The Social Gospel in Black and White, Then and Now


Gary Dorrien


This essay was originally delivered as a speech at the annual dinner of Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries of Greater Boston on June 6, 2020.


I am grateful for the invitation of Rodney Petersen and the Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries of Greater Boston to speak at this year’s annual dinner, this year a virtual event in a time of crisis. The crisis that drove us online exploded into our lives in early March, ripping through our communities with devastating force, leaving a global trail of death and destruction. Covid-19 has stripped bare the injustices of our society, where black and brown Americans have suffered the most, as usual. Every major city in the USA is a tinderbox of racial grievance and despair, trapped in America’s legacy of racism extending to its founding. Now we are confronted with yet another black man brutalized to death as though his life did not matter. The murder of George Floyd is another reminder that there is no vaccine on the way for anti-black racism. We grieve for him and the many black victims who proceeded Mr. Floyd in a very similar manner — Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Dominique Clayton, Botham Jean, Tatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, so many others. 

We are bombarded with crises piled on each other and compounding each other. We have lived through crises that seemed world-shaking for a while and then passed — the Cold War, 9/11, the financial crash of 2008. Anti-black racism and economic injustice are crises of another kind. Both are such fundamental and longstanding features of our society that it can seem paradoxical to even refer to them as crises. Today I am going to linger over the crises of anti-black racism and economic injustice that founded social gospel movements on both sides of the color line. But a crisis is a crisis partly because it defies certainty, confident speaking, assurance, and thinking that you know the answer. In 1910, W. E. B. Du Bois founded Crisis Magazine as the flagship of the newly founded NAACP. He had no idea if it had any chance of succeeding. He quit his job at Atlanta University and dragged his family to New York with no guarantee of a salary. Du Bois had just failed, crushingly, in his previous venture, the Niagara Movement. Before that the Afro-American Council had failed and before that the Afro-American League had failed. Founding the NAACP and its magazine were desperation moves for Du Bois. 

Karl Barth in 1956.
Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 194-1283-23A / Lachmann, Hans / Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

After World War I, when theologians began to hold conferences again, they repudiated the language of cultural progress that they learned in graduate school. Western civilization and modern thought were in crisis, they said. The first name of the dialectical theology movement that formed around Karl Barth was Crisis Theology.1Joseph L. Mangina, Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness (2004). It was a reaction to the slaughter and destruction of World War I and the imperial hubris that produced it. Modern theology had sanctified the conceits of bourgeois culture. Crisis theology was about shattered illusions, the experience of emptiness before a hidden God, and what Barth called the unexpected surge of spiritual meaning he found in “the strange new world within the Bible.” A new world enters our ordinary world by the grace of God’s Spirit. Barth said that before the kingdom of God can become real to modern people, “there must come a crisis that denies all human thought.” 

Actually, you cannot write systematic theology on that basis, and Barth spent the next twelve years figuring out how to be a theologian. Crisis theology, he came to realize, was too infatuated with its own rhetoric of crisis and too eager to theologize it. But the saving truth in the rhetoric of crisis is that our knowledge is fallible, situated, and fragmented. We have no control over that which we need — grace and love divine.  

I do not know how to frame the multi-layered crisis of our time. This past February, I finished a big book on the history of American democratic socialism and sent it off to my publisher. It felt precarious to meet a publishing deadline just as Bernie Sanders seized the lead in the race for the Democratic nomination for President, but I took consolation that there would be room for editorial tweaks before the book went to press. 

Then the world changed with stunning, sweeping brutality. Italy was devastated, and in New York City we wondered fearfully: Will we be ravaged like Italy? Soon, New York was worse than Italy. Covid-19 overwhelmed New York hospitals and piled up bodies in makeshift morgues. It surged North, South, and West across the nation, worse than any other nation, exposing that the mighty USA was less prepared than any comparable society to handle the onslaught. The federal government did the minimum, while President Trump sprayed his news conferences with a firehose of false reassurances to the nation. State governors shut down their economies to flatten the curve of infection and save local hospitals from crashing. Black and brown Americans suffered the worst, while healthcare workers struggled heroically to save as many lives as possible. Then the governors began to reopen their economies before 98 percent of the U.S. population had been tested even once. In April alone, the U.S. economy lost 21 million jobs, a doubly disastrous figure for a nation that ties healthcare coverage to a job.

Back in February, Sanders surged in the Democratic race while Joe Biden stumbled through the early primaries with a wan message about restoring political normalcy. Five major candidates clogged the moderate lane, all of them warning that Sanders was too leftwing to defeat Trump. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren tried to find a lane between the five moderates and Sanders, and in Boston you saw how that turned out. The field consolidated with breathtaking speed, narrowing to Biden versus Sanders, just as contagion fear swept the nation. 

Today, Biden is pondering whether he dares to move left, as Franklin Roosevelt did in 1933. Meanwhile Trump knows very well what works for him — the same divide-and-conquer racism and nationalism that put him in the White House. We are in for a very intense summer. 

In the USA, we have long debated two contrasting visions of what kind of country we want to be. The first is the vision of a society that provides unrestricted liberty to acquire wealth, lifts the right to property above the right to self-government, and protects the interests of established elites. This idea legitimizes the dominance of the wealthy, the aggressive, and the corporations in the name of individual freedom. The second is the vision of a realized democracy in which democratic self-government is superior to property and no group dominates any other. This idea extends the rights of political democracy into the social and economic spheres. 

The social gospel espoused the second vision. In the white churches, it was principally a response to industrialization and Gilded Age corruption. The white social gospel put social justice on the agenda of the ecumenical churches, changing how these churches talked about salvation. It created the ecumenical movement and the field of social ethics. It recovered the social justice emphasis of Hebrew scripture and the centrality of the Kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus. It was the greatest wave of social justice activism ever generated by the ecumenical churches, and it was a species of Christian socialism. 

The social gospel that arose in black churches was a struggle for a new abolitionism.2Gary Dorrien, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel (2015). It arose as a response to the abandonment of Reconstruction and an upsurge of racial terrorism. The black social gospel enlisted the churches in the struggle for racial justice, helping to build protest organizations against racism and racial violence. It paved the way to the civil rights movement, the greatest story we have in this country, providing the social justice theology of the civil rights movement. 

Both of these social gospel traditions had democratic socialist flanks led by prominent figures. They were the wellsprings of every form of liberation theology, showing that struggles for economic justice and racial justice can fold together, and must. W. D. P. Bliss, Vida Scudder, George Herron, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Walter Muelder were foremost among the white Christian socialists. Reverdy Ransom, George W. Woodbey, Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, Pauli Murray, and Martin Luther King Jr. were foremost among the black Christian socialists. I believe that political theology needs a better genealogy than the Carl Schmitt story it usually tells. It has an incomparably better one in the black and white traditions of Christian socialism. 

It was not a coincidence that the social gospel, social ethics, sociology, the social sciences, socialism, and the ideas of social structure, social salvation, and social justice all arose at the same time; also, corporate capitalism, the trade unions, and the first organizations devoted to racial justice. The social gospel developed a novel doctrine of social salvation, which was based on the emerging sociological idea of social structure, which gave rise to the idea of social justice. The key to the social gospel was its novel claim that Christianity has a mission to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice. 

The key to the social gospel was its novel claim that Christianity has a mission to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice.

Neither part of this sentence was a possibility before the 1880s. Before the modern era, nobody knew there was such a thing as social structure. In the social gospel, society became a subject of redemption. Social justice became intrinsic to salvation. The church began to say that salvation must be personal and social to be saving. A bad society makes ordinary people do bad things. A good society makes selfish people less selfish and violent. There was a key difference between European Christian socialism and the American social gospel, and the difference was not socialism. Nearly the entire American movement supported producer cooperatives, economic democracy, and the socialization of natural monopolies, even as much of it steered clear of the s-word. But the social gospel was an evangelical earthquake that should be called the Third Great Awakening. It proclaimed that America had fallen into miserable corruption and only a spiritual awakening would save America from its sins. 

The middle-class ministers who founded the white social gospel burned with shame at being criticized by the Knights of Labor — a radical, Christian, industrial union with no color bar. The Knights arose in the 1870s and had almost a million members by 1886. They were predominantly Protestant until Catholics poured into the union in the mid-1880s. The Knights blasted the churches for siding with the ruling class, but they got pulled into too many strikes and were violently suppressed by state militias. Then the Knights were surpassed by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a federation of mostly conservative, racist, sexist, craft unions that barred black Americans, women, and entire categories of immigrants, especially Asians. The fall of the Knights deprived the social gospel of the kind of labor movement that existed nearly everywhere in Europe. 

Meanwhile, the founders of the black social gospel were compelled to ask what a new abolitionism would be. Slavery, abolitionism, the Civil War, and Reconstruction had come and gone. Racial caste was codified, the 14th and 15th Amendments were obliterated in much of the country, and lynching became a national mania, a form of racial terrorism that backstopped the caste system. In this context, the black social gospel founders said that churches had to enter the political struggle for justice. William Simmons, Reverdy Ransom, Ida B. Wells, Alexander Walters, Richard R. Wright Jr., Adam Clayton Powell Sr., and Nannie Burroughs were prominent among them. They urged that churches had to fuse progressive theology and social justice politics to combat white oppression. 

The next generation of black social gospel leaders assumed the social gospel from the beginning of their careers: Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, J. Pius Barbour, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Howard Thurman, Pauli Murray. They paved the way to the King generation that founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the civil rights movement. 

When lightning struck in Montgomery in December 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr., was steeped in the black social gospel. He had a freshly minted Ph.D. from Boston University, and he imagined how his role models would respond to this moment. He preached that God is the personal ground of the infinite value of human personality. If the worth of personality is the ultimate value in life, America’s racial caste system was distinctly evil. Evil is precisely that which degrades personality, the sacred dignity of every human life. If Christianity meant anything in the USA, it had to shout against anti-black racism and every kind of racism.  

Photograph of White House Meeting with Civil Rights Leaders. June 22, 1963. Wikimedia Commons.

The movement made King, not the other way around, but the movement that swept him to prominence would not have caught fire without him. Jo-Ann Robinson, Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Women’s Political Council, and E. D. Nixon were all ready to challenge bus segregation when Parks provided a test case. Somebody had to speak for the boycott. Nixon excoriated the ministers when nobody volunteered, King walked in late to a meeting, and he took offense at being excoriated. History turned in a moment because the newcomer was willing to risk his life. King had twenty minutes to plan what he would say that night. He had one guiding thought as he headed to Holt Street Church: Somehow I have to be militant and moderate at the same time. 

He appealed to the democratic traditions of America, the deep integrity of oppressed black Americans, and the teaching of Jesus. He made a justice run, declaring that there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled by the iron feet of oppression. He made a second run. If this movement was wrong, so were the Supreme Court, the Constitution, Jesus, and God Almighty. If they were wrong, justice is a lie and love has no meaning. They were reaching for the daybreak of freedom and justice. The crowd erupted at the stunning image of daybreak. King implored that love is one side of Christianity and justice is the other side. Christians live in the spirit of love divine and employ the tools of divine justice. He ran out of metaphors for his third run, but the Holt Street Address perfectly distilled what became his message. Soon it was King’s trademark, helping him to personally link the fledgling, theatrical, church-based movement for racial justice in the South to the established, institutional, mostly secular movement based in New York City. 

The Northern-based movement had a lot of Socialists. King relied on them — Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Stanley Levison, Norman Thomas, James Farmer. King took for granted that the social gospel at its best is democratic socialist, understood as social and economic democracy. He studied Rauschenbusch in seminary; he learned that Mays, Johnson, Barbour, Thurman, and Farmer were all Rauschenbusch socialists; and his dean at Boston University, Muelder, was a Rauschenbusch socialist. 

For a while, SCLC floundered, even as King became famous. King was sensitive and peaceable. He talked about Gandhi, but it repulsed him to imagine that he would get people killed. It took the student sit-in explosion of 1960 to push King into actual Gandhian disruption. King decided that he needed to raise hell in the most hostile cities he could find, so he selected lieutenants who were willing to do it. SCLC became a fire-alarm outfit relying on street theater and heroic agitation. It was long on charismatic male ministers who did not treat their female allies with the respect they deserved, and King was no exception. 

From 1960 to the end, King got more radical and angry every year. 

Alex Haley asked him in 1964 what his biggest mistake had been; King said it was overestimating the spiritual integrity of white ministers: “The projection of a social gospel, in my opinion, is the true witness of a Christian life.” He said that most white ministers failed the test. Haley asked if black churches did better and King hedged on “no.” It was always difficult to mobilize black ministers because they did not like movements they did not organize, and most had no experience with movement activism. Many just wanted to preach about heaven. But King stressed that black churches dealt with daily threats to their existence that whites could not imagine. There was no basis for comparison. 

King said most white Americans were abysmally ignorant about the true state of American society, and three variations of this ignorance were politically significant. One group was stridently bigoted and reactionary. A second group, public officials, did not fathom the harm they caused, because it never occurred to them to listen to black people. The third group was the hardest to take, “enlightened” types who admonished in patronizing fashion about proceeding gradually. 

Until 1966, King refused to say that white Americans never intended to integrate their schools and neighborhoods. Then he got pelted with rocks in Chicago and he said it scathingly, telling SCLC: “The white man literally sought to annihilate the Indian.” King said this is what black Americans are up against. By 1966, the backlash against the civil rights movement was ferocious. King refused to call it a backlash because it was usually blamed on him. Then he wrote his last book3Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967). and he said obviously there is a backlash, but what matters is what caused it. Racial hostility was always there; the civil rights movement merely brought it to the surface.

Near the very end, in his last Christmas sermon, King made his usual vow to endure suffering, respond to violence with soul force, and love the oppressors. But now he said it by counter-posing the dream and the nightmare by invoking the nightmares of the four church girls murdered in Birmingham, the miserable poverty of urban neighborhoods, American cities on fire, and the war in Vietnam. At the end, King was unfathomably exhausted and depressed, living on the edge of despair, but he said he dared not give up hope because that is not an ethical option. 

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 project was not unique to King, for it defines precisely the black social gospel that influenced King. King stood in a tradition of black social gospel intellectuals who heard the prophetic gospel in the black church, appropriated social gospel criticism, engaged the Gandhian revolution, and called America to stop betraying its vaunted ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality.

Racism-as-bias yielded generations of white liberals who claimed that the most anti-racist thing they could do was to ignore race altogether.

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 black Americans still denigrated by white society. It became hard to remember how radical King had been. He seemed to be wholly outstripped by Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown. But Martin Luther King did not become the most hated person in America on a misunderstanding. He struck with audacity and forcefulness in the most hateful cities he could find, and at the end, he was more radical than anyone around him. He dragged SCLC to Chicago. He frightened and appalled the civil rights establishment by coming out against the Vietnam War. Then he committed to the Poor People’s Campaign and the entire executive staff was against him. 

Many of the young people who demonstrated this week came of age during the transition from Obama to Trump. Obama was careful, supremely gifted, and very soon, frustrated. He was a good president who could have been better, but all of that became secondary to the pathos of his presidency. Obama sowed a ferocious, titanic backlash merely by living in the White House and doing his job. Every day that he served, Obama made the nation look better than it was, something that Trump keenly grasped while putting it differently. There has never been a breakthrough for racial justice in this country that did not set off a bigger backlash than whatever it reacted against. 

Today’s young people came of age when idealistic talk about a post-racial future gave way to anxious talk about losing our way. Then it became undeniable that we have lost our way. Many white churches are trying for the first time to have a conversation about their own racism. For decades they pleaded: “We’re so welcoming and we want to be diverse; why are we so white?” Finally they are getting past that stage, but the next stage is painful, and people recoil from it. White fragility is hair-trigger and self-protective. Many of us were taught that racism is essentially a problem of racial bias, a prejudice to be overcome. Two years ago, a Starbucks employee in Philadelphia called the police because two black men were sitting in the store waiting for a friend to arrive. Starbucks closed its stores for four hours to conduct what it called a “racial bias education day.” You have to start somewhere, and at least they did it, while customers pounded on the doors demanding their Frappuccinos.

But fixing on racial bias is only a starting point. People do not admit to being racially biased, and the bias concept reinforces the “race blind” idea of racial justice. Racism-as-bias yielded generations of white liberals who claimed that the most anti-racist thing they could do was to ignore race altogether. Howard Thurman’s spiritual mentor, Quaker theologian Rufus Jones, refused to say anything about racism, even as he wrote constantly about peace and the inner light. He reasoned that race is a baleful category, so pay it no mind! My students cannot fathom how this kind of white liberal could have been sincere. The bias view produces sincere reductionists who just want to be blameless by their lights.  

The love ethic of Jesus makes you care, makes you angry, throws you into the struggle, keeps you in it, helps you face another day.

White supremacy is a structure of power based on privilege that presumes to define what is normal. For eighteen years, I taught at a liberal arts college that I love dearly and which was very much like many others. We struggled to attract black and Asian students and faculty, we did even worse at recruiting Latinx students and faculty, and we outright failed to retain African American faculty. Some of us took part in anti-racism workshops, confessed our racism, and thought, “ok, now we’re getting somewhere.” But nothing really changed, even if entire departments went to the workshops. One year we lost 80 percent of our African American faculty. Why was this happening? 

It was tempting to blame the colleagues who pined for the white male monoculture of the past, but the college made a strong commitment to multiculturalism, the opposition decreased through retirements, and we still lost black colleagues. On their way out they said, “This place is so white, I can’t breathe here.” Finally our group of workshop veterans began to interrogate the culture of whiteness. This was harder and more painful than the anti-bias approach, but it exposed the structures of privilege that insulated our existence. What is saving is for white people to relinquish the privileges of whiteness and for all people to love blackness.  

White culture is transparent to white persons wherever they are dominant. It is hard to see because it is everything that is not specifically African American culture, Latinx culture, and so on. If you live in this society without being constantly reminded of your race, you do not have to worry about representing your race, you can worry about racism without being viewed as self-interested, and you do not have to worry about being targeted by police for your race, you are a beneficiary of it.  

The work of recent years in religious communities, schools, civic organizations, and the media is beginning to pay off. Look at the crowds that have gathered in the past week to protest against anti-black racism. We have never seen anywhere near this many white people willing to put themselves out there, and that is in the middle of a pandemic. It may be that Trump will benefit in November from the protests against racism. Nobody knows how that will play out. But there is such a thing as doing what is right. This is a moment to put everything on the line. We do not have to be the country that stands for bigotry and selfishness. 

The love ethic of Jesus makes you care, makes you angry, throws you into the struggle, keeps you in it, helps you face another day. Hang in there, friends; I am deeply grateful for your ministry in Boston. ♦


Gary Dorrien teaches at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. His many books include Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit, which won the PROSE Award in 2013, The New Abolition, which won the Grawemeyer Award in 2017, and Breaking White Supremacy, which won the Choice Award in 2019.