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.

Writing a Dissertation? Take Time To Remember Why You’re Doing It.

It is remarkable to think about how often we approach our work in a spirit of fear. At least, that’s my story. The fears run along well-worn tracks at this point: I’ll never finish this dissertation; I don’t have what it takes; it’s so big one day of work isn’t going to make a difference; and at the end of it my reward is an impossible job market.

There are joys to consider: I love to explore the past and learn new things; writing is really hard but it’s also really rewarding to create something that didn’t exist before; history is a longtime hobby of mine and now I get paid to do my hobby! Not to mention this is my God-given vocation.

But sometimes all the joys are overshadowed and you’re left with the fears. On those days, you might need to do something else entirely, or do something that I call dissertation-adjacent. It may not be the most productive use of your time. It may not move the ball forward very much. But it may be a means of finding your way back into the material with a new spark. You’ve got to remember why you went into this in the first place, and if you can’t remember, maybe you should just stop for a while.

Today was a dissertation-adjacent day for me. Or at least, it started out that way. My dissertation looked like a big giant monster that wanted to eat my soul. So I did something else. I started trawling through old student newspapers from an evangelical college. At some point I ought to look at these particular newspapers anyway, but they’re certainly not at the top of the writing or research agenda this summer. I wasn’t supposed to be doing this today. But it was a way to try to recover the spark. And besides, I might find some useful material.

I ended up with a lot of useful sources, a new chapter outline, and some great quotes. Joy.

I’ll share an example. In the early 1970s there is a particular genre of article from black students at evangelical colleges that keeps appearing at a lot of institutions. These students are trying to find some way of communicating to the white students that it is really hard to be black there, and that the campus needs to change. Part of what makes these letters so poignant is that they are, on the one hand, a unique product of this particular radical moment when young black people were taking new pride in their identities and, on the other hand, often read as though they could have been written yesterday (because white evangelical environments remain oppressive today).

cc r.e.a. 1971

This particular black student began modestly: “I am not a writer,” he wrote. But he had a lot to say nonetheless. Here are some choice lines:

If only for a moment the true and living God would allow and grant to you, to your world, and this community the insight, the vision to see the living, the creeping, the stalking devastation brought into existence, given life and perpetually sustained by you, by your world and the character of your world. That character is Imposition. You have imposed your whiteness over and upon my blackness in your oak-like concepts, ideals and values…

How have you done this? Please try this question, is there anything black in, of or about [this] College besides its six black students or did you know how many of us there were? Why is this?…

few of you will understand this statement: THE AFFIRMATION OF OUR BLACKNESS AND OUR HUMANITY IN BLACK IS A BEAUTIFUL, LONG AWAITED GIFT FROM GOD.

And now I remember why I’m doing this.

Crusading Christians

For much of the twentieth century, many American Christians used the language of “crusade” in the context of evangelizing activity. I’d like to know more about the origins and uses of this language. I’m sure it has been thoroughly explored. Who should I read about this?

Billy Graham’s meetings were famously called “crusades.” Even in the late 1960s, the black evangelist Tom Skinner’s ministry was called “Tom Skinner Crusades.” It might seem obvious to us that American evangelists and (especially) missionaries overseas might find it counterproductive to speak in the language of “crusade” to describe what they were doing, but it wasn’t at all obvious to them. In fact, in some cases they were quite explicit in drawing on a medieval heritage that we might associate with violence and extremism. Here was the emblem of one Christian college in the mid-1960s:

northwest christian college bulletin 1964

On one level, you might suggest this is about as serious as a sports mascot. But I would argue it indicates a deeper perspective conflating Christianity and the heritage of the so-called “West.” There is an interesting gendered dimension to all of this, one that comes through really clearly when you see how the college announced students’ marriages:

ncc bulletin 1965 conquests

The Racist History of My Alma Mater

Jet March 19 1970 p30
Jet Magazine, March 19, 1970, 30.

Founders Week has always been the most important date on Moody Bible Institute’s calendar. It’s a celebration of the institution and its history and a time for alumni reunions. Normal classes are canceled and big-name guest speakers from the fundamentalist-evangelical world speak to large crowds at Moody Church. If you wanted to protest something, doing it during Founders Week would have maximum symbolic value.

During Founders Week 1970, black graduates Melvin Warren and Leona Jenkins staged a protest on the doorstep of the campus. Jenkins held a sign reading, “Woe unto you, hypocrites — Luke 11:44.” As any good MBI student knew, this was a reference to Jesus’s scathing rebuke of the Pharisees.

With a small crowd gathered on LaSalle street, the graduates tore up their Moody diplomas and tossed them in the trashcan. Warren said the protest was designed to draw attention to the “institutional white racism” of Moody Bible Institute.

Warren had specific allegations. He claimed that MBI segregated its dorms, prohibited interracial dating, and refused to let the neighborhood kids use the school’s gym facilities. National media picked up the story and added to the charges. Years earlier black members of Moody’s traveling choral groups had not been allowed to come when the group toured the South.

The administration responded with what it thought was exculpatory information. The local black kids couldn’t use the gym because of insurance issues, they explained. And yes, MBI used to code students’ profiles by race to make sure that students of different races weren’t assigned to the same dorm room, but they had stopped doing that over two years ago. And yes, MBI used to prohibit interracial dating but had dropped the ban four years ago (that apparently wasn’t true; the actual change seemed to have occurred in 1968). And it was true that black choral members had once been “asked” to stay behind because of the tensions in the South during the civil rights movement.

In other words, all the charges Melvin Warren made against the Institute were accurate. He described policies in place while he was a student there (he had graduate in 1969). Rather than indicating repentance for past wrongs or even rhetorical commitment to reform, the administration was defensive and self-righteous. The President released a statement acting as though Moody had always been a welcoming place for students of color.

The institute didn’t seem to realize that it had played footsie with heretical churches and had worked very hard to accommodate the greatest social evil of the age. The abject refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing was particularly striking from an institution professing to be based on the Word of God. Apparently repentance wasn’t so important to the biblical story after all.

The student body response was equally clueless. In an editorial calling for self-examination “to lay the foundation for a positive relationship of Christian fellowship and love,” the student newspaper reflected the ignorance of white students:

MBI has been accused of racism, and some here probably feel that those accusing the school are guilty of the same. By implication, the protestors condemned the whites at MBI for not loving their black Christian brothers and not treating them as equals. The natural rebuttal would be that those who demonstrated were not exhibiting love or feelings of equality either.

The people protesting racism are the real racists.

When I was a student at Moody this sordid past was not openly acknowledged. It was whispered in the dorm rooms. The story of the diploma-ripping seemed to me to rest in a space between truth and fiction; I wasn’t sure what was myth and reality, or what it meant. To be honest, I was too ignorant and racist to care. I guess I fit right in.

There’s nothing unusual about institutional self-protection. My current institution, Temple University, definitely doesn’t want you to know about the racism of its founder. But it’s far worse for a Christian institution to hide its past because doing so represents an institutional denial of the gospel. Christians do not glory in our perfect record; we boast in the power of Jesus to rescue and renew and remake the undeserving.

Past doesn’t have to be prologue. But if you don’t reckon with it, the past will haunt your present.

my friend the enemy

After encountering black evangelical William Pannell in the archives, I picked up his 1968 book, My Friend, the Enemy. It’s a fascinating read. Deeply relevant and contemporary in parts, while also being a clear product of the peculiar 1968 moment. If you think American society is more divided than ever, you don’t remember 1968. Pannell’s book came out in a time of rioting and violence and bitterness. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse and people really didn’t know where the bottom was.

In that moment, Pannell wrote with righteous anger to the white evangelical community (refer back to the title!). Pannell was deeply embedded in evangelicalism. A longtime professor at Fuller, he also worked with the campus ministry Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the black evangelist Tom Skinner, and had a hand in numerous other projects and organizations. He received his early education at Wayne Bible College, a white fundamentalist school in Indiana. He was straddling the often separate worlds of black and white evangelicalism.

According to a retrospective article from Fuller Studio, white colleagues who thought they knew Pannell were shocked when the book came out:

It came from some place so deep in Bill that longtime white friends said they did not believe he wrote it. One insisted it was written by an outside agitator, because “that’s just not the Bill Pannell that I knew.” Both had grown up in the same small Michigan town, so Bill’s reply was harsh but true: “That’s because you didn’t know Bill Pannell,” he said, “or the world I lived in.” It was possible for a white person to call Bill a “close friend” and still know little of a black man’s life in a white world. Often white colleagues would say, “We never thought of you as a negro.” That, he says, was supposed to have been a compliment.

Here are a few choice quotes from My Friend, The Enemy. On his Bible college days and indoctrination into white fundamentalism:

I sometimes shudder when I recall that upon registering at Bible College I signed up in the missions course. I didn’t dream that mission boards would not have accepted me anyhow. My involvement in white culture hadn’t prepared me for that eventuality. All I knew was that the blacker the person’s face, the more desperate his need of salvation…

On the kind of Christianity taught at many evangelical colleges:

Sadly for me, and conceivably for non-white students on similar campuses today, this conservative brand of Christianity perpetuates the myth of white supremacy. It tends also to associate Christianity with American patriotism (it’s called nationalism when we criticize it in Africa), free enterprise, and the Republican party. I hope this is not intentionally done although I have outgrown most of my naivete. It’s not brainwashing, of course, for this is not done systematically or calculatedly. But it is perversion and it is subversion, the former with reference to Christianity, the latter with reference to the minds of young Christians.

And finally, on his friends, his enemies:

Don’t preach love to me. Especially if you intend I do all the loving. Amazing how white people who have owned black people have a way of demanding that we love everybody. What right has the oppressor to demand that his victim be saved from sin? You may be scripturally and evangelistically correct, but you are ethically wrong. You have the right message, but your timing is off. You have forfeited the right to be heard. Physician, heal thyself.

Because you see, I know that the same conservative brother who refuses to link my social needs with his preaching of of the Gospel is the same man who lobbies against the Supreme Court, fluoride in the water, and pornographic literature. “Something,” he declares, “must be done about creeping socialism. We must speak out against the Communist menace, and by all means we must support the Dirksen Amendment on prayer in the public schools.”

But mention the inhumanity of a society which with unbelievable indifference imprisons the “souls of black folks,” and these crusaders begin mumbling about sin. All right. I’ll play the game, my brother. Whose sin shall we talk about?

From here it is easy to write the script, for these friends are conservative Northern Christians. Increasingly, these are the roughest people to understand. They are so elusive, so committed to being uncommitted. What amazing indignation is theirs when moral issues are far away! What profound silence when threatened by similar issues next door! How earnest are their discussion groups!

As if this wasn’t provocative enough, Pannell went on to defend black power. Despite being rooted in the circumstances of the late 60s, it’s hard to avoid the prophetic implications for our own time.