Tom Skinner Was Not The Evangelical Radical You’re Looking For

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The black evangelist Tom Skinner has often been portrayed as a kind of radical figure who challenged white evangelicals to confront racism. His speech at the 1970 Urbana Conference is particularly famous (that is, famous in the small world of black evangelical history).

It seems to me this reputation glosses over significant changes over time and evolution in Skinner’s thought. When he burst on the scene in 1966, he was a more complicated figure than the radical image implies. His views in 1970 should not be retroactively applied to the 1966-1968 period. Here’s an excerpt from an in-progress draft of a dissertation chapter:

Skinner represented a new kind of bridge figure between white evangelicalism and African Americans. It had long been the case, as Bob Harrison complained, that black Christians were encouraged to minister among their own people and steer clear of challenging white entitlement to spiritual authority. But white evangelicals did not imagine Skinner’s evangelistic crusades through the traditional parameters of segregated ministries. In fact, when Skinner came to town for a crusade, local white evangelical college students were encouraged to help out. Simply by supporting Skinner they were doing something meaningful about the nation’s racial troubles. He was less an outcast from white evangelicalism, as Harrison had sometimes felt himself to be in the 40s and 50s, and more an ambassador. Said Christianity Today, “Skinner has created a great deal of interest among evangelicals who worry vaguely that they might be missing the boat.”[1] In this project Skinner’s blackness was crucial and revealing of the ways the civil rights movement had upset racial norms in evangelicalism. Bob Harrison’s blackness had made him an outsider. Skinner’s blackness enabled him to act as a liminal figure, a provisional insider in two religio-racial communities at once. By the summer of 1967, Christianity Today was telling its readers that Skinner deserved their “fullest support.”[2]

Skinner was not afraid to make white evangelicals uncomfortable. They were “almost totally irresponsible” in their avoidance of their black brethren, and it was only the pressures of the civil rights movement that had belatedly stirred them from their complacency. He blasted white evangelicals who piously intoned that “Jesus was the answer” while refusing to get involved in the problem. Skinner believed Jesus was the answer too. But he had skin in the game, and he expected other evangelicals to join him. Yet it was precisely this supplicatory undertone that made Skinner’s criticisms manageable. For all the discomfort his words could cause, he did not doubt that white evangelicals had the correct theology on the point that mattered most, and he asked them to help him bring their theology to the ghetto. Christianity Today approvingly noted that Skinner “plays down social insurgence in his sermons because he feels that reform may take ‘sixty years’ but that regeneration through Christ can help now.”[3] To put it baldly, converted Negroes were not rioting Negroes.

Remarkably, Skinner’s criticisms of white evangelicals were tame compared to his open contempt for the black church. He described most black churches as bastions of excessive emotionalism and spiritual immaturity, led by ministers given over to sexual immorality and hypocrisy.[4] As a result, he claimed, “There is hardly any Christian witness in the ghetto.”[5] There’s little reason to suppose Skinner’s hostility toward the black church was anything but sincere, but it also proved useful. It flattered white evangelical assumptions of religio-racial superiority….

I’m still working out where I’m going with this.


[1] “The Gospel with Candor,” Christianity Today, October 14, 1966, 53-54.

[2] “Summer of Racial Discontent,” Christianity Today, July 21, 1967, 27

[3] “The Gospel with Candor,” Christianity Today, October 14, 1966, 53-54.

[4] Skinner, Black and Free, 45-53.

[5] Skinner, Black and Free, 32.


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