March 14, 2012
Rich Nathan
Evangelical Neglect: A History of Race Relations in America

Evangelical Neglect: A History of Race Relations in America

About twenty-five years ago I had a series of vivid dreams one evening in which I was preaching at our church to an obviously racially mixed audience. In the dream I became extremely joyful. The Lord repeated that dream to me several times that evening.

I have meditated and prayed over that series of dreams about racial reconciliation for the last twenty-five years. I’ve asked the Lord on dozens and dozens of occasions to make that dream a reality.

But for that dream to be fully realized, we Christians must know where we have come from as a nation and what role the church has played (or refused to play) in bringing about healing between the races.

A Brief Survey of Race Relations in American History

Outside of a few Quakers, almost no Whites in the early 18th century, Christian or non-Christian, questioned the validity of slavery as an institution. Historian Lester Scherer said, “In Christian life and thought the accommodation with slavery was almost complete.” In the first half of the 18th century the African slave population grew at a rate three times faster than the population as a whole. By 1750 about 20% of the American population was African or of African descent (compared to about 13% today).

George Whitefield, who many people regarded as having laid the spiritual foundations for the American Revolution, and who was the first “media star in American history,” preached to both Whites and Blacks. But while he preached radical equality in Christ and shared the salvation message with slaves, he was a supporter of slavery. He testified before Parliament in 1741 in support of the introduction of slavery to Georgia. From his perspective, it was better to live in a Christian country as a slave than to live in heathen Africa. Cultural and religious legitimation of slavery was very strong. To overturn slavery was seen as going against God’s ordained pattern.

By the time of the American Revolution, many people began saying that it was not enough to Christianize slaves. The rhetoric used to muster support for the Revolutionary War – “All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” – condemned the enslaving of fellow human beings. Within a few decades of the Revolution most Northern states outlawed slavery. In 1808 slave importation was abolished nationwide.

Yet for most evangelicals, slavery was viewed as a separate issue from the larger race question. To be anti-slavery (even as a radical abolitionist) did not mean that you were pro-integration. Even Charles Finney, radical for his day, opposed the election of Black church trustees. In his church Blacks and Whites were segregated.

After the Civil War there was a brief period of remarkable involvement by African Americans in American public life. But when Northerners abandoned Reconstruction in order to secure the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, White Southerners responded with Jim Crow Laws. Jim Crow Laws were “Black Codes” that created a racial caste system through segregation and political disenfranchisement. As a result of this “Jim Crow backlash,” every realm of Southern life was segregated including public transportation, restaurants, schools, health care institutions, drinking fountains, and even cemeteries.

Having recently gained the right to vote, former slaves were stripped of their voting rights through devices such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and the grandfather clause. White illiterates were “grandfathered” in, based upon their historic right to vote. But Black illiterates (and even highly educated Blacks) were excluded from voting.

White evangelicals such as D.L. Moody and later, Billy Sunday, simply did not emphasize social reform as part of their Christian message. Their message was entirely focused on evangelism and personal piety. Moody held revival meetings in the South but did so on a segregated basis. And when Billy Sunday preached in the South after 1900, he also segregated his revival meetings.

In the 1950’s Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and a host of other African American Christians protested, boycotted, and fought for an end to Jim Crow segregation. Their goal was freedom from oppression and unequal treatment, as expressed through the laws and overt practices of the South. The Southern Civil Rights Movement arose in the context of the African American Church. Its agenda, its tactics, its organizing principles, and its rhetoric were explicitly Christian.

Sadly, very few White evangelicals or fundamentalists participated in the Southern Civil Rights cause. Many white fundamentalists branded Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement as “communistic.” White evangelicals continued to focus upon saving souls for heaven. Evangelical dispensationalists felt that Dr. King was simply wasting his time and was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Dispensationalists could never have created the “I Have a Dream” speech in which Dr. King stated his hope that one day his children might play together with White children. Christianity Today expressed a very lukewarm and cautious response to Dr. King’s efforts.

Billy Graham, who was invited, but didn’t attend the 1963 March on Washington said: “Only when Christ comes again will little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” Graham’s view wasn’t meant to be harsh or bigoted, but simply what most white evangelicals perceived to be realistic.

The Beginning of Evangelical Involvement

African-American evangelicals were at the forefront of leading evangelicalism toward prioritizing racial reconciliation. These African-American evangelicals included John Perkins, who was called back to his home state of Mississippi to live out racial reconciliation. They also included Tom Skinner, a Harlem gang leader, who traveled the country in the 1960’s and 70’s as a minister of reconciliation and focused especially on youth. Samuel Hines, who pastored in the inner city of Washington, DC; William Pannell, E.V. Hill, and James Earl Massey all self-identified as evangelical; all had experienced the racialized society that was America; all associated with white evangelicals; all were influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and, all were sold on the idea that reconciliation was “God’s one item agenda” in the words of Samuel Hines.

There is a biblical and theological basis for moving us in the direction of racial reconciliation. The heart of God is a heart of reconciliation. Jesus is the one who tears down dividing walls between people. The cross is the reconciling agent of God, not only between God and people, but people with each other. It has always been the plan of God to produce one new man, one body, out of the various peoples on the earth. And in the end, we read in the book of Revelation, that before the throne of God there will be worship from every tongue, tribe and nation.

So, here is the question: How long will it take for the evangelical church in America to get on board with God’s plan of racial reconciliation?

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