A few years ago when I read Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition, I posted a series of blogs about the book, particularly the various figures he discussed. At the time this was the third book I'd presented in this way, also having done so with Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy and David Brooks's The Road to Character. Dorrien's book was his attempt to do something he thought lacking in the history of American religion--discussing the various movements in black religion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that led to the development of a distinct theological tradition of the black social gospel.
Now I've begun reading his second volume in this history, Breaking White Supremacy, which takes us from the 1920's up to Dr. King. Part of Dorrien's aim is to show how King stood within a rich, well-developed tradition.
The first figure discussed in this new volume is longtime Howard University president Mordecai Johnson. As with many of the figures Dorrien writes about I have previously known either nothing or very little about them. Reading about Johnson fascinated me.
Johnson's mother Carolyn named him after the character in the Book of Esther, believing that her son has a special mission in life. He used education as a means of advancement. At the University of Chicago he experienced modern science, liberal theology, and socialism, merging both with his Christian faith and throughout his life advocating that Christians should never fear knowledge. Otherwise the faith would face a credibility problem. Dorrien writes, "In Johnson's experience education was liberalizing and empowering, and he wanted as much as he could get."
At Rochester Seminary he soaked up the social gospel theology of Walter Rauschenbusch. Johnson wrote in a letter, "Religion is going to be a great factor in the new adjustment. There never was such a reformation as we are now on the verge of. This religion reemphasized with new aspects to suit the modern needs will bring forth great moral and spiritual engineers. God grant that I may be one of these among my own people!"
In his early preaching career in West Virginia, he advocated three themes: "'the brotherhood of man,' the necessity of Christian unity, and the Christian mission to build the kingdom of God." He preached, "If the church is to live there must be a Christian movement to give reverence to human personality, a movement to use all the forces of modern knowledge and technology to build a social order which will raise and enlarge the life of every human being."
Also, "A selfish human being is a monstrosity, is a monstrosity. Any human being who lives for himself and himself only is a monstrous creature. The very foundation of his life is the basest of all human qualities--ingratitude. For a man to be selfish in such a world as this, he must shut his eyes and his mind and his heart to all the great things that he has received from the human race." Selfishness was the root of sin, even racism and lynching ("the most diabolical crime in the universe").
In 1922 he spoke at Harvard's commencement and gave a powerful speech on American racism. Dorrien summarizes "Johnson still believed that Christianity and American liberal democracy--'our American faith'--offered the best and most light. But the actually existing United States betrayed both."
When Johnson went to Howard, as the first black president, he wanted to build a major and influential institution that would promote blackness. His time was filled with controversies, and some viewed him as an overbearing leader. But he succeeded in building a black intellectual powerhouse that trained leaders of the civil rights movement.
He was an early supporter of Gandhi, believing that the movement against Jim Crow had much to learn from him. He viewed Gandhi as "the epitome of true religion." He spent forty days in India in 1949.
Democracy is "the highest friendship that we have known." It must be built upon respect for the human dignity of all people. Moreover, anyone who opposed the sacred worth of the individual was not a Christian.
Johnson praised King: "You have led your people on a victorious pathway seldom tried in human life. You have shown them how to mobilize the fullest powers of their souls for effective resistance to evil and who to overcome humiliation and abuse without violence and without hatred in deed or in words."