A lot of the great progressive movements of the past were led by Christians of various different denominations who had different interpretations of the Bible. In the 1500s in Santo Domingo, a Dominican named Antonio de Montesinos, preached a sermon to Spanish squires and officers against slavery: “Are they not human beings? Have they not souls? Are you not bound to love them as yourselves?” Another Dominican, Las Casas, was inspired by Montesinos and took up the cause of helping the Indians. This lead Pope Paul III to write the bull Sublimis Deus in 1537, which stated that all peoples on Earth are human and have a right to freedom and must not be robbed or made into slaves. It didn’t have an effect on the oppressed peoples of the time, but it planted a seed that grew later.
Samuel Johnson, a devout Anglican, fought slavery in the 17th Century. The book “A History of Christianity” by Owen Chadwick, noted that the antislavery movement was made up of 5 groups: intellectuals of the enlightenment; the more humane of the American and French revolutionaries; Catholic missionaries in the Americas (the Jesuits never allowed slaves in their settlements); radical Christians like the Quakers; and devout English evangelicals like William Wilberforce.
The women’s suffrage movement gained a lot from the abolitonist movement and many of the same Christians worked on both. Susan B. Anthony stated that her Quaker upbringing formed her ideas about the equality of women. Minister Lucretia Mott, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucy Stone and other Christians derived their understanding of women’s equality from their own readings of the Bible.
The antiwar movement had many Christian adherants. William Jennings Bryan was a great anti-imperialist who protested America’s forced colonization of Cuba and the Philippines after the Spanish American War. Dorothy Day held a strong pacifist position during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. During the Vietnam war, Southern Baptist Martin Luther King Jr., Presbyterian William Slane Coffin Jr., Catholic priest Eugene Boyle, and ministers from various denominations went against the war. In the two Gulf wars, Pope John Paul II, Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Jimmy Carter were among the Christians trying to stop those military interventions.
The workers rights movement received a major boost from Pope Leo XIIIs encyclical, Rerum Novarum in 1891. It spoke of the dignity of the worker and the right of workers to form unions to protect themselves, it talked of the right of a decent wage, and it talked of the responsibility of the state to create fair conditions or social justice. This encyclical helped persuade Dorothy Day that the Church was just as sympathetic to the poor as Communism and it led to Catholics like Day, Father Berrigan, Father Eugene Boyle, Cesar Chavez, Lech Walesa, Philippine Cardinal Sin, and El Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero to fight for the poor and downtrodden.
The Civil Rights movement were joined by Baptists, Episcopalians, Quakers, Catholics, Unitarians, and various people from various denominations. Bishop Gene Robinson, Bishope Katherine Schori, and Christians of various denominations are fighting for women’s and gay rights. And now the fight for AIDs, the fight against poverty, the fight to end genocide and intolerance are being fought by Christians.
All of these Christians were from diverse denominations with diverse ways of reading the Bible and of various theologies. Some took the Bible more literally, some took it more metaphorically. Yet all were important to Progressive movements of their times. Some people think of progressive movements as being made up of only secular people or secular humanists, but history shows that they are wrong. Gary Vance was right when he wrote “Study of scripture and history reveals that the essence of the noblest elements of liberalism flows directly from Jesus Christ.” I know my own lifelong liberalism stems from Christian heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, St. Francis and Dorothy Day. I’ve being reading Howard Zinn lately, and he’s right when he says that we can find Progressive impulses all through out history and as Christians, we can find those same liberal impulses in the history of Christianity.