Believing, Teaching, and Organizing

The People Behind Vanderbilt Divinity’s Social Gospel Legacy  

Dr. Alva Taylor

Dr. Alva Taylor is one of the leading voices in the Social Gospel Movement in the early 20th century.[1] Arriving at Vanderbilt School of Religion in 1928 from Oberlin College, he was eager to join the chorus of a much larger Southern grassroots movement. It was such religious, political, and economic visions that drove him to Nashville, as his position required him to accept a 50 percent pay cut to join the Vanderbilt faculty. For Taylor, it was worth it.[2] The influential role of religion in the South made it a prime environment to build a movement to transform society in the direction of the Kingdom of God.[3]

Taylor argued that Christian faith made no real sense apart from social engagement. At Vanderbilt, Taylor worked to bring a more radical Jesus to life for his students; to make Jesus speak anew to his society. As he taught his students, removing Jesus from his societal impact was to put him to death once again. Jesus did not come to bring stiff dogma or theoretical systems, Taylor insisted; rather, in Jesus we find workable social programs that could serve as blueprints for contemporary implementation. But in 1936 Taylor was forced out of Vanderbilt due to his own radical Social Gospel political activities. Taylor’s impact is best seen in the work of his students Claude Williams and Howard “Buck” Kester.

[1] Anthony P. Dunbar, Against the Grain: Southern Radicals and Prophets, 1929-1959 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1981), 29.

[2] Richard C Goode, “A School for Prophets of the New South,” in Vanderbilt Divinity School: Education, Contest, and Change, ed. Dale A. Johnson (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2001), 109.

[3] Goode, 108, Dunbar, 28.

Claude Williams

An ordained Presbyterian minister, Claude Williams experienced something of a transformative second birth in his earliest pastorate, as he began questioning the norms and assumptions about Christianity he had been raised on.[1] Taylor showed Williams that it was possible to read the Bible and practice Christianity in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. In the process, Williams discovered what he called the “living God,” who was surprisingly different from the stale images he’d been fed all of his life. This new religion also helped him make sense of the ideologies and systems of his times: capitalism, miserable education, massive illiteracy, exploitative share-cropping, white supremacy, Jim Crow, and religion’s role in maintaining all of the above.[2] Williams went on to spend more than 50 years toiling in and with the struggle for civil rights, the labor movement, and economic justice. He founded the People’s Institute for Applied Religion and served as the director of Commonwealth College in Arkansas, where he worked alongside others to train workers and leaders in economic empowerment.[3] Williams helped disenfranchised miners start a new union in which they could regain autonomy and power instead of succumbing to the stale system not working for their benefit; he marched with WPA workers in Fort Smith protesting wage cuts of 66 percent; and he was flogged by white planters while en route to lead the funeral for a lynched black man.[4] Williams’ political and economic work, so often undertaken in solidarity with the struggling share-croppers of the day (against a brutal, unjust system) was born out of his faith commitments. And much like Taylor, Williams also saw his own faith transformed by his engagement with the insights and concerns of the working people that made up his congregations, even while being kicked out of those congregations so regularly. Faith and action, he discovered, were radicalized when considered in relation to each other.

[1] Cedric Belfrage, A Faith to Free the People (New York: The Dryden press, 1944), 43.

[2] Belfrage, 54.

[3] Belfrage, 182.

[4] Dunbar, Against the Grain, 68; 70; 128.

Howard “Buck” Kester

Given the larger pressures of the class-structure enforced by the tenant-farming structure and plantation owners, Howard “Buck” Kester came to realize that racial and economic justice could only be established in tandem.[1] Whatever meaning and potential Christianity had lied in its ability to bring good news to anyone struggling. Even during his education and training, Kester got busy organizing labor and fighting for racial justice through his involvement in organizations such as the YMCA, The Fellowship of Reconciliation, the NAACP, and the Socialist Party. Kester tried to integrate seminaries through engagement with the student body itself, which eventually led to the Presbytery striking him from candidacy for ministry.[2] He worked tirelessly with the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union to organize black and white sharecroppers, in a distinctly integrated manner, toward economic and political empowerment. He personally investigated the brutal lynching of George Smith—witnessed by some 2,000 people—who was tortured and killed after being accused of raping a white woman.[3] Kester served as a delegate to the first US Congress Against War in protest of WWII, and he testified before Congress on behalf of anti-lynching legislation multiple times.[4] Those anti-lynching proposals were always unsuccessful.

[1] Dunbar, 107.

[2] Dunbar, 20.

[3] Dunbar, 34.

[4] Dunbar, 49; 158.

James Lawson & Keller Miller Smith Sr.

Along with Taylor, Williams and Kester, the witness of James Lawson and Kelly Miller Smith Sr, illustrate how each of these leaders was part of a larger collective struggle by farmers, unions, and churches, often crossing racial lines. As a senior in college in 1950 Lawson was imprisoned for three years for refusing the Korean War draft. After he was released, Lawson eventually enrolled at Vanderbilt Divinity School, where he became a member of the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, founded by Keller Miller Smith Sr. The NCLC was the local affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), where Smith served on the executive board from 1955-1969. Smith was also the assistant dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School from 1969-1984, while pastoring the influential Nashville’s First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill. President of the NAACP during the Brown vs. Board of Education Court ruling, Smith was a crucial figure in spurring the desegregation of Nashville’s public schools. In 1960 Smith helped Lawson implement the lunch counter sit-ins.

Lawson trained students in direct, nonviolent action out of the basement of Clark Memorial United Methodist Church on behalf of the SCLC.[1] These sit-ins led to the integration of Nashville’s downtown lunch counters, but his organizing also led to Lawson ultimately being expelled from Vanderbilt for this work.[2] Years later in 2005, Vanderbilt University recognized Lawson with the distinguished alumni award, and he was a distinguished visiting professor from 2006-2009. In 2013 Lawson donated his papers to Vanderbilt.

While in Tennessee, Lawson traveled across the South working on labor, economic and racial justice issues. He was engaged in deep fights against injustice and worked with the Memphis Sanitation Workers in their strike for better wages and working conditions. Lawson’s organizing exemplifies Martin Luther King Jr.’s own recognition that economic and racial justice issues are deeply intertwined: “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”


[1] David E. Sumner, “The Publisher and the Preacher: Racial Conflict at Vanderbilt University,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 56, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 35.

[2] James M. Lawson, “The Lawson Affair, 1960: A Conversation,” ed. Dale A. Johnson (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2001), 131–77.

These figures demonstrate the immense gifts that religion and social activism are to each other.[1] Taylor’s legacy shows the rich opportunities of such work while also laying bare its risks. Williams, too, was ousted from multiple different parishes, jailed, and nearly beaten to death; Kester was kidnapped, threatened with lynching, and kicked out of the state of Arkansas for speaking to a group of 450 black and white sharecroppers in the wake of a string of mass evictions and police shootings. Lawson and Smith faced daily the onslaught of a white racist capitalist state, and yet continually fought for freedom and liberation from economic, racial and other forms of domination. These figures believed that Jesus Christ is good news to the poor, and that was a message they refused to stop speaking.

This is a rich history worth investigating, and it features crucial insights for Christians aiming to navigate the challenges of our contemporary world. If we are to think with Taylor, Williams, Kester, Lawson, and Smith we must insist on minding the gap between what goes on in the name of religion and any real materializations of justice and we must continue to explore its cutting edges, which today also include gender and sexuality. This is precisely the work we are undertaking at The Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice. We hope you will join us.


[1] Joerg Rieger and Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger, Unified We Are a Force: How Faith and Labor Can Overcome America’s Inequalities (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2016). In particular, see chapters 4 and 5 for an investigation on the ways in which religion and labor reshape and radicalize one another.