Gary Dorrien is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. This interview is based on his new book, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel (Yale University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write The New Abolition?
GD: I wrote The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel because we have long needed a book on the black social gospel tradition in which Martin Luther King Jr. was steeped and shaped, and that he epitomized.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The New Abolition?
GD: The tradition of black social gospel Christianity arose in the late 19th century as an attempt to determine what a new abolition(ism) would require. The founding generation had four ideological parties; there were more black social gospel founders than previously estimated; they fought to establish a place for progressive theology and social justice politics in black churches; the crucial founders allied with W. E. B. Du Bois; and they founded a tradition of black social gospel progressivism that led to King’s role models, King’s movement associates, and King himself.
JF: Why do we need to read The New Abolition?
GD: Martin Luther King Jr. is incomprehensible and impossible without the founders and the succeeding generation of black social gospel leaders, notably Benjamin E. Mays, J. Pius Barbour, George Kelsey, Vernon Johns, and Howard Thurman. But the black social gospel tradition itself has almost no literature. The New Abolition describes the founders, and a succeeding book to be titled Breaking White Supremacy will deal with King’s mentors and the King generation.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
GD: Most of my work operates on one of two tracks–philosophy of religion and historical theology, or social ethics and political thought. But both tracks have a strong intellectual history bent.
JF: What is your next project?
GD: In addition to the book noted above, titled Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel, I am writing an essay collection on modern theology and a capstone book on economic democracy.
JF: Thanks, Gary!