Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars by Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews

33953586 SY475Summary: Traditional Black denominations in the early 20th century were neither fundamentalist nor modernist. They were traditional Christians that upheld conservative theological values, but also believed in social justice, especially in regard to racism. 

I have never done this before. But I do not think I can really do better in posting about Doctrine and Race than to extensively quote the book itself. I made 28 highlights and a couple of notes and you can see all of them and the exact location of each on my goodreads page.

I limited my quotes to just 11. I did bold areas which I think are important.

Indeed, virtually all white Protestants, whether they supported fundamentalism, opposed it, or ignored it, assumed that white Protestant thought was normative and superior, so in that respect, fundamentalists were no different than non-fundamentalist whites.

Religious life in America was segregated and racially coded. Moreover, our understanding of the distribution of the formative books—The Fundamentals—needs an asterisk. While the current narrative holds that oil baron Lyman Stewart financed their distribution to all American ministers and missionaries, black Baptists and Methodists appear not to have received them. The adjective “white” should precede “American” in our telling of the Fundamentals creation story.

For white fundamentalists, and white Protestants in general in the United States, Protestant Christianity was the chief weapon available to civilize the various races. Such a trusting belief in the positive power of Protestantism was not confined to conservative evangelicals or fundamentalists. Josiah Strong’s Our Country, published in 1886, lauded the civilizing effects of “true spiritual Christianity.” Indeed, for many white Protestants in the United States, the benefits of converting various immigrants and minorities to Protestant Christianity were myriad and far-reaching. Black, Jew, Roman Catholic—all could improve themselves through religion, and all required it to be considered “American.”

Not only was Christianity a means to civilize African Americans, it was also a way of alleviating racial tensions. Writing about the Reverend Eugene E. Smith’s address to the annual gathering of Northern Baptists, Homer DeWilton Brookins explained that Baptists needed to help spread the Gospel to blacks to “help to Christianize the rising tide of race consciousness on the part of the negro.” Without the influence of Protestant Christianity, Brookins and Laws predicted a dire situation ahead for white and black Americans.

For him, as for other white fundamentalists who enjoyed black music, the music itself was a reinforcement of their views on blacks in general, especially in their belief that black religion was emotional. Because it came from black traditions, the music they produced was, in the eyes of whites, emotionally provocative, which allowed whites to continue their stereotype that blacks were caught in a religious childhood. The use of African American musicians reinforced whites’ racially coded ideas of black inferiority rather than provoking them to engage in a religious dialogue with the musicians and their pastors.

The deeper question for these writers was one of ecclesiology: how could you define the Christian church and include segregationists, lynchers, and racists? The simple answer was that you could not. Any understanding of the Christian message had to include a steadfast belief in the equality of all people before God. Since many white Americans could not meet this simple test, they were not really a part of the church of Jesus. Much as white fundamentalists had labeled liberal Protestants as outside the fold, African American Baptist and Methodist writers defined the church as an organization of like-minded people, alike in that they believed in equality. There were, of course, more layers to the definition of “Christian church” than just equality, but the bottom line for these writers was that social justice had just as much of a role to play in defining the true Christian as did doctrines like the Virgin Birth, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. For African American Protestants, doctrinal matters were important, but as the twentieth century progressed, the most important test was one of the examples of Jesus. In this interpretation of “What Would Jesus Do?” they demanded that white Christians observe the basic precepts of equality found in the Bible.

The author then pointed out that churches in America already were segregated and that segregation everywhere was an affront to Christianity. He asked, “if it be unchristian to ‘refuse any Negro the privilege of enjoying any church privilege,’ is it not just as unchristian to refuse any Negro the privilege of enjoying any social privilege? The church is God’s house, but so also is the world.” He expanded on this line of reasoning to include discrimination in employment, theaters, hotels, railroad accommodations, and restaurants—“Should Christianity be practiced only on Sunday and in the confines of the four walls of a church or should it be practiced seven days a week and everywhere?” For the Courier’s reporter, white Christians had lost the meaning of religion, and he compared them to residents of “pagan Rome” who “strut blindly and boastfully down the broad road to decay and oblivion.”

“There is something wrong somewhere,” he concluded, “this continued manifestation of the spirit of anti-Christ has its rootage in Pharasaical [sic] conceit and pride, and unless eradicated will find its fruitage in the alienation of the darker races of earth from Him whom we invoke as ‘Our Father.’” For Davenport, the continued hypocrisy of white Christians in the United States had global and eternal consequences. As long as Christ was presented as white and blacks as inferior, African Americans would turn away from the saving message of Christianity, as would “darker races” throughout the world. White Christians would inflict damage both in this world and the next with their continued insistence on segregation.

In 1927, Wright expanded and refined his call for equality under the banner of Christianity by employing the Hebrew prophet Amos and likening white Christians to “oppressors.” “Moral failure,” he declared, “proceeds with treading upon the poor all sorts of economic robbing,” including denial of crops, undercharging for labor, segregated and inferior school facilities, and the like. The “oppressors are morally decaying,” he continued, “whether they call themselves Israelites, Christians or what not. And God’s justice will certain assert itself if there is not a change.” The case was simple: white America had become what Amos had warned against—excesses and injustice. Wright chose verses from Amos, including the passage that Martin Luther King Jr. would later make famous in his “I Have a Dream” speech, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). “Amos does not mince words,” Wright aptly observed, “God wants Israel to repent, ‘to hate evil and love the good’—that is the only thing that will satisfy the justice of God.” But the United States was not engaged in such an effort. Instead, he argued that “it is wrong to mistreat your brother and think you can make it all right with God by giving Him a burnt offering. One of these days this American nation will wake up to understand the justice of God is not in the fine churches or great educational institutions, the wonderful choirs and eloquent sermons, it is in hating evil and loving good.”

For example, in 1917, the National Baptist Union-Review ran an Atlanta Independent article on Billy Sunday’s upcoming visit to the South and the opportunity he had to make a statement for racial equality. “It will not suffice for Mr. Sunday to invade the Southland,” the secular black paper wrote and the traditionalist Union-Review reprinted, “and denounce adultery, fornication, liars, hypocrites, bums, hobos, rascals, scoundrels, crap shooters, tramps and loafers, and leave untouched the lynchers, the ballot box thief, the segregator, the discriminator, the Negro hater, the promoter of racial strife and the mob leader who burns human beings at the stake because they are black.” Instead Sunday needed to confront the fact that his audience in the South would be composed of such people. Rather than be “deathly silent” on the matter, he should speak out. “If Mr. Sunday is sincere and is a lover of God and humanity,” the paper continued, “he has a splendid opportunity to preach the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man,” and, further:   That the gospel of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ knows no color line and that Jesus Christ died to the saving of all men who would believe on Him; that the black man is a common brother of the white man, and that the white man owes him both Godly and humane treatment; that before the law, the Negro is entitled to every privilege, every benefit accruing to the white man; that the double sessions in the Negro schools are wrong and wicked; that the suppression of the Negro’s vote at the ballot box is sin; that the counting him out on election day is stealing; that the unequal division of public school funds is legalized theft; that segregation is born of racial hatred and is sin; that the beating up and shooting down of Negroes on the street is sin; that the splendidly equipped school facilities for white children and death traps and dilapidated houses for Negroes is a misuse of trust funds and an act of base humanity.

As this book has shown, African American clergy in the interwar years navigated a treacherous course for their readers and parishioners as they sought to maintain traditional religious beliefs while also employing that same hermeneutic to advance racial progress. Challenged indirectly by fundamentalists to defend their orthodoxy, they could not call themselves fundamentalists. The white leaders of the fundamentalist movement shunned black religious leaders, demeaned their intellect, and prepared instead for a coming catastrophe. Black Baptists and Methodists, in turn, distanced themselves from the fundamentalist movement’s millennialism and its indifference to resolving racial issues. But at the same time, modernism held no real appeal for these commentators, who labeled the movement a white heresy even as they embraced some of its methodologies.

Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars by Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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