In a World Come of Age: An Intellectual Biography of Clayton Powell,
By Ralph Garlin
Clayton Powell (1865-1953) was one of
the a very few African-American religious, cultural, and social
leaders of his era to oppose what he called the "cheap
grace" of racist conservative and liberal ideologies in
what he called "a world come of age." His use of
what a sociologist and several philosophers called "the
emotionalization of the ideal" changed his congregations,
cities, and nation, as well as one German Sunday school
teacher—Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ralph Garlin Clingan explores
Powell's role as a radical, progressive prophet with a well
though out program of emotionalizing the ideal of the meek,
universal love of Jesus Christ, the center of his life and ideal
church, and raising a standard for his community and the world.
Powell is discussed in the context of his sources, current
Bonhoeffer scholarship, and today's issues
* * *
A bum, a drunkard, a gambler, a gun-toting
juvenile delinquent with brass knuckles - like so many Harlem
hoods he took in off the streets and showed how to run a youth
center - Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. walked away from it all to
lead one of America's largest churches. It was a frosty Sunday
in December 1930. Throngs filled every seat and aisle in
Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, forcing an overflow of more
than a thousand people to wedge themselves into the downstairs
meeting room. The choir music was glorious and the organ
thunderous, but the people had all come for one thing - to hear
the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.'s sermon. Among them was a
young, new PhD from Berlin University, a German Lutheran
searching for a Word from the Lord and not the usual
fundamentalist and liberal claptrap pretending to be that Word,
Before Bonhoeffer was born, Powell coined the
phrase "cheap grace" to refer to the dominant forms of
religion that tolerated racism, sexism, and lynching in one form
Bonhoeffer later incorporated that phrase and
many others that Powell invented, in his written works in Nazi
Powell addressed what the English Sociologist
Benjamin Kidd, following Auguste Comte, the French father of
Sociology, called "a world come of age," another
phrase prominent in Bonhoeffer's later works.
Powell was an imposing man, six foot three,
190 pounds, with dark bushy hair and a mustache to match. His
topic that week was "A Hungry God," and with a deep,
sonorous voice, he mesmerized his audience for more than 30
minutes. The topic was timely. Already at the start of that
bitter winter, people by the thousands were losing their jobs,
and money for food was scarce. For Powell, the imperative was
clear: "To feed my sheep." He announced that the
church would provide an unemployment relief fund and a free food
kitchen, and to begin, he would contribute four months of his
salary. Before the sermon was finished, people were pulling
money from their pockets to match Powell's pledge. His plea was
all the more effective because this was his first Sunday back
from a three-month physical breakdown because he had been
working 24/7 since "Black Tuesday," 1929 to help poor
Powell was born in May of 1865, just two weeks
after the end of the Civil War. The child of an African-Cherokee
slave woman and a Southern slave owner later killed on a Civil
War battlefield, Powell was raised by his stepfather, also an
ex-slave, who instilled in him the religious beliefs that would
drive him to the pulpit of the biggest Protestant church in the
country. He bought the boy his first book of the Bible, the
Gospel according to John, which Clayton read although he had
never been to school!
* * * *
Born May 5 near Franklin’s Mill near convergence of
Maggotty and Soak Creeks in Franklin County, Virginia, to
African-Choctaw-German mother, Sally Dunning, unknown father,
probably her former owner, a German, killed in battle.
Starts school, teacher Jake Bowles cites his brilliance.
Ex-slave stepfather, Anthony Powell, gives him a copy of
John’s Gospel, saying he will send Clayton to school when he
can read it, which he does, then and there; thereafter a
voracious reader; disillusionment with Fundamentalists.
Family moves to Tompkin’s Farm near
Colesburg, West Virginia. Meets Mattie Schaeffer at school where
Addie Bowles knows not enough Math to take him beyond simple
fractions. Leave school in 1878 at 13 years of age.
Moves to Rendville, Ohio, away from family, works in
Rend’s coal mine and emulates the hoodlum style of the lead
character in pulp fiction series, Peck’s
Goes into church one evening during a revival preached by
D. B. Houston, the pastor, who experiences a Spiritual coma
which converts Powell, who becomes Sunday School Secretary,
reads the Bible and other books, serves as Deputy Marshall under
Mayor Tuppins, works at Rendville Academy as Janitor while a
student, reads Frederick Douglass, Blanche Bruce, John Langston,
John Lynch, Senator Revills and Governor Pinchback for the first
Moves to the District of Columbia, works at Howard House,
reads books 2–3 hours daily, all of Shakespeare and the Bible.
A desire to preach seizes him to enters Wayland College
and Seminary, founder George Merrill Prentiss King from Maine
influences him, and where Mattie Schaeffer studies.
Marries Mattie Fletcher Schaeffer.
Completes both the college and seminary curricula at
Wayland, delivers Class Oration, “The Elevation of the
Masses—the Hope of the Race,” receives ordination to
ministry, accepts Call to a Minneapolis church, which wants the
former Pastor back, so he returns East to find that while he is
away, his mother Sally dies. Serves Ebenezer Baptist Church,
Philadelphia; he and Mattie work as domestics at Atlantic City,
New Jersey, hotels during summer to make ends meet.
Accepts Call to Immanuel Baptist Church, New Haven,
Connecticut, delivers lectures throughout New England, “The
Stumbling Blocks of the Race,” and “My Two Black Cats.”
Studies as special student at Yale Divinity School, where
students including William Ferris attend Immanuel and help shape
his future career. Writes and publishes A
Souvenir of Immanuel Baptist Church—Its Pastors and Members,
at a low ebb financially, truly dedicates life to ministry.
Attends Atlanta Exposition, hears fellow Franklin County
Virginian Booker Washington, hailed by President Cleveland,
first ex-slave to address predominantly European audience,
delivers speech, “The Five Handcuffs of My Race,” after
which Powell adds his version, “Broken, But Not Off.” Buys a
house in New Haven with income from “My Two Black Cats.”
Studies under Samuel Harris, delivers lectures to standing room
only crowds in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco,
favorable editorial about him in California
Eagle. Works with Isaac Napoleon Porter and other to wield
power in New Haven politics.
Blanche Powell is born in New Haven.
to Christian Endeavor Convention in London, UK, travels in
France, subsequent lecture, “Twelve Days in Balmy France,”
sells more than all other lectures. Further study of the
Abolitionists produces three more lectures, “John Brown,”
“William Lloyd Garrison,” and “The Religion of Frederick
American Magazine publishes “The Religion of Frederick
Wayland, merged with other African schools to form
Virginia University, bestows Doctor of Divinity on Powell.
Preaches interdenominational unity to achieve global
evangelism in “The Significance of the Hour” at dedication
of First African Baptist Church, Philadelphia, delivers paper on
William L. Garrison at last meeting of New Haven clergy, among
whom he organizes inter-racial, interdenominational pulpit
exchanges and city-wide revivals. After attending DuBois’
Niagara Conference, brings him to deliver orations and organize
chapters of the NAACP. Bonhoeffer is born.
After increasing Immanuel’s membership more than
two-thirds, paying off all debts, freeing church from
European-American rule, changing the time of worship from
afternoon to morning, accepts Call to Abyssinian Baptist Church
in New York, and is feted three times before leaving New Haven.
Abyssinian has 1600 members, is in a Red-light district and owes
large debts. Cold-water apartment his family shares is in a
Hotel populated by prostitutes. Adam, Jr. is born.
Cleans prostitution out of neighborhood. Sermon,
“Little Foxes,” against prostitution, New York Age publishes. Leads a month-long revival in Indianapolis, Christian
Banner and The
Indianapolis Star publish “An Awful Whirlwind,” a sermon
about sin and grace. Preaches first of seven ecumenical revivals
for YMCA, Baltimore, reports The
Afro-American. Two sermons on race relations, “Watch Your
Step” and “Some Don’ts to be Remembered,” published in Age.
Serves on Boards of NAACP and Urban League.
“A Model Church,” from Acts 5.4, is written and
becomes his most-often delivered sermon, part of his campaign to
move Abyssinian to Harlem from 40th street in
Publishes “A Graceless Church,” an assault against cheap
two more sermons.
More of his work appears in Age.
another assault on cheap grace, “American Religion an
Abomination with God, Marcus Garvey transforms Harlem, Powell,
inspires new wave of radical social action by Urban League and
NAACP. Urban League starts magazine, Opportunity,
with his “The Church in Social Work” as lead article.
Criticizes African-Americans for not patronizing
African-American business and professional people. Denied
political power, at least Africans can save money, engage in
business and buy property (Seth Scheimer, Negro
Mecca: A History of the Negro in New York City, 1865–1920,
Publishes first book, in the wake of the First World War,
Patriotism and the Negro.
Asks state of New York National Baptist Convention to help fund
building of Community Center to fulfill the vision of Nannie
Helen Burroughs. Rejected 92–8, he comes back, builds the
Center anyway, never asks for anything from anyone again.
Delivers “The Valley of Dry Bones” for the first time.
Threatens to resign if church will not move to Harlem;
resignation rejected, plans made to build a new church.
Builds church in Harlem, calls Rev.
Horatio Hill from Yale to direct Community House, organizes
Highways and Hedges Society to care for every abandoned child in
Harlem, sends and salaries Laura Bayne, Abyssinian Nursing
School graduate as missionary to Congo (Zaire) Africa, three
more women follows. School of Religious Education includes
extension campuses of Columbia’s Nursing and Education
departments, has four boys’ and six girls’ clubs, Thursday
Community forums, Sunday Evening Community Lyceums, a
Book-a-Month Club, raises money for every Church building in
Harlem, builds a Medical Center, now Harlem Hospital, and
National Training School for Women and Girls run by Nannie Helen
Burroughs in The District of Columbia, Tuskegee-Hampton
Institute, Fisk and Virginia Union Universities. Abyssinian
endows the first Professorial chair established by
African-Americans, at Virginia Union.
Exhaustion from working three years without a break gets
to him, so Powell accepts a 103-day tour of Europe, Palestine
and Egypt from Abyssinian, develops lectures on each town
affected by Jesus and four lectures on his travels. Howard
University confers a D. D. on him.
Union Seminary, New York, invites Powell to preach in
chapel for the first time. Union requires B. D. students to
visit Abyssinian. Lectures about his Africa trip on West Coast.
Blanche dies because of misdiagnosis. Powell builds first
African-American home for the elderly.
Opinion publishes “The Bible More Than Literature.”
Harmon Foundation honors Powell for notable achievement
in religious education. Abyssinian mortgage burning. New
York World, Negro Pulpit Opinion and The
Pittsburgh Courier publish Powell’s “Progress—the Law
Twentieth anniversary celebration at Abyssinian. Lectures
at Virginia Seminary and College, Virginian Union, North
Carolina College for Negroes, West Virginian State College,
Fisk, Howard and Shaw Universities, National Training School for
Women and Girls, City College of New York and First of three
annual lectures on race relations at Colgate, Where his son,
Adam matriculates, “Mob Rule-Its Causes and Cure,” “Race
Relations,” and “Rules of the Road.” Preaches the most
controversial sermon of his career, the one that provokes the
most death threats, “Lifting Up a Standard for the People,”
published in New York Age.”
Death threats include one from African-American Fundamentalists
calling themselves The Black Hand, which appears in
Afro-American December 21, 1929 and from an Arkansas
European-American named Vandlandingham.
Powell suffers nervous breakdown from overwork, sick
three months. Rev. Hill leaves and Adam graduates from Colgate,
becomes Business Manager at Abyssinian and preaches his
father’s sermon until he returns to work in December. He meets
the Great Depression with Free Food Kitchen, Unemployment Relief
Fund and Relief Bureau. Repeats “A Model Church,” and new
sermons, “A Naked God,” and “A Hungry God,” in December,
both published in The
Watchman-Examiner: a National Baptist Paper. Bonhoeffer
comes to Union and Abyssinian.
Responds to H. L. Mencken’s criticism of
African-American clergy, “Dunghill Varieties of
Christianity,” which the Urban League magazine, Opportunity,
publishes February, 1931. From a sick bed, down with the flue,
Powell pens “H. L. Mencken Finds Flowers in a Dunghill,”
which Opportunity Publishes March, 1931. Bonhoeffer returns to Germany.
New York Republicans nominate Powell to serve in the
Electoral College, speaks widely in Hoover’s campaign as a
Progressive Republican, American
Business World publishes editorial in support of Powell,
October, 1932. Junior graduates from Columbia with M. Ed. Powell
joins Neighborhood Improvement Club, part of the Democratic
Party, supports Franklin Roosevelt’s implementation of cousin
Theodore Roosevelt’s political program, freely criticizing F.
Tries to retire from Abyssinian at 70 years of age;
congregation rejects resignation, so he takes the winter off,
leaving Junior in charge, a bitter pill for many to swallow. The Amsterdam News publishes “The Silent Church.”
Watchman-Examiner publishes “The Negro’s Enrichment of
the Church Today.” Successfully resigns from Abyssinian, which
makes him Pastor Emeritus, gives him an unprecedented pension
for life; the church has 14,000 members. Preaches farewell
sermon, “Twenty-nine Years Ago and Today.”
the Tide, his autobiography, fills retirement with political
action to end racial discrimination, expand employment
opportunities and equal rights for African-American women and
and Saints in Caesar’s Household.
Watchman-Examiner publishes “Tolerance in Race and
Hell—A Fictitious Narrative, his theological biography.
Riots and Ruins.
Hitler executes Bonhoeffer.
Powell marries Inez Means, a Nurse.
publishes Powell’s history, Upon
publishes his last article and the only one that is not a sermon
first, “Rocking the Gospel Train.”
the Tide; Samuel Dewitte Proctor, “Adam Clayton Powell,
Sr. (1865–1953)” in Rayford Logan and Michael Winston,
American Negro Biography, 501 and “Powell, Adam Clayton,
Sr. (1865–1953),” in W. Augustus Low, Editor,
of Black America, 702f.
Also, the Clayton Powell, Sr. article on the
Schomburg Library’s Internet Website of 2002.
Clingan, Ralph Garlin •
Cheap Grace in a World Come of Age: An Intellectual Biography of
Clayton Powell, 1865–1953 • © 2002 Peter Lang
Publishing, Inc., New York
posted 14 February 2006
* * *
Rev. Ralph Garlin Clingan, PhD, H.R., moderates the
Public Policy Advocacy Network and represents the Board
of Directors of the Presbyterian Health, Education, and
Welfare Association to the Synod of the Northeast of the
Presbyterian Church (USA). His books include
Against Cheap Grace in a World Come of Age, an
intellectual biography of Clayton Powell, 1865–1953,
Vol. 9, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Studies in
Religion, Culture, and Social Development, edited by
Mozella Mitchell (New York: Peter Lang Publishing Group,
2002), and An Action Preaching Manual, available
in Korean and English from Seoul, Korea’s Preaching
Academy, 2005. Another book on how to prepare a sermon
quickly, which will contain three years of Clingan’s
sermons, will be available from the same publisher later
in 2007. Dr. Clingan taught homiletics and liturgics in
The Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta,
* * * *
Forged: Writing in the Name of God
Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are
By Bart D. Ehrman
The evocative title tells it all and hints at the tone of sensationalism that pervades this book. Those familiar with the earlier work of Ehrman, a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of more than 20 books including Misquoting Jesus, will not be surprised at the content of this one. Written in a manner accessible to nonspecialists, Ehrman argues that many books of the New Testament are not simply written by people other than the ones to whom they are attributed, but that they are deliberate forgeries. The word itself connotes scandal and crime, and it appears on nearly every page. Indeed, this book takes on an idea widely accepted by biblical scholars: that writing in someone else's name was common practice and perfectly okay in ancient times. Ehrman argues that it was not even then considered acceptable—hence, a forgery. While many readers may wish for more evidence of the charge, Ehrman's introduction to the arguments and debates among different religious communities during the first few centuries and among the early Christians themselves, though not the book's main point, is especially valuable.—Publishers Weekly /
Forged Bart Ehrman’s New Salvo (
* * * *
The Beliefs and Rituals
of a Growing Religion in America
By Miguel A. De La Torre
This book by Miguel De la Torre offers a
fascinating guide to the history, beliefs, rituals, and culture
of Santeria -- a religious tradition that, despite persecution,
suppression, and its own secretive nature, has close to a
million adherents in the United States alone. Santeria is a religion with Afro-Cuban roots,
rising out of the cultural clash between the Yoruba people of
West Africa and the Spanish Catholics who brought them to the
Americas as slaves. As a faith of the marginalized and
persecuted, it gave oppressed men and women strength and the
will to survive. With the exile of thousands of Cubans in the
wake of Castro's revolution in 1959, Santeria came to the United
States, where it is gradually coming to be recognized as a
legitimate faith tradition.
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The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
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updated 24 December