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For Black History Month, some Northeast Tennessee Black Christian Socialist History

“All we are trying to get at is where the Bible touches upon the questions at issue between the Socialist and the capitalist, on whose side does it stand?”

The Reverend George Washington Woodbey was born into slavery in 1854 in Johnson County, Tennessee. A mostly self-taught workingman, he was ordained in Kansas in 1874, after freedom came. By 1902, Reverend Woodbey was living in San Diego, pastoring Mt. Zion Baptist Church and serving on the executive board of the Socialist Party of California.

His first pamphlet, from 1903, carries this dedication: “By one who was once a chattel slave freed by the proclamation of Lincoln and now wishes to be free from the slavery of capitalism.”

He was part of the 1912 free speech fight against a San Diego city ordinance prohibiting streetcorner speeches. Targeted by police and right-wing vigilantes for speaking freely, jailed and beaten, he described the police as the new slave catchers.

His 1904 pamphlet The Bible and Socialism: A Conversation Between Two Preachers, comes from the point of view of someone who “believes all the Bible teaches”and aims “to set forth only what the Bible teaches on economics.” The pamphlet is written as a dialogue between two preachers, one a convinced socialist and the other skeptical of socialism. This format shows the importance of good faith dialogue among working-class people, building on common ground with mutual respect to come to a greater understanding.

Reverend Woodbey reads passages of the Bible that oppose exploitation in the form of rent, interest, and profits–the ways the rich get rich off of the toil and struggles of the rest of us. Speaking on the sin of exploitation, Woodbey says that both chattel slavery and capitalism “take the larger portion of what the poor produce,” which is “wrong” and “the work of the devil.” He shows how the struggle against slavery and the struggle for industrial democracy are part of the same big struggle of labor.

Woodbey’s message to the church was the message of Matthew 6:24: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” In other words, “the class struggle … exists in the churches as well as in the factory.” In Matthew 19:16-24, Jesus tells a rich young man to sell his possessions because “a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Woodbey writes, “The preacher today is the representative of Christ, and when the rich young man comes to him seeking eternal life is he told to go and get right with the poor? … You tell him God has greatly blessed him, when, at the same time, the Bible denounces him as a spoiler of the poor. You tell him that he can hold on to his riches and get to heaven, while Christ says he cannot, and yet you claim to represent Christ.”

Woodbey: “‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ is one of these laws which, under capitalism, we are violating continually.” Basing himself on Acts 4:32-35, which says the members of the early church “had all things in common,” Woodbey sees the early church as a “cooperative institution” which over time succumbed to class differences: “So the early churches … were divided into different warring factions at last, by the wealthy class, who finally gained control, and thus … they lost their ideas of cooperation for a time.” Only the socialist “Cooperative Commonwealth” can bring about a world where people can really follow the Golden Rule.

Historian Philip Foner, editor of a collection of Woodbey’s writings and speeches titled Black Socialist Preacher, says, “Since the church was a dominant influence in the black community, more black Americans learned of socialism through the writings included in this volume [which also includes work from some of Woodbey’s predecessors and successors] than all the publications of the various socialist groups combined.”

The Reverend George Washington Woodbey has this message for the world: “Socialism is a part of what the Bible has been leading up to all this time.”

Black Socialist Preacher is available at the Appalachian Liberation Library:

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