Ralph Luker, the Social Gospel in Black and White: American Reform, 1885-1912

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Ralph Luker, The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Reform, 1885-1912

In his heavily documented study of American social Christianity, Ralph E. Luker has attempted to create a truly ecumenical myth. To my mind, he succeeds in discrediting the mythology created by a host of historians -- most notably Rayford Logan, Arthur M. Schlesinger, William A. Clebsch, and Ralph Morrow -- who treated the social gospel as the response of turn-of-the-century clergymen to the urban-industrial crisis; and argued that the social gospel failed miserably on the problem of race. Luker, I think, clearly demonstrates that "mainstream American social Christianity developed a critique of both racism and cultural imperialism that built upon the rather elemental notion that black people were after all `persons'." (4-5) Luker, in other words, has given his readers a far more complex depiction of the attitudes of the clergymen toward African Americans than those of historians who view the social gospel prophets' views on race as indifferent.

This monumental work is divided into three parts. The first section graphically describes "the origin and nature of the social gospel as an extension of early nineteenth century home missions and social reform movements." (4) The social gospel, which had "generally conservative biases in race relations," viewed the "degenerating tendencies of both races in the South as a threat to the Republic and just cause for their effort." (18) As a consequence, the reformers established misssionary institutions in the South until the financial crisis of the 1890s undermined their initiative.

In the second section, Luker argues that by the end of the nineteenth century, the social gospel prophets rejected colonization as a means of solving racial propblems, did not rely heavily upon the home missions movement, and "was divided over whether the franchise was a natural right, whether education or the franchise ought to have priority, and whether federal or state action was better suited to purify Southern politics. But the post emancipation tradition of civil equity among black and white leaders in racial reform collapsed in the 1890s as Southern states seized the initiative to disfranchise black citizens. …

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