The Racist Roots of Evangelicalism*

I’m currently finding it difficult to put down Matthew Avery Sutton’s excellent work, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism. Among other things, he traces the movement’s strong anti-Semitism and racism in the early 20th century. Shockingly, fundamentalists had an ambivalent relationship with the Ku Klux Klan, which Sutton documents through debates and discussions in the editorial pages of Moody Monthly magazine.

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Fundamentalist leaders did not hide the reality that they were forging a segregated movement. They did not merely marginalize African-American Christians, but purposefully excluded them. Black church leaders, of course, recognized the systemic evils at work.

These dynamics are reflected in the practices of fundamentalist revivalists:

Segregation was so prevalent in churches around the country that it rarely provoked comment. Short-term revivals featuring celebrity evangelists, however, often forced the issue. People of all races and colors flocked to see famous preachers. In most cases in the South the nation’s leading revivalists offered segregated meetings. During a revival in wartime Atlanta, for example, Billy Sunday had held a special service for “Negroes” since they could not attend the regular services. At that meeting he acknowledged “his lack of familiarity with the colored race,” but that did not keep him from offering what the Atlanta Constitution praised as “some of the finest advice that was ever given to a crowd of colored people by any man from the north or from the south.” What was Sunday’s advice? He told his black audience that “southern whites are Negroes’ best friends” and that they should not migrate north, and he admonished the North to keep its “hands off” the South. The white southern press saw his self-serving counsel as a breakthrough and called the evangelist a “promoter of interracial harmony.” When he followed up the meeting by inviting a thousand African-American singers to serve as the choir for the next white service, Current Opinion concluded that nothing like it had ever been attempted before. “Both races felt that an important step had been made in the right direction.” That journalists interpreted the appearance of a black choir at a Sunday meeting as a novelty illustrates the customary nature of strictly segregated revivals.

While Sunday’s efforts may have delighted some white southerners, they did not impress African Americans. After a long Washington, D.C., campaign a local minister noted that Sunday “was brought here by the whites for the benefit of the whites.” Over the course of a multiweek revival, Sunday denounced dozens of different kinds of sins, yet he ignored “the devil of race prejudice, rotten, stinking, hell-born race prejudice,” which would “be just as strongly entrenched in the white churches and in the community as it was before he came.” Sunday, the minister concluded, “at times, seems to be a little courageous judged by his vigorous denunciation of many sins; but when it comes to the big devil of race prejudice, the craven in him comes out; he cowers before it; he is afraid to speak out; at heart he is seen to be a moral coward in spite of his bluster and pretense of being brave. What are you afraid of Mr. Sunday . . . ?” The National Baptist Union Review leveled a similar charge. “It will not suffice for Mr. Sunday to invade the Southland,” the paper editorialized, “and denounce adultery, fornication, liars, hypocrites, bums, hobos, rascals, scoundrels, crap shooters, tramps and loafers, and leave untouched the lynchers, the ballot box thief, the segregator, the discriminator, the Negro hater, the promoter of racial strife and the mob leader, who burns human beings at the stake because they are black.” White fundamentalists simply proved unable to recognize race prejudice as a real problem. For them, inequality most often reflected God’s order rather than the sins of humanity. For African Americans the equality of all people represented an essential component of the fundamental gospel (pp. 131-32, emphasis added).

These sorts of dynamics, perhaps in subtler form, persist in many evangelical institutions. Sutton’s work can bear fruit, it seems to me, if it sheds light on the historical roots of the contemporary shape of American evangelical culture and how far short it comes from faithfully embodying the kingdom of God. Such exposure can lead to the creation of new and life-giving practices and postures toward one another.

*Update: In Sutton’s work, fundamentalism in the early 20th century is in continuity with evangelicalism in the decades following the second world war. I’m updating the title of this post to reflect the reality that the roots of contemporary evangelicalism’s racial issues lie in fundamentalism’s intentional racist ideology and strategies.

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3 responses to “The Racist Roots of Evangelicalism*

  • Admin

    Tim, being someone from a non-Western background, I find this intriguing—and informative. In Australia, I find a subtle form of racism among Evangelicals. There seems to be an unspoken, probably unconscious, sense of superiority over non-White people. I think, however, that most Christians don’t realise it themselves. The thing is, subtle racism exists in every race, I think. An Asian from a particular ethnic origin can look down on another Asian of another race. In fact, there are racist remarks against white people. One would hope that the transforming power of the Gospel can change that. But alas, the reality is somewhat different.

    S Wu

    • timgombis

      Indeed, very well said! The sad thing is that in my own heritage, this racism was institutionalized and purposeful. And when it was called out, it was defended. I have seen this first-hand and it is a tragic betrayal of the gospel.

      • Admin

        Tim, this sounds horrible. The sad part is “when it was called out, it was defended.” I think this is true even here, albeit different context.

        S. Wu

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