The enormous problems with the social gospel Dorrien so admires notwithstanding, it is this witness to the power of the gospel amid suffering and oppression that makes this book an important read for Christians today. It was Christ himself who was being persecuted in these black brothers and sisters (Matthew 25:40, 45), and it was his Spirit who enabled his witnesses to persevere and struggle for the sake of righteousness (Matthew 5:6, 10). We need to learn from and be inspired by their story.
Gary Dorrien. The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 647 pages. $45.00.
The New Abolition is a sobering read. The story of the black church and its struggle against oppression is not well-known by most white evangelical Christians. Even fifty years after the high point of the civil rights movement, few are familiar with the storied church histories of their brothers and sisters on the other side of the color line. Even fewer have the faintest familiarity with the roll call of the heroic African-American men and women who devoted their lives to the hard task of bringing the gospel to bear on a society deeply entrenched in racist ignorance and brutality. Dorrien’s book tells the story of those men and women who labored in the dark decades between the Civil War and World War II, in whose work he finds the origins of the black social gospel.
More often than not, the men and women whose stories Dorrien tells failed to accomplish their social objectives. America’s oppression of black people grew worse rather than better in the fifty years after the Civil War. Many of those who were most optimistic during the 1870s and 1880s found themselves in utter despair by the 1920s. Far too often their white “Christian” oppressors were blind to the utter hypocrisy of confessing Christ while exploiting, humiliating, raping, and murdering black people.
Sketching the lives of women activists like Ida B. Wells, who devoted her life to opposing the horrors of the socially sanctioned lynching of thousands of black people, and pastors like Reverdy C. Ransom and Richard R. Wright, Jr., who sought to demonstrate the power of the gospel in delivering the oppressed from the spiritual and social toll of sin and injustice, Dorrien paints the picture of a body of believers (and some of their non-believing sympathizers) who toiled and persevered amidst incredible suffering to make the gospel that Jesus proclaimed as “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18) a reality in the lives of black Americans.
Dorrien, an excellent scholar and prolific church historian, stresses that “The social gospel was fundamentally a movement, not a doctrine, featuring a social ethical understanding of the Christian faith. It taught that Christianity has a mission to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice” (3-4). He admits that while all black churches played a role in helping African Americans overcome racial injustice, only a minority ever actively supported such “social justice preaching and activism” (10).
But, as Dorrien demonstrates, the black social gospel was not only a liberal phenomenon. The early twentieth century social gospel had its liberal and conservative versions, and the vast majority of black pastors were conservative and evangelical in their theology. “For many black ministers, the social gospel was more palatable than liberal theology because the latter seemed to disavow biblical authority and evangelical doctrine” (21).
It would have been helpful had Dorrien devoted more attention to the comparative influence of conservative and liberal versions of the black social gospel, but in fairness to him, few Christians at the time made any distinction between the two.