Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review--In the Trenches with Jesus and Marx


The following review appeared in Review and Expositor 105.1 (Winter 2008).

In the Trenches with Jesus and Marx, by David Nelson Duke. Religion and American Culture. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2003. xiii + 305 pp. $39.95. ISBN 0-8173-1246-3

David Nelson Duke’s posthumously published biography of Harry F. Ward is an engaging overview of Ward’s long life.  Ward was a professor of Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary and a contemporary of Reinhold Niebuhr.  He was also the first chairperson of the American Civil Liberties Union.  Duke traces Ward’s journey from his childhood in a zealously religious family in England to his death as a Soviet sympathizer.  From his childhood, Ward had a fighting spirit and deep convictions, which Duke writes about in an accessible manner with respect and honesty.  

Ward’s childhood in England was formative for his ideological development later in the United States.  His fighting spirit stems from his upbringing in Wesleyan Methodism, but Duke attributes Ward’s theological movement away from organized religion as a reaction to his evangelical past.  Duke writes about the dichotomy between Ward’s social gospel outlook and his evangelical childhood.

When he came to America, Ward traveled both physically and philosophically into a new world.  Duke writes that reading Richard T. Ely influenced Ward to shift from evangelicalism to social gospel.  Ward’s friendship with George Coe and his time at Northwestern University finalized this ideological shift.  Living in Chicago had a profound influence on Ward and largely shaped his negative view toward the industrial revolution in America

Duke capitalizes on Ward’s disdain for violence and injustice to reveal his theological predilection for the idealized communism he saw in the Soviet Union.  Ward’s interest in Soviet-style communism is only possibly because of his blindness to Soviet human rights abuses.  “Ward argued that militarism and capitalist industrialism are inextricably linked, and that both are enemies of Christianity” (94).  Duke writes candidly about Ward’s disagreements with Reinhold Niebuhr, but he writes generally about Ward’s theology.

Duke’s conclusion is that Ward lived too long (233), and Ward’s long life allowed his ideological dogmatism to overshadow his earlier contributions to social gospel.  Duke claims Ward had a myopic view of the Soviets, which tainted Ward’s former status as the social gospel torchbearer following Walter Rauschenbusch.  Duke gives fair attention to both the positive and negative aspects of Ward’s life.  

People interested in the struggle for social justice in the early twentieth century will especially find Duke’s book fruitful, but anyone who enjoys reading about interesting people will also enjoy In the Trenches with Jesus and Marx.  David Nelson Duke was an active member in the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion, and although I did not have the opportunity to know him, his colleagues have expressed how much they miss his scholarship, writing, and friendship.


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