College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations

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social gospel, black club women, black feminism, religious activism, National Association of Colored Women


Defined by a focus on social reform and Christian ethics, the social gospel emerged immediately after the Civil War when Christian leaders and organizations promulgated a religious ethic concerned with groups bearing low social standings, especially the working class. White male pastors led and influenced the direction of the movement, preaching against the horrible working conditions laborers in the iron and steel industries endured in the newly formed industrial America. Constructing a theology derived from Matthew 25:40 and Matthew 6:10, Protestantants argued for a gospel aimed at "the least of these," including the imprisoned and the working class. Obtaining God's kingdom was described as an earthly pursuit, rather than the heavenly one achieved through spiritual salvation.

Concurrent with the rise of the movement was the founding of the National Association of Colored Women, an organization of black club women committed to improving black communities. Formed in 1896, the NACW sought to counter negative portrayals of blacks in the public sphere. Mostly from middle class backgrounds, black club women stressed racial uplifting both to neutralize the public perception of African Americans as socially inept and to improve their socio-economic status. In so doing, they also employed religious language to address social inequality. This study focuses on black club women’s activism as an expansion of the social gospel. I argue that members of the black club movement functioned similarly to ordained clergy and Christian missionaries: as social reformers with pious convictions and, when fully examined, black club women’s activism shifts the definition of the social gospel from a nearly exclusive focus on labor issues to a type of religious reform that also focused on sexual violence against black women, racial discrimination, and the class politics black club women used to navigate the public sphere.