How did white evangelicals outside the South encounter black people or black culture during the era of Jim Crow? Judging from anecdotal evidence I’ve come across, it seems as though the primary point of contact was through music—the so-called “Negro spirituals.”
I’ve just seen a particularly striking example of how white evangelicals of this era might use an imagined version of black culture as a source of humor, entertainment, and cheap sentiment. A student literary society at a white evangelical college put on a program in 1928, described below:
The first selection is a piano arrangement of Southern songs. Their crooning melody stirs every heart. We seem to visualize a group of darkies around a cabin door beneath a harvest moon, and to hear the soft strumming of a guitar. This vision is then described in reality in an educational talk on Southern life by one who has been a missionary among the mountain folk of Kentucky. A lullaby for pickaninnies, sung by one of our members, delights us next.
Thus far there has been a sentimental tone to our program. Now a humorous note appears in a reading on that subject so near to the negro heart (and stomach): watermelons. Intermittent chuckles are still heard as the secretary announces a negro spiritual by the male quartet. The bass rumbles, the tenor pleads, the baritone calls triumphantly, the plaintive tune delighting yet gripping the audience. Another reading, this time from that friend of white as well as black children, Uncle Remus, is greeted by reminiscent smiles and applause. A negro mammy’s song sung with clarinet obligato closes the program.
What’s striking to me is the utter isolation and indifference exhibited here. In an era of lynching and grinding oppression, they’re able to wring entertainment and sentimentality out of the imagined lives of black people. They appear to know nothing about the actual circumstances of African Americans and they’re so far from caring that they don’t even know 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).
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.
Here’s another installment of the ever-popular “take a picture with a white college student and a random cute black kid and turn it into an advertisement” genre.
I wrote about a similar ad before. This one is from 1973. Part of what makes this noxious is that it’s a moment when black students were still controversial on Christian college campuses. But adorable black children used for advertisements to recruit more white students? I guess that sounded like a winning formula.
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:
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:
In Winthrop Jordan’s classic 1968 book, White Over Black, he describes the cultural and religious associations English people gave to the colors white and black in the late medieval and early modern period:
In England perhaps more than in southern Europe, the concept of blackness was loaded with intense meaning. Long before they found that some men were black, Englishmen found in the idea of blackness a way of expressing some of their most ingrained values. No other color except white conveyed so much emotional impact. As described by the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of black before the sixteenth century included, “Deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul…Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister…Foul, iniquitous, atrocious, horrible, wicked…Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment, etc.” Black was an emotionally partisan color, the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion.
Embedded in the concept of blackness was its direct opposite—whiteness. No other colors so clearly implied opposition, “beinge coloures utterlye contrary”; no others were so frequently used to denote polarization…
White and black connoted purity and filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beauty and ugliness, beneficence and evil, God and the devil.
There’s a longstanding debate about how exactly these associations mattered in the development of modern racial thinking. In any case, we do know that for much of American history many white Christians believed that blackness was literally a curse from God.
These attitudes have receded slowly and stubbornly. Their endurance is suggested by the frequency with which white evangelicals use whiteness and blackness as metaphor in the context of religion, without consciously realizing that they may be forming their racial imagination in the process.
In the fall of 1972, a white student at California Baptist College published a poem in the student newspaper. It’s a doozy:
These descriptions are not commonsense. They’re not the least bit natural. They’re informed by this young woman’s cultural, racial, and religious inheritance. Composing this poem was no doubt an act of sincere worship on the part of this student. That’s precisely what makes it chilling.
This is why African Americans in the civil rights era had to say “black is beautiful.”
Next Friday I’ll be at Rutgers-Camden to give a talk about how some white evangelicals used their colleges to respond to the upheavals of the 1960s and forge a presence in the American city. It will be interesting to get some feedback from scholars of other fields/disciplines. Fingers crossed!
On the side of the building next to the abandoned lot are scrawled the words, “God is good.” The white evangelical student newspaper in which this photo appeared described the scene this way: “The goodness of God attempts to infiltrate Philadelphia.”
This simple sentence is an apt characterization of how white evangelicals have often imagined the modern city. The city is the space where God isn’t. White evangelicals might bring God into the city, especially in temporary forays—“invasion” as another white evangelical student newspaper put it—but God is not indigenous to the city. And the people resident there—especially in the “inner” city—are benighted and needy.
In this theological imagination, the city is a fount of wickedness and disorder, a threat to physical safety and good morals. It must be “infiltrated” by the forces of light. And the forces of light are usually white.
Imagined in this way, the indigenous work of God and his people in the city are discounted.
It may seem that I’m making too much of a single photograph. But there is more evidence where this came from, believe me! What’s at issue here is not the good intentions of these white evangelical students, but the entrenched theological and cultural associations that hinder productive action in urban contexts.
Bad theology has political consequences. I personally know of white evangelicals who sincerely believed during the campaign that Donald Trump had productive plans to help the so-called “inner city.” They took such a dim view of the city and its people that they couldn’t see Trump’s insults for what they were. Their detachment from the work of God in the city was so complete that they believed the rhetoric of racist paternalism showed Christian concern.
I am grateful to know many evangelicals of all backgrounds who have a very different theology of the city. They give me hope.
On a more academic note, I need to read more about the history of the city in the evangelical imagination. This is an embarrassing gap in my knowledge. Are the roots of these negative associations to be found in 19th century industrialization and mass immigration? Or even farther back? I see the pervasive negative connotations in the sources from my time frame (1960s-1990s) but the backstory is not clear to me. This is especially confusing because the early twentieth century fundamentalist movement seems to have thrived in urban centers. What’s the story here?
John Fea has been reporting on his experiences at last week’s “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference. The gathering took as its theme a revisiting of Mark Noll’s classic book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (the scandal is that there is no such thing as an evangelical mind). In a post yesterday titled “Evangelicalism as a Mission Field for Evangelical Scholars,” Fea reports that Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith really brought the heat in the final plenary session:
Very early in his talk Smith announced that “everything going on in this conference has no connection whatsoever to evangelical churches.” He was right.
Smith began by addressing the “elephant in room.” Up until this point all of the speakers danced around the links between the the so-called “scandal of the evangelical mind” and Donald J. Trump. Smith called out the 81% of American evangelicals who voted for the current POTUS and even gave a shout-out to my work on the “court evangelicals.”
Smith was not optimistic about the state of the evangelical mind. The “evangelical mind,” he lamented, is a “minority report at best.” If such an evangelical mind does exist, it is found almost entirely in “confessional groups.” In other words, it is not thriving, or perhaps even existing, in non-denominational churches. These congregations have grown from 194,000 in 1990 to eight million today. According to Smith, those concerned about the evangelical mind should be devoted to closing the gap between the scholarly world and these churches. Evangelicalism, he argued, is a “mission field for evangelical scholars.”
Following Smith’s call will require boldness on the part of Christian scholars. Smith urged us to consider a “scholarship for the masses,” a “scholarship without condescension,” an “outreach scholarship, and a “translation scholarship.” Our work with the church should be something akin to the work we do in undergraduate classroom teaching. Smith imagined bringing our general education programs into the churches
Smith calls Christian scholars to critique American evangelicalism while at the same time working for reform. The Christian Right, he said, is “invested in the anti-intellectualism of evangelical churches.” They rely on non-thinking Christians in order to advance their political agendas. The fulfillment of Smith’s vision will require evangelical scholars to stay in their churches and engage in a “come alongside scholarship.” He reminded us that “you can’t be a prophet on your way out the door.” Such work will require scholars dedicated to the church, Christian colleges and universities willing to provide time to faculty who want to pursue this work, and patrons willing to fund such an effort.
This really resonates with me, but I’m not optimistic in the near term. It often seems that the space has all but closed for evangelical scholars to do work that is both appealing to ordinary evangelicals and committed to intellectual integrity. We want to serve a constituency that doesn’t want to be served. We want to serve God with our minds, and many of our co-religionists find the very idea absurd.
This is also an intellectual problem for my dissertation because part of what I’m exploring is evangelical colleges. At the outset of my work, I just assumed that they mattered, that they have real influence in evangelicalism. But I’ve become increasingly skeptical of claims of broad influence. It seems that most evangelical colleges are either largely impotent in their attempts to reach the evangelical mainstream and they’re actually training students for roles outside evangelicalism, or they are not actually fostering the intellectual and social environment they imagine themselves to be creating. Maybe it’s a little of both.
There is still hope for evangelicalism. The movement that has transformed into an anti-intellectual crusade of hatred and fear is—broadly speaking—the movement that contributed to America’s religious disestablishment in the 18th century and paved the way to abolition in the 19th century. And beyond its often positive social and political effects, evangelicalism has always captured something essential about the Christian life. It has scorned respectable religion and insisted that an encounter with Jesus radiates outward through the whole life, engaging the heart, the mind, and every dimension of our being.
We are witnessing the splintering and shrinking of evangelicalism, but what is being lost is dead weight, worse than useless for the Kingdom of God. And as any good evangelical should know, nothing is reborn until it dies.
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.
For some reason, a white evangelical college in the 1990s thought this photo made good sense in their recruitment brochure:
If you come to our school, you too can be surrounded by flowers and adorable black children. You will feel so good about yourself.
For those of us who are slow on the uptake, let me just spell out one way this is weird. This is an ad for college. Maybe there would be, you know, black college students there? Who is this little girl, and why is she in a field of flowers with this woman?
In all seriousness, white evangelicals have often found it easier to direct their ministries toward black children than to work collaboratively with black adults. The former allows paternalism to go unchecked, while the latter requires white evangelicals to be open to change.