Intellectual history of Martin Luther King Jr.’s forebears in the tradition of social gospel and how he extended their work into the political sphere.
The social gospel, or what we might now more broadly call liberation theology, paired questions of religion with questions of social justice, taking Protestantism off the pulpit and into the streets. As much-published scholar Dorrien (Religion/Columbia Univ.; The New Abolition: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel, 2015, etc.) writes, the Progressive- and New Deal–era social gospel leaders who preceded King “earned degrees from elite universities that gave no thought of hiring them as professors.” As such, segregated from white academic audiences, they forged their own intellectual traditions, blending sociology, political science, theology, and other disciplines. Some of the significant figures included Mordecai Johnson, who, in the face of opposition, helped make Howard University into a center of civil rights activism, wielding the law school as a sharp instrument in the 1930s; Adam Clayton Powell Sr., who helped dismantle white power politics in Harlem, “rallying Harlemites against Tammany misrule” and preaching a sometimes-heretical view of the Bible that “rejected all versions of substitutionary atonement”; and Bayard Rustin, a strong advocate of the Gandhian principles that would inform King’s movement, joining with “prophetic black church Christianity” and other strains of thought. Dorrien capably shows how these strains came together into a coherent whole to demand, with great moral authority, equality of opportunity for all citizens. That movement, writes the author, was not without critics on the left as well as the right—e.g., one activist who believed that the involvement of middle-class blacks and liberal white allies “was establishment liberalism celebrating itself.” If not entirely successful, though, Dorrien notes, King’s version of the social gospel movement remains relevant today, with later interpreters such as Cornel West, John Lewis, and Jesse Jackson carrying on the struggle in the political and theological realms.
A richly detailed book of much scholarly interest to students and practitioners of church-based social activism.