The Black social gospel tradition remains what Black historian Vincent Harding luminously called “a darkly radiant vision of America’s truth.”1 It began with Black churches that were born liberationist, hearing a message of freedom and equality in the Christian gospel that was not what was preached to them. It acquired a distinctly social gospel cast in the 1870s as besieged church leaders were compelled to ask a desperate question: What would a new abolitionism be? In the 1880s and 1890s, they tried to build protest organizations and to enlist Black churches in political struggles for racial justice, mostly failing in both cases, but refusing to be defeated.
In the early twentieth century, Black social gospel leaders broke through on both fronts, developing the theology and politics that paved the way to the civil rights movement. In every generation to the present day, advocates of social justice theology have been an embattled minority in Black churches, while critics claimed that this religious tradition has no future or was never significant in the first place. But the founders of Black social Christianity—William Simmons, Reverdy Ransom, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett—and the mentors of Martin Luther King Jr.—Benjamin E. Mays, Mordecai Johnson, and Howard Thurman—and the many disciples of King espoused a liberationist faith that is still the nation’s touchstone of progressive religion and politics.
From the beginning the Black social gospel was a broader phenomenon than the line that led to King. Today the liberationist social gospel of King is the touchstone of a Black social Christianity consisting of varieties of liberation and womanist theology, Black religious thought, progressive religion, interfaith organizing, and global and diasporic solidarity politics.
The Black social gospel originally named all Black Americans who espoused a social justice theology on behalf of the new abolition. Today it should not be restricted to figures who keep alive the idioms of the early generations or the King era. The past half-century of Black social Christianity includes many figures who devoted their careers to “fulfilling Martin’s dream,” as they said, but it does not consist only of those in this line. King’s social gospel was geared to his generation, and some of his faults demand criticism and correction. His sexism was deep-seated and unyielding; he had no inkling of the coming gay rights movement, marriage equality, or queer theory; until 1964 he romanticized the liberal ideal of racial integration; and he stumped for integration for the rest of his life, though the Black Power movement purged him of romanticizing it.
After King was assassinated, every figure and organization associated with the Black social gospel reeled from his loss. It was undeniable that an era had ended and a very troubled future lay ahead. But those who carried on the struggle in King’s name were lifted by the moral prestige of King and the civil rights movement. The Black social gospel undergirded the careers of civil rights leaders who became prominent political figures, buoyed second-tier leaders who moved up to run organizations, played an important role in party politics in many locales, and became a kind of new orthodoxy in thousands of congregations. The women of the Black social gospel were a category unto themselves and involved in all the other groups. Meanwhile in the academy, Black theologians James H. Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, and Gayraud Wilmore pioneered three kinds of liberation theology that yielded other kinds of liberation theology. The one thing that Cone, Roberts, and Wilmore agreed upon was that Black theologians needed to theologize out of their own Black experience and tradition, not an inherited Euro-American tradition.
In theology as in politics, some of the most creative forms of Black social Christianity fuse the social gospel and liberationist approaches, an approach that Cone, Wilmore, and Dwight Hopkins opposed. To them, liberalism equated with racial integration, and opposition to it was an either/or acid test of liberation. But no definition or binary passes unchanged from one generation to another, and liberal-liberation is a variable possibility. King was a liberal-liberationist, as was Roberts, who called for a fusion of social gospel liberal and liberationist approaches. Roberts said Black theology needed to privilege Black consciousness and adhere to science, employ higher critical approaches to the Bible, affirm the social gospel emphasis on social justice, practice the gospel ethic of reconciliation, engage the history of Christian philosophy, and theologize in a global interfaith fashion. Black liberation, to him, did not abrogate the liberal imperative of interrogating modern critical disbelief. His commitment to liberal interfaith theologizing and Black theological consciousness led him to an Afrocentric synthesis. Others subsequently fused liberal, liberation, postmodern, and other perspectives.
The womanist tradition is multi-stranded in this fashion. When Black women entered the theological academy in the 1980s, they had to figure out their relationships to the existing evangelical, social gospel, neo-orthodox, liberation, and feminist theologies. Some found godsend deliverance in the writings of novelist and essayist Alice Walker, who wrote about the distinct folk spirituality of Southern Black women. Walker wrote in 1983 that a womanist is a Black feminist or feminist of color who is always in charge, often considered to be willful, loves other women, is committed to survival and the wholeness of people, and loves herself. She named the ethic and sensibility by which many Black women entering the theological academy named themselves and marked their non-identification with existing theological perspectives.
The first generation of womanists created a theological tradition featuring a shared female sensibility, an ethic of communal support and reciprocity, a commitment to the folk wisdom of Black American women, an immanent sense of the divine, and, usually, a rejection of all theologies and moral systems that construe suffering as redemptive. Most womanist theologians discounted Cone’s heroic male language of revolutionary liberation and his claim that Black people are united by the experience of suffering and humiliation at the hands of White oppressors.
The womanist founders worked together and supported each other, defying the competitive ethos of the academy. They wrote about seeking wholeness in one’s life, being attuned to the God within, and building peaceable communities that enable all people to flourish. They did their own thing, carrying on the work their souls required, as social ethicist Katie Cannon put it, and refusing to live in the folds of old wounds, as social ethicist Emilie Townes put it. Cannon, Townes, and theologian Delores S. Williams argued that theologies of redemptive suffering are pernicious. Only the ministry and resurrection of Jesus are saving, not his suffering and death. If this position put them and most of the womanist tradition against King, Cone, and most of the Black church tradition, they were willing to say so. Womanism, however, was not one-view-only on any subject, and it was usually committed to the Black church, at least in its first and second generations.
Historically, all Black churches shared a simple creed of non-racism, and Black leaders in the social gospel stream called Black churches to live up to the liberationist aspects of Black faith. This twofold frame operates in all three of my volumes on Black social Christianity and still describes the broad reality. But today the mainline churches that support the social gospel are declining. Three trajectories are in play for proponents of Black social justice religion. The first is to settle for a home in the academy, where significant traditions of Black theological, historical, ethical, and religious studies scholarship exist. The second is to make serious headway in the Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches of the thriving Sanctified tradition. The third is to renew the social gospel and liberationist churches that combine personal evangelical piety and social justice politics, an approach championed by United Church of Christ pastor Traci Blackmon and Disciples of Christ pastor William J. Barber II.
An ongoing tradition that includes Blackmon, Barber, Cornel West, U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock, three generations of womanists, and hundreds of pastors cannot be written off as the afterglow of a heyday. Black faith is profuse and soulful, steeped in suffering, whether theologized or not, and bent on freedom, whether politicized or not. Black social Christianity, a product of Black Christian communities with an incomparable legacy, is struggling, but far from dead.
- Vincent Harding, “Toward a Darkly Radiant Vision of America’s Truth,” 15–16.
Gary Dorrien teaches at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. His many books include his first volume on the Black social gospel tradition, The New Abolition, which won the Grawemeyer Award; his second volume, Breaking White Supremacy, which won the American Library Association Award; and volume three, A Darkly Radiant Vision, published in July 2023.