The New Abolition

Article by   September 2016
Gary Dorrien. The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 647 pages. $45.00.

The New Abolition is a sobering read. The story of the black church and its struggle against oppression is not well-known by most white evangelical Christians. Even fifty years after the high point of the civil rights movement, few are familiar with the storied church histories of their brothers and sisters on the other side of the color line. Even fewer have the faintest familiarity with the roll call of the heroic African-American men and women who devoted their lives to the hard task of bringing the gospel to bear on a society deeply entrenched in racist ignorance and brutality. Dorrien's book tells the story of those men and women who labored in the dark decades between the Civil War and World War II, in whose work he finds the origins of the black social gospel.

More often than not, the men and women whose stories Dorrien tells failed to accomplish their social objectives. America's oppression of black people grew worse rather than better in the fifty years after the Civil War. Many of those who were most optimistic during the 1870s and 1880s found themselves in utter despair by the 1920s. Far too often their white "Christian" oppressors were blind to the utter hypocrisy of confessing Christ while exploiting, humiliating, raping, and murdering black people.

Sketching the lives of women activists like Ida B. Wells, who devoted her life to opposing the horrors of the socially sanctioned lynching of thousands of black people, and pastors like Reverdy C. Ransom and Richard R. Wright, Jr., who sought to demonstrate the power of the gospel in delivering the oppressed from the spiritual and social toll of sin and injustice, Dorrien paints the picture of a body of believers (and some of their non-believing sympathizers) who toiled and persevered amidst incredible suffering to make the gospel that Jesus proclaimed as "good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18) a reality in the lives of black Americans.

Dorrien, an excellent scholar and prolific church historian, stresses that "The social gospel was fundamentally a movement, not a doctrine, featuring a social ethical understanding of the Christian faith. It taught that Christianity has a mission to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice" (3-4). He admits that while all black churches played a role in helping African Americans overcome racial injustice, only a minority ever actively supported such "social justice preaching and activism" (10).

But, as Dorrien demonstrates, the black social gospel was not only a liberal phenomenon. The early twentieth century social gospel had its liberal and conservative versions, and the vast majority of black pastors were conservative and evangelical in their theology. "For many black ministers, the social gospel was more palatable than liberal theology because the latter seemed to disavow biblical authority and evangelical doctrine" (21).

It would have been helpful had Dorrien devoted more attention to the comparative influence of conservative and liberal versions of the black social gospel, but in fairness to him, few Christians at the time made any distinction between the two. Even most pastors who were open to higher criticism continued to preach what Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., called the "old-time simple Gospel." Powell summarized the mission of these pastors in one sentence: "Preach with all the power of your soul, body, and mind the old-time simple Gospel because it is a fountain for the unclean, food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, clothing for the naked, strength for the weak, a solace for the sorrowing, medicine for the sick and eternal life for the dying" (443).

Dorrien declares in his introduction that his focus in the book is "sociopolitical," not simply theological. He describes the efforts of black pastors to build congregations that, in the spirit of the biblical diaconate, sought to meet the social and material needs of their people. He also traces their forays into political activism, both at the local and national levels. "The black social gospelers ... could live with a variety of theologies, especially in ecclesiology and biblical interpretation, but the crucial thing was to build strong black institutions through which religious commitments effected social change" (xii-xiii).

In fact, some of Dorrien's most prominent subjects, especially the one whose picture is on the front cover and whose name is in the subtitle, were anything but orthodox Christians. W. E. B. Du Bois plays a central role in Dorrien's book (though not one as large as the subtitle might lead you to expect). Du Bois was the towering intellectual in African American culture during the decades around the turn of the century. He played a decisive role in defeating the accommodationist, if well-intentioned philosophy of Booker T. Washington, which accepted the separate-but-equal logic of segregation and refused to confront systemic racist oppression while calling African Americans to earn their civil and legal rights through education and hard work. He played a crucial role in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples, which eventually did more than any other organization to persuade the courts to dismantle segregation. Dorrien stretches the identity of black Christianity to its breaking-point by giving Du Bois such a significant role in a book about the black social gospel. As Dorrien himself points out, early in his life Du Bois rejected Christianity after coming under the influence of Hegel and higher criticism. Still, Dorrien maintains that Du Bois holds a central role in the story of the black social gospel. He influenced its advocates, heralded the black church's role in the struggle for justice, and exemplified its prophetic rhetoric and zeal.

Dorrien also explores movements outside of the confines of black churches, including the NAACP and its various forerunner organizations. The book highlights the importance of the conflict between Washington and Du Bois and the way it affected various institutions and activists. In addition to denominations, religious schools and church publications, it describes the impact of black Christian leaders on movements as diverse as the push for African colonization and the emergence of early twentieth century socialism, and their conflicted responses to events ranging from the Great Migration of African Americans into northern cities to World War I. It explores the bitter existential controversies waged among black thinkers over the meaning and identity of blackness, the relative merits of segregation versus integration, the morality of intermarriage, the interplay between sexuality and race, and questions of racial determinism and essentialism. Dorrien shows how the progressivism, social Darwinism, racialism, and imperialism of the early twentieth century shaped the attitudes of black social gospel leaders.

Dorrien doesn't tackle these matters in a systematic or chronological way. Rather, the book is essentially a series of well-told biographical sketches, presenting the lives of key leaders as windows into the fundamental issues that shaped the emergence of the black social gospel tradition. At times this approach might overwhelm the uninitiated reader. Sometimes a little more systematic reflection and integration would have been helpful, especially in a book of 523 pages of text. On the other hand, the book contains a wealth of powerful stories and anecdotes that bring its figures, warts and all, to life. The book is no hagiography, but one cannot read it thoughtfully without being impressed by the debilitating weight of systemic racial oppression and the incredible perseverance and courage demonstrated by those who struggled against it in the name of the gospel.

If you have anything like a rose-colored perspective of the history of Christ's church in the United States during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, this book will be as difficult as it is important for you to read. In a time when fundamentalist pastors often played leading roles in defending the racial logic that culminated in the lynching of black people, there is no little truth to the judgment of numerous black pastors that it was in the black church that one would find Christ's most faithful followers in America. Despite the rage of those who called for a violent response against oppression, it was black Christians who exemplified what Dorrien calls the "forgiving, enemy-loving ethic of Jesus." Powell (whose Abyssinian Church in New York City so powerfully impressed the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer during his time at Union Theological Seminary) pointed out that "thousands of Negro ministers preached the meekness of Jesus to their people." The Negro Spirituals taught millions of Christians to find their hope in the Christian gospel without "a line of revenge or a word that breathes the spirit of vindictiveness" (441-442).

Dorrien concludes his book with a point that deserves reflection. He points out that while white social gospel theologians tended to play down the significance of the cross for their theology, for African American pastors the cross always remained central. "[O]ne thing mattered more than anything else in black social gospel testimony and worship: the cross of Jesus. The black social gospel shared this emphasis with nearly every Afro-American denomination." White social gospel theologians often turned away from the cross because, regardless of the theory of atonement one supported, it seemed to justify and sacralize unjust suffering. But for African Americans this was not an option. Their own experience was simply too close to that of Jesus. "For black Christians, merely knowing that Jesus suffered as they did gave them faith that God was with them, even if they ended up, like Jesus, tortured to death on a tree... The crucifixion of Jesus placed God among a persecuted, tyrannized, tortured, and crucified people." For black Christians "the cross represented a victory over the powers of death, a 'triumph over evil in this world'" (519-521).

The enormous problems with the social gospel Dorrien so admires notwithstanding, it is this witness to the power of the gospel amid suffering and oppression that makes this book an important read for Christians today. It was Christ himself who was being persecuted in these black brothers and sisters (Matthew 25:40, 45), and it was his Spirit who enabled his witnesses to persevere and struggle for the sake of righteousness (Matthew 5:6, 10). We need to learn from and be inspired by their story.


Matthew J. Tuininga is the assistant professor of moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He blogs at www.matthewtuininga.wordpress.com.


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