The New Abolition

W.E.B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel

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Gary Dorrien
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , October
     2015.
     672 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300205602.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Gary Dorrien’s The New Abolition: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel is a text that must be engaged by American historians and theorists of race, religion, and politics. On its own, the book provides a substantial historicist reading of early Black religious workers and offers a bibliography of Black religious activists that have only been studied by a few devoted experts. Regarding its contribution to a growing field, Dorrien’s text is a helpful addition to the meticulous history outlined—eighty years ago—in W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (1935). For Du Bois, American historiography was developed in—and informed by—racist presuppositions that omitted and ignored the dogged effort of Black slaves to end chattel slavery. Dorrien contributes to this thin literature by outlining who and how the children of these slaves advocated for a “new abolition”—a new movement set out to address the problems of even attempting to establish a capitalist republic on top of the flesh of recently “freed” Black people.

Dorrien evaluates these figures (from Booker T. Washington to Ida B. Wells-Barnett) and sees in them a tradition he coins as the “Black Social Gospel.” For Dorrien, the Black Social Gospel is a Black Christian movement that not only leads to the Civil Rights Movement, but ultimately explains it, and makes it possible and legible to 20th century historians and theorists. Initially, readers will walk away with a better, more robust history of some of the most under-researched black figures in American history. On a smaller scale, Dorrien’s two-volume work functions as a historical corrective towards more nationalist historicizing found in the work of scholars such as Gayraud Wilmore and Cedric Robinson.

Dorrien is essentially arguing three interconnected points by using four groups in his black historicizing which  may require clarification to be fully understood. Imagine three concentric circles with the smallest circle in the center representing the history and significance of Du Bois. The wider, second circle, is what Dorrien calls the Black Social Gospel. The widest circle that encompasses the smaller two is Black Social Christianity, at large..

Concerning the four groups, the first group stems from the influence of Booker T. Washington, the “Tuskegee Machine” and the largely popular emphasis on self-sufficiency, black agricultural labor, and moral uplift. Booker T. Washington’s influence and genius is not properly appreciated at present given the racial complexities of his politics and the academy’s prioritization of liberal arts. The second group centers on the figure and influence of Henry McNeal Turner, and those who were oriented in a powerful Black nationalist perspective and a desire to “return” to West Africa. The third group was interested in "New Abolitionist policies” while the fourth group—the most germane to Dorrien’s historicity—were social gospel ministers and/or activists. The first three groups are central to the largest circle, while the fourth group is focused within the second. Du Bois is in the middle of the concentric circle given his significance to the entire enterprise of black Christian (or non-Christian) activism. Certainly, Du Bois is not a social gospel activist; yet, the construction of what Dorrien terms the Black Social Gospel would likely not have been possible without his presence, expansive writing, and contributions. For Dorrien, Du Bois determines the content of most debates concerning race and economics in the early 20th century.

The primary limitation of this text is that Dorrien’s work is too vulnerable to misunderstanding. After reading volume one, the reader may think Dorrien is arguing that Du Bois is a part of what he coins the Black Social Gospel. It is easy to walk away believing he has compressed a plethora of religiously complicated black historical figures into one term usually reserved for a small group of New England and Chicago white theologians. However, Dorrien is arguing for something much more complicated—out of under-theorized territory. In the vein of critical theorists, Dorrien’s historicizing offers  the opportunity to critically evaluate how Black religious history has overlooked and underappreciated the insights of figures forgotten in libraries in order to accept an oversimplified understanding of the origin and development of the Civil Rights Movement, and Black liberation and Womanist theology.

The critique is a lack of precision, an exactitude that is often erased in what appears to be a request for consistency among the thoughts of these early black religious figures—where there is only contemporary overlap. Dorrien argues that these figures never coalesced into a movement, thus the book begs the question: is Dorrien seeing something we do not see or is he creating a historical movement where there was not one?

About the Reviewer(s): 

J. Andrew Calloway is Assistant Professor of Theology & Religious Studies at the University of San Diego.

Date of Review: 
January 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gary Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary and professor of religion at Columbia University, both in New York.

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