Published on June 8, 2020 by Douglas A. Sweeney  
Civil Rights Washington Wikimedia Commons
Civil Rights March on Washington D.C. // Wikimedia Commons

The following post is from a talk Dr. Douglas A. Sweeney gave last year in Chicago at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In it, Dean Sweeney was addressing a predominantly white, evangelical audience, and was trying to speak prophetically among them about the need to work together with brothers and sisters of color on matters of racial justice. We think that in light of the continued racial injustice and deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, this post would serve just as well here in Birmingham today. This is Part 1 of a three-part series.

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?...if you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers…Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!  (James 2:1-13)

Bloody racial and ethnic conflict has resurfaced yet again in America in recent years, captivating the media and calling down a storm of digital comments by people from nearly all walks of life. The violent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, the Charleston nine, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Heather Heyer, and several thousand others continue to break many hearts. According to the Washington Post, 996 people were shot and killed by police last year in the United States alone, only 400 of whom are known to be white. And according to the Officers Down Memorial Page on the web, 148 police died last year in the line of duty, many in the context of racial unrest. In the midst of all this tragedy, controversies rage over Black Lives Matter, “take a knee” protests, immigration reform, the treatment of undocumented workers and their children, and other, similar happenings, many of which have also led to violent altercations. And, of course, I am only scratching the surface of the hateful ethnic conflicts that are shaking our society today.

Where does all this hatred come from, many white Christians ask? How did we get to be stuck in such harmful patterns of violence? Is there no way out of this culture of ethnic conflict? Why can’t we get along, moving past the racial problems that have vexed us for so long?

I would like to say two things in response to such questions. First, we can get along, and our churches can play a role in improving race relations in our country and beyond. And second, this will be much harder than many people assume. There’s a lot of heavy history in the challenges we face. It weighs upon us all, whether we feel it now or not—and it won’t go away by wishful thinking. The more we learn about this burden, the better we’ll be able to improve upon the past, seeking justice, love, and peace for the whole people of God, indeed the whole of our society. As we come to know the stories of those different from ourselves, we can grow not merely in our sympathy for them, but in our aptitude for dealing more responsibly, fairly, and effectively with them and the challenges we all face together. So in the time that remains, I want to tell you some of their stories, looking mainly at the early years of white evangelical relations with black Americans, then saying a few words about the history of Latinos and Latinas in this country before concluding with some practical application. (If time permitted, we would also treat the history of Native Americans, Asian Americans, and others in the struggle for racial justice. But for now, let’s start with the stories that have played the biggest part in shaping the national conversation on our topic.)

Early Evangelical History in Black and White

The evangelical movement has suffered the sins of racial prejudice ever since it first emerged from the revivals of the eighteenth-century Great Awakening. Let’s be honest–painfully honest. While evangelicals did not invent the sins of racism or ethnocentrism, the slave trade, segregation, discrimination, or racial hate groups, literally millions of white evangelicals have either participated in or sanctioned one or more of these things—distorting our common witness to the gospel.

Consider the following statistics. 12.5 million Africans were forced into bondage during the transatlantic slave trade, 10.7 million of whom survived the journey to the Americas. Only half a million slaves were imported to this country. But because our slave owners also owned their slaves’ children, 4 million slaves were toiling here by 1860—as were half a million free blacks seeking out a living. Most of the earliest slaves were men. But many, of course, were women and children. During the nineteenth century 46% were children. In 1808 the federal government outlawed slave importation. Hundreds of people, black and white, fought to free the slaves who remained, embroiling the nation in sectional controversy that culminated in war. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln issued his famed Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all the southern slaves “forever free.” And in 1865 the Union won the Civil War, putting an end to the slave system once and for all. But patterns of sin die hard. Racial discrimination continued. And evangelicals are still untangling ourselves from this legacy.

It is important not to forget the utter enormity of this evil, or the extent to which evangelicals condoned it. But it is also important not to forget that evangelicals played a greater role than any other group in taking the gospel to the slaves and treating them as their spiritual equals. Paradoxically, while many leading white evangelicals owned slaves (Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield), defended slavery (Charles Hodge and James Henley Thornwell) and preached to segregated crowds (Charles Finney, D. L. Moody, and Billy Graham), some of these people also pioneered in black evangelization, education, and even economic uplift. Many other, more progressive evangelical reformers played a major role in the rise of anti-slavery agitation. And evangelicals have contributed more than most white groups to the development of African-American worship, doctrine, and practice; conversely, African Americans have exerted extensive influence on the worship, doctrine, and practice of white and other evangelicals.

Christian outreach to the slaves began at a snail’s pace and, worse, a major reason for the delay is that white masters viewed such ministry with suspicion. They shared a poorly grounded belief that, in the tradition of English law, baptism freed slaves not just from bondage to their sins, but from bondage to their sinful masters as well. By the early eighteenth century several colonies passed laws stating in no uncertain terms that Christian baptism did not grant slaves their freedom. But even after these laws, many viewed slave ministries as economically harmful. The evangelists, they argued, took the slaves away from their work and made them “uppity,” independent, and ungovernable. In one of the tragedies of history, many evangelists gained access to the slaves of fearful masters with assurances that the gospel had few social effects at all–at least none that would upset the racial status quo. They emphasized Scripture texts like Ephesians 6:5-9 (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear,” etc.) and Colossians 3:22-25 (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord,” etc). Some promised never to preach on God’s deliverance of the Israelites from bondage to the Egyptians. In short, the pact they made with masters led to distortions in their preaching, and wound up helping whites more than it did the slaves. Evangelists wanted desperately to point the slaves to Christ. But in the words of the Rev. Peter Randolph, an ex-slave, “the[ir] gospel was so mixed with slavery, that people could see no beauty in it, and feel no reverence for it.”

During and after the Great Awakening, things started to improve. Beginning in roughly the 1740s, America’s evangelical preachers achieved unparalleled success in sharing the gospel with the enslaved. Many leading revivalists, from the Anglican George Whitefield to Presbyterian Samuel Davies—not to mention the Baptists and Methodists who rose at the century’s end–preached to people black and white, male and female, slave and free. Before long, black Christians gave leadership to revivals, offering exhortation and public prayer in racially mixed crowds. By 1800, tens of thousands of the enslaved believed the gospel.

Few evangelical preachers championed slave emancipation. Edwards owned slaves. Whitefield fought for the legalization of slavery in Georgia, asking Parliament for the right to use slaves at his orphanage. He claimed that “Georgia never . . . will be a flourishing province without negroes.” And he purchased more than 20 slaves himself throughout his life. He even acquired a slave plantation in the mid-1740s, “through the bounty of my good friends . . . in South Carolina,” as he wrote to colonial authorities in England. Davies baptized hundreds of the enslaved during his life. But he rebuffed others for viewing the rite as a way to gain “Equality with their Masters.” Clearly, then, evangelical outreach had its limits. Indeed, for most evangelicals, the gospel offered forgiveness and eternal life in Christ, not a leg up in the present, and the blessing of salvation so surpassed manumission that a compromise with slavery proved a small price to pay.

Such accommodation to slavery on the part of evangelicals, though, established a pattern of prejudice that plagued us for years to come. Before the mid-twentieth century, most of the best-known revivalists condoned discrimination. During the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, many revivals were racialized, blacks being quarantined in segregated seating. This took place at Cane Ridge (1801), known as “America’s Pentecost,” by far the largest camp meeting in American church history. It even took place at meetings led by Charles Finney, who spoke frequently againstthe system of slavery. The most celebrated of all the nineteenth-century revivalists, Finney allowed segregation despite his liberal racial views. He deemed it inexpedient to encourage black Christians to serve as church trustees. And he criticized more radical anti-slavery reformers for politicizing the gospel.

Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday allowed for segregated seating at their meetings in the South, alienating untold numbers of black Americans. In the words of one black Christian, Moody’s “conduct toward the Negroes during his Southern tour has been shameless, and I would not have him preach in a barroom, let alone a church.” Another black pastor complained that Moody “placed caste above Christianity.” And the black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, once compared Moody poorly with the well-known agnostic, Robert Ingersoll: “Infidel though Mr. Ingersoll may be called, he never turned his back upon his colored brothers, as did the evangelical Christians of [Philadelphia] on the occasion of the late visit of Mr. Moody. Of all the forms of negro hate in this world, save me from that one which clothes itself with the name of the loving Jesus. . . . The negro can go into the circus, the theatre, and can be admitted to the lectures of Mr. Ingersoll, but he cannot go into an evangelical Christian meeting.”

Even beloved Billy Graham opposed discrimination slowly. Never happy with the race problems in his native South, Graham angered many friends in the summer of ‘57 by inviting Dr. King to pray at his New York City crusade. But he had not desegregated his southern meetings for good until 1954, when the Supreme Court declared the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional in Brown versus Board of Education. And he seemed to symbolize to promoters of Civil Rights the “white moderate” approach to racial reconciliation--an approach that King himself condemned in April of 1963 in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

Sadly, King was right. The history of evangelical racial reform is full of moderate stumbling blocks from people of good will, obstacles that reinforced its color line.

But again, paradoxically, and despite such moral failure, God has used evangelicals to promote the gospel of grace among millions of African Americans. Many slaveholders joined in this evangelistic effort. In a little-known letter draft (whose final copy is lost), Jonathan Edwards, the first pastor in his town to baptize blacks and make them full church members, denounced the abuses of the transatlantic slave trade. In a better-known letter, George Whitefield criticized the mistreatment of slaves. “God has a quarrel with you,” he wrote to his slaveholding friends. For you have treated your slaves “as bad or worse than brutes.” He persuaded some wealthy converts, the Bryans of South Carolina, to become courageous leaders in gospel ministry to slaves. They never liberated their slaves. But in 1743 the Bryans left the Anglican Church to form the Stony Creek Independent (Presbyterian) Church—a congregation that would receive slaves as full church members. They denounced white cruelty to enslaved Africans and became such outspoken critics of their peers that some feared they might lead a slave revolt.

Early Moravian evangelicals grew profoundly close to their slaves, joining them in rituals of remarkable intimacy. And some other evangelicals opposed slaveholding and engaged in subversive abolitionist activity. John Wesley, for example, and his American Methodist followers opposed slavery strenuously in the early years of their movement (though later, most Methodists backed away from this commitment and split over slavery in 1843). So did several Baptist groups, as well as numerous other sects, such as the Quakers, marginally connected to evangelicalism. Some New England Congregationalists became important early spokesmen for the cause of abolition. Edwards’ son, Jonathan, Jr., along with colleagues like Samuel Hopkins, published tracts and prophesied against the slave trade.

Out of the Second Great Awakening came a coordinated effort to evangelize, liberate, and teach the enslaved. Hundreds of thousands responded by placing faith in Christ. Dozens of charitable societies arose to meet their needs. Of course, in American social history this is the age of famous leaders like David Walker, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and Frederick Douglass–outspoken black prophets who preached powerfully against the sins of slavery and race and made the most famous efforts to improve black lives. But there were white Christians, too, who made a difference among the enslaved. Though often much less bold in their prophetic public witness, they devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to improve the lot of those living in bondage.

Most importantly of all, the Second Great Awakening grew a harvest of black leaders, both laypeople and clergy, who gave bold public witness to the ethics of the Bible and exhorted all who listened to obey God’s will. Inspired with devotion to the Bible’s theme of justice, many black Christian leaders raised their voices against sin, especially interracial sin--and the evangelicalism that often condoned it. The most powerful of these was the voice of Frederick Douglass, who excoriated Christians for their complicity in this sin. “The church and the slave prison stand next to each other,” he fumed. “The church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighbourhood.” What is more, Christian ministries are profiting thereby. “We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries, and babies sold to buy Bibles and communion services.” Douglass summarized his message in a sentence that has haunted godly Christians ever since: “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ I recognize the widest possible difference.”

Scores of black gospel ministers emerged from the revivals. One worked as the pastor of a white congregation: Lemuel Haynes of Rutland, Vermont. A greater number served among slaves and in black churches. Of course, this scandalized the rank and file of non-evangelicals, who used it to denigrate revivals in the media and outlawed all black preaching in several states. But many black Christian ministers survived this persecution and, by the end of the nineteenth century, millions of African Americans were worshiping out from under the gaze of white Christians.

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the origins and nature of this worship. By the time of the first U.S. census in 1790, roughly 20% of the country’s nearly 4 million inhabitants were black. Most were enslaved, working on large, southern plantations. And they worshiped, when they could, in what historians have labeled the “invisible institution,” segregated churches that gathered after hours. Slave worship is a miracle of American church history. Usually unbeknownst to whites, and in violation of orders and even laws against such things, countless antebellum slaves “stole away” for secret worship in brush arbors, swamps, and forests throughout the land. They preached, prayed, sang, and danced into the wee hours of the night, more often than not after a long and very grueling day’s work. As recounted in the Rev. Peter Randolph’s autobiography:

the slaves assembled in the swamps, out of reach of the patrols. They have an understanding among themselves as to the time and place of getting together. This is often done by the first one arriving breaking boughs from the trees, and bending them in the direction of the selected spot. Arrangements are then made for conducting the exercises. They first ask each other how they feel, the state of their minds, etc. The male members then select a certain space, in separate groups, for their division of the meeting. Preaching in order, by the brethren; then praying and singing all round, until they generally feel quite happy. The speaker usually commences by calling himself unworthy, and talks very slowly, until, feeling the spirit, he grows excited, and in a short time, there fall to the ground twenty or thirty men and women under its influence.

Randolph went on to report the persecution felt when slaves were caught meeting in such manner: “If discovered, they escape, if possible; but those who are caught often get whipped. Some are willing to be punished thus for Jesus’ sake. . . . In some places, if the slaves are caught praying to God, they are whipped more than if they had committed a great crime. The slaveholders will allow the slaves to dance, but do not want them to pray to God. Sometimes, when a slave, on being whipped, calls upon God, he is forbidden to do so, under threat of having his throat cut, or brains blown out. Oh, reader! This seems very hard–that slaves cannot call on their Maker, when the case most needs it.”

Despite such treatment by their masters, slaves continued to gather together, often stressing Scripture texts and songs opposed by white oppressors. They recalled Old Testament history, the exodus from Egypt, and the crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land (often a symbol of the passage over the Mason-Dixon line). They recounted God’s justice in the words of Hebrew prophets. They identified personally with the suffering of Jesus. And they sang Negro spirituals about their longing for freedom–here on earth as well as in heaven.

Although most black Christians till the end of the Civil War worshiped secretly after dark, others worshiped publicly in more traditional settings. And while most of these worshiped in either mainly white churches (usually in back pews or galleries) or in segregated churches ruled by white denominations, there were some who had begun to worship independently. These founded what became the major, historic, African-American, independent denominations, the pre-eminent institutions in the rise of black culture--all of which were started because whites treated brothers and sisters of color with contempt, as second-class citizens. The seven best-known of these were the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; two National Baptist Conventions; the Progressive National Baptists; and the Church of God in Christ. They were led by famous preachers: Richard Allen, James Varick, Henry McNeal Turner, Elias Morris, Charles Mason, R. H. Boyd, Joseph Jackson, Gardner Taylor, Martin Luther King, Jr. By the early twenty-first century they reported nearly 24 million adherents and, still, very few whites knew anything about them.

In recent decades, and despite this history of oppression that led to segregated worship, a small but important group of black Christian leaders have used the word “evangelical” to locate themselves, forging ties with the international evangelical movement. Through African-American ministry groups like the National Black Evangelical Association (founded in 1963), and the ministries of clergy such as John M. Perkins, E. V. Hill, William Pannell, William Bentley, Tom Skinner, and a number of their heirs, a growing number of black Christians have made connections to evangelicalism while retaining their allegiances to African-American culture.

This has never been easy for them. For a century after the end of the U.S. Civil War, Jim Crow kept black people segregated, subjugated, and suffering on the margins of the nation they called home—with support from a distressing number of white evangelicals. Not just Ku Klux Klansmen, but mainstream Americans suppressed them economically, curtailed their mobility, barred them from their neighborhoods, and hurt them educationally—not to mention the damage done to many black people physically, emotionally, and spiritually—sins that continue to disadvantage black Christians. Few white evangelicals helped them fight for civil rights--or even welcomed them into their homes, churches, offices, or groups during most of the twentieth century. Few white evangelicals wanted to talk with them about the implications of the Christian faith for interracial relationships, justice, and support for the “least of these” in society. It should come as no surprise, then (though often it still does), that many African Americans remain rather suspicious of their Anglo-American colleagues. After hundreds of years of fear and even hate between the races, after hundreds of years of segregation even in our worship, building trust will take time and a great deal of effort. It will call for a more comprehensive understanding of sanctification and righteousness in everyday life.

Part II will be published on Wednesday, June 10. Watch the entire talk here: