Against Cheap Grace

Against Cheap Grace


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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



Against Cheap Grace

In a World Come of Age: An Intellectual Biography of Clayton Powell, (1865-1953)


By Ralph Garlin Clingan


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


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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, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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 or another.

Bonhoeffer later incorporated that phrase and many others that Powell invented, in his written works in Nazi Germany.

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 Harlemites.

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!

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A Powell Chronology

1865    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.

1871    Starts school, teacher Jake Bowles cites his brilliance.

1872    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.

1875    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.

1884    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 Bad Boy.

1885    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 time.

1887    Moves to the District of Columbia, works at Howard House, reads books 2–3 hours daily, all of Shakespeare and the Bible.

1888    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.

1890    Marries Mattie Fletcher Schaeffer.

1892            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.

1893            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.”

1895–96 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.

1898    Blanche Powell is born in New Haven.

1900            Delegate 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 Douglass.”

1902    The Colored American Magazine publishes “The Religion of Frederick Douglass.”

1904            Wayland, merged with other African schools to form Virginia University, bestows Doctor of Divinity on Powell.

1906            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.

1908    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.

1909    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.

1911    “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 Manhattan. Age Publishes “A Graceless Church,” an assault against cheap grace.

1912    Age publishes two more sermons.

1913    More of his work appears in Age.

1914    Age publishes 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.

1915            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, 70).

1918            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.

1921            Threatens to resign if church will not move to Harlem; resignation rejected, plans made to build a new church.

1922    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.

1924            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.

1925    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.

1926    Blanche dies because of misdiagnosis. Powell builds first African-American home for the elderly. 

1927    Negro Pulpit Opinion publishes “The Bible More Than Literature.”

1928            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 of Life.”

1929            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 Baltimore’s The Afro-American December 21, 1929 and from an Arkansas European-American named Vandlandingham.

1930    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.

1931            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.

1932    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. D. R.

1935    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.”

1937    The 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.”

1938            Publishes Against the Tide, his autobiography, fills retirement with political action to end racial discrimination, expand employment opportunities and equal rights for African-American women and men.

1939            Publishes Palestine and Saints in Caesar’s Household.

1941    The Watchman-Examiner publishes “Tolerance in Race and Religion.”

1942            Publishes Picketing Hell—A Fictitious Narrative, his theological biography.

1945            Publishes Riots and Ruins. Hitler executes Bonhoeffer.

1946    Powell marries Inez Means, a Nurse.

1949            Abyssinian publishes Powell’s history, Upon This Rock.

1951    Negro Digest publishes his last article and the only one that is not a sermon first, “Rocking the Gospel Train.”

1953    Powell dies.

From Powell, Against the Tide; Samuel Dewitte Proctor, “Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. (1865–1953)” in Rayford Logan and Michael Winston, Editors, Dictionary of American Negro Biography, 501 and “Powell, Adam Clayton, Sr. (1865–1953),” in W. Augustus Low, Editor, Encyclopedia of Black America, 702f.

Also, the Clayton Powell, Sr. article on the Schomburg Library’s Internet Website of 2002.

Clingan, Ralph Garlin • Against 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

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The 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, 1980–1988.  

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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 (


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Santeria: 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 World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 24 December 2008




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