Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews
University of Alabama Press, 2017. 204pp.
In Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars, Mary Beth Mathews, assistant professor of religion at the University of Mary Washington, covers ground little-known to the average Christian in America. How did the primary emphases of evangelicalism come to be? Have the concerns of White Evangelicals and Black Evangelicals historically diverged on the issue of racial equality?
The challenge in which African American pastors and Christians in the early 1900s found themselves was attempting to be faithful to God’s Word while longing to be treated as full citizens.
African Americans would not join a movement [fundamentalism] that employed new methods of understanding eschatology and that lacked social justice, nor would they cast their lot with those Protestants who appeared to reject the very source text of Christianity and the crucial notion that it was divinely inspired [modernism]. With one they would be safe in inspiration but not in life; with the other they could gain the world but lose their soul. (p. 2)
Mathews mines material from the editors, authors, and readers of African American denominational publications like the National Baptist-Union Review, the Star of Zion, the Christian Recorder, and the National Baptist Voice for support. She notes:
African American Baptists and Methodists were remolding and reshaping what fundamentalist movements offered them: a chance to declare their allegiance to traditional evangelical Christianity as they understood it and to use that same Christianity to chart a course for their members to navigate the treacherous seas of modernity and post-World War I American society. (p. 69)
Woven deeply into this remolding and reshaping was the understanding that Christians—regardless of race or color—were brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus, the concept of a “Christian church” that included segregationists and lynchers was not merely impossible to defend, it was a myth. On many issues—modernism, evolution, dancing, patriotism—African American believers found unanimity with White fundamentalists/evangelicals. But, in the end, the chasm over racial equality as a gospel issue was not bridged.
Following the 1930 burning lynchings of two African American men in Sherman, Texas, Kelly Miller wrote of nearby Methodist Conference attendees:
[T]hey could discern the column of smoke arising from the frying human flesh, but not a word escapes their hallowed lips. (p. 130)
The rise of the Ku Klux Klan and its perversion of Christianity brought consistent condemnation from African Americans leaders. Editor W. H. Davenport, writing in the AME Zion’s Star of Zion said,
Saint Peter was a Jew. Wonder if the Kluxers have decided not to go to heaven because St. Peter stands at the gate.[and of Klan]
degradations of the Cross of Calvary to a symbol of hate and bigotry, its appeal to class and racial prejudice [was] far more inimical to the American peace and prosperity than the most rabid communism, or the most virulent anarchist. (pp. 131, 132)
White evangelicals, for their part, remained focused on personal salvation and the soon-return of Jesus. African American concerns over race and violence never pierced the core of White concerns. Mathews concludes:
For black evangelicals, using the message of Christ to achieve equality was to do justice and love mercy, so that they could walk humbly with God. The command was thousands of years old, not new, and its interpretation was not an innovative understanding of the gospel for them. It was, for them, the plain truth. (p. 152)
Benefit for Pastoral Ministry
While strides have been made in racial reconciliation since the era between World War 1 and World War 2, it seems a gap remains, often among those who claim the name of Christ. Many preach “there is no Greek or Jew, bond or free, Black or White,” but struggle to find its application day-to-day.
Many (if not most) Black evangelicals today continue to insist, as did their forebears, that racial equality is an issue of gospel consequence. Many White evangelicals today continue, as did their forebears, to view racial equality less as a gospel issue, than part of a “social gospel,” which, in their eyes, equates the pure, saving gospel of Christ to human advancement and societal change. Our Black brothers and sisters from the early 1900s would suggest a church comprised of Whites and Blacks who viewed each other as equal in Christ and equal in life is the gospel, and that any gospel that denigrates people of on race or color, or is used to control them, is a false gospel.
Doctrine and Race is useful to understand how and why two groups of people who acknowledge Christ as Lord developed divergent views on the comprehensiveness of the gospel. Both viewed faith in the finished work of Christ as essential for eternal salvation, but only one thought the gospel of “one in Christ” had earthly, societal implications related to racial equality.
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