Douglas A. Sweeney is distinguished professor of church history and the history of Christian thought, chair of the department, and director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has written widely on the history of Christianity, early modern Protestant thought and global evangelical movements. His most recent books include The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America's Greatest Theologian, co-written with Owen Strachan; Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment; and The Suffering and Victorious Christ: Toward a More Compassionate Christology, co-written with Richard J. Mouw.
Evangelical History in Black and White
Part 1 in a series on evangelicals and racial and ethnic sin
If we are to take a hard but clear-eyed look at our history as evangelicals in America, we must start with Scripture:
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?.... If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers…. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. — James 2:1-13
This passage from James urges us to consider our past and our present. With humility and foresight, let’s consider together how evangelicalism has been steeped in the complex racial and ethnic backstory of our nation.
How did we get here?
Bloody racial and ethnic conflict has resurfaced yet again in America in recent years, captivating the media and summoning a storm of digital comments by people from nearly all walks of life.
In February 2012, Trayvon Martin, a black, teenage Floridian, was shot and killed by a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman. Although Martin was unarmed, and was not committing a crime, the police did not arrest Zimmerman for several weeks. Zimmerman claimed self-defense and a jury found him not guilty of second-degree murder. Protests erupted around the country.
In July 2014, Eric Garner, a black man, died in a struggle with police on Staten Island, who arrested him on suspicion of selling cigarettes from packs without the necessary tax stamps. While they pinned him to a sidewalk, Garner told police “I can’t breathe” 11 times, a phrase later used by thousands to protest Garner’s death.
In August 2014, Michael Brown, a black teen, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a young police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, after Brown was alleged to have robbed a convenience store with a friend. Wilson pleaded self-defense, and three months later a grand jury reached a decision not to indict him. “The battle of Ferguson” ensued, generating violent protests.
In April 2015, Freddie Gray, another black man, was arrested in Baltimore for possession of a switchblade. He slipped into a coma during transport by police and died from injuries to his spinal cord seven days later. His death was ruled a homicide. Six police officers were charged in the incident. Protests ensued. None of the officers involved was convicted of a crime.
In June 2015, Dylann Roof, a young white supremacist, entered Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, killing nine church members during a prayer meeting. Arrested the following day, Roof confessed to the murders, telling authorities he hoped to spark a race war. Thousands demonstrated in protest, demanding the removal of a Confederate flag flying at the statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, which was taken down on July 6, 2015.
In August 2017, violence burst out again at a “Unite the Right” rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia. Several white nationalist groups gathered to protest the removal of the South’s Confederate monuments, including several in Charlottesville. Many waved Confederate flags; some carried Nazi flags. A young white man, James Alex Fields Jr., drove his car through a crowd of those opposed to the rally, killing a woman, Heather Heyer, and wounding 19 others.
In the midst of all this violence, debates have also raged over Black Lives Matter, which was formed in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin; “take a knee” protests and black power gestures during NFL games, which began when Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem in summer 2016; immigration reform and the treatment of undocumented workers and their children; and other, similar movements, many of which have also led to violent altercations. I have only scratched the surface of the bloody ethnic conflicts that have shaken our society in recent years.
Many white Christians ask: Where does all this hatred come from? How did we get to be stuck in such harmful patterns of violence? Is there no way out of this culture of ethnic conflict? Why can’t we get along, moving past the racial problems that have vexed us for so long?
I would like to suggest two things in answer to such questions. First, we can get along, and our churches can play a role in improving race relations in our country and beyond. And second, this will be much harder than many assume.
There’s a lot of heavy history in the challenges we face. It weighs upon us all, whether we feel it now or not—and it won’t go away by wishful thinking. The more we learn about this burden, the better we’ll be able to improve upon the past, seeking justice, love and peace for the whole people of God—indeed, the whole of our society.
As we come to know the stories of those different from ourselves, we can grow not merely in our sympathy for them but in our aptitude for dealing more responsibly, fairly and effectively with them and the challenges we all face together.
Early evangelical history
The evangelical movement has suffered the sins of racial prejudice ever since it first emerged from the revivals of the 18th-century Great Awakening. Let’s be honest—painfully honest. While evangelicals did not invent the sins of racism or ethnocentrism, the slave trade, segregation, discrimination or racial hate groups, literally millions of white evangelicals have either participated in or sanctioned one or more of these things—distorting our common witness to the gospel.
Consider the following statistics. Roughly 11 million Africans were forced into bondage during the transatlantic slave trade, more than 9 million of them in the Americas. Only half a million slaves were imported to this country. But because our slave owners also owned their slaves’ children, 4 million slaves were toiling here by 1860—as were half a million free blacks eking out a living. Most of the earliest slaves were men. But many, of course, were women and children. During the 19th century, 46 percent were children.
In 1808, the federal government outlawed slave importation. Hundreds of people, black and white, fought to free the slaves who remained, embroiling the nation in sectional controversy that culminated in war. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued his famed Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all the Southern slaves “forever free.” And in 1865, the Union won the Civil War, putting an end to the slave system once and for all.
But patterns of sin die hard. Racial discrimination continued. And evangelicals are still untangling ourselves from this legacy.
It is important not to forget the utter enormity of this evil, or the extent to which evangelicals condoned it. But it is also important not to forget that evangelicals played a greater role than any other group in taking the gospel to the slaves and treating them as their spiritual equals.
Paradoxically, while many leading white evangelicals owned slaves (Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield), defended slavery (Charles Hodge and James Henley Thornwell) and preached to segregated crowds (Charles Finney, D. L. Moody and Billy Graham), some of these people also pioneered in black evangelization, education and even economic uplift. Many other, more progressive evangelical reformers played a major role in the rise of anti-slavery agitation. And evangelicals have contributed more than most white groups to the development of African American worship, doctrine and practice; conversely, African Americans have exerted extensive influence on the worship, doctrine and practice of white and other evangelicals.
A complicated evangelism to enslaved people
Christian outreach to the slaves began at a snail’s pace. In fact, before the 1720s, virtually nothing at all took place that is worthy of mention in a survey such as this one. In 1724 a well-known clergyman, Thomas Bray, did establish an organization that made an effort among the slaves. Best known as a founder of Anglicanism in North America, Bray also started a mission to the American Indians and slaves. Named the Associates of Dr. Bray, the mission sponsored teachers and schools for the colonies’ dispossessed. It achieved modest success in preaching the Bible to the enslaved. But it was not until the revivals of the colonial Great Awakening that large numbers of slaves were converted.
A major reason for the delay in Christian outreach to the slaves was that their masters viewed such ministry with suspicion. They shared a poorly grounded belief that, in the tradition of English law, baptism freed slaves not just from bondage to their sins but from bondage to their sinful masters as well. Consequently, slave masters resisted encroachments from evangelists. And many evangelists, for their part, made the matter worse by insisting that baptism did not require masters to manumit their slaves but rather made slaves obedient and submissive.
By the early 18th century, several colonies passed laws stating in no uncertain terms that Christian baptism did not grant slaves their freedom. But even after these laws, many viewed slave ministries as economically harmful. The evangelists, they argued, took the slaves away from their work and made them “uppity,” independent and ungovernable.
In one of the tragedies of history, many evangelists gained access to the slaves of fearful masters with assurances that the gospel had few social effects at all—at least none that would upset the racial status quo. They emphasized Scripture texts like Ephesians 6:5-9 (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear.”) and Colossians 3:22-25 (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.”). Some promised never to preach on God’s deliverance of the Israelites from bondage to the Egyptians. In short, the pact they made with masters led to distortions in their preaching and wound up helping whites more than it did the slaves. Evangelists wanted desperately to point the slaves to Christ. But in the words of the Reverend Peter Randolph, an ex-slave, “the[ir] gospel was so mixed with slavery, that people could see no beauty in it, and feel no reverence for it.”
There were also other obstacles to slave evangelization. Most could neither read nor write, had little formal education and found it difficult to follow white preaching. Even those who had some literacy resisted “book religion.” In the early modern period, many West and Central Africans favored oral tradition and extemporary speech. The bookish nature of Protestant preaching was simply unappealing.
Placing caste above Christianity
But during and after the Awakening, much of this would change. Beginning in roughly the 1740s, America’s evangelical preachers achieved unparalleled success in sharing the gospel with the enslaved.
Many leading revivalists, from the Anglican George Whitefield to Presbyterian Samuel Davies—not to mention the Baptists and Methodists who rose at the century’s end—preached to people black and white, male and female, slave and free. Before long, black Christians gave leadership to revivals, offering exhortation and public prayer in racially mixed crowds. By 1800, tens of thousands of the enslaved believed the gospel.
Few evangelical preachers championed slave emancipation. Edwards owned slaves. Whitefield fought for the legalization of slavery in Georgia, asking Parliament for the right to use slaves at his orphanage. He claimed that “Georgia never . . . will be a flourishing province without negroes.” And he purchased more than 20 slaves himself throughout his life. He even acquired a slave plantation in the mid-1740s, “through the bounty of my good friends . . . in South Carolina,” as he wrote to colonial authorities in England.
Clearly, then, evangelical outreach had its limits. Indeed, for most evangelicals, the gospel offered forgiveness and eternal life in Christ, not a leg up in the present, and the blessing of salvation so surpassed manumission that a compromise with slavery proved a small price to pay.
Such accommodation to slavery on the part of evangelicals, though, established a pattern of prejudice that plagued us for years to come. Before the mid-20th century, most of the best-known revivalists condoned discrimination. During the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century, many revivals were racialized, blacks being quarantined in segregated seating. This took place at Cane Ridge (1801), known as “America’s Pentecost,” by far the largest camp meeting in American church history. It even took place at meetings led by Charles Finney, who spoke frequently against the system of slavery. The most celebrated of all the 19th-century revivalists, Finney allowed segregation despite his liberal racial views. He deemed it inexpedient to encourage black Christians to serve as church trustees. And he criticized more radical anti-slavery reformers for politicizing the gospel.
Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday allowed for segregated seating at their meetings in the South, alienating untold numbers of black Americans. In the words of one black Christian, Moody’s “conduct toward the Negroes during his Southern tour has been shameless, and I would not have him preach in a barroom, let alone a church.” Another black pastor complained that Moody “placed caste above Christianity.” And the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass once compared Moody poorly with the well-known agnostic Robert Ingersoll: “The negro can go into the circus, the theatre, and can be admitted to the lectures of Mr. Ingersoll, but he cannot go into an evangelical Christian meeting.”
Shallow understanding from people of good will
Even beloved Billy Graham opposed discrimination slowly. Never happy with the race problems in his native South, Graham angered many friends in the summer of 1957 by inviting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to pray at his New York City crusade. But he had not desegregated his Southern meetings for good until 1954, when the Supreme Court declared the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. And he seemed to symbolize, to promoters of Civil Rights, the “white moderate” approach to racial reconciliation—an approach that King himself condemned in April of 1963 in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
Sadly, King was right. The history of evangelical racial reform is full of moderate stumbling blocks from people of good will and obstacles that reinforced its color line.
In the following posts, I’ll explore the endurance of African American churches, the evangelical relationship with Latinos and Latinas, and our way forward as American evangelicals committed to unity across ethnic lines.
How can we, as the EFCA, learn from this complicated evangelical history with race and justice? How do we avoid having “shallow understanding” as people of good will? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Read part 2 next: “The Story of the Segregated American Church.”