America's Fighting Faith
Henry McNeal Turner

Recovering the Black Social Gospel

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Having read the very white Religion of Democracy, my next theology book is The New Abolition: W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel by Gary Dorrien.  The covers the development of African-American theology after the Civil War and before the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century.  Dorrien feels that this movement has been overlooked and that it should be recovered.  One reason is that these are the historical and theological influences on King and leaders of that generation.  Here is a good summary from the opening chapter:

The black social gospel arose during the trauma and abandonment of Reconstruction, resuming the struggle for black freedom in America.  Like the white social gospel and Progressive movements, it espoused principles of social justice, conceived the federal government as an indispensable guarantor of constitutional rights, struggled with industrialization and economic injustice, and grappled with the Great Migration.  Like the white social gospel, it also wrestled with modern challenges to religious belief. But the black social gospel addressed these things very differently than white progressives did, for racial oppression trumped everything in the African American context and refigured how other problems were experienced.

The black social gospel affirmed the dignity, sacred personhood, creativity, and moral agency of African Americans and responded to racial oppression.  It asked what a new abolitionism should be and what role the churches should play within it.  Like the white social gospel, it had numerous ideologies and theologies, but here the trump concern was distinctly given, obvious, and a survival issue: upholding black dignity in the face of racial tyranny.  Here the belief in a divine ground of human selfhood powered struggles for black self-determination and campaigns of resistance to white oppression.

Dorrien details four versions of the black social gospel.  First was the Booker T. Washington group that sought "a season of peace and economic opportunity for blacks."  The second was the "path of nationalist separation and/or African emigration."  The third group engaged in protest action and called for "a new abolitionist politics of racial and social justice."  The final group "advocated civil rights activism while relating more diplomatically to Booker Washington and Bookerism."

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