The Imposing Preacher: Samuel DeWitt Proctor and Black Public Faith
By: Adam L. Bond. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013. 247 pages.
Adam Bond, the professor of historical studies at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University, has written a deeply moving academic work on the life and ministry of Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor. The book, which features a plethora of primary sources from sermons, speeches, articles, and personal notes, brings Dr. Proctor to life with crystal clear clarity, while challenging the reader to understand Dr. Proctor as man of his own times. Bond writes that the book “places Dr. Proctor in his historical context…[and argues] that his biography influences his religious outlook;” both of which he notes are strikingly similar to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s (4). Dr. Proctor, born in the depression in a mildly priviledged Norfolk home, was known to many as a rigorous and demanding academician, a prophetic-plain spoken Baptist preacher, and a distinguished American statesman. Although there have been several books and articles written about Dr. Proctor I have yet to come across a single text that carries the depth of clarity and grapples, as intimately as Bond does, with the array of challenges, the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and the theological genius who broke color barriers in pulpits and at lecterns throughout the country.
I recently traveled to Richmond, and had the pleasure of visiting with Dr. Bond on the campus where Dr. Proctor matriculated as a student in 1940, taught undergraduate and graduate courses in religion and philosophy from 1949-1955, and subsequently became one of American’s youngest college presidents, assuming the high office only five years after being handed his baccalaureate degree. Virginia Union University, a small historically black college was well known, before Proctor’s matriculation as a student and tenure as professor and administrator, as the premiere institution for educating black clergy. The school was developed out of a merger of three Baptist institutions: Wayland Seminary in Washington DC, Richmond Theological Institute and Hartshorn Memorial College for women; and much later in the storied history of the university, Storer College of West Virginia merged to constitute what is fondly called Union. Bond, in this extraordinary historical analysis, not only works to diligently chronicle the history of the university, which prides itself on the life and legacy of its namesake, but also works to ensure that the reader is aware of the middle-class privilege that was afforded to Proctor throughout his life. Bond writes that “Proctor was raised with a middle-class Protestant ethic that emphasized moral, political and formal education…a middle-class ethic and ethos pervaded the home” and had dramatically impacted upon his life and ministry (210).
Proctor was not only a well sought after academic and theologian, but was also a gifted statesman. After having established his presence at academic institutions in Virginia and North Carolina as university president, Proctor was invited to serve the country he truly loved—America in the Peace Corps; he was twice he was invited to service first as a director in Nigeria and later as an associate director in Washington DC. Bond writes that Proctor’s experience as a national statesman exposed him to a world that he never knew. Proctor’s service in the Peace Corps, particularly in Nigeria, provided an opportunity for him “to contribute to solving the complex issues of race at a global level…for Proctor racism in Africa was related to issues of race in America” (61). Bond notes that it was during Proctor’s time of service that it became clear to him “that the black struggle in America was a vanguard to rebuild the tremendous damage colonialism had wrought in Africa” (61). Proctor longed for racial equality in America; the kind of equality that comes through education, actualization and an abiding faith and hope in a God who desire that all who are oppression in this life be set free.
Bond writes with efficient vibrancy of Proctor’s life in New Jersey at Rutgers University where held a long-term academic post, and his prestigious pastorate of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem throughout the seventies, eighties and well into the nineties, succeeding Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Bond notes that it was during his pastorate in Harlem that the New York Times named him as an imposing preacher, which is the title of the book; the 1972 article described Proctor in the pulpit at Abyssinian as looking rugged “in his black doctoral robe, close to 6 feet tall and weighing 210 pounds, the 51-year old preacher was an imposing figure in the pulpit”(1). Proctor’s preaching and teaching carried major themes of social justice, self-less love and community empowerment. Proctor’s theology, which informed his practice of the art of ministry, emphasized love transforming the heart and mind of all people to do what is good and right for all of humanity. Bond notes that there was much success during Proctor’s tenure as the pastor of the famed ‘silk-stocking church’ of Harlem. Among the most successful achievements was a $250,000 pipe organ to enhance the music in worship, and the mentoring of two clergymen who presently serve as presidents of academic institutions in New York.
Dr. Sam Proctor retired from the Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1989, and filled his retirement years writing, teaching, lecturing and preaching all over the country; addressing issues ranging from homiletical style and methods, church administration, children’s rights, and heavy weight of racism in America. When Proctor’s life came to a close he doing what he loved most, lecturing to a group of students and faculty at Cornell College in Iowa. He was lauded by the Rev. Dr. Gardner C. Taylor as one who never gave up; Taylor said, in his eulogy of Proctor that his beloved friend was “faithful in the pulpit of Christendom–faithful as he walked among us–faithful in his encouragement–faithful in his confidence about our black destiny in America and faithful about the nation’s capacity to rise up to its fullest potential. Faithful! Faithful! Faithful” (65)!
Bond’s work does a fine job of establishing a place in American Church history for Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor; challenging all who stand at the intersection of pulpit and public life to learn how a gifted and talented trained scholar/pastor/prophet/statesman was able to translate his liberal theological education into a language that empowered and transformed a community of people, a country, yea even the world.