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Public Theology: The New Abolition and Martin Luther King, Jr.
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The New Abolition and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Here are some comments by the author of an important new book on the black social gospel and how it influenced the most important religious figure of the 20th century, Martin Luther King.

By Gary Dorrien

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from a response by Gary Dorrien to reviews of his new book, "The New Abolition." It is found at the Syndicate which presents symposiums on key theological texts. I strongly encourage readers to view the reviews found here. Martin Luther King is the most important religious figure of the 20th century in this country.

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.

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Date Added: 3/22/2017 Date Revised: 3/22/2017 11:27:22 PM

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