The Official Journal
The North Carolina
Editorial Board: Editor: George H. Conklin, North Carolina Central University Board: Richard Dixon, UNC-Wilmington Chien Ju Huang, North Carolina Central University Ken Land, Duke University Miles Simpson, North Carolina Central University Ron Wimberley, N.C. State University Robert Wortham, North Carolina Central University
Volume 3, Number 1
Religion and the Sociological
Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois
Edward J. Blum
In 1907, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, a sociologist from Atlanta University who was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. at Harvard University, accepted an endowed lectureship in “Christian Sociology” at the Philadelphia Divinity School. His charge was to apply “Christian principles to the Social, Industrial, and Economic problems and needs of the times.” With several lectures, Du Bois outlined his theories on the relationships among religion, racial and economic exploitation, and social resistance. He recognized that Christianity had a mixed record on race relations. On one hand, the “real Christian church,” taught the most egalitarian principles in the world – that “there is neither black nor white, rich nor poor, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but all stand equal before the face of the Master.” But on the other hand, the practice of white Christians seldom reflected the principles of equality and liberty. The economic gain that could be acquired through slavery compelled white Christians to alter their religious views. “A new adjustment of ethics and religion had to be made to meet this new situation,” he lectured regarding the rise of the antebellum cotton kingdom, “and [i]n the adjustment … there was in the first place a distinct denial of human brotherhood. These black men were not men in the sense that white men were men. They were different – different in kind, different in origin; they had different diseases; … they had different feelings; … so far as this world is concerned, there could be with them neither human nor spiritual brotherhood” (Washington and Du Bois 1907).
In his concluding lecture, Du Bois called for social change by harkening back to what he considered the original teachings of Christ. For race relations to improve, for economic exploitation to end, and for genuine solidarity to sweep across the land, the nation must experience a renewal of true Christian faith. “The problem that lies before Christians is tremendous,” Du Bois maintained, “and the answer must begin not by a slurring over the problems where these different tests of Christianity are most flagrantly disregarded, but it must begin by a girding of ourselves and a determination to see that justice is done in this country to the humblest and blackest as well as to the greatest and whitest of our citizens” (Washington and Du Bois 1907).
Du Bois’s attention to religion as fundamental to the sanctification of racial exploitation and to the potential destruction of it suggests that historical and sociological appraisals of his intellectual thought need to be reexamined. In the 1980s, mainstream sociologists began to recognize Du Bois as a founding father of the profession (Zuckerman 2002). They examined how he revised Marxian economic determinism by including race as a social force. And they examined his theories of “double consciousness,” in which he contended that African Americans suffer from a divided sense of self – being both “African” and “American” – but because of this liminal status had keen and unique insight into society. But these scholars have generally paid little attention to his religious views (DeMarco 1983; Green and Driver 1978; Lewis 1993; Rampersad 1976; Zamir 1995). Although Phil Zuckerman and I have offered several assessments of religion in Du Bois’s scholarship, more work needs to be done on how religion influenced Du Bois’s sociological imagination and the works of the other founders of American sociology (Blum 2004; Blum 2005; Zuckerman, ed. 2000).
This essay suggests that religion was at the core of Du Bois’s sociological perspective. An idea of “true Christianity” influenced a wide array of his social theorizing and scholarship. He used religious idioms and rhetoric to frame and discuss social problems, social forces, and social solutions, and he evaluated society and groups based on whether or not they met his requirements for a Christian peoples. In this way, Du Bois was not only a pioneering sociologist of religion, but his work was also deeply influenced by religious ideas and values.
Du Bois had a clear understanding of what he considered “true Christianity” and its tenets. To him, Christianity was an ethical and moral system that had the power to lead individuals and groups to behaviors that would bring social equality and brotherhood. In his first book-length autobiography, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward An Autobiography of a Race Concept, he contrasted the core beliefs of the Christian – peace, good will, the golden rule, liberty and poverty – with those of the White Man – war, hate, suspicion, exploitation, and empire. The real Christian church, thus, should battle materialism, oppression, exploitation, hate, and war (Du Bois 1969 ).
On other occasions, Du Bois made similar assertions. Assessing the answers of young African Americans on religious faith in The Negro Church, a report published in 1903 as part of the Atlanta Conference’s series on black America and the first book-length sociological study of religion published in the United States, Du Bois claimed that “[t]he children of twelve and under had the clearer and simpler idea of the direct connection of goodness and Christianity. The older children tended more toward phrases which sought to express the fact that religion had reference to some higher will. … They evidently are not impressed to a sufficiently large extent with the fact that moral goodness is the first requirement of a Christian life.” (Du Bois, ed. 2003 ). His evaluation of their answers shows that Du Bois held a priori assumptions about what true Christianity was and what it was not.
The function of churches and religious leaders was to inculcate these beliefs into their parishioners in order to create a truly Christian society. This responsibility was especially crucial for African American ministers. Du Bois viewed them as essential to the uplift of the race because they had the power to install the moral fiber necessary to disprove and combat white supremacists who claimed that people of color were inherently sinful. Much of The Negro Church, for example, evaluates the morality and behaviors of African American ministers in order to assess and help to improve the quality of religious leadership for people of color in the United States (Du Bois, ed. 2003 ). Speaking to an assembly of black leaders in Boston in 1891, Du Bois asserted that black churches needed to instruct in “Practical Christian Work” and encourage “manly character.” “The Christianity which Jesus of Nazareth taught the world means manliness, courage and self-sacrifice or it means nothing,” he concluded, “and yet some of our prayer meetings seem to teach that it means a rough and tumble scramble for heaven” (Aptheker, ed. 1982b).
The problem in the United States, however, was that exploitative economic conditions made it so that tenets of “true Christianity” were rarely followed. In an argument that squared nicely with Marxian theory, Du Bois suggested that unequal material conditions led religious believers to alter their egalitarian religious faith, which in turn religiously-legitimated those exploitative conditions. In other words, slavery led white Christians to repudiate the leveling principles of true Christianity and their new version of the faith merely upheld the racial status quo. In The Suppression of the Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, the published version of his Harvard dissertation, he discussed how economic values triumphed over religious ones and in turn created new sets of morals. When “the moral standard of a people is lowered for the sake of a material advantage,” he wrote, moral sensibility is lost and “moral apathy” ensues (Du Bois (1965) ).
Du Bois found the Christian authorization of racism, exploitation, and materialism almost ubiquitous in the United States and the western world. Segregation, lynching, disfranchisement, and economic disparities provided Du Bois with evidence that the United States was not a “Christian nation” and that most white Americans were not true Christians. He found any claims to the contrary appalling. “Stripped of verbiage and subterfuge and in its naked nastiness, the new American creed says: fear to let black men even try to rise lest they become the equals of the white. And this is the land that professes to follow Jesus Christ. The blasphemy of such a course is only matched by its cowardice,” he penned in 1905 for the resolutions of the Niagara Movement, a predecessor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Du Bois 1969 ). He regularly blasted Christian missionaries for preparing the way for economic and political imperialism. As he put it in 1900, “Let not the cloak of Christian missionary enterprise be allowed in the future, as so often in the past, to hide the ruthless economic exploitation and political downfall of less developed nations, whose chief fault has been reliance on the plighted faith of the Christian church” (Aptheker, ed. 1982a).
Du Bois railed against white Christians for violating what he deemed true Christianity. In one section of The Philadelphia Negro, his pioneering work of African American and urban sociology which resulted from fifteen months of intensive interviewing and observing local blacks in the city, he recounted specific examples of racial discrimination in the work force. In one case, a local church capitulated to and shored up white supremacy. One large church had erected a new building for offices, but a black minister had overheard that no African Americans would be employed there. Refusing to believe this was true, principally because several well-established African Americans were members of that church, this minister sought out the building manager and the church board. Much to his chagrin, this minister discovered that the church indeed refused to hire any person of color. When pressed on the obvious despicableness of this decision, one of the board members exclaimed, “That building is called the ----- Church House, but it is more than that, it is a business enterprise, to be run on business principles. We hired a man to run it so as to get the most out of it. We found such a man in the present manager, and put all power in his hands. … the question of hiring Negroes had come up and it was left solely to the manager’s decision. The manager thought most Negroes were dishonest and untrustworthy,” and therefore would not hire them. “And thus,” Du Bois concluded, “the Christian church joins hands with trades unions and a larger public opinion to force Negroes into idleness and crime” (Du Bois 1996 ).
Ultimately, racism in the Church ruined the beautiful teachings of “true Christianity.” White Europeans and Americans, he lamented, had “twisted” the “high, ethical dream of a young Jew … beyond recognition to any end that Europe wanted. If that end was murder, the ‘Son of God went forth to war!’ If that end was slavery, God thundered, ‘Cursed be Canaan,’ and Paul echoed, ‘Servants obey your masters!’ If poverty was widespread and seemingly inevitable, Christ was poor and alms praiseworthy!’” White American Christianity seemed to be little more than the hand-maiden of economic and social oppression (Du Bois 1969 ); Du Bois 1999 ).
Although Du Bois denounced Christian churches and whites who claimed to be Christians, he did not reject the potential power of religion to make social change. In fact, at times he expressed the conviction that only religious faith and institutions had the influence to right the social wrongs of America and the world. Through a return to the tenets of “true Christianity” or a revival of the ethics of Jesus, he maintained, society could be altered fundamentally. Du Bois’s focus on the potentially transforming power of true Christianity indicates that he not only revised Marxian theory by adding race to discussions of exploitation, but that he also radically revised Marx by asserting that substantive social change could take place at the ideological level as true Christianity engaged in a battle with its bastardized versions.
Du Bois encouraged his readers and listeners to emulate Christian leaders of the past and present who endorsed universal human brotherhood and uplift. In several articles on the history of slavery from the beginning of civilization to the nineteenth century, for instance, he characterized early Christianity and “its strange, new doctrine of Human Brotherhood” as the first ideological system to challenge human bondage. True followers of Christ, he repeatedly maintained, stood against any racism, caste, and greed. “[T]he eternal Voice rises and sings in this Wilderness,” he wrote in 1924, “The present travesty cannot endure. It is a denial of the fundamental tenets of Christianity.” In this light, Du Bois heaped praise upon white or European Christians, such as Saint Francis of Assisi and the abolitionist John Brown, who had embraced poverty or the disadvantaged (Aptheker, ed. 1982a; Aptheker, ed. 1982b; Du Bois 1962 ).
Appealing to the supposed Christianity of whites provided Du Bois with a powerful weapon to fight for social change. Concluding The Negro Church, he and two other African American leaders, Mary Church Terrell and Kelly Miller, called for a renewal of true Christianity to usher in a new era of racial friendship and uplift. African Americans needed faith, they claimed, because “The great engine of moral uplift is the Christian church.” Whites needed true Christianity, moreover, because it would divest them of their racism and lead them to equitable treatment of disadvantaged groups. “Religious precepts would rob the white man of his prejudices and cause him to recognize the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man,” they asserted. “Christianity is contrary to the spirit of caste – spiritual kinship transcends all other relations.” Without reservation, they concluded, “The race problem will be solved when Christianity gains control of the innate wickedness of the human heart, and men learn to apply in dealing with their fellows the simple principles of the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount.” Indeed, the supposedly irreligious Du Bois seemed to have more faith in the social power of Christianity than most of its proclaimed believers (Du Bois, ed. 2003 ).
Even during the middle of the twentieth century, when Du Bois had embraced Communism, the idea of true Christianity continued to influence his writing. He described both the Soviet Union and Communist China in biblical terms. Regarding the Second World War, he maintained, “to the surprise of mankind, David overpowered Goliath, and the Soviet Union won the war over Germany at Stalingrad.” He also explicitly likened China’s new Communist regime to Christ, “Oh beautiful, patient, self-sacrificing China, despised and unforgettable, victorious and forgiving, crucified and risen from the dead.” But his religious praise for Communism was more than mere rhetoric. He retained his commitment to the idea of true Christianity and cast these atheistic governments as the truest followers of Christ. Speaking from Peking on his ninety-first birthday and calling for unity between China and Africa, Du Bois proclaimed, “China is flesh of your flesh, and blood of your blood. … Listen to the Hebrew prophet of communism: Ho! every one that thirsteth; come ye to the waters; come, buy and eat, without money and price!’” Interestingly, Du Bois had used this biblical passage in 1907 when describing the abolitionist John Brown, whom Du Bois described as a “communist” in his revision of the biography that appeared in 1962 (Du Bois 1968; Du Bois 1962 ).
Based on Du Bois’s attention to religion, it should be little wonder that his book that is most read and most remembered is titled The Souls of Black Folk (Du Bois 1999 ; Blum 2004; Blum 2005). By neglecting religious ideas in Du Bois’s work, sociologists have failed to comprehend his rhetoric, his ways of framing social issues, and his calls for social change. To understand properly Du Bois’s social theorizing – from his indictments of white American and European societies to his hopes for social change – we must take a fresh look at his religious life. The importance of religion in Du Bois’s sociological writings and perceptions suggests that students of sociology should not neglect religious values or concepts. Faith matters – not only to the people being studied, but also to the scholars who perform the studies and write the books and articles.
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