Myth: Baptists Don’t Believe in Social Justice

The following is one pamphlet of the Baptist Myths series. Throughout our preaching series On Being baptist, each week, we will share a myth about baptists, written by baptists.


Baptists don’t believe in social justice?

That myth, held by Baptists and non-Baptists alike, implies that Baptists are socially and politically conservative and uniformly on the side of the privileged status quo. If society changes and works to help the weakest elements, some believe it will be in spite of and not because of Baptists. They may catch up and catch on, but it will be long after justice has arrived. Many people think Baptists have more in common with Amaziah the priest than with Amos the prophet.

Perception is not reality, though. Baptists have a historic commitment to social justice that spans the 400-year history of this free and faithful people. A Baptist today who supports making society more equitable and just and fair does not go against the grain of tradition. That person stands squarely in the tradition of the people known as Baptists.

The Social Gospel

The term “Social Gospel” is almost synonymous with German-American Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch. A pastor for 11 years in Hell’s Kitchen in New York, the young Rauschenbusch became convinced that Christians must live out their Sunday calling the other six days of the week by addressing poverty, homelessness, and unemployment. This prophet of the Social Gospel Movement believed that Christianity could redeem societies as well as individuals and that failure to take faith into culture was a failure of faith.

A church historian, Rauschenbusch in practice was an ethicist who popularized social Christianity through books like Christianity and the Social Crisis, Christianizing the Social Order, and A Theology for the Social Gospel. He believed that Christians must do more than treat the symptoms of injustice. They must address and remove the causes of injustice and bring the Kingdom of God on earth.

Rauschenbusch heavily influenced fellow Northern Baptist Samuel Zane Batten. If Rauschenbusch was the scholar of social justice, Batten was the clinician. Batten worked in the denominational machinery of the Northern Baptist Convention, especially with the Social Service Commission. He advocated a Christian perspective on labor relations and worked to see that these views were communicated to the masses. Batten was instrumental in leading the American Baptist Publication Society to hire someone to produce Sunday School literature that addressed social justice concerns—during the first decade of the twentieth century! He had no fear that the average church member could not accept a progressive view of Christian social activism. Following World War I, Batten became a supporter of the League of Nations as the most Christian way to end the practice of war and settle disputes.

Southern Baptists and Social Justice

Southern Baptists, despite the social conservatism of the region and much of the denomination, shared a trace of the tradition of social justice activism. In 1907, the Southern Baptist Convention established the Commission on Civic Righteousness. While much of the commission’s energy was directed toward temperance issues (temperance, today seen as a “conservative” issue, originally was a religiously progressive movement), the new organization did address Social Gospel themes other than resistance to alcohol. By 1914, this SBC entity expanded to become the Social Service Commission, and it had as one of its assignments the application of biblical principles to social problems. In the 1940s, the commission adopted a statement on race relations that was far-reaching for a southern white denomination of that era.

Continuing to stand in the Baptist tradition of social justice, Southern Baptists expanded the Social Service Commission into the Christian Life Commission in 1953. For the next three decades, the CLC was front and center in Southern Baptist life on the issue of social justice. While taking traditional stands on gambling and alcohol, the CLC reminded Baptists that social justice involved far more than prohibition. Under the leadership of people like A. C. Miller, Foy Valentine, and Larry Baker, the commission addressed issues of hunger, economics, peace, and, especially, race relations. While the SBC was late coming to the side of African Americans, in 1959 the commission condemned violence against African Americans and supported desegregation.

While many Southern Baptists opposed the CLC’s progressive policies and wanted it to focus on personal morality, the commission survived several attempts to abolish it in the 1960s and 1970s. The CLC called on Baptists to have a Christian perspective on war, poverty, and race relations.

For decades, the study of ethics among Southern Baptists was synonymous with Thomas Buford Maston. He earned his Ph.D. from Yale University and spent a career teaching social ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Warmly evangelical and pietistic in his faith, Maston used the classic Southern Baptist approach of proof-text Bible quotations to support socially progressive views. While he was skilled and grounded in ethical theory and directed doctoral dissertations of many students at Southwestern, Maston modeled a means of communicating social justice in a religious narrative that could appeal to average Southern Baptists with their biblicist faith.

Outside the Denominational Machinery

Social justice activism clearly existed among some Baptists outside the denominational machinery of the SBC. Baptists were front and center in the creation of the Southern Sociological Congress, a trans-denominational movement organized in the first decades of the twentieth century. The SSC brought together church leaders and government officials to address socially progressive issues and advocate concrete legislation back in their respective states. And numerous Baptists who felt the SBC was not activist enough on the issues of war and peace came together to form the Baptist Pacifist Fellowship in 1939. By 1984, this group became the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

Baptists in Canada have stood squarely in the tradition of Christian social justice. In fact, much Canadian Christian social activism has encompassed direct political involvement. Baptists have been no exception. Thomas Clement Douglas was an ordained minister and pastor whose calling led him to political office. Affected by the Great Depression, Douglas believed the church must address poverty and unemployment, and he believed the economic system of Canada was exacerbating these social problems. A resident of Saskatchewan, Douglas was elected in 1944 the premiere of that province, where he established a socialist government modeled on the moderate Christian Socialism of Western Europe.

The African-American Tradition

African-American Baptists have a rich and powerful tradition of advocating social justice. Martin Luther King, Jr., who claimed Rauschenbusch as a powerful influence, used his calling as a minister and his gifts as a pulpiteer to challenge the segregated South and to call for a Beloved Society that transcended color. King served as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and as co-pastor with his father of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. King’s leadership in civil rights soon expanded to other issues of social justice, including abolition of poverty and opposition to the Vietnam War. When his own National Baptist Convention took a reactionary position on the Civil Rights Movement, King and others formed the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

King was no exception to African-American leadership in calling for social justice. Large numbers of civil rights activists were Baptist ministers, including King lieutenant Ralph David Abernathy, a pastor in Alabama and Atlanta. Benjamin Mays, with his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, returned to the South to pastor and ultimately to serve as president of Morehouse College. An accomplished scholar as well as an administrator, Mays was also a social activist and leader. He strongly influenced King during King’s student days at Morehouse.

Another Morehouse graduate, Howard Thurman, also gave a voice to African-American social justice activism. After serving as a pastor and a professor, Thurman came under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi, as did King. Out of this exposure, Thurman in 1944 founded the Church for the Fellowship of All People, an interracial congregation in San Francisco.

King, Rauschenbusch, Batten, Maston, Douglas: Baptists are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. These witnesses remind us that Baptists are never truer to their tradition than when they embrace social justice.

Merrill M. Hawkins, Jr, is Professor of Religion, Carson-Newman College, Jefferson City, Tennessee.

Myth: Baptists Don’t Believe in Social Justice
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