CHAPTER 7. BLACK SOCIAL GOSPEL

Mordecai W. Johnson

Mordecai Johnson was born in Paris, Tennessee, 1890, two years before Vernon Johns's birth. His father, the Reverend Wyatt Johnson, had been reared in slavery in Tennessee but became a self-trained Baptist minister of a tiny congregation he had organized.

Mordecai Johnson had begun his education in the preparatory department at Atlanta Baptist College, taken his bachelor's degree at the University of Chicago, studied for the ministry at Harvard and Rochester Theological Seminary, and sandwiched in two years of teaching at Morehouse College, the new name for Atlanta Baptist (Kluger 1976:124). From 1911 to 1912, he was a professor of English at Morehouse College and from 1912-13, a professor of the Social Sciences at Morehouse College. Subsequently, he served a stint as secretary of the Student Department of the International Committee of Young Men's Christian Associations. From 1917 to 1923 he was the pastor of the First Baptist Church, Charleston, West Virginia (Woodson, 1969:658). Vernon Johns took over the pastorship of the First Baptist Church of Charleston from Mordecai Johnson.

In 1926, at the age of thirty-six, the somewhat despotic Johnson (Kluger 1976:123-125) was appointed the first black president of the black Howard University, Washington, D.C. At the turn of the century, Howard University had been little more than a glorified high school. He found and fired the deadwood. He hired and encouraged excellent, outspoken Negro scholars such as E. Franklin Frazier in sociology, Ralph Bunche in political science, Charles R. Drew in medicine, and John Hope Franklin and Rayford W. Logan in history. He picked Charles Houston as the dean of the law school. Houston would later play a key role in the NAACP legal strategy that led to the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. He raised faculty salaries and academic standards, toughened admission requirements, and insisted on a crash program to have the graduate and professional schools accredited.

More importantly for our tale, Mordecai Johnson asked the black theologian Howard Thurman to develop a religious program at Howard that would match the excellence of the school's other academic emphases.

Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman (1900-1981) came from a family of very humble circumstances in Daytona Beach, Florida (Bardolph 1959:221). He was Dean of the Chapel of Boston University and was reared by his ex-slave grandmother. After working his way through Morehouse College, he entered Colgate Rochester Divinity School.

In 1925 he was ordained a Baptist minister. From 1926 to 1928 he was pastor of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin and from 1928 to 1931 a teacher and dean of chapel at Morehouse College. He came to Howard University in 1931 as professor of Christian theology and dean of Rankin Chapel.

Thurman was influenced by the personalists of the theological liberal evangelicals (Smith, L 1981:21). At Rochester he was influenced by George Cross, Professor of Systematic Theology. He emphasized that the basis for understanding the essence of spiritual life was to understand the personality of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, the Christian found the perfect life.

As a personalist, Cross argued that the key to discerning the creative flow is in the human personality. He therefore states, "the interest in personality is the highest interest in life" (Smith, L 1981:23,25-26,98-99). Another man at Rochester that influenced Thurman was Henry Burke Robins, Professor of Religious Education and the History and Philosophy of Religion and Missions. Like Cross, Robins affirmed the personality as the definer of faith. In line with the personalists, Thurman put Jesus forward as the central figure, but he differed from the white preachers by keeping Jesus a member of the disinherited and not just as one who ministered unto them. Jesus was a victim of oppression and Thurman brought out the striking similarity between the social position of Jesus in Palestine and that of the vast majority of American Negroes.

Still another influence was the Quaker mystic, Rufus Jones of Haverford College (Smith, L 1981:29-30). Jones was a super personalist for he emphasized that the heart of religious experience is mystical experience. This helped Thurman see how spiritual power could address the conditions that oppressed him as a black man in America. One of the pieces of advise that he took from Cross and Jones was that he should not just focus on spirituality as it relates to blacks, but spirituality as it relates to all men.

Dean Thurman was one of the most popular preachers of his era, and one of the nation's outstanding preachers. In the tradition of the Social Gospel, Thurman proclaimed that both the mistreatment of the nation's disinherited and the acceptance of the will to segregate are betrayals of American and Christian ideals. He called for an integrated community uniting all peoples, one free, obviously, from racism (Smith, L 1981:13,45-48,97). He insisted that neither blacks nor whites can attain a proper sense of self and give full expression to their potential in an environment of prejudice, segregation, and violence. Racism is inimical to the formation of the community.

Thurman (Smith, L 1981:105-106&109) challenged Christians to bring their faith to bear on race relations and criticized the Christian Church as a supporter of limited community. He saw segregation as the result of a loss of a proper sense of self for both blacks and whites. Whites are hurt because segregation causes them to feel superior to blacks. The creative energy of many whites is diverted to defending a malevolent social structure, and their full potential is not realized; they do not fully experience or contribute toward community.

Thurman (Smith, L 1981:101) did not consider blacks spiritually superior to whites; they did not have an "elect" status before God. But their oppressed status gave them a unique perspective that the privileged did not have because suffering can yield spiritual insight and growth.

Thurman (Smith, L 1981:118) helped develop the concept of nonviolence into an ethic of nonviolence. This concept helped Thurman become the creative mind behind the development of a philosophy of nonviolence for the black struggle.

Gordon Blaine Hancock

Hancock was born in 1884 in Greenwood County, South Carolina. He matriculated at Benedict College in his home state. He studied three years in the academy and went on to complete his A.B. in 1911 and B. D. in 1912 summa cum laude. He was ordained for the ministry in 1911, after which he became pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Newberry, not far from Columbia, South Carolina.

During his college days, he had been impressed by the writings and speeches of Booker T. Washington. Hancock (Gavins 1977:15) came to stress black pride, self-help, and Christian character.

Hancock (Gavins 1977:17) went back to school at the age of thirty-four. He earned another A.B. in 1919 and a B.D. in 1920, this time from Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. There he was inspired by discussions of the "social gospel" of the black church.

He enrolled at Harvard University in 1920 and completed his M.A. in sociology there in 1921. He accepted a professorship at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, which began in the fall semester 1921.

Hancock (Gavins 1977:27) subsequently became chairman of the Department of History and Sociology. Contending that "the problem of race relations is crucial if American democracy is to survive," He organized one of the first courses on the subject at any Southern school.

He (Gavins 1977:28) followed the Social Gospel as applied to sociology. He said the students should align themselves with liberal movements like those promoted by the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. Founded in Atlanta during the riot crisis of 1919, the commission promoted black-white dialogue through a southwide network of state and local committees.

The influence of the Social Gospel can also be seen in the political activity of Hancock (Gavins 1977:29-30). Although Hancock was a very mild liberal reformer, any black educator who concentrated his thinking almost entirely on race problems was seen as unorthodox in black college circles. Hancock, overstepping the restraint which many of his colleagues preferred, enjoyed being an agent provocateur. He became known as a black spokesman, all the while opposed by his faculty colleagues.

Hancock (Gavins 1977:32-33) showed his fairly conservative stances when he inadvertently told Rayford W. Logan that blacks needed more than protest. Logan verbally attacked him. Responding, Hancock said that protest might become a stumbling-block if not constructive in nature. Hancock felt that blacks must learn to tolerate overt discrimination.

Hancock (Gavins 1977:33&35) preached a message of racial uplift in his sermons at Moore Street Baptist Church, located a few blocks from Union's campus in Jackson Ward, Richmond's largest black section. He preached a this-worldly message. He would complain loudly against injustices, prejudices, oppressions, crimes and murder, etc. But again, all this was rather mild, especially compared to a Vernon Johns.

White people liked Hancock (Gavins 1977:83&87) because he took such position as opposing black-white marriages because they incited white fears. He even came to say that although segregation is a bad thing, the consequences of not accepting it may be worse.

Reverdy Ransom

Ransom (Anderson 1982:21) was a black man with fair skin, reddish hair, and a face that was often as stern as a schoolmaster's. Ransom was both a minister and one of the most radical black activists of his time. He was born in Ohio during the Civil War.

Ransom (Luker 1991:173-174) studied at Oberlin and heard the social gospel from the likes of Joseph Cook, John B. Gough, and Thomas De Witt Talmadge. He lost his scholarship after organizing a protest against the segregating of black women at a separate table in the Ladies Dining Hall. Transferring to Wilberforce University, he hid his "heretical views" from conservative black professors. But Ransom's theological liberalism and prophetic social message eventually made him the foremost black spokesman for the social gospel in his generation.

Ordained in 1886, in 1896 he went to Chicago to establish the Bethel A.M.E. Church. In 1900 he founded Chicago's Institutional Church and Social Settlement (the first of the so-called urban missions). In 1904 he left for Boston after rumors that he was going to be fired from his position.

He worked his way over to New York City to be with Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. (Luker 1991:177). Powell was pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal congregation on West Twenty-fifth Street. Prostitution in Negro Bohemia was one of the first problems that confronted Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., when, in 1908, he arrived in Manhattan to assume the ministry of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which was then on Fortieth Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Powell launched a "gospel bombardment" in the vicinity of his church. He and Ransom led a crusade that helped clean the streets. (Anderson 1982:20) Ransom also helped develop the institutional church model (a kind of urban mission) that then influenced the Abyssinian church built by Powell.

In 1899, when news arrived of a recent lynching in the South, Ransom (Anderson 1982:22) delivered an aggressive sermon at the St. John's A.M.E. Church in Cleveland. He advised blacks to become skilled in the handling of dynamite and use it when attacked, for the protection of their homes and lives. It is hardly surprising that in 1905 Ransom was one of the progressives who joined W. E. B. Du Bois in forming the Niagara Movement, the nucleus of the NAACP, which was founded four years latter.

In 1924 he became a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was once regarded as the most racially militant of all black religious organizations in America. In the pulpit and on secular platforms, Ransom displayed the militant traditions of his church as well as the extemporaneous power and fluency of nineteenth-century oratory.

Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.

Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. (Haygood 1993:59-60) was born on a tobacco plantation in Franklin County, Virginia in 1865 to a mulatto slave named Sally Dunning who had become pregnant by her owner, Llewellyn Powell. The very light- skinned son was named Adam Clayton Powell. In November 1867, Sally Dunning married Anthony Powell, himself a former Franklin County slave. The family worked as sharecroppers during Reconstruction.

In 1875 the family moved to West Virginia to work a farm near Colesburg. In 1884, while guarding a farmer's land, young Adam Clayton Powell shot at some intruders and hit one with buckshot in the rear. The intruder was white and the Powells feared that Adam might be lynched. Their son fled West Virginia to Rendville, Ohio, a coal mining town. He got work in the coal mines largely because a strike was on and the company was hiring blacks in order to keep the mines working.

Adam soon fell into a nere-do-well lifestyle, taking on a gambler's lifestyle. Not being a good gambler, he soon found himself broke and wanting a change in his life. While brooding over what to do, he happened into a church where a hell-fire and brimstone preacher held sway over an enchanted crowd. The reverend invited five young men to become ministers and one of them was Adam. He studied for the ministry at Rendville Academy for three years.

Beginning in 1888 he studied for the ministry at the Wayland Academy (later Virginia Union). In 1889 he married a light-skinned black woman. After several years of clerical and nonclerical jobs, he became the pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in New Haven, Connecticut in 1893. He then studied at the Yale University School of Divinity. He lectured throughout America in the spirit of Booker T. Washington, calling for the blacks to lift themselves up. His fame grew and because of this he found himself in London at an international church convention. In 1904 Virginia Union conferred a doctor of divinity on him (Haygood 1993:64).

In 1908 he became pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which was then located on West 40th between Seventh and Eighth avenues, in the red-light district of Manhattan (Haygood 1993:68). At that time the church had 1,600 members and a debt of $100,000 dollars. In the same year his son, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was born. Disturbed by his surroundings, Powell began to attack from the pulpit the various pimps, prostitutes, and gamblers that engaged in criminal mischief. Indeed, he launched what came to be referred to as a "gospel bombardment." His antics attracted the attention of the media and his name often appeared in the papers.

Powell's attention was attracted to the growing area of Manhattan known as Harlem (Haygood 1993:68). Especially catching his interest was the activity of Marcus Garvey. Soon Powell came to see Harlem as "the symbol of liberty."

By 1921 the church had become solvent and had moved out of the red-light district into a $350,000 dollar Gothic structure at its present location on 138th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. This was not an easy task however. In order to raise the money he took to the road, swinging south, in and out of small towns, preaching in churches (Haygood 1993:70).

The new 2,000-seat church, constructed of New York bluestone, had windows of stained European and American art glass. Visitors came -- foreign and local -- to admire this new monument, and the membership steadily grew (Hamilton 1991:72). In church circles throughout America, Powell (Haygood 1993:72) became a model success story, a symbol of fortitude and perseverance.

Those blacks in church circles perceived Powell (Hamilton 1991:74-75) as one who believed in the social gospel -- that the church should be involved in ministering as much to the social and economic needs of the congregants as to their spiritual needs. He strongly criticized his fellow black ministers who preached a life of piety while leading a private life of promiscuity.

 

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