights. In so doing, he refuses a no less pernicious version of the moment vs. movement question, which is too often read onto the lives and work of our civil rights rebel elders. As Dorrien reminds us, “King did not come from nowhere, and neither did the civil rights explosion of the 1950s” (10).

This claim—like the historical evidence that Dorrien marshals to support it—is as historiographical as it is theoretical. On this point, I am reminded of Cedric Robinson’s “An Ending” to Black Marxism, in which he explains that “resurrecting events that have systematically been made to disappear from our intellectual consciousness” serves a vital purpose: “For the realization of new theory we require new history” (307). Dorrien’s own method (and theory) of resurrection is strongly reminiscent of Wallace Best’s study of black religious agency in Great Migration-era Chicago, Passionately Human, No Less Divine. Best positions his text in critical conversation with scholarship that has celebrated black agency in the social, cultural, and political realms, but has preferred to cast black religion as a spiritual force that “just happens” (186–87). By drilling down into the social context of the Great Migration, Best exposes the tremendous breadth of black Southern agency—agency that was boldly and dynamically religious. Against portraits of Southern migrants as at best out of step with city life and at worst swindled by the so-called “Black Gods” of the “sects and cults,” Best spins a tale of the insurgent masses, who together produced a new—and very Christian—sacred order. In The New Abolition, Dorrien sets his sights on the no less secularizing gaze of US historiography. Refusing scholars who have long interpreted religious leadership as declining to the point of insignificance by the end of the nineteenth century, he, too, explodes the landscape of black Christian public intellectuals nationwide, presenting us with a cornucopia of deeply religious and deeply influential leaders nationwide. In so doing, he also helps us to remember the deeply religious leanings of some of the period’s more familiar heroes and heroines, who pressed the issue of social justice as a sacred matter in their organizing at both the community and the denominational levels.

To develop a theory of the black social gospel, Dorrien also has to take the movement leaders (and their contemporaries) to task for their own historiographical prescriptions. From the first pages of The New Abolition, we are presented with an analytical hermeneutic. The very idea of a monolithic “Black Church”—that could first be imagined as an engine for racial uplift (W. E. B. Du Bois), then as an irrelevant repressive force in need of dying (E. Franklin Frazier), then as a resurrected vehicle for social change (C. Eric Lincoln), only to again be pronounced dead (Eddie Glaude)—is itself a black social gospel construction (9). As Dorrien’s text unfolds, we find a neglected Henry McNeal Turner, whose memory was evacuated once bitterness toward Marcus Garvey came to occupy in Du Bois’s own (double-)consciousness (84). Ms. Ida B. Wells-Barnett took matters into her own hands, narrating her life as a Crusade for Justice in an autobiography that still took nearly forty years (and the collective organizing of the feminist and Black Power movements) to make its way into circulation (123). Du Bois did, too, when he presented his searing critique and revision of William Archibald Dunning’s “negro misrule” thesis at the 1909 meeting of the American Historical Association (246–47). The reception was warm, but the impact nil; Du Bois’s 1935 Black Reconstruction has still never been formally reviewed by academic historians. That fact did not bother Nannie H. Burroughs. She minced no words about her contempt for the Du Bois revisionist line on Reconstruction and the “Talented Tenth” it elevated. Centering the labors of poor black people and the women working among them, Burroughs christened her school with a slogan that would today be read as downright Afro-Futurist: “We specialize in the wholly impossible” (419).

The prescriptive historiographical stakes here were so high because of what was on the line. This is the real force of the narrative history that Dorrien gives us. He takes us into the worlds of our not too distant ancestors, and reinflates (reenchants?) them with stunning complexity. The black social gospel was no singular doctrine, just like the Black Church is no monolithic institution. Dorrien sketches four “denominations”: (1) the Booker T. Washington school of accommodation; (2) the back-to-Africa school of black nationalism; (3) the roaring protest school of abolitionist-oriented racial and social justice; and (4) the hybrid reform school of accommodationist-protest and protesting-accommodation (5–7). The full breadth—and no less—of each of these various schools is what birthed Dr. King and the un-sanitized, un-fablized, un-exceptionalized civil rights continuity of the 1950s.

It is precisely because of the sheer magnitude of Dorrien’s resurrection of the black social gospel tradition that I want to press on a critique that he himself raises: this is a predominantly male story. Dorrien works hard to inflect the twists and turns of this story with the work of clubwomen and female leaders of parachurch organizations (as well as the complexities of and divergences among male leaders’ views on women). Nonetheless, he narrates the black social gospel as a Christian organizational history, birthed primarily by male ministers. Women were excluded from Niagara precisely because William Monroe Trotter and others “didn’t want them there” (233). Citing historian Barbara Dianne Savage, Dorrien also reminds us that three scholars—Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and Benjamin E. Mays—were the most influential architects of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historiography on black American Christianity. All three were unsettled by holiness worship; all three advocated modernized social justice churches; all three valued women as congregants; and all three insisted that churches needed strong male leadership (29). These four pillars have cast a long shadow on the historiography—one that is no less impactful than that cast by the devaluing of the twentieth-century religious leadership, which animates Dorrien’s own study. But historiographical prescriptions are just that. How might our present moment press us to revisit even these longstanding theories of interpretation?

When our country “exploded” after George Zimmerman’s acquittal and stayed “sprung” after Michael Brown’s murder, black women were on the frontlines. Even the architects of the #BlackLivesMatter refrain were black women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Many asked where these women came from, who they were, how they were so organized, how they immediately commanded attention and respect. Slogans like “not your grandfather’s civil rights movement,” while pithy, seemed to confirm that there was a rupture—not that we had been telling the story wrong. To paraphrase Dorrien: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi did not come from nowhere, and neither did the Black Lives Matter explosion of the 2010s.

To conclude, I want to engage the life and work of two black women—Elder Lucy Smith in Great Migration-era Chicago and Callie House in post-Reconstruction Nashville—in order to think about how centering black women’s work (and decentering the prescriptive biases of Du Bois, Woodson, and Mays) may enable us to further complicate the story of the black social gospel and the vision of our own momentous present. I also want to be clear about my intention here. I do not raise these critiques in order to question Dorrien’s thesis that there was a definitive and identifiable black social gospel tradition. In this respect, The New Abolition is as luminous as it is groundbreaking. Rather, I propose these black women’s black social Christian projects as starting points for embarking on what any good history invites: further revision. In so doing, I want to think carefully about what was at stake for the New Abolition bishops and the Baptist pastors who omitted these two figures (and women like them) from the institutional church sources that Dorrien works with so carefully. I am also interested in how these women’s inclusion might press us to ask new and different questions of the black social gospel tradition going forward.

Elder Lucy Smith makes an appearance in the initial pages of Dorrien’s work as an example of a woman who found the freedom to minister once she left the mainline churches of her upbringing. Smith’s choice of the sanctified pulpit over the mainline pews bespeaks a black social gospel conundrum for Dorrien: “Traditional black churches . . . were most like traditional white churches in excluding women from ordained ministry. But these were the churches where the social gospel made its deepest inroads. Meanwhile, the churches that allowed women to preach were not the ones that produced social gospel ministers” (29). However, Elder Lucy Smith is critical to Wallace Best’s thesis that the Great Migration produced a new sacred order that was also a profoundly female order. Under the banner of the All Nations Pentecostal Church, Elder Lucy Smith roared through Chicago—in worship, healing, missions, and the airwaves. Her church exemplified the “do it for ourselves” impulse that Best attributes to many migrants’ production of the houses of worship and mutual aid that they needed. This move was reactive. Dorrien quotes Best when describing the lasting blows that many mainline churches dealt to themselves over their inability to respond to migrants’ insurgent, holy-rolling, self-conscious action (506). But that is hardly the end of the story. Even amid wide-ranging criticism (much of it recorded in the Works Progress Administration archives), Elder Lucy Smith built a massive sanctified movement that crossed race, class, and denominational lines. The middle-class black pastors of Chicago did not shy away from confirming it: “If you want to see my folks (members) on a Sunday night,” one pastor remarked, “go to Elder Lucy Smith’s” (quoted in Best, 177).

Elder Lucy Smith’s life and work signals one critical direction for further research: a reconsideration of the social gospel / Pentecostal divide as holding definitive interpretive weight. Certainly there were holiness churches that were “too heavenly bound to be of any earthly good,” but Wallace Best proposed that at least in Great Migration-era Chicago “a this-worldly focus predominated, even in churches where one would least expect it, because of the temporal demands of the mass movement” (187). What new appreciations for the material demands and theological reflections of black Southern migrants might come into focus if early charismatic churches are examined as vital sites of black social gospel meaning-making?

Which brings me to a second figure: Callie House, a poor Tennessee washerwoman born the first year of the Civil War. As Mary Frances Berry writes in My Face Is Black Is True, Callie House became a field organizer at the turn of the twentieth century, traversing the Southern landscape to build the 500,000-member-strong National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. In this region-wide grassroots organization, which met in black churches all over the South, formerly enslaved people gathered for collective support and mutual aid. Together, they publicly recounted brutal memories of slavery that had been little eased in the days since emancipation, and they pooled their pennies in membership dues to assist with ex-slave burial costs. On the national stage, these poor freedpeople told a narrative of black victimization that indicted the federal government as an accomplice in their subordination and impoverishment. Stepping first to Congress and then to Federal Court, they demanded pensions for ex-slaves to be paid for with the $68 million collected in cotton taxes between 1862 and 1868. For this work, Callie House was, in Berry’s words, “praised by poor African Americans, ridiculed by the race’s elites, and targeted by high government officials, who feared her influence with the masses, and eventually landed in jail” (6–7).

Callie House was a contemporary of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Henry McNeal Turner. The members of her Ex-Slave Association went on to populate the ranks of Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), that very “Negro peasantry” that Dorrien quotes Du Bois as looking upon sympathetically: “The movement is yet inchoate and indefinite, but it is tremendously human, piteously sincere and built in the souls of a hardworking, thrifty, independent people, who while long deprived of higher training have nevertheless very few illiterates or criminals” (342). The movement that Du Bois observed was hardly inchoate or indefinite. Its members had already petitioned and sued the federal government in the first ever national case for reparations. Theirs was also deeply religious work. As Callie House wrote in 1899, “My Whole soul and body are for this ex-slave movement and are willing to sacrifice for it.”

I offer this discussion of Callie House to highlight a second direction for further research: an expansion of what counts as the black social gospel agenda for social justice. Dorrien’s focus on the divergent tactics of the new abolition enables him to sketch the skeletal structure of black social Christianity with attention to the very real tensions that were present. Callie House further troubles even some of these tensions. Reparations, as operationalized by the Ex-Slave Association, was a demand that blurred the lines of separatism and integration, of abolition and reform. It did so precisely through a leadership model that privileged collectivity—a collectivity not unlike what Nannie H. Burroughs might have imagined when she implored poor and working black people to “unload the leeches and parasitic leaders,” because “we can take the promised land” (420).

What if we did not allow the lives and work of Elder Lucy Smith and Callie House (and black women like them) to be relegated to the historiographical equivalent of “be a moment”? What if we did not even did not even try to discipline them with the “become a movement” question? What if, instead, we centered these women’s work and the demands of the poor black people they mobilized? What additional black social gospel visions and strategies might then come into focus?

With The New Abolition, Gary Dorrien has given us a method: “King did not come from nowhere.” And, of course, neither did the Black Lives Matter explosion of the 2010s.

  • Gary Dorrien

    Gary Dorrien

    Reply

    Response to Laura McTighe

    Laura McTighe’s opening statement about Ferguson and the continuity of black freedom struggle is spot-on, and riveting—a powerful statement borne of her nearly twenty years of activism in the struggle against the punitive attitudes about black bodies that created the new Jim Crow in American society in American prisons. She is a longtime advocate of everyday community practices that provide alternatives to America’s obsession with punishment and imprisonment. McTighe’s forthcoming doctoral dissertation, “This Day, We Use Our Energy for Revolution,” draws upon her work with black feminist organizing traditions and organizations in Louisiana to think about how American religious history might be differently conceived, taught, and written.

    Here we get a taste of her important work, and I am deeply grateful for it. Last January, I tried to express to a large conference audience at Trinity Church Wall Street this very argument about the moment-movement continuity of black freedom struggle into and beyond the Ferguson moment, and afterwards I vowed to find a more concise and intelligible way of saying it. McTighe is concise, intelligible, and compelling.

    She makes a highly perceptive analogy between my project in The New Abolition and that of Cedric Robinson in Black Marxism and Wallace Best in Passionately Human, No Less Divine. These are exemplary works for me, for exactly the reasons that she states. Few of my reviewers have caught, thus far, what McTighe catches about the importance of pushing back against secular-gaze historiography, which many religious historians have recycled. Something tremendously important in the public work of black social gospel leaders and intellectuals went unnoticed for decades, for reasons that bear interrogating. I am equally grateful that McTighe explicates my analytical hermeneutic for this subject in a few deft sentences, something that I took too many pages to unfold in The New Abolition, and have tried to convey more concisely in Breaking White Supremacy. Then she summarizes my elaborate exertions about the theological and ideological heterogeneity of the black social gospel, and the meaning of it all, in one shimmering sentence: “The full breadth—and no less—of each of these various schools is what birthed Dr. King and the un-sanitized, un-fablized, un-exceptionalized civil rights continuity of the 1950s.”

    I felt compelled to lay down a basic narrative about New Abolition bishops and Baptist preacher heavyweights that paved the way to King, and I deeply regret that nearly all the public exponents of this very public tradition were men. McTighe sees both things clearly, while pressing for other ways of telling this story. I spent much of the book trying to show that historians were wrong in claiming that “the black social gospel” lacks coherence as a category, lacks boundaries that justify the category, and never happened. There was a defensive factor in my decision to feature only figures that clearly fit the category. Expanding the category was a priority for me, but not as high as my top priority, establishing the category.

    So I worked with the “institutional church sources,” as McTighe says, plugging for what she calls “a definitive and identifiable black social gospel tradition.” I featured the women who worked in the same recognizable vein as Ransom, Walters, Wright and Powell while refusing to be excluded from public agency: Wells-Barnett, Burroughs, Church, and the Baptist feminists who preceded and worked with Burroughs. I had to stretch the social gospel category to include these women, because they did not self-identify as advocates of the social gospel, unlike nearly all the men in my story, and some held no opinion on pertinent theological topics, such as biblical criticism. Having stretched this far, should I have gone further, featuring Elder Lucy Smith? McTighe makes a strong case for doing so, citing Best as a precedent. I thought about it, but explained in chapter 1 why I did not do so. It is a perilous business to claim someone for an identifiable public group that the person herself took no interest in joining. I recognize that the social gospel gets more interesting, expansive, and feminist if Smith and some other Holiness leaders are counted within it. Had I been less concerned to establish an identifiable—even undeniable!—category, I might have made a different decision about Smith.

    I hope that The New Abolition will encourage others to write better books on this subject. As soon as one recognizes the black social gospel as a tradition, its singular importance among late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century religious traditions becomes, I would say, undeniable. Thus, we need the better books on it. This symposium featured four gifted contributors to this work, and I am deeply grateful to Silas Morgan and Vincent Lloyd for sponsoring it in Syndicate.

Gary Dorrien

Response

Responses

Editor’s note: We have decided to publish Professor Dorrien’s responses here as a full essay. Yet, in keeping with our symposium format, the individual responses will be posted as responses to the individual essays as well. We do this in order to facilitate any live “back and forth” comments between the contributors and Professor Dorrien over the course of the next month. 

I am deeply grateful for these rich, perceptive, and illuminating review essays by Brian Bantum, Heath W. Carter, Terrence L. Johnson, and Laura McTighe. All interrogate aspects of The New Abolition on which the reviewer holds special expertise and has produced distinguished scholarship. All describe the book’s overall argument and framework accurately. And all make valuable points about how this subject might otherwise be approached in future scholarship on black social gospel and black freedom traditions.

The New Abolition has unusual problems that I had to address in the opening chapter, alongside the customary table setting. If the black social gospel is a tradition of thought and activism with its own identity and integrity, why is there so little literature about it? If it was routinely ignored for decades, and brushed aside by others as insignificant, how can it be anywhere near as important as I claim? I was compelled to begin with a case for the very existence of a black social gospel tradition, both in the broad sense of the four traditions that I described and concerning the distinct line that led to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). My framing and table setting go on about certain things that Carter emphasizes, McTighe mentions, and Bantum and Johnson pass over. It delights me that some of these arguments can now be taken for granted, at least by many younger scholars. But for me, chapter 1 was no mere formality. It registered and reflected many years of being advised, even by close friends, that I had no subject.

Numerous conventions kept the black social gospel from being remembered. It was said that only a handful of black church leaders, at most, espoused the trademark social gospel fusion of social justice politics and social gospel theology. They had little influence, they imitated white social gospel rhetoric, and nothing came of their labors. Black churches were said to be too provincial and conservative to support social justice politics or social gospel theology; on this point, some of the lions of African American historiography offered very quotable support. Moreover, it was said that Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois were not involved with the social gospel, so this category did not illuminate Washington versus Du Bois. Historians said that religious intellectuals no longer mattered anyway by the end of the nineteenth century, so it didn’t matter if they ignored whatever black religious intellectuals might have existed. And as Carter notes, historians wrongly claimed that the social gospel was a species of white Progressive era idealism that didn’t concern itself with racial justice.

I took the risk of showering readers with too many figures and organizations in order to knock down the deadliest conventions, “only a handful” and “had little influence.” The founders fought hard for their right to advocate progressive theology and social justice politics, emphasizing racial justice. They did so in distinctly African American cultural and religious idioms, usually in black churches, sometimes in predominantly white churches, and always in repressively racist contexts. They were an embattled minority in their own denominations, because the social gospel was divisive and it threatened to get people in trouble. “Only a handful” does not describe even a narrow rendering of the third black social gospel group—the church leaders who joined Du Bois in espousing protest politics for racial justice, joined the NAACP, and sponsored NAACP chapters. Washington versus Du Bois was at the center of the argument about black social gospel politics, until the Du Bois faction prevailed.

All four ideological factions of what became the black social gospel already existed before Washington versus Du Bois crystallized the argument about the politics of racial justice. The founders were heroic individuals who refused to be denigrated and who usually struggled falteringly to build strong organizations—William Simmons, Alexander Crummell, Henry McNeal Turner, Reverdy Ransom, Ida Wells-Barnett, Lucy Wilmot Smith, and Alexander Walters. By the early twentieth century there were many others, notably Nannie Burroughs, Richard R. Wright Jr., Adam Clayton Powell Sr., and James R. L. Diggs. But the problem of the protest vehicle lingered until 1909, because Washington sabotaged the Afro-American Council and the Niagara Movement floundered. The coming of the NAACP was enormously important for the black social gospel. It created a protest vehicle with political power that needed the support of religious communities. By 1919, the NAACP was run almost entirely by black leaders and officials. The black social gospel, as a gathering social and political force with movement aspirations, was still in an early ascending phase in 1919, while the famous white version faded precipitously. Then the black social gospel acquired a generation of leaders that assumed the social gospel from the outset of their careers.

My forthcoming book, Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel, will start with the generation that inherited a black social gospel legacy and exemplified it to Martin Luther King Jr. The figures that influenced King stubbornly believed that ordinary, prosaic, humble, flawed, usually conservative religious congregations were the key to changing American society. They also shared with Ransom and Powell Senior a fascination with the revolt against British colonialism in India. Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman, and William Stuart Nelson constantly invoked Gandhi in the 1930s and 1940s, getting King’s attention. My rendering will be long on fissures, quandaries, and contestations, because the black social gospel has never been theologically or politically monolithic. But Breaking White Supremacy narrows my focus from four historic black social Christian traditions to the one that gave ballast to the NAACP, boasted numerous Christian socialists and Gandhian internationalists, and led to King. For McTighe is exactly right about my purpose. “King did not come from nowhere” is the key to both books.

I take a strong view of King’s importance while emphasizing that he was lifted to prominence by a freedom struggle that long preceded him. I believe that King’s early formation and his graduate education were both important to his identity, thinking, and career. Any reading that minimizes one or the other misconstrues King, which is what happens when scholars fail to credit the black social gospel that enabled King to play his unique mediating role. King soared to fame because he distinctly bridged the disparities between black and white church communities, between middle class blacks and liberal whites, between black nationalists and black conservatives, between church communities and the academy, and between the Northern and Southern civil rights movements.

He was the product of a broadly black social Christian family and church that prepared him for this role. King was nurtured in the piety and idioms of an urban, middle-class, black Baptist family and congregation. He deeply absorbed the evangelical piety and social concerns preached by his father. He got a more intellectual version of both things when he studied at Morehouse College, where Mays influenced him. At Crozier Seminary and Boston University, King adopted a Socialist version of social gospel theology and a personalist version of post-Kantian idealistic philosophy, and he acquired a conflicted attraction to Gandhian nonviolence. Throughout his movement career King was committed to democratic socialism, personalist theological liberalism, and Gandhian nonviolence. More importantly, King got more and more radical and angry as a consequence of failing to break white supremacy. He was more radical and angry in 1960 than in 1955, more in 1965 than in 1960, and more at the end than ever. At the end he spurned his access to the establishment in order to stand with the poor and oppressed—struggling against intertwined forms of racial, economic, national, and imperial power.

Cornel West, delineating the principal intellectual and existential sources that shaped King, rightly names four, in order of importance—prophetic black church Christianity, prophetic liberal Christianity, prophetic Gandhian nonviolence, and prophetic American civil religion. West says that King embodied “the best of American Christendom” by synthesizing these sources. But this mission was not unique to King, for it defines precisely what the black social gospel had become before King emerged. King stood in a tradition of black social gospel founders and mentors who heard the prophetic gospel in the black church, appropriated social gospel liberalism, engaged Gandhi as soon as the Gandhian revolution began in India, and called America to stop betraying its vaunted ideals.

The weakest link in this chain was the one that white America lifted up after King was gone: King the dreamer who called America to its own creed. King himself played down this trope in his later life, as it did not comport very well with the surging tide of black anger that he shared with the Black Power movement. It became even more problematic as soon as King was gone. The more that white liberals embraced King as a hero, the more ambiguous he became for African Americans still denigrated by white society. It became hard to remember that King, at the end, was the most radical person in the SCLC.

King did not become the most hated man in America on a misunderstanding. Getting him right is distinctly important to me, because King was my exemplar of prophetic Christianity long before I became an academic, and he still is. In my early career I wrote books on post-Kantian idealism, Social Democratic politics, and Christian Socialism, and I puzzled over why early black Christian Socialists such as Ransom and Woodbey were completely forgotten. Why were there no books on the convictions that linked Ransom, Woodbey, and Du Bois to King? That was the wellspring of what became my interest in the broader black social gospel tradition.

My friend and role model, Michael Harrington, had worked with King and Bayard Rustin, and I was a sponge for Mike’s stories about King’s personality, movement leadership, and worldview. The King scholarship of that period did not capture the person that Mike described. More important, neither did it convey the Southern black Baptist sources of King’s genius, partly because it relied on King’s seminary-oriented account of his story. The revisionist King scholarship of the late 1980s and early 1990s corrected the latter deficiency, yielding richer accounts of King’s development and character. But it also yielded books that downgraded King’s graduate education and intellectualism in order to play up his early formation and/or explain his personal flaws.

Meanwhile I filled the gaps in my knowledge about King’s black social gospel forerunners and mentors. By 1995 I had a strong conviction that scholarship on the black freedom movements, progressive Christianity, and US American history wrongly overlooked the very existence of the black social gospel tradition, much less its immense importance. I sprinkled this conviction into various books and cheered as numerous scholars advanced similar arguments. The roll call is too long for this occasion, but the key scholars for me in the early going were Lewis V. Baldwin, Taylor Branch, Clayborne Carson, James Cone, Michael Eric Dyson, Walter Fluker, David Garrow, Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Ralph Luker, Peter Paris, Albert J. Raboteau, Barbara Dianne Savage, and David Wills.

I have one last general comment to make before moving to specific points. I am a social ethicist, a theologian and philosopher of religion, and an intellectual historian. My books and teaching curriculum range across these four fields, and I am easily shamed for working in too many fields. Despite my interdisciplinary transgressions, however, I have never aspired to be a social historian. That is a bridge too far for me, even though The New Abolition contains a fair amount of social history. We need, very much, a full-fledged social history of the black social gospel. It would lift up the many outreach organizations that sustained the black social gospel at the grassroots level and made it possible for figures like King and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to become famous. It would describe the women who ran the mission societies in most black congregations and the many others who kept institutions like Abyssinian Church alive and thriving. It would delve into the 35,000 black congregations where the NAACP actually existed across the country, overcoming the usual focus on how a New York City-headquartered organization marched through the federal courts. It would contain micro-histories of the church settlement ministries and institutional churches that I merely summarized.

One of my objectives in The New Abolition is to recover Ransom, Wright, Wells-Barnett, Walters and others as important public intellectuals, conceiving intellectual history, in this case, as an approach soaked in politics, everyday life, and social struggles. I believe that intellectual history of this sort and social history are complementary and even necessary to each other. But my approach is limited by its focus on people who wrote books, founded magazines, spoke for movement organizations, and preached on Sunday. I hope, by providing a history of the black social gospel focused on public intellectualism and arguments about social justice politics and theology, to encourage others to take up other approaches to this subject.

All four of the reviewers make comments pressing toward this end, and I take special delight in Bantum’s call for a book on Nannie Burroughs and the Black Social Gospel. That would be a tremendous project. As for whether I should have gone that way, the answer for this book is no, because Du Bois is like the sun—radiating in all directions. Almost everything that goes with this subject is addressed by Du Bois somewhere, and many of the key players defined themselves in relationship to Du Bois. Ransom sought to be the Du Bois of the black church, Wright described himself as a follower of Du Bois, Powell Senior carefully positioned himself between Du Bois and Washington, and Du Bois stood at the center of broiling debates over socialist criticism, what to make of Gandhi, and how to think about the significance of race. Du Bois changed the conversation and made everybody deal with him. He inspired a revolution of consciousness that defined the problem of the twentieth century. He provided a language for the problem of the color line, struggled mightily to overcome the assimilation versus separatism binary, and helped to launch the pan-African movement, the Niagara movement, and the NAACP. He helped to radicalize the black social gospel through his influence on Ransom, Wright, Walters, Powell Senior, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Johnson, Mays, King, and others.

One might say that this is the problem with the black social gospel—too many male ministers and intellectuals trying to be more or less like Du Bois. But that is what happened in the religious and political organizations in which the black social gospel exerted some influence, as Burroughs protested. Burroughs did not care for intellectuals, and she especially disliked Du Bois. She persisted in blasting his Talented Tenth conceits after he dropped his neo-Lamarckian Social Darwinism, stopped trying to quantify essential racial groups, ceased referring to double consciousness, and converted to radical democratic socialism. Burroughs scored against Du Bois on some of his weakest points, and she spoke with extraordinary personal authority as a passionate advocate of working-class black women.

Today Burroughs usually registers as being more interesting and relevant than the social gospel stalwarts who made bishop. In class I have to stump hard for Walters to get noticed, and sometimes it happens with Wright too. With Burroughs and Wells-Barnett, it never happens. I just walk into class and discussion erupts. Still, it was Burroughs that Evelyn Higginbotham held in mind when she named and interrogated the politics of respectability. Much that Burroughs said about housekeeping, colorism, and unemployed men evokes an awkward silence in class.

I am grateful for Bantum’s comment that The New Abolition is in many ways “a book speaking our moment.” I fully intended to draw readers into what he calls the “web of complex intersections of race, gender, and class that shape the black social gospel movement,” and I know what Bantum means about keeping one eye on our time. His important book, Redeeming Mulatto, and more recently his article in the Christian Century on Black Lives Matter give eloquent two-eyed attention to the intersectional complexities of opposing white supremacy. There he argues that no form of government or economic policy inherently resists white supremacy, so there is no alternative to waging constant, specific, concrete, and strategic opposition to it, sometimes foregoing respectability. And there, as here, he presses on the tensions between building independent organizations and advocating for full participation in society as a whole, emphasizing that many black social gospel leaders internalized and perpetuated racist ideology, patriarchy, and/or classism even as they struggled against racial violence and Jim Crow.

The New Abolition runs long because it contains detailed accounts of these dynamics in every chapter. The nationalist tradition was doubly ironic. It harshly chastised ordinary black Americans even as it emphasized racial pride. It espoused conservative values and policies, and thus promoted assimilation, even as it asserted that black Americans had no home in America. Yet the nationalist tradition was so important as a bedrock home and option in a hostile society that there were nationalist currents in all four of the black social gospel traditions. Outright nationalists such as Turner and Crummell influenced the entire spectrum of black social gospel thought. Du Bois and Washington both employed nationalist tropes, as did Simmons, Ransom, Wells-Barnett and Burroughs. The New Abolition builds toward a next-to-last chapter in which the denomination that most emphasized its independence made a belated entry into the story and nearly took it over. The National Baptist Convention wanted two things that did not go well together: a separate identity and a significant role in national politics. Both were mediated by Booker Washington politics, which ramped up the contradictions. Every page of the black social gospel story shows church leaders and intellectuals negotiating the home and society tension. Nearly always they said that they had to build strong black organizations to make an impact on society.

What did that mean for women? It usually meant that women ran the mission societies and outreach ministries, and were barred from playing public roles. The women who broke through to exercise public agency (most notably Burroughs, Wells-Barnett, and Molly Church) had to build their own organizations. Was this a movement of elite Northerners? From the second generation on, most black social gospel leaders in the churches, academy, and YMCA/YWCA were Southerners from very modest backgrounds who came to the North (or Washington, DC) for a college or graduate education. They touted the life-changing blessings of education for the rest of their lives. Would the NAACP have gotten off the ground without the white progressives who cofounded it? Definitely not. The NAACP was the brainchild of two white socialists, William English Walling and Mary White Ovington, and one rich, connected, white liberal, Oswald Garrison Villard. All were versed in the history of black-only and black-and-white attempts to build a protest organization for racial justice. Du Bois was eager to cut a deal with them because he and they understood the obstacles, and he was sick of failing. The miracle of the early NAACP was that white liberals and socialists soon pulled back from running it, even though some were against racial consciousness of any kind, and many disliked Du Bois’s idea of a global liberationist movement for all people of color.

Without question, the civil rights movement inherited sexism from its black social gospel legacy. Bantum puts it gently, saying that the civil rights movement “seemed to perpetuate the marginalization of women’s voices just as easily as its predecessors.” Actually it was worse. Ella Baker, a better organizer than anyone at the SCLC, who saved the organization during its falling-apart chaos of 1958, got demeaning treatment from the ministers who spoke for the organization, including King. Her exclusion from a leadership role in the SCLC exemplifies the sexism that every woman who worked for it experienced. Women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) got similar treatment, even though SNCC was more radical and it had a few women who crashed the barriers to leadership.

Carter is steeped in the generations of social gospel historiography, to which his wonderful book, Union Made, is a major corrective. Union Made recovers the working-class social gospel in moving, detailed, and vivid fashion, focusing on Protestant and Catholic labor organizers in Chicago that brought their Christianity into the struggle for the rights of workers, comprehensive social justice, and a National Labor Union. Along the way they also tried to save the soul of American Christianity, realizing it was pointless to defend Christianity if the churches didn’t care about the suffering and vulnerability of working-class human beings. This book exemplifies social history at its best, and I greatly appreciate Carter’s emphasis, there and here, that Progressive era social Christianity was a capacious phenomenon at the grassroots level.

Here he takes up the distinction between movements and traditions, and I might as well cut straight to the difference between us instead of building up to it. I am an old Lefty who spent fifteen years founding and leading chapters of the two socialist organizations that succeeded the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas. In every organizing speech that I gave, I explained the concept of a multi-tendency organization that marshals various discourse traditions, ideologies, and identities toward the end of—or at least hoping to build—a movement for social justice. The idea that a democratic movement for social justice necessarily draws upon multiple traditions and identities is deeply ingrained in me, as is the presumption that no one who cares about social justice can rest content with having a tradition or a personal identity. The idea of building a movement, or at least of hoping to be involved in building one, is there in almost every organizer I’ve known across labor, peace, anti-racist, feminist, anti-imperialist, LGBTQ, and socialist organizing. I’ve known a few community organizers that were half-exceptions, and some black nationalists opposed movement activism on nationalist grounds; Crummell exemplifies this position in The New Abolition. But I definitely do not read the history of the Afro-American League, the Afro-American Council, the Niagara Movement, the NAACP, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), the racial justice wing of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the SCLC, SNCC, and other organizations associated with the black social gospel as lacking in movement aspiration.

Almost every person that I featured in The New Abolition and Breaking White Supremacy called for movements that fired a game-changing surge for racial justice. Some moved from one organization to another in search of one that lit a fire. They worked very hard at protecting select traditions, identities, and groups, but did so without settling for the politics of mere survival. To be sure, this outcome is baked into my focus on movement leaders, and Carter is right that the orbit of the black social gospel was more expansive and less movement-conscious at the grassroots level. My extensive discussions of the NAACP are pertinent to this issue. I have sought to show that the early NAACP was subversive, indispensable, and shot through with neo-abolitionist movement consciousness. The founders wanted to call it the New Abolition Movement, but they also wanted Southern chapters, so they adopted a clunky name that implicitly endorsed Du Bois’s idea of the organization’s mission. Du Bois had a stormy run at the NAACP, and then its legal wing morphed into such a powerhouse that it obscured everything else that the organization did. But everything else took place in or through 35,000 black congregations, and many clerical leaders of what became the SCLC had backgrounds in NAACP organizing.

I am grateful to Terrence R. Johnson for his accurate summary of the book’s argument and the turn he subsequently makes on Du Boisian double-consciousness. The latter discussion contains echoes of his superb book on the repressed realities of race and religion in American democracy, Tragic Soul-Life: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Moral Crisis Facing American Democracy. There he argues that American political liberalism helped to win select social and political gains for African Americans by excluding religious arguments from consideration, including the historic role of religion in constructing the nation’s racist idea of race. Political liberalism is a form of strategic forgetting that secures select rights by limiting politics itself to matters of individual right and inclusion. Johnson makes a Du Boisian argument about the kind of liberal democracy that comes from refusing to deal with the historic ravages of racism, the role of religion in fostering racial bigotry, and the moral poverty of liberal forms of democracy. Du Bois, in his rendering, was a powerful moral theorist of black sorrow, despair, and hope, and deeply religious in the sense of religiousness as tragic soul-life. Johnson invokes Du Bois’s retrieval of hope amid suffering and despair to argue that these realities should be as deeply inscribed in liberal thought as the principles of liberty and opportunity.

Johnson’s book on Du Bois thus takes up, with sparkling persuasiveness, the point he raises in the present forum about whether Du Bois achieved a synthesis of his double consciousness, an integral idea of a true self. I believe he is right in pressing so strongly on the ethic of hope amid suffering and despair. In The New Abolition, however, I was careful to introduce numerous interpretations of Du Bois on double-consciousness before offering my “source of creativity” interpretation, and this rendering was not meant as an alternative to all other readings. Commentary on this trope is so profuse because the trope itself is extraordinarily fluid and suggestive.

Hegel said that self-consciousness exists only in being acknowledged. When self-consciousness encounters another self-consciousness, it comes out of itself, finding itself in an other being; and it supersedes the other in doing so. Du Bois never said that he took this idea from Hegel or that he was thinking of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s protest that all Americans lived parasitically off European culture. But we know that Du Bois shared Emerson’s idea of culture as a commonwealth of value and aspiration. Americans, in this telling, needed to unleash their inward spiritual capacities to create a beautiful culture based on genuine self-knowledge, fulfilling the American ideal of self-creation and individuality. As Du Bois put it famously, the very end of human striving is to be a coworker in the kingdom of culture.

Henry Louis Gates says that double-consciousness was a singularly illuminating metaphor for the psychology of citizenship faced by all African Americans. Lawrie Balfour says it was a trademark rhetorical device marking Du Bois’s experience as a symbol of uplift and a member of an oppressed caste. Robert Gooding-Williams says that Du Bois used this idea to criticize the failings of black leaders. Joel Williamson says it was Du Bois appropriating Hegel—the spirit of freedom realizing itself behind the veil of color. Cornel West says that Du Bois rightly fixed on the dialectic of black self-recognition—in-but-not-of—but he oversimplified the cultural predicament of black Americans. Lawrence Bobo and Adolph Reed say we should stop talking about this idea, because Du Bois dropped it anyway. It didn’t explain anything (Bobo), or it smacked too much of nineteenth-century Lamarckianism (Reed).

Ernest Allen says it was merely a tactic to ease the fears of Talented Tenth achievers that their success in the white world would be discredited. The early Paul Gilroy said it was the key to everything—the dialectic of fulfillment and transfiguration—but the later Gilroy said it was too nineteenth century to matter anymore. Double consciousness cannot handle the postmodern experience of cultural multiplicity and multiple identities. Eboni Marshall Turman says that Du Bois left a problematic legacy for black moral agency by pathologizing black embodiment. An “is” that only “is” insofar as it is established by an other is toxic for black selves under the furious attempts of white supremacy to maintain its dominance.

If I were to pick three of these interpretations to fuse together, I would go for Balfour, West, and Turman. This trope was enabling for Du Bois, however briefly he employed it. The dialectic of recognition is a reality, whether for good or not. And any argument that makes black bodies invisible or of secondary importance is not liberating. I suspect that one reason why we keep returning to the double consciousness trope is that it mirrors how we talk about race. Race is a social invention, yet it is terribly real and embedded in psyches, social structures, and communal legacies.

My gloss on this debate, which Johnson cites, is that double-consciousness was a truth of Du Bois’s experience and a source of creativity in him. He was simultaneously black and American. He railed against the evils of white civilization while affirming the intellectualism and progressive social ideals that he internalized from Harvard and Berlin. He fashioned an alternative to the draining debate between nationalists and integrationists by affirming his own tortured double-consciousness. African Americans had to stop arguing about which of their selves to give up, opting for a robust, full-bodied struggle for—what? I agree with Johnson’s attempt to construct a normative moral meaning from the double-consciousness idea, and I agree with how he does it, although I place more weight than Johnson on Du Bois’s deepening political radicalism—his adoption of a radical democratic socialist perspective. However, when Du Bois said that black bodies were gifted with second sight, he was thinking like Emerson—privileging powers of mind over embodiment as a mechanism of resistance. That is a problem for every embodied self that struggles with the problems of identity and communal belonging, as Turman says.

On the question of representing non-Christian and non-theistic versions of the black social gospel, this is not quite identical to the same issue in my trilogy on liberal theology, where I had extensive discussions of non-Christians and non-theists. In liberal theology, the category definitely ranges outside Christianity. The black social gospel, however, was overwhelmingly Christian, “gospel” is a Christian word, and representing the Christian varieties of the black social gospel was subject enough for one book. Moreover, the theistic issue must be distinguished from the Christian one, because otherwise, many of the greatest theologians of the past three centuries do not qualify as Christian.

One might say that I gave ample space to non-Christian representatives anyway in The New Abolition, because I interpret Du Bois as being religiously ambiguous and double-minded; Johnson refers to arguments by Victor Anderson and William Hart that Du Bois, Wells-Barnett, and Washington were fundamentally social critics, not fundamentally Christians; and Johnson makes a similar argument about Burroughs. On Du Bois, I take a third way between Ed Blum (Du Bois was a Christian forerunner of liberation theology) and Jonathon Kahn (Du Bois was a non-Christian, pragmatic religious naturalist). I believe that Du Bois was double-minded and purposely elusive about his personal relationship to Christianity, and I agree with Blum, Kahn, Johnson, and West that Du Bois had a passionate religious spirit. I do not claim that Du Bois was a social gospeler because I do not claim that he was personally a Christian. On the other hand, Du Bois made quintessential social gospel arguments about Jesus and what constitutes good religion, and he wanted black churches to espouse social gospel religion.

The same thing might be said of Wells-Barnett, Washington, and Burroughs, as Johnson says. However, since all of them were churchgoing Christians who emphatically self-identified as Christian, I am very much disinclined to say that they were “fundamentally” not Christian or “fundamentally” something else. Johnson applies the critic-or-Christian distinction to Burroughs, explaining that evangelical norms about placing one’s faith “in a salvific and redemptive God” define what it means to be Christian. I strenuously disagree with any definitional equation of Christianity with evangelical modes of expression. Some figures that I featured in The New Abolition were evangelical in the sense of invoking a fundamental norm about a saving otherworldly God, and a few censured the social gospel tendency to give priority to social criticism and politics. But others emphasized social criticism, relativized otherworldly salvation, and did so in the name of Christian faith, all in the customary fashion of the social gospel. One does not have to be evangelical, or even a theist, to qualify for inclusion in the social gospel, because a great many social gospelers on both sides of the color line were theologically liberal, and the social gospel itself had a pronounced tendency to subordinate doctrinal claims to social criticism. Liberal theology is a disruptive and relativizing force in this discussion, and the social gospel acquired theologically liberal adherents as soon as both movements existed in the United States.

For me, this is a big piece of what commends the social gospel, then and now. The social gospel tradition included, and was willing to work with, a variety of theologies and ideologies. It raged against tyranny and oppression, calling for cooperative activism. It had a built-in openness to liberal theology, but it could also be theologically conservative. It invoked Christian norms about the sacred dignity of every human personality. And it stuck insistently to Christianity because it was determined not to lose the religious ground for saying that every human being bears the imprint of the divine Creator or the divine good. I confess to being somewhat sensitive about how liberal theology is construed in this discussion, and in the academy generally, because distorting it as an impossibility, or as something irrelevant, is the first move that anti-Christian academics make when they stereotype what Christianity is or has ever been.

McTighe’s opening statement about Ferguson and the continuity of black freedom struggle is spot-on, and riveting—a powerful statement borne of her nearly twenty years of activism in the struggle against the punitive attitudes about black bodies that created the new Jim Crow in American society in American prisons. She is a longtime advocate of everyday community practices that provide alternatives to America’s obsession with punishment and imprisonment. McTighe’s forthcoming doctoral dissertation, “This Day, We Use Our Energy for Revolution,” draws upon her work with black feminist organizing traditions and organizations in Louisiana to think about how American religious history might be differently conceived, taught, and written.

Here we get a taste of her important work, and I am deeply grateful for it. Last January, I tried to express to a large conference audience at Trinity Church Wall Street this very argument about the moment-movement continuity of black freedom struggle into and beyond the Ferguson moment, and afterwards I vowed to find a more concise and intelligible way of saying it. McTighe is concise, intelligible, and compelling.

She makes a highly perceptive analogy between my project in The New Abolition and that of Cedric Robinson in Black Marxism and Wallace Best in Passionately Human, No Less Divine. These are exemplary works for me, for exactly the reasons that she states. Few of my reviewers have caught, thus far, what McTighe catches about the importance of pushing back against secular-gaze historiography, which many religious historians have recycled. Something tremendously important in the public work of black social gospel leaders and intellectuals went unnoticed for decades, for reasons that bear interrogating. I am equally grateful that McTighe explicates my analytical hermeneutic for this subject in a few deft sentences, something that I took too many pages to unfold in The New Abolition, and have tried to convey more concisely in Breaking White Supremacy. Then she summarizes my elaborate exertions about the theological and ideological heterogeneity of the black social gospel, and the meaning of it all, in one shimmering sentence: “The full breadth—and no less—of each of these various schools is what birthed Dr. King and the un-sanitized, un-fablized, un-exceptionalized civil rights continuity of the 1950s.”

I felt compelled to lay down a basic narrative about New Abolition bishops and Baptist preacher heavyweights that paved the way to King, and I deeply regret that nearly all the public exponents of this very public tradition were men. McTighe sees both things clearly, while pressing for other ways of telling this story. I spent much of the book trying to show that historians were wrong in claiming that “the black social gospel” lacks coherence as a category, lacks boundaries that justify the category, and never happened. There was a defensive factor in my decision to feature only figures that clearly fit the category. Expanding the category was a priority for me, but not as high as my top priority, establishing the category.

So I worked with the “institutional church sources,” as McTighe says, plugging for what she calls “a definitive and identifiable black social gospel tradition.” I featured the women who worked in the same recognizable vein as Ransom, Walters, Wright and Powell while refusing to be excluded from public agency: Wells-Barnett, Burroughs, Church, and the Baptist feminists who preceded and worked with Burroughs. I had to stretch the social gospel category to include these women, because they did not self-identify as advocates of the social gospel, unlike nearly all the men in my story, and some held no opinion on pertinent theological topics, such as biblical criticism. Having stretched this far, should I have gone further, featuring Elder Lucy Smith? McTighe makes a strong case for doing so, citing Best as a precedent. I thought about it, but explained in chapter 1 why I did not do so. It is a perilous business to claim someone for an identifiable public group that the person herself took no interest in joining. I recognize that the social gospel gets more interesting, expansive, and feminist if Smith and some other Holiness leaders are counted within it. Had I been less concerned to establish an identifiable—even undeniable!—category, I might have made a different decision about Smith.

I hope that The New Abolition will encourage others to write better books on this subject. As soon as one recognizes the black social gospel as a tradition, its singular importance among late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century religious traditions becomes, I would say, undeniable. Thus, we need the better books on it. This symposium featured four gifted contributors to this work, and I am deeply grateful to Silas Morgan and Vincent Lloyd for sponsoring it in Syndicate.

Shares