In the Spirit of Abolitionism: Recovering the Black Social Gospel

Yspilanti Historical Society

A tradition within modern social Christianity that should be renowned is the black social gospel. Long before Martin Luther King Jr. emerged, there was a black church tradition that fused the racial justice politics of abolitionist religion with the social gospel emphasis on economic democracy, comprehensive social justice, and modern criticism. King’s mentors were steeped in this tradition, and nearly all of King’s close associates in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) belonged to it. But the black social gospel is little known, despite its colossal legacy and ongoing importance.

The social gospel in general was defined by its commitment to changing social structures in the direction of social justice. White social gospel luminary Walter Rauschenbusch famously urged churches to oppose the ravages of capitalist inequality and bad politics. Otherwise, Rauschenbusch asserted, religion was irrelevant and the socialists would be right to charge that churches did not care about poor and vulnerable people. The founders of the black social gospel shared this progressive agenda but gave highest priority to the struggle against America’s racial caste system and an upsurge of racial terrorism. They included William Simmons, Reverdy C. Ransom, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Alexander Walters, Richard R. Wright Jr., and Adam Clayton Powell Sr. The black social gospel applied the spirit of abolitionism to the new era of Gilded Age tyranny, conceiving the struggle against white racism as a trump factor that refigured everything else in the social gospel reform agenda. Like the white social gospel founders, however, the black founders had to fight for the right to talk about social justice politics in religious contexts.

The black founders did not take over the churches; they provided only modest ballast for the NAACP, and some were driven out of their congregations for espousing social Christianity. But they started something new. They fought to abolish Jim Crow, lynching, and economic injustice. They established that progressive theology could be combined with social justice politics in a black church context. They implored their congregations to welcome the migrant stranger. They refuted the racist culture that demeaned their human dignity and equality. They paved the way to something stupendous, the nation’s greatest liberation movement. And this tradition remains important as a wellspring of progressive religion, liberation theology, and every form of religious progressivism that appeals to the witness of the Civil Rights movement.

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