Rediscovering the History of African American Evangelicals

doctrine and race

For too long, the historiography of evangelicalism has reproduced the racial assumptions of its white subjects rather than challenging them. Black evangelicals have been written out of the story and whiteness has been treated as incidental rather than formative to fundamentalism and evangelicalism. That’s why Mary Beth Swetnam Matthews’ new book is so important.

Matthews shows that while white fundamentalists largely ignored African Americans, black Christians did not ignore white fundamentalists. Though they shared many of the social mores and theological claims of white fundamentalists, African Americans were unwilling (and unable) to join the racially exclusive white fundamentalist movement. So they created an evangelicalism of their own in the 1920s and 1930s.

Black evangelicals were keen observers of the fundamentalist-modernist debate. According to Matthews, they saw both modernism and fundamentalism as white phenomenons from which they stood apart. White fundamentalism presented American Protestants with a stark choice: “Are you with us or against us?” Black evangelicals heard the question and replied, “neither.” They deplored fundamentalism’s embrace of injustice, but they also decried the higher biblical criticism of the modernists. They forged a faith that was generally theologically and socially conservative, but progressive in its concern for social justice.

By simply shining a light on the voices of black evangelicals, Matthews has complicated the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. The racial and racist character of the white fundamentalist movement becomes immediately obvious when we turn our attention to the people excluded from it. Yet generations of historians treated this as a minor feature of the movement. Take one example: how many historians have written that copies of The Fundamentals were mailed to every Protestant minister in the country? As Matthews shows, there is no good evidence that they were ever mailed to black pastors.

White fundamentalists usually ignored black Christians, except when they wanted to hear them sing, or when they wanted to portray themselves as guardians and spiritual superiors to childlike believers. Had white fundamentalists bothered to listen, they could have learned some valuable lessons. For instance: black evangelicals generally didn’t buy into a full-fledged dispensational premillenialism. Instead, they used eschatological language to dramatize the suffering of African Americans. In other words, black Christians were living through present catastrophe from which Christ would deliver them. Speculating about an end-of-the-world apocalypse was less urgent to people who were living an end of world experience already.

Matthews also draws attention to a fascinating feature of black evangelical rhetoric that  I need to think much more about. While white fundamentalists embraced white supremacy, black evangelicals sometimes used colorblind language to imagine the millennium and to attack segregationist theology. In their context, such language was a threat to the social order. But by the time the descendants of the white fundamentalists took up similar language decades later, it had become the language of the status quo. In the space of a few decades, colorblind Christianity shifted from a spur for reform to a tool of reaction. At least, that’s my early read on it. But I need to think more about this.

Doctrine and Race is flawed but important. One could wish for more context and analysis around the black evangelical voices Matthews has unearthed. Yet simply bringing them to the surface is a significant achievement. Historians of evangelicalism can no longer ignore this important part of the story.

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