A 9-Year-Old’s Poem

This is a poem my 9-year-old son wrote this afternoon. Seriously, he wrote it really fast:

The fire burned

They were too late

We never knew it would

cross the river

People fled

but one stood up

Raised everybody’s spirits

as we rose

we scratched the sky

But two stood out

You could barely tell the

difference of height

The great city of Chicago

LGBT Rights and the Future of Evangelicalism

Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Behold the President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse:

Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman—not two men, not two women. 2/3— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) April 24, 2019

I am not going to spend a lot of energy on Franklin Graham’s hypocrisy. It’s exhausting already. Most of us who are not in his bubble find it hard to credit that he cares a great deal about what the Bible says. Trump supporters should not expect their moral claims to be taken seriously in any case. But I do have other questions:

How do Graham’s anti-gay views position him in the evolving world of evangelicalism? Is he the old guard that’s passing away? Does he represent a committed minority that is not going to change any time soon?

There has been a lot of talk about generational change in evangelicalism, but “evangelicals are becoming more liberal and diverse and concerned about a broader range of moral issues” is the kind of evergreen story that seems to be written every year, and every year the consummation of this shift remains just beyond the horizon. I expect men (yes, men in particular) like Graham to continue to have a large platform for decades to come.

But my best guess is that they’ll speak for a smaller constituency. An anti-gay evangelicalism will necessarily be a marginalized community in many ways. But even if the evangelical mainstream was to become thoroughly pro-LGBT tomorrow, it’s not clear it would arrest the decline of the movement. The numbers for self-identified evangelicals by age cohort are brutal (as they are for mainline churches as well). American Christians are old, and getting older.

There’s no question that white evangelicals are becoming more accepting of LGBT rights. A solid majority now favors legal protections for LGBT people, a remarkable turnaround from the days when most evangelicals spoke openly about wanting to punish LGBT people for their “lifestyle.”

And younger white evangelicals are indeed leading the way: “A substantial majority (63%) of young white evangelical Protestants (ages 18-29) favor LGBT nondiscrimination protections, compared to less than half (45%) of white evangelical Protestant seniors (ages 65 and older).”

But this polling doesn’t actually tell us that many white evangelicals would disagree with Graham. They might not want gay people kicked out of their apartments, and they might think “homosexuality is not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized.” Indeed, most white evangelicals continue to oppose gay marriage: “About one-third (34%) of white evangelical Protestants support same-sex marriage today, while six in ten (60%) are opposed, including 30% who are strongly opposed. There are notable generational gaps among white evangelical Protestants: four in ten (40%) of those under age 50 favor same-sex marriage, compared to 27% of those ages 50 and over.”

There is clearly some measure of generational change, but none of these questions cut to the core claim Graham is trying to make: in his view, homosexuality is sinful. On that point, most white evangelicals of all ages agree with him.

As Sarah Pulliam Bailey wrote:

Some evangelicals believe there’s a difference between supporting gay marriage as a public policy matter and gay marriage as sanctioned by churches. A large majority of white evangelicals (including younger generations) continue to see homosexual relations as morally wrong, according to the General Social Survey.

The 2016 survey found 75 percent of white evangelicals saying homosexual sexual relations are always or nearly always wrong. That number is down from 82 percent in 1996 and 90 percent in 1987. The survey does not show a large generational gap, however. In 2014-2016 surveys, 70 percent of Generation X/millennial white evangelicals said same-sex sexual relations are nearly always or always wrong, compared to 81 percent of baby boomers/older generations.

The future of evangelicalism could be pro-LGBT, but it seems at least as likely that pro-LGBT Christians will simply stop identifying as evangelical. White evangelicalism will be a smaller, older movement, and its historic grievances and blind spots will persist. For Franklin Graham, hatred and all manner of cruelty can be excused in service of larger political goals. But a man loving a man–well, that’s just too much. We have to draw a line somewhere!

Abortion Concern In Evangelicalism Is Primarily A Rhetorical Move

I was paging through Ed Stetzer’s new book some weeks ago and was reminded of these astonishing bits of data from that big Lifeway/Billy Graham Center research project last year: in the 2016 election, only 5% of “evangelicals by belief”* cited the candidate’s position on abortion rights as the most important factor in their vote. Much larger numbers of “evangelicals by belief” went to the polls with the same concerns as non-evangelical Americans: the economy, health care, immigration, and national security (these results are for all evangelicals by belief, not just white evangelicals).

But let’s be as fair as possible. 7% of evangelicals by belief also cited supreme court nominees as their most important consideration; abortion may have loomed large for those voters. And it’s possible that many evangelicals approached the election with abortion as a secondary or tertiary concern that factored into their vote. Still, I find these results remarkable. When evangelicals are asked to name the most important thing determining their vote, abortion barely registers. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that abortion plays a rhetorical function in right-wing politics out of all proportion to its actual power to drive evangelical moral concern.

As the 2020 election approaches, you’ll hear a lot of commentary about abortion and binary choices and the lesser of two evils. There are a small number of evangelicals who are sincere in their commitment to protect the unborn. With them I have no quibble. Though I disagree with many of their tactics and am concerned about pervasive sexism in the pro-life movement, protecting the unborn is a noble and righteous work. But the tenor of evangelical political discourse in the coming year and half will be an elaborate gaslighting effort. For most white evangelicals, abortion is a rhetorical shield to avoid answering for their enthusiastic embrace of an evil ruler.

A recent Foxnews poll highlights this again. White evangelicals broadly have warm and happy feelings toward Trump and his administration’s policies! Most white evangelicals seem to like racism and have unusual amounts of fear and hatred toward people who are not like them. Some results from that poll, among white evangelicals:

77% approve of Trump’s job performance.

75% have a favorable opinion of Trump himself.

3% think abortion is the biggest issue facing the country today. 33% think immigration is the biggest issue facing the country.

38% think the Trump administration is “not tough enough” on illegal immigrants; another 40% think it’s “about right.”

71% support building a wall on the border.

92% would be satisfied if Trump receives the 2020 Republican nomination (so much for the binary choice defense!). [Clarification: this question obviously only includes white evangelicals who are Republican primary voters].

Abortion is a very serious moral problem with no easy solutions. It is a shame that its primary role in evangelical politics is as cover for shameful behavior.

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*The survey defined respondents as “evangelical by belief” if they “strongly agree” with the following statements:

The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe

It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior

Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin

Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation

The survey seemed designed to rehabilitate evangelical reputations in the age of Trump, but instead it only reinforced the evidence that, broadly speaking, mainstream polls of self-identified evangelicals provide a roughly accurate picture of opinion. As data has consistently shown in recent years, more committed evangelical churchgoers tend to be more committed Trump supporters.

In Appreciation of David Brion Davis

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David Brion Davis has passed away. I first encountered his books some ten years ago, well before I decided to become a historian. When I read Inhuman Bondage, I was mesmerized. It wasn’t just his command of facts or the clarity of his interpretations. It was the sense that he wrote with a nuance and understanding of humanity that was as much philosophical and theological as historical. I’m sure it was because of books like this that I began to contemplate the possibilities of history as a profession.

Read the first chapter of Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s a discussion of the meaning of dehumanization and animalization in American slavery that ranges across history, psychology, and theology to draw a portrait not merely of a particular moment in time, but of the human condition we all share. Davis was interested in whether humans who were treated and spoken of as animals “were ever literally seen as ‘only animals.'” He joins Kwame Anthony Appiah in arguing that the answer is no, that indeed, the excesses of cruelty humans inflict on each other while calling them lice or cockroaches and the like suggests a recognition of their humanity. You don’t bother trying to humiliate a cockroach. Thus we have the invention of “animalized humans” as seen in the Americas, in Germany, in Rwanda. Davis writes,

Given the Nazi example, it is worth noting that the antipode of this animalizing can be seen in a universal tendency to project our potentiality for self-transcendence, freedom, and striving for perfection onto images of kings, dictators, demagogues, and cultural heroes of various kinds. This form of idolatry, which ancient Judaism fortunately singled out as the most dangerous sin facing humanity, can also appear in various kinds of narcissism and egocentrism, as when an individual imagines that he is godlike and free from all taint of finitude and corruption…

This is a history book? Yes! And it’s great.

In any event, the creation of “animalized humans” can produce a mental state in the victimizers and spectators that disconnects the neural sources of human identification, empathy, and compassion, the very basis for the Golden Rule and all human ethics. In extreme cases, this means the ability to engage in torture or extermination without a qualm. But the focus on extreme cases can obscure the fact, emphasized by David Livingstone Smith, that “we are all potential dehumanizers, just as we are potential objects of dehumanization.” No doubt many situations arise, especially in war, where people kill or inflict pain without misgivings and without any explicit animalization. But the victims must still be dehumanized in similar ways. And animalization, which also appears in such group differentiations as class, caste, and ethnicity, as well as race, clearly makes the process easier for large collective groups.

Davis was always interested in the universal human condition. But he gave no reprieve to the specific pathologies of America:

The psychological mechanism of animalization has been so deeply implanted in white culture, with respect to African Americans, that most white Americans have been unaware of their usually unconscious complicity as well as the significant benefits they have reaped from their ‘transcendent whiteness.’

I don’t want to derail an appreciation of a great historian, but I will note at this point that understanding Davis helps us to see more clearly how the current administration is not merely misguided or incompetent, but is in fact a profoundly evil enterprise playing with the worst of our human impulses.

Davis lived an extraordinary life. He was a World War Two veteran! He has written humbly about his awakening to racism through his own very uncomfortable experiences with black troops as a young soldier. His life bridged very different social and historiographical eras, from Jim Crow and a history of slavery encrusted in myth and racism, to a flourishing post-civil rights era historiography bursting with new insights and anti-racist perspectives. He did more than his share in bringing about this momentous change.

It is fitting that the great historian of abolition, Manisha Sinha, just published a long and respectful reappraisal of Davis’s career in the February issue of the American Historical Review. In the conclusion of that piece Sinha wrote, “nearly all historians of abolition must still begin with Davis’s initial attempt to delineate it.” Not a bad legacy.

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.


Checking In On Temple’s New Library

I have an ignorant layperson’s interest in architecture. I know just enough to make myself dangerous. I can throw around a few words—cantilever! curtain wall!—while remaining blissfully ignorant of the actual mechanics of the things they describe.

So my take on this library is not to be taken seriously. I’m just interested in it. There’s lots of gray stone (is it real though?). There’s glass on top. The roof curves. These are my insights. Here’s what it’s supposed to look like when it’s done:

Looking into the atrium at night.
The plaza in front of the main entrance.

And here’s what it looks like now:

It is no coincidence that the renderings highlight the library in the evening. Much will depend on how the light plays off the wood that extends from inside the atrium to the curving roofs above the East and West entrances. How will it look at noon on a sunny day? Hopefully it feels warm and inviting at all times. It seems to me there’s a risk of it feeling like a gray monolith, as you see here on the West side:

That’s…kinda bleak! And a little too much like a forbidding wall. So, the entrances will make or break the exterior. Here’s how the smaller Southeast entrance looks now:

You can’t really see it in this photo, but that wood paneling will extend right through the atrium and out to the larger entrance on the other side. It might end up looking really good. And here’s the entrance on the East side:

Of course, all of this has little to do with how students and the public will actually experience the new library. In keeping with the times, Temple is going to put the vast majority of its circulating collection in an “Automated Storage and Retrieval System.” Though there will be traditional shelves on the top floor of the new library, most of the books will be hidden away. If you want to check something out, you’ll have to find it in the catalogue and ask the robot to get it for you. So much for serendipity in the stacks.

There have been so many times that I have found useful books simply by browsing a subject area in person, books that I failed to locate when doing keyword and subject searches in the catalogue. Maybe I’m just bad at this digital stuff, but I lament the passing of large physically accessible collections.* The exterior of this building will be a centerpiece of Temple’s campus for decades to come, but it’s even more important that its insides accomplish what libraries ought to do. In this digital era, the traditional “oughts” are up for negotiation, and I’m grumpy about it! Another sign of the times? The forthcoming Obama Presidential Library isn’t actually going to have papers on site. Don’t get me started on how stupid this is.

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*This guy tells me my feeling of serendipity is actually a problem, so who knows.)

Highlights from the OAH

The Octavius Catto Memorial outside Philadelphia’s City Hall (I took this picture!)

Last week I was at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. It was great to be in such an intellectually stimulating environment. Writing a dissertation is for many of us a long and isolating slog. It was refreshing to think and talk about big ideas with great historians. It was also nice to see the wide range of opinion stretching from left all the way to center left (I kid, but only a little). Here are some idiosyncratic highlights.

I think there remains a lot of angst about the place of historians in an era of declining support for humanities and the flourishing of anti-reality politics. At one panel, a historian in the audience plaintively asked how we could convince people what we do is important. Well, good luck with that.

Someone who I think feels this angst, and has tried to respond decisively to it, is Jill Lepore. I thoroughly enjoyed a roundtable gathered to discuss Lepore’s new history of the United States, These Truths. For all her intellectual brilliance and sterling prose, at bottom Lepore seems to have an idealistic—I fear naive—hope in the power of truth and reason to overcome falsehood and fear. Can books like These Truths provide the American public an antidote to the alluring racist mythologies of Trumpism? Lepore thinks we’ve at least got to try.

At the end of the roundtable, after hearing her colleagues’ praise and criticism (more on that below) she concluded with an impassioned call for historians to do the hard work of constructing stories of national identity that the American public can grab onto. One of the criticisms of grand syntheses is that they seem inevitably to simplify, and worse, exclude. But Lepore believes we must be willing to take these risks. Nationalism is not going away. Publics will not do without stories that anchor identity. If historians do not engage the public and provide responsible stories based in fact and a vision of the common good, racist nationalism stands waiting in the wings.

I find Lepore’s vision convincing in spite of the problems with her book. (I should clarify that I haven’t read it! But I will.) Randall Kennedy said he would like to see more about the 1875 Civil Rights Act and the Supreme Court’s striking down of it in 1883. Everyone, of course, has their pet causes, but this one seems especially worthy of more attention. It is striking to read the public debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and see the extent to which the legal history of Reconstruction had completely vanished from the public mind. Though Southern senators were well aware of the 1880s Supreme Court precedents in their favor, I don’t think the American public knew (or knows now) that the federal government enacted the principle of nondiscrimination in public accommodations in 1875. Understanding this makes the struggle for equality appear so much more contingent and open-ended than facile “time has come” stories.

David Hollinger did not hide his admiration, saying “This is a great book.” He encouraged critics to imagine going page by page, thinking about how they might present the story better. Of course they might be able to in a few areas of their expertise. But then, Hollinger said, do that 700 times. Still, Hollinger thought Lepore gives short shrift to religion and immigration in the 20th century.

Jeff Pasley seemed to think Lepore was too nostalgic about the possibilities of truth winning out over lies. In Lepore’s vision, Murrow and Cronkite preside over the midcentury scene with responsibly furrowed eyebrows.

But the most interesting response came from Malinda Lowery, who blasted the book for its exclusion of American Indians. It’s not that tales of atrocity and resistance are literally absent; it’s that Lepore’s vision of national identity and expanding civil rights is notably misaligned with the realities of Indian sovereignty claims and treaty rights. To put it simply, how do you construct a national story when there are so many nations within the borders of the American state? This question, informed by settler colonial studies, has not entered the public consciousness in the way the African American experience has. As much as slavery and Jim Crow trouble the American conscience, writing these experiences into a national story of rights-expansion is not so difficult. American Indian experiences burst out of this framework and upset grand narratives. Lepore said, with I think evident sincerity, that this critique has kept her up at night.

Ok, I said this was going to be OAH highlights but that was all about one panel. Continuing the theme of angst about historians’ role in this moment, a plenary session brought together a panel of journalists and historians to discuss how they can learn from each other and work together (I think this is the nice way of putting it). Tom Gjelten of NPR bluntly said that some historians do a good job of engaging the public, but many don’t. This didn’t sit particularly well with a roomful of historians, nor with panelist Danielle McGuire. There ensued an in-the-room version of the digital uproar of a few weeks ago when Max Boot dared to criticize historians for failing the public.

There are lots of reasons to think that the picture is not as clear as Gjelten painted it, but I’m less interested in those than in the opportunity critiques like Gjelten’s and Boot’s give us to be self-critical as a community of scholars. Obviously it would have been very foolish for Gjelten (while sitting two chairs down from Danielle McGuire of all people!) to say categorically that historians do not engage the public. But that’s not what he said. He said some are good at this and some aren’t. Instead of firing back with all the reasons it’s harder for us to access mainstream popular spaces than he realizes, why don’t we pause and see if the shoe fits?

Let’s be honest. Our training and incentive structure in the academy do not reward the quick-on-your-feet writing and thinking that popular engagement may require. And if you’ve sat through graduate seminars, you can’t tell me that you haven’t seen colleagues slip into the safety and allure of specialized impenetrable jargon. Some of us never recover! Some of us couldn’t write for the public to save our lives. This isn’t to say that all historians all the time should be trying to reach the public. That would be disastrous for the work of scholarship. But it is to say that maybe we as a collective community of scholars can ponder whether we have created an environment that is really good at churning out specialized monographs, but produces too few Lepores and McGuires. The high appreciation Ta-Nehisi Coates has received from historians in recent years is due to his open reliance on their work. But doesn’t this praise carry with it the admission that we needed a translator?

I think what is interesting about this debate is how emotional it is. Historians feel threatened in this moment. We must be willing to turn our practiced critical eye not only toward our historical subjects, but ourselves. There is more to be said (I only mentioned two panels!) but I’ll leave it there for now.

Recent Fiction Roundup

In the past couple months I’ve been on a bit of a fiction binge. This isn’t normal for me but I’ve needed an escape from my work and TV doesn’t seem to work anymore. My approach to fiction-reading is not particularly sophisticated. I browse the prizewinner lists and go from there.

Here’s a roundup of my reading binge. As is always the case when people share what they are reading, this is partly an exercise in vanity. But it also reflects my curious impulse to see the book covers gathered in one place.

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The full title of this book might as well be Union Atlantic: This is America (and It’s as Bad as You Feared). Some of the themes in Adam Haslett’s more recent book are evident here, but without the redeeming factor of being truly interesting. A depressing book with a revolting character who, as so often in our time (or every time?), never really receives the comeuppance you wish for him.

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A slow-burning, small story that didn’t grab me. At the end Maud finally seems poised to escape her suffocating existence. But getting there is a dreary catalogue punctuated by sex. Lots of sex. The picture painted of Indian life in 1920s Oklahoma is fascinating even if it doesn’t seem to burst into full color.

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A beautiful book. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The two women at the center of the story seem almost like archetypes, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

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The first half of this book expertly carried a sense of looming calamity. But after the cathartic event, the second half of the book flagged. I also got tired of everyone stumbling around drunk all night and sleeping all day. Lots of people go to college without living like this! I enjoyed The Goldfinch more (but that one was strange too!)

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A weird and wonderful book. With Franzen, it may be strange and obnoxious, but you don’t want to put it down. Definitely better than his first one, and I think on the level of his later more highly-regarded books.

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This is the one I’m getting into now. So far it has a really appealing tone: light, unassuming, very accessible.

Tom Skinner and Evangelical Conversion Narratives

Tom Skinner’s story is a classic evangelical conversion narrative. A boy coming up in Harlem becomes the hardened leader of a notorious street gang. With his mixture of toughness and strategic thinking, the gang never loses a fight while he’s in charge, and all 129 members, are, as Skinner put it, “eating out of my hand.” Skinner claimed he enforced discipline in the gang with brutal efficiency. He “had personally broken the arms and legs” of two would-be quitters, and claimed to have 22 notches on his knife, one for each of the people his blade had cut. Then, the night before the biggest “rumble” of them all, he hears a radio broadcast and is miraculously converted to Christianity, becoming a “new creation in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Tom Skinner’s story is compelling. But is it true? Or is that the wrong question?

Exaggerated or not, white evangelicals ate Skinner’s tale of redemption up. It fit a pattern of evangelical conversion narratives in which the more gratuitously sinful one’s former life could be shown to be, the more glory abounded to the grace of God. Skinner used his experiences in Harlem, real or imagined, to connect with black audiences and claim understanding of their struggles. For white evangelicals, Skinner’s evil escapades testified to the power of the gospel and signaled that when they supported Skinner they were supporting someone who really understood the ghetto and could speak its language.

I have read many authors, from white evangelicals to professional historians, uncritically repeat the claim that Skinner was a former gang leader. I never questioned the claim until just this week when I finally got around to reading Skinner’s first book, Black and Free. The tone of the book and the extraordinary nature of some of the details strained my credulity.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Skinner was not a former gang leader. But it’s also not clear to me that anyone has ever independently confirmed this. The only hint I could find of someone questioning Skinner’s claims is this obscure interview with a man who claims to be a former Harlem Lord’s member and says Skinner was lying. There is no particular reason to take his word over Skinner’s, however.

Skinner’s first book does not date his conversion, but a 1964 New York Times article quotes him saying, “I myself belonged to the Harlem Lords before I was converted, and I was mugging people in back alleys. But in 1956 I invited Jesus Christ into my life, when I heard a man tell about Him on the radio, and I became a new person.” It may be suggestive that he says he “belonged” and does not say, as he did in his book four years later, that he was the leader for 2 years. It’s also worth noting that a conversion date of 1956 would make Skinner all of 13 or 14 years old at the time he left the gang. It is possible for a 13 or 14 year old to break both the arms and legs of two other youths, but I find it hard to believe. The comic book story of Skinner’s life (which is a wild document by the way!) later produced by Tom Skinner Associates claims he joined the Harlem Lords when he was 14. This seems to be a discrepancy. Perhaps the Times misquoted him and his conversion was in 1958, at the age of 16?

I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on this. I’m interested in hearing from anyone who may have looked into sources I have not. Unfortunately, I haven’t looked at Skinner’s papers at Wheaton. But my point is a larger one: For those of us in the historical profession, we can’t take autobiographical claims at face value, even when we admire the person we’re writing about. For the historian, what really happened in Tom Skinner’s Harlem childhood is less consequential than the fact that what was said to have happened to him became so important for his ministry.