Black Social Gospel, Radical Politics, and Internationalism

Untitled photo, possibly related to Liberian president’s visit to Howard University in 1943. Shown left to right are Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, U.S. military aide to President Barclay; President-Elect W.V.S. Tubman; Captain Alford Russ of the Liberian Frontier Force; Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson, President of Howard University and President Barclay (Courtesy of LOC)

Often the history of radical Black Christians seems to jump from Abolition to Civil Rights with very little in between. However, Black churches have arguably played a major role in developing the political consciousness that would lead to the Civil Rights Movement. Carol Anderson recognizes this when she states that the National Negro Congress was depending on the “unimpeachable moral authority” of the Black church to push their anti-lynching bill to the United Nations. However, the churches’ leadership did not respond.  In light of Dr. King and some members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s stance on pacifism and the Black internationalist critique of imperialism from a previous generation, I wondered what changed during the 1940s and 50s, and just what did Black churches think about human rights and internationalism before this period. Surely Black churches, as some of the primary Black institutions were not silent about a rapidly expanding American empire.

However, while looking for secondary sources on Black churches’ critique of imperialism I found surprisingly little material. I was surprised to find that not only internationalism, but the entirety of the “Black Social Gospel,” at least in those terms, is a relatively new area of scholarship. In the first complete study of the “Black Social Gospel,” Gary Dorrien uncovers the strangely forgotten history of the Black Social Gospel. In his introduction, Dorrian writes that the Black social gospel is “wrongly and strangely overlooked,” and that Black social Christianity was essential to the long civil rights movement from 1880 to 1965. Another historian, Ralph Luker, was among the first to critique Arthur Slesinger Jr.’s claim that the social gospel was a White movement, and argue for the primacy of social Christianity in racial politics from Reconstruction to the 1960s. As Dorrien notes, scads of literature have been written on the White social gospel, and, there is certainly interconnectedness between these two traditions. Yet, Black social gospelers were written almost entirely out of the predominantly white progressive era narrative. It seems almost self-evident that Black churches would have some connection to civil rights issues, yet Afro-American churches for the longest time were almost uniformly painted as conservative backwater institutions. While many Black churches were – and often remained – conservative in some respects, there was still a powerful Black social gospel tradition that commented on domestic and international politics.

Dorrian is part of a group of scholars interested in the Black Social Gospel. Historians like Lawrence Carter, Barbara Ransby, Robin Kelley, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Edward Blum, Johnathan Kahn, Randal Jelks, and many others have contributed to this growing field of scholarship. These scholars have all illuminated various aspects of the social gospel tradition, especially as they relate to Du Bois and King. However, there has been less scholarship on the connections between the Black Social Gospel and Black Internationalism and anticolonialism. Yet, history shows that Black social gospelers were highly interested in international affairs.

Few books tackle this connection, but one scholar, Lawrence Little, has introduced an exploration of the topic. In his book Disciples of Liberty: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Age of Imperialism, 1884-1916, Little shows that the AME Church Review (one of the first African American journals) expressed various views, some of which were worked within imperialism, and others were quite critical of it. While some contributors such as Bishop Henry McNeil Turner (1834-1915) took a Black nationalist Christian perspective, encouraging missionary work in West Africa as a part of “racial uplift,” others expressed more overtly anti-imperial attitudes. In one AME article from 1899, “Porto Rico Under the Stars and Stripes,” author Charles Sheen writes that Puerto Ricans seemingly accepted American rule after the Spanish-American War, but he goes on to express deep concern for what that rule will look like. He expresses concern not that the Puerto Rican people are incapable of self-government, but that “the thought that any race, not white, should aspire to the ‘inalienable right’ of self-government is repugnant to the race prejudice of the American mind.”1 This does not seem to sound like resounding support for imperialism. Indeed, it is possible that the opposite is true – that AME members considered themselves anti-colonial in their support of a war against Spain.

Gary Dorrian quotes AME bishop Alexander Walters saying “We, your brethren in Black, appeal to this powerful, enlightened Christian conscience, to this humanitarian spirit which has caused this nation to do so much for Cuba, Hawaii, and the Philippine Islands.” Dorrien goes on to paraphrase Walters saying, “Spain never treated Cubans and Filipinos ‘as barbarously’ as Arkansas, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia treated many Afro-Americans.”2 Elsewhere Walters wrote explicitly against the US annexation of the Philippines saying, “Had the Filipino been white and fought as brave as they have, the war would have been ended and their independence granted a long time ago.” While Prof. Little is well to comment on the complexities and entanglements of the AME with imperialism, it seems that even the most conservative among the AME thinkers were critical of American culture and imperialism. This same rhetorical device of criticizing the domestic treatment of African Americans while fighting for freedom abroad will be employed by Dr. King as well when he simultaneously defended the Vietnamese right to self-determination and freedom from colonial rule.

The tradition of Black churches’ opposition to colonialism reaches back much further than the confluence of the Civil Rights and Anti-War movement. There is a distinct line of Black clergy who actively spoke against American imperialism abroad from the years following Reconstruction and ending with the Second Red Scare and Cold War consensus in the 1940s and 50s. Scholars like Little and Dorrian have been well to remind us of this past, but there is more work to be done on the anti-imperial framework which shaped Dr. King’s shocking opposition to Vietnam – an opposition that was only rendered shocking by concessions to Cold War centrist liberalism.

Martin Luther King’s mentor from Howard University, Mordecai Johnson, became a symbol of the clash between the Black Social Gospel and the Cold War consensus. Johnson, who studied under Walter Rauschenbusch at Rochester Seminary, became a target of the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities and was repeatedly accused of being a communist as early as the mid-1930s. Dorrian goes on to briefly show Johnson’s (along with Morehouse President Benjamin Mays’) commitment to a more radical international social democracy that found room for people of color internationally. He quotes Mays preaching on The Lord’s Prayer, “If this kind of Kingdom should come to the earth, no race would want to keep another race down. Our military forces would not be in Nicaragua; they would not be in Haiti. We would gladly help the Philippines to independence and without condescension and without patronage.” Mays and Johnson, following Rev. Howard Thurman (who met Gandhi in India and was a close friend to the King family), would all inspire King and leave an indelible mark on his nonviolent Civil Rights Movement.

To suggest that Dr. King’s anticolonial antiwar stance was a radical departure from the Black church, or indeed that he was only influenced by the predominantly White group Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam would be a profound misreading of the anti-imperial strain that flowed through the Black social gospel movement and shaped King and his contemporaries. Not only did Black political groups have to keep their “eyes off the prize” of global human rights in the Cold War, but Black churches would as well. Hopefully, more scholarship will be done to build on this incredibly important chapter of history.

  1. Gary Dorrien, The New Abolition: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel, (New Haven, CT, 2018), 365.
  2. Hanes Walton, Robert C. Smith, Sherri L. Wallace, American Politics and the African American Quest for Universal Freedom, 9th Edition (New York, 2021).
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William Hogue

William Hogue is a Ph.D. candidate at Fordham University. Hougue is interested in the transnational intellectual/political history of US foreign policy and its relationship to economics, American Christianity, and culture.

Comments on “Black Social Gospel, Radical Politics, and Internationalism

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    Good article. I wish someone would do an article on the history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to help bring in clear focus the role of AME, Baptist, & CME Churches for the Negro/Vlack/ African Americans.

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    As the great-granddaughter of the late Bishop Reverdy C. and Emma S. Ransom, thank you for writing this article. However your omission of Bishop Reverdy C. Ransom in this context is indefensible. You failed to mention and give credit to Reverdy C. Ransom who was the architect and originator of the Black Social Gospel Movement. He was the pioneer who established the foundation and framework so that there could eventually be a Dr. Martin Luther King. The facts are that when Reverdy Ransom was pastor of Bethel Church in Chicago Illinois from September 1896- July 1900 during the “Great Migration” of Southern Blacks, to Illinois, he recognized how bewildered the black clergymen were as they exposed their lack of training, experience, and vision, to cope with the moral, social and economic needs of their new congregants. Reverdy was disappointed in the lack of support from his peers in their limited sensitivity to the migrants as they continued in their traditional narrow denominational ways. it was then that Reverdy began to analyze the social problem of race and develop a new social gospel of reform that included a series of auxiliary movements by addressing the new social conditions and industrial needs of African Americans with social gospel initiatives within the church. This resulted in Reverdy establishing The institutional Church And Social Settlement from 1900-1904. BTW President William S.V. Tubman of Liberia conferred upon Reverdy C. Ransom the Medal of the Order of Knight Commander of the Humane Order of African Redemption in the Summer of 1951.

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