Review: St. Mark's and the Social Gospel
Ellen Blue. St. Mark's and the Social Gospel: Methodist Women and Civil Rights in New Orleans, 1895–1965. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011. 303 pp. ISBN 978-1-57233-824-1.
St. Mark’s and the Social Gospel: Methodist Women and Civil Rights in New Orleans tells the story of a community center and the women who staffed it over seven decades. Motivated by their faith, these white, middle-class, southern women lived among New Orleans’s poor, became involved in their lives, and served their spiritual and physical needs. Ellen Blue’s presentation of these women and their work upends many received assumptions about the character, chronology, and regional basis of the Social Gospel movement, and it makes important contributions to gender, religious, and civil rights history. In particular, scholars often identify the Social Gospel too exclusively with northern male leaders—thinkers and writers like Walter Rauschenbusch, Josiah Strong, and Washington Gladden—and end the movement with the onset of World War I, when these leaders died. As Blue demonstrates, however, the Social Gospel resonated powerfully with a significant group of women in the Southern Methodist Church (MECS). Through service in the office of deaconess, they lived out this understanding of their faith well into the middle decades of the twentieth century, and they often challenged the racial boundaries that many male leaders preferred to leave intact.
Beginning in 1895, the women of St. Mark’s offered a variety of services to the poor and immigrant communities around them. Initially conducting home visitations and Bible studies among the poor and isolated, the center expanded over the years to employ several full-time staff and to offer health and dental care, child care, community education, and “wholesome” recreation opportunities. Blue effectively demonstrates that these women’s work undermines the argument that Social Gospel practitioners reinforced racial boundaries and paternalistic modes of service. As the community around St. Mark’s changed, the center maintained somewhat fluid racial practices in a segregated setting. For example, light-skinned blacks who could “pass” for white enjoyed access to programs and services with the full knowledge of the staff. In a remarkable exception to its otherwise general observation of segregation, St. Mark’s health care clinic served a clientele about one-third black, and did so without maintaining racially distinct waiting rooms, examination facilities, or instruments.
Since most of St. Mark’s records have been lost, Blue faces a formidable obstacle in telling this story. Though she demonstrates thorough and painstaking research in a variety of material, this dearth of necessary sources limits her ability to describe these women’s lives in detail and to make well-supported arguments about the effects of their work. The narrative often feels disjointed and difficult to follow. This problem is especially acute on the issue of civil rights, despite the suggestion in the subtitle that the book will focus on this topic. Blue describes the racially progressive impulses that came from many Methodist women and their national organizations, and her subjects’ ideological commitments to racial equality seem clear. However, the story does not offer much rich detail on activity they pursued in New Orleans to make racial equality a reality. When the story reaches the civil rights years, it tends to focus on the work of male leaders with only tangential connections to St. Mark’s, like James Dombrowski of the Southern Conference Educational Fund. Blue devotes an entire chapter on this period on St. Mark’s pastor, Rev. Lloyd Anderson Foreman. Despite extraordinary hostility from New Orleans whites, Foreman walked his five-year-old daughter to William Frantz Elementary school every day after it integrated and most whites forsook the school. The pastor’s story is rich, and Blue critically entertains the variety of forces at work in it—his theology, church politics within the Louisiana Methodist conference, and popular sentiment. Yet, we want more about the women she hoped to put at the center of this account, and learn only that they supported Foreman. They showed courage by continuing to live at the center in spite of a flood of hate mail and vigilante violence, but there simply seems to be no record of sustained, direct civil rights activism on the part of these women. Their work at St. Mark’s in the civil rights years apparently differed little from what they had offered all along. Indeed, in the end, St. Mark’s did not integrate until 1965, and even then, only as the result of financial pressure that overcame the conservative resistance of the board.
Blue has examined many themes that other scholars will want to flesh out. Future accounts may want to examine the ways that the work and thought of these deaconessses shaped ordinary lay Methodist women who worked actively in Methodist Women’s organizations. Her discussion of how these women’s work and ideas fit in the Wesleyan tradition also offers an important point of departure for other scholars, given that conservative Methodists who overtly favored segregation also laid claim to the theological heritage of the Wesleys. In sum, St. Mark’s and the Social Gospel demonstrates the rich nuances of the story of gender, religion, and racial equality and points to how much we have to learn about the ways white religion shaped the path and progress of black civil rights.