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Social Gospel

Social Gospel

Referring generally to a fresh application of the insights of biblical faith to the problems of the social order, historians have usually identified the "social gospel" with the response of reform-minded church men and women to the urban and industrial crises of the post-Reconstruction North. That interpretation runs the risk of truncating the roots of American social Christianity in reform movements of the antebellum period and failing to see the early origins of a distinctive African-American social gospel.

A social gospel began to develop within African-American communities in late eighteenth-century Christian voluntary societies, which commonly combined the functions of church, school, and mutual aid society. These included the Newport, Rhode Island, Free African Union Society, founded in 1780; the Free African Society of Philadelphia, founded in 1787; Charleston, South Carolina's Brown Fellowship Society, founded in 1790; the African Society of Providence, Rhode Island, founded in 1793; and Boston's African Society, founded in 1796. In the same period, the earliest semiautonomous African Baptist congregations were established in the plantation South, first in Virginia and along the Savannah River bordering South Carolina and Georgia.

As these early African-American voluntary societies developed, particularly in the freer setting of the urban North, they articulated a variety of themes within a framework of millennial expectation: economic development and self-help, freedom and social justice, missionary education, and racial nationalism. In the antebellum North, black clergymen such as Henry Highland Garnet, James W. C. Pennington, and Theodore Wright built institutions and networks for organizations that promoted education, social reform, and the freedom of their enslaved southern kinsmen. These activities were the preparation for northern African-American missionaries to move into the South during and after the Civil War. There they established missions as the institutional seeds of rural social settlements, churches and Sunday schools, and schools and colleges for nurturing the former slaves and their children in freedom.

Usually among the race's educated elite in Reconstruction, African-American clergymen gave direction to the social and political aspirations of southern freedmen. They often served in multiple capacities, as pastor, politician, and professor or school administrator. Commonly committed to a conservative theological orthodoxy, they believed in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and "uplifting the race." They encouraged the freedman to confirm family ties, acquire property, and get an education. Many of them were active in temperance reform. When male freedmen gained the franchise, some clergymen such as Richard H. Cain, William H. Heard, James W. Hood, Hiram R. Revels, and Henry M. Turner were elected to political office. In state legislatures, for example, their efforts helped to lay the foundations for public school systems in the southern states.

After Reconstruction, black clergymen and laywomen turned to building the institutions of social redemptionchurches, schools, and social settlementswithin the African-American community. In rural and urban settings, North and South, black churchwomen founded social settlements to "uplift the race." From 1890 to 1908, Janie Porter Barrett founded the Locust Street Settlement at Hampton, Virginia; Margaret Murray Washington founded the Elizabeth Russell Settlement at Tuskegee, Alabama; Victoria Earle Matthews founded New York's White Rose Mission; and Lugenia Burns Hope founded Atlanta's Neighborhood Union.

In urban communities, clergymen built institutional churches to extend the range of church services to migrants from the rural South. Hutchens C. Bishop of New York's St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Henry Phillips of Philadelphia's Episcopal Church of the Crucifixion, Matthew Anderson of Philadelphia's Berean Presbyterian Church, and Henry H. Proctor of Atlanta's First Congregational Church first built institutional churches. Their example was followed by African Methodists Reverdy C. Ransom, Monroe Work, and R. R. Wright Jr. in Chicago. Thereafter, urban Baptist congregations followed suit with remarkable results.

Some churches' pulpits passed from father to son: Washington and Gardner C. Taylor presided at Baton Rouge's Mt. Zion First Baptist Church; Richard H. Bowling, Sr. and Jr., at Norfolk's First Baptist Church; Junius Caesar Austin, Sr. and Jr., at Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church; Marshall Shepherd, Sr. and Jr., at Philadelphia's Mt. Olivet Baptist Church; and Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and Jr., at New York's Abyssinian Baptist Church. These pastors built centers of urban religious, social, and political power. More remarkable is the passage of the pulpit through three generations of William H. Grays, I, II, and III, at Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

Martin Luther King Sr., who succeeded his father-inlaw, A. D. Williams, at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, would have passed it on to his sons, Martin Luther King Jr., or A. D. Williams King, had their premature deaths not prevented it. Even so, as the heir of many generations of African-American preachers of the social gospel, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had already become its foremost American spokesman in his generation.

See also Brown Fellowship Society; Cain, Richard Harvey; Garnet, Henry Highland; Hood, James Walker; Hope, Lugenia Burns; Pennington, James W. C.; Revels, Hiram Rhoades; Turner, Henry McNeal; Washington, Margaret Murray; Wright, Theodore Sedgwick


Luker, Ralph E. The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 18851912. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Wheeler, Edward L. Uplifting the Race: The Black Minister in the New South, 18651902. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986.

ralph e. luker (1996)

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