Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Twentieth Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics: Nannie Helen Burroughs

I know that Aaron Weaver, at least, is glad I am resuming my series on each of the substantive chapters of this book.  The third and final chapter in Part I, Foundations:  A Legacy of Social Concern, is Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961): A Voice for Social Justice and Reform by Karen E. Smith.  Since I knew little about Burroughs before reading this chapter, this was one of the most informative chapters for me, personally.  The author was briefly one of my church history teachers in seminary.  Karen Smith was raised in Georgia from a long line of Southern Baptist leaders. She earned a B.A. from Mercer University and an M.Div. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before heading off to Regent’s Park College, Oxford and earning her D.Phil. in Church History from Oxford, concentrating on 18th C. Baptist life in the U.K.  (When she returned to the states, the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC had begun and she quickly found out how hostile the new environment was to ordained women. Plus, she had married a Brit and the Immigration and Naturalization Service kept giving him visa hassles. So, Karen returned to the UK.)  Today, Karen Smith is Pastor of Orchard Place Baptist Church, Neath (Wales) and Tutor in Church History and Christian Spirituality at South Wales Baptist College and the University of Wales (Cardiff).  She brings a historian’s eye to this chapter rather than that of a social ethicist or a theologian.

Nannie Helen Burroughs was a major figure in National Baptist (i.e., African-American Baptist) life for two-thirds, at least, of the 20th C.  Born less than 20 years after the Civil War, Nannie’s father was a former slave who, as a freedman, farmed his own small plot of land. He was also an itinerant Baptist preacher.  Her mother was a domestic servant.  Little is known of her early childhood apart from the fact that, at age 5, she moved with her mother to Washington, D.C.  She would grow to become a pioneer educator and social reformer–and a reformer within Black Baptist circles, too.

As a child, Nannie suffered from typhoid fever and kept out of school for nearly two years.  Apparently this gap did hurt her much as she later went to the M Street High School, which was segregated (as nearly all schools in the U.S. were in the U.S. South at the time–and even many in the North and West!) but very highly regarded. The M School boasted some of the finest principals of any black high schools of the era, including Mary Patterson, the first black woman to receive a college degree in the U.S.  At the M School, Nannie excelled, honing oratorical and debating skills and forming the Harriet Beecher Stowe Literary Society.  She left school prepared to be a teacher.  Smith mentions that part of her studies included “domestic science,” that is, home economics skills.  These courses were very practical for a newly freed people whose family lives had been destroyed under slavery: They included courses in handling money, in child care, cooking, sewing, etc.  Smith does not comment much on this, but I will. It is clear that these courses reflected the legacy of slavery and the segregation of the day, as well as the patriarchal assumptions that women/wives would be responsible for all these facets of “domestic science.” I doubt those assumptions were challenged much and I doubt that courses for boys, of any race, included “domestic science.”  But they were also highly practical:–Even if one plans to challenge an oppressive system, one needs to the skills to survive in it at the same time.  Personal note: By the time I was in Junior High, in the system where I went, both boys and girls took “home economics” as well as “shop.” I learned to cook more than my mother had taught me, to darn (sew) socks, and repair clothing (though not to make my own) and many other skills that served me well–both in bachelorhood and since marriage. I am sure many of the girls were thankful for the “fix it” and auto repair skills they learned, too. I am saddened that today’s schools no longer teach such skills to either sex.

When Burroughs applied to teaching positions in the D.C. area she ran into class and racial prejudices–among D.C. African-Americans.  One of the legacies of slavery (with us to this day, I’m afraid) is that many African-Americans judge darker skinned members of their race more harshly than lighter skinned ones.  Light skinned women are considered more beautiful–a clear reflection of a racist society.  Nannie was dark skinned and she came from a poor family, not the “old” black families of D.C.  So, she was denied a teaching post. This was an emotional blow, but she recovered and wrote to Booker T. Washington (one of the most famous African-Americans of his day) to see if she could teach at his Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama. (Today, Tuskeegee is a famous university for African-Americans. Originally, it was an agricultural and industrial school. More on this, later.) Washington could not find her a post.

Burroughs dreamed of one day starting her own school, but, in the meantime she went to Philadelphia, PA and became an associate editor of a black Baptist newspaper, The Christian Banner.  She took and passed a U.S. civil service exam and returned to D.C., but was told there were no openings for “colored clerks.”  She worked for awhile cleaning office buildings and then became a bookkeeper and editorial secretary  for Rev. R. G. Jordan, then the Corresponding Secretary for the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention (NBC). Burroughs had been an active Baptist from her youth and flourished in this job.  It proved to be a turning point not only for her, but for Baptists. When the NBC headquarters moved to Louisville, KY, so did Burroughs. 

She worked to establish a Woman’s Convention in the NBC.  As in white Baptist life at the time, women were hindered from positions of leadership in the NBC–though, as with their white sisters, the Baptist churches would dry up and blow away without the women.  Addressing the NBC in 1900, Burroughs expressed the “righteous discontent” of Black Baptist women at not being able to use all their talents for the Kingdom of God.  Because of her speech, the NBC established a Woman’s Convention and Burroughs became its Corresponding Secretary from 1900-1947 and President from 1948 until her death in 1961.  She was successful in keeping the Woman’s Convention from answering to the men.

In 1909, Burroughs was finally able to start her National Training School for Women and Girls in D.C.  Through this school and her work with the Women’s Convention, Burroughs worked for racial and gender equity in both church and society.  She addressed the first meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in 1905 in London.  She constantly pushed for change while working within the system. For instance, she supported Booker T. Washington’s program of educating most African-Americans as mechanics and farmers, etc.  It wasn’t that she didn’t want doors of higher education open or for a “talented 10th” (W.E.B. duBois’ term) to rise to the highest levels of society and compete with whites on their own terms.  It was just that Burroughs knew that the majority of Blacks were not ready for that. A generation ago they were slaves who could be punished by death for even daring to learn to read.  She wanted social advancement for the majority of her race–without ever losing sight of the goal of pure equality.  But a majority of self-sufficient shopkeepers, mechanics, and small farmers would at least not be in poverty or prison, even if they were not yet in the finest universities, etc. 

She was a member of the Urban League and, in 1924, founding president of the National League of Republican Colored Women. (Remember, until the mid-’60s, Republicans were the more racially progressive of the two major political parties. Even during those frequent times when Republican leadership was timid on racial justice, it was still better than most Democrats. Until the 1960s–especially ’64-’65–the Democratic Party was dominated by Southern segregationists and blatant racists.  Now the Republicans are dominated by a slightly more polite generation of these same folk.) She embraced the Social Gospel and believed that any church which was not working actively to improve its neighborhood didn’t deserve to exist!

Significantly, Burroughs never challenged the exclusion of women from the pulpit–although she did on all other forms of leadership in church and society.  She was part of a network of Black Church women who had a holistic approach to mission (educational and focused on social justice as well as evangelism), but which also worked for racial and gender equality in church and society.

The other two profiles in this first section (Walter Rauschenbusch and Muriel Lester) came from contexts of relative privilege, though they later identified with and worked with and for the poor.  By contrast, Burroughs came from poverty and from a context of double marginalization: by race and sex. That double marginalization came in both church and society.  But it did not seem to make her bitter or angry.  She refused to accept it, but would take progress in stages.  She was pragmatic in her “revolutionary patience” (Dorothee Soelle), but all compromises were temporary–stages to further gains, later. 

I am glad this chapter was included in this book.  I needed to learn more about Burroughs. 

I cannot leave this section, however, without repeating that these are not the only people who could have been profiled in a section named “Foundations: A Legacy of Social Concern.”  Other pioneers in shaping 20th C. Baptist social ethics would include:  J0hn Clifford (1836-1923) whom I consider “Britain’s Rauschenbusch;” Jesse Burton (J.B.) Weatherspoon (1886-1964) who founded the discipline of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and also the Southern Baptist Social Service Commission (later renamed the Christian Life Commission and, after the fundamentalist takeover in the ’90s, the mis-named Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission); Shailer Matthews (1863-1941), Social Gospel theologian and Professor of Historical and Comparative Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School (then a Baptist institution); William Louis Poteat (1856-1938), a Social Gospel leader of Southern Baptists during the Progressive Era South; Howard Thurman (1899-1981), the great mystic, ecumenist, and social prophet produced by African-American Baptists; Olin T. Binkley(1908-1999).  Others could be mentioned from many lands.  In these days, when far too many people associate the term “Baptist” with bigotry and warmongering, it is well to remember how broad the foundations of social concern were among us in earlier periods.

The next section of this book profiles five (5) men under the heading of “Thinkers and Teachers.” The final section of the book contains eight (8) chapters profiling women and men as “Activists: Dreamers of a New World Order.” We must not see these categories as airtight. Many of those profiled as activists spent much of their time thinking and teaching (even in academic posts) and some of the “thinkers and teachers” were also activists. So, I am not sure that these categories hold up to close examination. Nevertheless, that is where our next installments shall take us.

January 4, 2009 Posted by | Baptists, church history, ethics | 2 Comments