From the Archives: The Prophetic Ministry of Henry H. Proctor

Moses N. Moore, Jr., and Yolanda Y. Smith

Describing the changed conditions facing the American Christian community during the opening decades of the twentieth century, the Reverend Henry H. Proctor, an 1894 graduate of Yale Divinity School, wrote: “Evidently, we are on the borderland of a new world, not only in the application of modern science to the progress of mankind from a physical viewpoint, but also in the application of the things of the spirit to the social relationships of man. Old things are passing away; all things are being made new.”2

Especially concerned about the impact that this scientific, social, and spiritual revolution was having upon the black community, Proctor issued a prophetic call for the establishment of “a new type” of black church and ministry. Envisioned was a church and ministry prepared to meet not only the myriad challenges associated with the era’s new scientific, intellectual, and academic currents, but also the more immediate problems posed by increased migration, urbanization, industrialization, and resurgent racism.

Proctor’s progressive ministry placed him in the vanguard of one of this era’s most innovative religious-based social reform efforts—the social gospel movement.3 It also made him a herald and forerunner of the modern civil rights movement.

Born to former slaves near Fayetteville, Tennessee, in 1868, Proctor’s religious and theological lineage included the rural southern Methodist piety of his parental home and youth; a reform-oriented evangelicalism imbibed during seven years of study at Fisk University; and the emergent socially engaged theology of Protestant liberalism that he embraced as a student at Yale Divinity School. This diverse theological lineage would subsequently be refined during the course of his almost forty-year ministry in the Congregational Church.4

As a student at YDS from 1891 to 1894, Proctor studied under scholars who strove to clarify the issues and challenges presented to their faith and respective disciplines by the new scientific and intellectual currents of the era. The theological transformation taking place at the Divinity School was accompanied by courses that exposed Proctor and his classmates to the methodologies and insights of emergent disciplines such as comparative religion, biblical criticism, philosophy of religion, and sociology. During Proctor’s first year of studies, a course on Social Ethics was also added to the curriculum.5

Upon graduation from Yale Divinity School in 1894, Proctor responded to “the lure of the New South” and accepted the call to Atlanta’s First Congregational Church. Amid the urban, industrial, and racial sprawl of bustling Atlanta, he and his new bride, Adeline L. Davis, began to forge a ministry that would be both spiritually and socially relevant.6 A gifted preacher and organizer, Proctor quickly doubled First Congregational’s membership and extended its ministry to include a Christian Endeavor Society, a Working Men’s Club, a Women’s Aid Society, a Young Men’s League, and a prison ministry.7 Arguing that the church as a whole must be “an institution for social betterment,” he also challenged other ministers to make social salvation as much a part of their agenda as soul salvation.8

Within a decade of accepting his call to First Congregational Church, Proctor had succeeded in forging an impressive model of socially applied Christianity.9 However, his ministerial efforts were not limited to Atlanta or the geographical boundaries of the United States. Committed to extending the “Kingdom of God” both at home and abroad, he made southwest Africa a special focus of his expansive ministry and succeeded in encouraging the establishment of the Galangue mission in Angola.10 Of key importance nationally was his role in the establishment in 1903 of the National Convention of Congregational Workers among Colored People and his unanimous election in 1904 as assistant moderator of the National Council of Congregational Churches.11

Despite Proctor’s accomplishments, the Atlanta Riot of 1906, a convulsion of racial violence that shocked both Atlanta and the nation, served to painfully illuminate both the limitations of his evolving ministry and the magnitude of the problems with which he and other progressive clergy were confronted. Yet, even as Atlanta’s embers cooled, Proctor took the lead in establishing an interracial coalition of prominent black and white clergy, educators, and civic leaders concerned with easing racial tensions and addressing the causes of the riot. His efforts contributed to the founding of Atlanta’s famed Interracial Commission, often heralded as a harbinger of the modern civil rights movement. His labors also inspired a literary tribute that proclaimed First Congregational “The Church That Saved a City.”12

Amidst the ruins of the riot, Proctor was convinced that a more expansive application of Christianity emanating from First Congregational could provide an antidote to the volatile social and racial conditions that continued to plague Atlanta. Thus, he endeavored to build a new church—an institutional church that would provide social, welfare, and cultural programs, as well as a ministry of racial reconciliation to the wider community. In early December of 1908 the new “institutional church” at the corner of Houston and Courtland streets was dedicated in an elaborate service.13 The new edifice and its expansive ministry was hailed by Proctor as the model of a “New Type of Church,” fully attuned to the modern needs of the race:

In the heart of Atlanta stands a new type of Negro church. The typical Negro church has more heat than light. It is closed in the week and open on Sunday. It has a fine tower and a poor basement. It appeals to the soul and neglects the body and the mind. But here is a church in the midst of the skyscrapers and in the center of the colleges, a church that is open Monday as well as Sunday [that] ap- peals to the body and the mind, as well as the soul… . In this industrial temple we dedicated the pulpit and the parlor, the auditorium and the organ, the dumb-bell and the needle, the skillet and the tub, to the glory of God and the redemption of a race.14

Among the distinguished visitors hosted by Proctor at his new “Industrial Temple” were presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. His innovative ministry also attracted some of the era’s most prominent pulpit princes, including T. De Witt. Talmage, Samuel Parkhurst, and Russell Conwell, all of whom concurred that First Congregational was “the most progressive church … in the south.”15

Proctor emphasized racial cooperation as an important and integral part of his social gospel ministry. During the waning months of World War I, this emphasis attracted the attention of the United States military, which was confronted with increasing unrest among black soldiers.16 An invitation from the War Department and General John H. Pershing resulted in Proctor sailing for Europe in early 1919. However, he would do more than placate and offer racial bromides to the more than one hundred thousand black soldiers to whom he preached his message of applied Christianity. Proctor protested the racism and abuse endured by the black soldiers and described them as “brave but dejected men” who “had come overseas to fight for [a] democracy for others” that they did not enjoy at home.17 Acutely sensitive to the wider impulse and currents of the era, Proctor perceived that the events leading up to war, the war itself, and its aftermath would have profound consequences not only for the returning black soldiers, but also for their communities and churches.18

As the twentieth century approached the troubled close of its second decade, Proctor would reflect proudly on his twenty-five-year ministry at First Congregational Church. The congregation had grown “from 100 to more than 1,000,” and, by most accounts, his efforts to foster a social gospel ministry and institutional church in the heart of the urban south had been eminently successful.19 Nevertheless, he remained acutely aware of the limitations of his success in Atlanta, most notably that the South’s “peculiar problem” had not yielded in any appreciable extent to his ministry of social activism and racial cooperation.20 Moreover, he was increasingly concerned with the steady stream of black migrants from the South into the urban and industrial centers of the North and Midwest and the myriad challenges that this massive population shift, which he described as “the national redistribution of the American Negro,” was presenting to the black church and ministry.21

A call to Brooklyn’s Nazarene Congregational Church in late 1919 to replace the elderly Albert P. Miller (YDS 1885) provided Proctor with an opportunity to join the migratory movement of the race and apply his version of the social gospel amid the complexities and challenges of northern urban life.22 A year into his new pastorate, Proctor elaborated on his reasons for relocating to New York and shared his vision of a more expansive ministry:

New York City is the center of the life of the American people. As goes New York so goes the nation politically, commercially, socially and religiously. This is, therefore, the place to build the first unit of a chain of churches across the continent that will function in the entire life of the Negro people… . What the First Church of Atlanta meant to the people of the Gate City and the South we would make the Nazarene Church Community Center mean to the metropolis and the nation.23

Interracial cooperation, a key component of Proctor’s ministry in Atlanta, also became the centerpiece of his Brooklyn-based ministry. He would be joined in numerous interracial efforts by Dr. Samuel Parkes Cadman, prominent pastor of Central Congregational Church and president of the Federal Council of Churches from 1924 to 1928.24 His optimistic message of racial cooperation and reconciliation also found favor with other progressive white clergy who hailed him as the “Henry Ward Beecher of the Colored Race” and “the best informed man of his race on inter-racial relations.”25

In 1926, Proctor became the first black moderator of the New York City Congregational Church Association, and Nazarene was proclaimed the “largest Negro Congregational Church in the United States.” Consequently, with the purchase of a larger structure, Proctor appeared to be on the verge of realizing his dream of making Nazarene the prototype of a nationwide string of black institutional churches.26

However, on the threshold of the Depression acquiring funds necessary to meet the demands of an expanded institutional ministry soon proved debilitating. By the end of the decade, Nazarene’s increasingly precarious financial situation provided the context for an explosive controversy that illuminated liabilities inherent to Proctor’s ministerial style and the application of his version of the social gospel.27

In the aftermath of controversy and amid the onslaught of the Depression, Proctor found himself pastoring a shrinking congregation and attempting to maintain an attenuated social gospel ministry with severely reduced resources. Nevertheless, evidence of Proctor’s continued commitment to a prophetic vision of the black ministry was provided by his active participation in a pioneering seminar on the black church held in the spring of 1931. Returning to New Haven, he joined prominent black leaders and clergy including Dr. George Edmond Haynes, A. Philip Randolph, and Benjamin E. Mays in the three-day conference held at Yale Divinity School. Notably, Yale black students “preparing for religious work” joined with YDS professor and social activist Dr. Jerome Davis to organize the conference.28 Titled “The Yale Seminar on the Negro Church,” it focused on topics of critical concern to Proctor and other proponents of a black prophetic ministry. Major topics included “The Negro Church in a Changing Social Order”; “The Negro Church and Economic Relations,” “The Negro Church and Education,” “The Negro Church and Race,” and “Future Leadership of the Negro Church.” While acknowledging the historic contributions of the black church, seminar participants also noted the inadequacy of its response to current challenges facing the black community. Thus, in answer to the pressing question “Whither the Negro Church?” concluding resolutions adopted by seminar participants were farsighted in their call for the black church to “set itself to the task of developing a more prophetic and fearless technique in making applicable the implications of the religion of Jesus in relation to the social order,” and to “discover and develop a type of leadership that would do for America and the Negro race what Gandhi has done for India and what Jesus has done for the world.”29

Plans to hold subsequent conferences at the Divinity School apparently failed to come to fruition. Nevertheless, this pioneering and historic seminar anticipated and encouraged revival of the prophetic black religious tradition—a tradition that would subsequently provide critical leadership, inspiration, and resources for the emergent civil rights movement. Significantly, a number of seminar participants, most notably A. Phillip Randolph and Benjamin E. Mays, would play prominent roles within its ranks.30

Proctor, however, would die unexpectedly on May 11, 1933. His supporters and critics turned out enmasse for his funeral, overflowing Nazarene Church and the surrounding neighborhood to offer a final tribute.31 Fittingly, Proctor’s body was returned to Atlanta for a memorial service at First Congregational Church.32 Among the many posthumous tributes in honor of Proctor was a resolution passed by the national boards of the Congregational and Christian Church that acknowledged him as “a pioneer in the modern movements of inter-racial good will, a loyal Congregationalist and a gentleman of rare dignity and poise.”33 An insightful memorial was also penned by his former classmate, W. E. B. Du Bois who noted:

One of the first men I met, when I came to Fisk in 1887 was Henry Hugh Proctor, a long lanky youth…. He grew into a strong and forceful man and dying before his day, left a mark on the world. He was an evangelical Christian so honestly orthodox that any question of fundamental truth never entered his mind. So sure to him was its foundation that he could play with it, compromise for it, adapt it to circumstances, perfectly and eternally certain of ultimate rights. To the skeptic, therefore, the natural questioner and heretic, Proctor was anathema. But to the doer of the Word he was a strong Tower. He spared neither his strength nor money in his life work and was supremely indifferent to mere matters of income and expense… . His great work was the community church in Atlanta, perhaps the first and certainly one of the most successful in Colored America. He put in a life work there and then essayed a larger field in Brooklyn. But neither the time of his coming nor the character of this community was suited to his plans. Old Brooklyn is ever cold to the stranger and suspicious. Yet he was ever at the edge of a new triumph … but he fell victim of the Depression before his new effort was thoroughly established.34

Recent commemorations and studies marking the centennial of the Atlanta Riot and its aftermath have illuminated Proctor’s pioneering contributions to the emergent civil rights movement.35 The legacy of his prophetic ministry is also affirmed at Atlanta’s First Congregational Church, where a commemorative plaque and an annual “Proctor Memorial Sunday” was dedicated “to his memory and the ideals that he sought to perpetuate.”36 Under the current leadership of Dr. Dwight Andrews YDS 1977, First Congregational Church continues Proctor’s prophetic vision and expansive ministry into the twenty-first century.


1 This article was researched and written as part of a study titled “‘Been in the Storm So Long’: Yale Divinity School and the Black Ministry—One Hundred and Fifty Years of Black Theological Education.” Principal investigators are Dr. Moses N. Moore, Jr. (YDS 1977), Arizona State University, and Dr. Yolanda Y. Smith, Yale Divinity School. For more information on this project see divinity/storm.

2 Henry Hugh Proctor, Between Black and White: Autobiographical Sketches (originally published 1925, reprint, Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1971),

3 Robert T. Handy, ed., The Social Gospel in America: 1870–1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966) and Charles Howard Hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865–1915 (London: Oxford University Press, 1940).

4 Henry H. Proctor, “From Cabin to Pulpit-Life Sketch,” American Missionary 56 (June 1902): 291-95.

5 Roland H. Bainton, Yale and the Ministry: A History of Education for the Christian Ministry at Yale from the Founding in 1701 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 191.

6 Proctor, Between, 91-92. Adeline L. Davis was born in Nashville in 1870 and died in 1945. See also David A. Russell, Jr., “The Institutional Church in Transition: A Study of the First Congregational Church of Atlanta,” M.A. thesis, Atlanta University, 1971, 39; and Proctor, “From Cabin to Pulpit,” 293.

7 Proctor, Between, 94. See also Proctor, “From Cabin to Pulpit,” 293-94.

8 Henry H. Proctor, “The Church as an Institution for Social Betterment, Abstract of the Paper Read by the Rev. Henry Hugh Proctor, B.D.” “Proceedings of the Third Atlanta Conference” and “Resolutions Adopted by the Conference” in William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, ed., Some Efforts of American Negroes for their Own Social Betterment. Report of an Investigation under the Direction of Atlanta University; Together with the Proceedings of the Third Conference for the Study of the Negro Problems, Held at Atlanta University, May 25-26, 1898 (Atlanta: Atlanta University Press, 1898), 45-51.

9 Proctor’s pioneering efforts to forge a socially and racially attuned ministry also extended to the increasingly volatile and dangerous arena of Georgia politics. Milton C. Sernett, Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1997), 29; and John Dittmer, Black Georgia in the Progressive Era, 1900-1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), 60-62, 96.

10 Kathleen Redding Adams, “The Involvement of 1st Congregational Church, Atlanta in Angola—The Atlanta Interracial Commission—Carrie Steele Orphanage—Carrie Steele-Pitts Home as of 1938,” October 1975, unpublished manuscript, Proctor Papers. See also Henry H. Proctor, “Our Apostle to the Galangue,” n.d. Proctor Papers.

11  Clifton Johnson, “Henry H. Proctor,” Dictionary of American Negro Biography, ed. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston (New York: London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982), 505-06; and Proctor, Between, 95, 112-13.

12  Proctor, Between, 109. See also Homer C. McEwen, “First Congregational Church,” Atlanta Historical Bulletin vol 21 (spring 1977); 137; Johnson, “Proctor,” 506; and Bruce Barton, The Church That Saved a City (Boston, 1914).

13  Proctor, Between, 99, 106-07 and The Atlanta Constitution, 13 December 1908, 4.

14  Proctor, Between, 107.

15  Proctor, Between, 108-11 and William M. Welty, “Black Shepherds: A Study of the Leading Negro Clergymen in New York City, 1900-1940,” Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1969, 183-84.

16  Proctor, Between, 157.

17  Proctor, Between, 160-62.

18  Henry H. Proctor, “On the Trail of the Colored Doughboy,” Proctor Papers; and Proctor, Between157-64.

19  Henry H. Proctor, “The Place of Religion in Community Betterment” and “Social Uplift in the Church,” delivered at Howard University, 13 November 1919. Proctor Papers.

20  Dittmer, Black Georgia, 12-13, 21-22.

21  Proctor, Between, 167-174; and Proctor, “The National Redistribution of the Negro American.” See also Sernett, Bound for the Promised Land, 54, 71-73, 75.

22  Clarence Taylor, The Black Churches of Brooklyn (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 11-14.

23  Henry H. Proctor, “A Vision and A Task,” The American Missionary Magazine, 1921, Proctor Papers.

24  On Cadman, see Henry Smith Leiper and Edward Daniel Staples, Dr. S. Parkes Cadman: Preacher, Pastor, and Ecumenical Prophet (Boston: Congregational Christian Historical Society, 1967).

25  “A Negro in Beecher’s Pulpit,” Brooklyn Eagle, 21 February 1927; New York Herald–Tribune, 14 February 1927. Ironically, Proctor’s skill and success at forging cooperative and supportive alliances with whites made him vulnerable to charges by black critics that he accommodated racial paternalism. Proctor vigorously denied these charges, noting that he was a “race man” and that his ministry of racial cooperation emphasized racial pride and active protest against racism. See Henry H. Proctor, “Why I Am Glad I Am Colored,” The Southern News, July- August 1928, vols. 6-7; Dittmer, Black Georgia, 167; and Proctor, Between, 100-102.

26  Johnson, “Proctor,” 506.

27  Sernett, Bound for the Promised Land, 122-53.

28 The genesis of the seminar appears to have been the founding in 1930 of a “Negro society called Upsilon Theta Chi whose motto was ‘Service and Sacrifice for Christ.’” Its aim was to “produce a new type of leadership” which would “give itself unstintedly to the uplift of the Negro race and other oppressed peoples, and to the creation of a new social order based upon the principles of Jesus.” Dr. Jerome Davis, “Foreword” to Whither the Negro Church? Seminar Held at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Conn. April 13-15, 1931.

29 Whither the Negro Church? 45, 47.

30 See Dennis C. Dickerson, “African American Religious Intellectuals and the Theological Foundations of the Civil Rights Movement, 1930-55,” Church History, 74 (June 2005): 217-35.

31 Among clergy officiating was his close friend, fellow social gospel activist, and confidant, Samuel Parkes Cadman. See Afro-American, 20 March 1933; Brooklyn Eagle, 16 March 1933; and New York Herald-Tribune, 16 March 1933.

32 Atlanta Constitution, 16 May 1933; Atlanta Constitution, 17 May 1933.

33 Brooklyn Eagle, 13 May 1933.

34 “Postscript,” Crisis 40 (September 1933): 212.

35 For recent studies, see David F. Godshalk, Veiled Visions: The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot and the Reshaping of American Race Relations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); and Gregory Mixon, The Atlanta Riot: Race, Class, and Violence in a New South City (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005).

36 Russell, “The Institutional Church in Transition,” 2-3, 40, 44. More than half a century after Proctor’s departure for Brooklyn, Homer C. McEwen, minister of First Congregational from 1947 to 1979, observed that the church continued “to pioneer in the areas of social usefulness which marked it in the days of Henry Hugh Proctor. Indeed this is part of the rich heritage which his generation bequeathed to the church.” McEwen, “First Congregational Church,”138-41. See also L. E. Torrence, “Social Activities of the Negro Church in Atlanta, Georgia,” master’s thesis, School of Arts and Sciences, Atlanta University, 1934).

Yolanda Smith is Assistant Professor of Christian Education at Yale Divinity School. Professor Smith’s teaching interests include the practice of Christian education with particular attention to the role of the arts, womanist theology, Christian education in the African American experience, and multicultural approaches to Christian education.

Moses Moore is Professor of Religious Studies and associate professor of American and African-American religions at Arizona State University. He specializes in the interaction of race, religion and culture.