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The Black Social Gospel, Radical Politics and Internationalism

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.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives