"Until he started school at the age of seven," Gary Dorrien writes about Adam Clayton Powell, Senior, who was born in in 1865, "he had one piece of clothing, a shirt made of a bleached flour sack. His bed was a bag filled with cornhusks. In decent crop years he ate corn and wheat; at other times he had to subsist on dried apples and black-eyed peas." But he was whip smart. On his first day of school, he memorized the alphabet. He soon memorized the Gospel of John.
Powell characterized himself as a Progressive and not as a Fundamentalist or a Modernist. Dorrien writes, "Progressives worshipped the biblical God of love and embraced the social gospel of Jesus without submitting to literalistic tests of orthodoxy." He was known for bridging the divide between intellectual preaching and emotional worship and grew the churches he pastored. Dorrien writes, "He was theologically liberal and evangelical, an exponent of biblical criticism and biblically centered, and politically pro-Washington and anti-Washington."
And also developed a wide array of church programs and ministries. "To save a man is to get him out of a bad environment and to put him into a good one with Jesus Christ as his example, ideal, and inspiration."
"When you get a man into heaven, he is not worth anything more to his family and the world; but when you can get heaven into him, you have done a great deal for Christ and humanity."
Praying "with a heart cleansed of carnal rubbish, the little Ultimate Reality in [a person's] soul rises like the tide to meet the great Ultimate Reality, which is God, and he becomes conscious of the fact that he is in touch with the source of power."
During the onset of World War I he declared, "While we love our flag and country, we do not believe in fighting for protection of commerce on the high seas until the powers that be give us at least some verbal assurance that the property and lives of the members of our race are going to be protected on land from Maine to Mississippi."
Dorrien writes, "True patriotism, he preached, was love of one's country plus something higher--an unselfish devotion to the highest ethical and spiritual ideals." Powell said, "Patriotism is not only a love for one's country and nation but a love for weak suffering people everywhere."
Powell advocated pressing for civil rights during the war, while other leaders like DuBois cautioned waiting. Powell ultimately believed the war made things worse for black people.
He wanted Abyssinian Baptist Church to employ only black builders when they built their new building in Harlem, but they could not find enough. He was angry and apologized for his attacks on Booker T. Washington's emphasis on industrial education.
Dorrien writes "If one proposed to follow Jesus, Powell urged, one had to take up the costly, fellow-suffering discipleship of the Sermon on the Mount." It was this theme which deeply influence Dietrich Bonhoeffer who attended Powell's church while a student. Given that this theme as worked out by Bonhoeffer has been one of the most influential in theology in the last century, it is far past time to give the source its due.
There is a disappointing paragraph in which Dorrien details Powell's homophobia.
In politics he wanted great leaders: "I am appealing for men who will get in touch with world currents and world movements, men with cosmopolitan spirits, men whose purview has been so broadened that they can say, 'The world is my country and all mankind my countrymen.'" One sighs to think of our current leadership.
He was an early proponent of Gandhi, who of course came to influence the next two generations of African American civil rights leaders.
I was appalled by this statement of Powell's "Had not thousands of Negro ministers preached the meekness of Jesus to their people, they would have long ago suffered the tragic fate of the Indians." What of the religious tradition of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey?
But I liked this one, "These spirituals are the finest revelation of the will and heart of God outside of the Bible."
As World War II began he said, "The greatest danger to the civilization of the United States is not Germany, Japan, or any other foreign country but the vitriolic hate which exists between the white and the colored living withing its borders. This hatred is at an all-time high and is mounting higher every day."
Dorrien writes, "Powell stressed that he had been a hoodlum, so he knew what it felt like. The church had saved him from a short, destructive, and meaningless life. Now the church had to pour itself out for a generation of nihilistic wreckers." Powell proclaimed, "Don't shoot them. Don't send them to a reform school. Don't brutalize them, but brotherize them."
During his 29 years pastoring Abyssinian Church, the congregation grew from 1600 to 14,000 members. In a charge to his son and heir, Powell said:
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.
"The Superior Individual" about Nannie H. Burroughs was the last post in this series.