When the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell calls the afternoon Interfaith lecturer “one of the best lecturers of our time,” you had better pay attention.
The aforementioned lecturer was Gary Dorrien, Episcopal priest, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and professor of religion at Columbia University. Dorrien has published a dozen books and more than 100 articles.
Dorrien’s passion for social ethics manifested in his lecture, “Defying White Supremacism: Reverdy Ransom and the Black Social Gospel.”
The little-known Ransom helped to popularize the Black Social Gospel. He was a contemporary of such figures as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois and endured much persecution for his beliefs and approach to achieving racial equality.
“Our business today is to speak about American Christians who experienced their country as a site of oppression, a site of racial apartheid,” Dorrien said.
“(Ransom and Benjamin Mays’) resistance to apartheid was the wellspring of the civil rights movement,” Dorrien said.
On Thursday, Dorrien will resume his discussion of the founders of the Black Social Gospel movement with a focus on Mays. Mays was former president of Morehouse College, and Martin Luther King, Jr. called him his spiritual mentor.
Social justice activism has its roots in the Social Gospel, which was rooted in Christian socialism movements and a growing labor movement — trade unions were disgusted with the church’s inaction in the face of worker oppression, Dorrien said.
Two of the most important figures in the Social Gospel movement were Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden.
But Ransom, the founder of the Black Social Gospel movement, is not so well-known.
“He lived on the other side of American apartheid,” Dorrien said, and he launched into the story of Ransom’s tumultuous yet obscure life journey from a boy born in poverty to one of the most controversial figures in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Ransom was born in 1841. He was raised by his mother, Harriet Ransom, who insisted upon his education and worked hard to provide for him.
The Ransoms moved to Ohio, where hostility toward blacks was quite prevalent at the time.
“Yet they migrated there in large numbers anyway, coping with resentment, abuse, disenfranchisement and lynchings,” Dorrien said.
Ohio was also home to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, of which Ransom and his family were active members.
“Ransom spent his childhood puzzling over the chasm of black and white Americans,” Dorrien said.
Ransom attended a segregated school. All classes were taught by one white man. The curriculum never changed, year after year. Harriet Ransom took laundry jobs for wealthy white people in exchange for private tutoring for her son.
Ransom married young and had a child whom his mother largely ended up raising; she did not want the duties of fatherhood to distract from Ransom’s studies. As his mother decreed, he attended Wilberforce University, an African Methodist Episcopal-affiliated school, in Wilberforce, Ohio.
The school “stood for racial equality and black progress,” unlike other institutions of the time, Dorrien said.
Ransom’s troubled marriage, along with his increasingly liberal views about evolution and theology, conflicted with the conservative lifestyle and theology Wilberforce touted. Ransom feared his liberalism would be discovered and believed that he needed to pretend to be conservative to enter the ministry.
Ransom’s first several church assignments were small congregations. In 1890, he was assigned to a larger parish in Springfield, Ohio. During this time, Ransom developed his personal philosophy, embracing Social Gospel teachings as well as manifest destiny.
“Ransom implored that America could not claim to be civilized when it savagely terrorized blacks,” Dorrien said.
Once he arrived in Cleveland, Ransom converted to what Dorrien referred to as “Social Gospel socialism.” Bishop Benajmin Arnette, a prominent figure in the AME church, was active in the Republican Party.
“(Arnette) legitimized Ransom’s political interests, and he became a close friend and protector to Ransom,” Dorrien said.
Ransom’s political views demonstrated his difference from his newfound friend and his dedication to Social Gospel teachings.
“For Ransom, the best kind of political ministry focused on electoral politics, lynching and economic justice,” Dorrien said.
Ransom’s next church assignment was Bethel Church in Chicago, a place Dorrien called “perfect” for the type of activism that interested him. His congregation was full to bursting as participants in the Great Migration moved from the South. He also joined the Afro-American Council.
Ransom disagreed heartily with many of the beliefs of Booker T. Washington, whose teachings influenced the Afro-American Council. After one heated statement, he was forced to apologize.
“(This served) notice that the cause of militant racial justice had a new voice — the AME ministry,” Dorrien said.
He encouraged the path of democratic socialism, which would eventually attract African-Americans.
“Progressivism was about making progress, and Ransom’s calling was to make sure that blacks were included in it,” Dorrien said.
His next initiative was the Institutional Church and Social Settlement. It offered a variety of programs, including Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, childcare, early education, job training, counseling and lectures. Ransom felt his center filled a void the church could not fill. His colleagues in the AME church disagreed intensely, accusing him of imitating the white Social Gospel movement.
“Ransom replied that the white Social Gospel-ers were right about one thing: The church has a social mission to change social structures, creating a good society for everybody,” Dorrien said.
Reputed for his powerful preaching, settlement ministry and staunch opposition to the philosophies of Booker T. Washington, Ransom’s radicalism threatened his fellow AME clergy. Subsequently, Ransom was moved from his thriving congregation in Chicago. His protector Arnette stepped in and had him come to New Bedford, Mass., and eventually to a church in Boston.
Together, W.E.B. DuBois, William Monroe Trotter and Ransom founded the Niagara Movement. Ransom gave the first keynote address in praise of the abolitionist John Brown.
“(The Niagara Movement) stood for the abolition of discrimination in public accommodation, freedom of speech and assembly, universal education and equal rights, regardless of race or class,” Dorrien said.
Nevertheless, racism increased in violent ways.
“Even as the Great Migration took place, there was no tolerance in polite society for social justice or racial justice activism,” Dorrien said.
Again, AME pastors were unimpressed with Ransom’s notoriety and had him moved from his Boston congregation to New York City. But Ransom was not to be stopped. He made a deal with Tammany Hall to end the prohibition on hiring black police officers and co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Ransom adored the ecumenical movement and called it “American Christianity at its best,” Dorrien said.
The 1912 invasion of Cuba gave Ransom second thoughts about the nature and purpose of manifest destiny. Ransom came to see that the white people who implemented its tools brought ideas racism and white supremacy wherever they went.
Instead, Ransom stressed black consciousness and “pride of race.” Rather than racism, “pride of race lifts human being to greatness … the idea is a pride of personality that transcends race grounded in recognition of divine light in every soul,” Dorrien said in explanation of Ransom’s view.
Ransom was elected the 48th Bishop of the AME church. His mother was thrilled, but Ransom worried his administrative duties would take away from his hands-on approach. It did.
“In his last years, the black nationalist strain of Ransom’s thought was stronger than the democratic Socialist and Social Gospel strains,” Dorrien said.
Ransom still struggled with why white America was so afraid of black culture.
In the 1930s, he declared the situation for blacks was improving in only one way: Blacks were acquitting a stronger sense of identity and self-respect. His beliefs combined a confidence in black consciousness and the superiority of Christianity.
“His vision did not really diminish in his later years, however … He would’ve preferred to work with large interracial organizations that struggled for a cooperative commonwealth for all people, but they didn’t exist,” Dorrien said.
Ransom’s philosophy devolved into strange racial superstitions about genetic predisposition. Ransom was long forgotten by his death in 1959 because he had less of a direct connection to civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and less clout with white activists.
“Ransom is wrongly neglected, as is the Black Social Gospel, which inspired the greatest liberation movement in American history, one that has chapters left to be lived and written,” Dorrien concluded.
Dorrien will return at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy to present his lecture “Defying White Supremacism: Benjamin E. Mays, The Negro’s God, and the Black Social Gospel.”
The Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, Gary Dorrien is also Professor of Religion at Columbia University. An Episcopal priest, he was previously the Parfet Distinguished Professor at Kalamazoo College, where he taught for 18 years and also served as Dean of Stetson Chapel.
He is the author of 12 books and approximately 150 articles that range across the fields of ethics, social theory, theology, philosophy, politics, and history. Praised repeatedly for their intellectual creativity, immense erudition, and stylish prose, they include three books on economic democracy and social ethics, two widely acclaimed books on political neo-conservatism, and a trilogy titled The Making of American Liberal Theology: (I) Imagining Progressive Religion; (II) Idealism and Realism in Modernity, 1900-2003; (III) Crisis, Irony, and Post-modernity, 1950-2003. His three volumes on American theological liberalism are considered the definitive works in the field.
Described as the most rigorous theological historian of our time, Professor Dorrien moves from analyses of social context and personal struggles through the most abstruse theological and metaphysical issues. A frequent lecturer at universities, divinity schools, conferences, civic groups, and religious gatherings, he speaks for the Distinguished Lecturers Program of the Organization of American Historians and is a recent past president of the American Theological Society.
Author of Imperial Designs, Professor Dorrien has a long record of involvement in social justice, human rights, environmental and anti-war organizations.