Dorrien to trace histories of major ideological movements

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

Gary Dorrien will take the Interfaith Lecture Series audience on a century-long journey this week. He will begin with the life of Reverdy Ransom as a civil rights activist in the early 1900s and will end with Benjamin E. Mays’ work with Martin Luther King Jr., stopping on the way to discuss social and religious turning points that led to the concept of the Black Social Gospel.

The theme of the week is “Spies for God,” which focuses on people who are following Christ in dangerous ways, Dorrien said. At 2 p.m. today and Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy, Dorrien will address the topic in two unique ways.

Most people have probably never heard of the work of Ransom or Mays — especially when mentioned in the same sentence as historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln, Dorrien said. But both Ransom and Mays made a profound impact on the development of the civil rights movement and worked as “spies for God” in America.

In today’s lecture, “Defying White Supremacism: Reverdy Ransom and the Black Social Gospel,” and Thursday’s lecture, “Defying White Supremicism: Benjamin E. Mays, ‘The Negroe’s God’ and the Black Social Gospel,” Dorrien will tell both men’s stories.

“I thought it was important to talk about Christians from the United States who also experience their country as a site of oppression,” said Dorrien, a professor of social ethics at the Union Theological Seminary. “I’m going to talk about the founding of the Black Social Gospel tradition that was the wellspring of the civil rights movement.”

It is safe to assume that most Americans know a lot about Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent civil rights activists, Dorrien said, but people know very little about the leaders who shaped and created the ideologies behind the activists.

“The movement didn’t just come from nowhere,” he said. “I’ll be telling a story that has been largely forgotten, and wrongly so.”

The fact that these leaders are American is just as important as their civil rights activism, Dorrien said. It is too easy for Americans to admire leaders in other countries without recognizing the parallels. The important question to ask, he said, is what these parallels mean for people today.

Most of Dorrien’s work is divided into two broad categories: historical theology and social ethics. In these lectures, Dorrien said he will try to bridge the gap between the two but will stay primarily on the social ethics side. His particular interest, though, is in the Social Gospel because of the vast implications it had on American history.

“Chautauqua wouldn’t exist except for the Social Gospel,” Dorrien said, because of the Institution’s Protestant roots and dedication to social justice.

The Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries applied Christian ethics to social problems such as inequality, crime and racial tension. Out of this movement grew the Black Social Gospel, which applied the same concept specifically to racial inequality. The Social Gospel also involves the idea that salvation is not an independent act.

“Society itself needs to be saved,” Dorrien said. “It’s not just a question of bringing individuals to Jesus. To be a follower is to find yourself (and your faith) in one social situation or another, and often people end up finding themselves in situations they didn’t expect.”

Even Dorrien’s experiences parallel Social Gospel ideals. Dorrien was not raised in church but was always involved in social justice organizations. When he was in his late 20s, he began to combine this involvement with a Christian faith. Now, his faith is inseparable from the rest of his life.

“My faith journey has everything to do with it,” he said. “It’s something I chose to take over my whole life.”

Dorrien said his faith influences his actions and decisions. Approximately 50 percent of his lectures are to secular audiences, and though he does not feature his faith, he often mentions it.

“There’s usually a point in those talks where I’ll say something like, ‘In my experience, it helps to be religious,’” Dorrien said. “In most social justice work, it’s the religious folks who hang in there. It’s not about success (for them), but about faithfulness.”