15 Mar 2010

Social Concerns in Churches of Christ: Trends Since the King Years, 1950-2000

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Black History, Church History, Contemporary Ethics, Kingdom, Ministry, Mission, Race Relations, Restoration History
A Word about this essay. Social Concerns was originally written during the Summer of 2000 while I lived in Grenada, MS. In making it available on the web I have edited it only slightly so it does not carry the research up to 2010. But I have continued to grow and learn. The essay is historical in orientation though not without theological perspective. I do not claim to be exhaustive on this matter (in fact I plan on posting a few more papers of equal length here on Stoned-Campbell Disciple blog). Interestingly enough, as side note, I was dismissed from the church I worked with not long after I finished it. That was the first great trial of the Valentine family. But I have great memories of the “three Amigos” Jonathan Moore (of Christian Life Church); Ernest Hargrove (AME Church); and myself.

As will become evident we stand in need of the healing rain of God’s grace upon our church family. I pray for that rain and where I am allowed to will be a conduit of that mercy … brackets [ ] with numbers in them indicate a corresponding footnote …

SOCIAL CONCERNS IN CHURCHES OF CHRIST: TRENDS SINCE THE KING YEARS, 1950-2000

Introduction

Claiming to be a people of the Book, Churches of Christ have recognized that scripture reveals widespread concern with social justice. Passages like Deuteronomy 15.11-17; Amos 2.6ff; 5.10-24; Matthew 25 and James 5.1-6 among dozens of others have not been unknown to interpreters in our fellowship. What has not been recognized by many, however, is that these passages bear directly on the mission of God in this world and thus the mission of his people, the church. Does the church have a moral/biblical obligation to address prophetically the evils of the world such as discrimination, work conditions not far removed from slavery, and abject poverty? This paper seeks to explore how Churches of Christ in the mid-20th century to the early 1990s answered these kinds of questions. We will do that by looking at one slice of moral witness: race relations.

Churches of Christ flourished in the post Civil War upper South where the uniting social fabric was the civil “religion” known as the Lost Cause. The Lost Cause had white supremacy as its foundational principle [1]. “Negrophobia” dominated much of the post-Reconstruction southern psyche. The fear of African-Americans is clearly seen in the segregation of the races. “Ole Miss” historian Charles Reagan Wilson, writes that ministers of the South were the guardians of this worldview. In fact “racial heresy was more dangerous to a preacher’s

King & Gray during the Montgomery Bus Boycott

King & Gray during the Montgomery Bus Boycott

reputation than was theological speculation” [2].


In light of the Lost Cause, it is not surprising that many in Churches of Christ resisted an advocacy role for disenfranchised Black Americans. In fact we often find “our” ministers leading the opposite direction. Abilene Christian College president Jesse P. Sewell seemed to grant the Ku Klux Klan legitimacy by accepting contributions from the Klan during chapel [3]. Renowned Texas evangelist, J. D. Tant, lamented trends toward equality in Kansas. He reported in the Gospel Advocate:

Negro equality runs high here. Negroes ride in the same coach, go to the same school, eat at the same table with white people, and sometimes sleep in the beds of their white neighbors; all of which I am glad to say is not tolerated in ‘heathen’ Texas. [4]

African-American evangelist, Samuel R. Cassius, gives us a window into the prevailing attitudes among restoration churches when he accused them of being inbred with race hatred (for more on Cassius see my blog HERE). He writes with white hot passion about the moral injustice toward his race and the apparent lack of interest among preachers of the old time gospel message. The preachers themselves are:

[F]ull of race prejudice and hatred, inbred by three hundred years of schooling of a purely one-sided nature … I may arouse passions that will cause my people to be hung, shot and burned under every tree in the South, or I may start a wave of sympathy that will roll over the land which will make such common things as these impossible to occur again [5].

Cassius was correct. The Disciples of Christ had historically been vague on the issue of slavery in theory, and in practice owned more slaves per capita than any other denomination in America [6]. James Shannon, one of the best educated men in the Stone-Campbell Movement, led a fiery defense of the morality of slavery [7]. Alexander Campbell himself, and Walter Scott, were unable to make slavery a moral issue rather than a political evil [8]. In the post Civil War era, Disciples provided many for the “rank and file of the Klan, and their preachers gave it leadership and respectability” [9]. (As an aside we can take pride in men like Pardee Butler for their prophetic ministry in opposing slavery. (See my blog Pardee Butler: An Amos on the Family Tree).

Given the social context of Churches of Christ, it is not surprising that we often reflected white Southern values rather than the radically counter cultural values of the Kingdom of God. Rare was the preacher who dared to be guilty of, in Wilson’s terms, the heresy of promoting racial justice and equality.  So opposed to this heresy was the legendary Texas editor Foy Wallace the he made Jim Crow an essential part of Christianity. Writing about the black evangelist, R. N. Hogan, who stayed in the home of Ira Rice Jr. he said:

R. N. Hogan

R. N. Hogan

Aside from being an infringement of the Jim Crow law, it is a violation of Christianity itself, and of all common decency. Such conduct forfeits the respect of right thinking people, and would be calculated to stir up demonstrations in most any community if it should be generally known [10].

Editor Wallace goes on to attack Hogan as being “too much inclined to mix with the white people and to favor, in attitude, social equality!” Wallace was not finished yet. He turned his editorial guns upon the humble Marshall Keeble and the white women who attended his meetings. He laments:

The manner in which the brethren in some quarters are going in for the negro meetings lead one to wonder whether they are trying to make white folks out of the negroes … Reliable reports have come to me of white women, members of the church, becoming so animated over a certain colored preacher as to go up to him after a sermon and shake hands with him holding his hand in both of theirs. That kind of thing will turn the head of most white preachers, and sometimes affect their conduct, and anybody ought to know that it makes fools out of the negroes” [11].

The Wallace-Hogan-Keeble episode provides a unique window into the mind of the Churches of Christ near mid-20th century. Not a single voice, that I have found, was to be heard of protest of Wallace’s blatant racism. Not a single letter to the editor pointing out the glaring contradiction with “New Testament Christianity.” It seems fairly safe to assume that Wallace represented the prevailing attitudes among most of his contemporaries in the South among Churches of Christ.

THE MARTIN LUTHER KING YEARS

On December 1, 1955, a tired Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white individual on a Montgomery bus and was arrested. Four days later the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott began on December 5; thus emerged the long and treacherous voyage to Civil Rights (Justice) in America. Martin Luther King, Jr was thrust upon America and the pages of history at the young age of 26!

From the beginning, Churches of Christ were involved in the battle against the degrading sinful evil of segregation, even if that was limited to Fred D. Gray (see my blog Fred D. Gray: The Hero Lawyer). Gray defended Parks and organized the Montgomery Improvement Association which then appointed King as their spokesperson [12]. Gray, like King, was deeply motivated by Christian convictions that many of his brethren did not understand or share. Gray testifies how even Marshall Keeble, his mentor, did not understand. “It was difficult for him to understand how one of his former preacher boys would now be standing in courtrooms fighting racial discrimination” [13]. Somehow being concerned with the issues of justice took one away from “kingdom work” and into the dreaded “social gospel.” This of course betrays a grave lack of appreciation of the actual kingdom work of Jesus himself.

Fred Gray was subject to frequent racist attacks

Fred Gray was subject to frequent racist attacks

Other than the work of Fred Gray, however, not much was being done among Churches of Christ expressing kingdom concern in the area of racial justice until the historic speech of Carl Spain in 1960. Spain’s speech at ACC, according to William Banowsky was, if judged by the intensity of the reaction to it, “the most spectacular speech ever delivered in Abilene” [14].
Spain sounds almost like Amos:

I feel certain Jesus would say: “Ye hypocrites!” You say you are the only true Christians, and make up the only true church, and have the only Christian schools. Yet, you drive one of your own preachers to denominational schools where he can get credit for his work and refuse to let him take Bible for credit in your own schools because of the color of his skin is dark! … Are we moral cowards on this issue? There are people with money who will back us in our last ditch stand for white supremacy in a world of pigmented people. God forbid that we shall be the last stronghold among religious schools where the politico-economic philosophy of naturalism determines moral conduct. We fear the mythical character name Jim Crow more than we reverence Jesus Christ. In the name of “discretion” we make un-Christian and un-American rules like some states do in the name of “States Rights.’” [15].

There is no doubt that Spain’s speech was electrifying! Yet contrary to Banowsky’s assertion of it “solidifying brotherhood convictions” [16], the moral crisis was far from settled in Churches of Christ.

Silence was the overwhelming response of leaders within the churches. Jimmy Allen, eleven years after Spain’s speech, chastised preachers in 1971 for refusing to address the issue of justice. He said:

If our people are not right on this issue, it is because our preachers have not dealt with the matter. Preaching brethren, I am not trying to judge anyone but I wonder how many of us are cowards? Just plain down right cowards! Are we so in love with our positions or so afraid we might offend narrow-minded church leaders that we simply seal our lips … When are we going to begin to instruct our people along these lines? Is the church of the Lord to be last religious institution in America to speak out for racial justice? [17]

A survey of leading periodicals of the time show Allen to be correct. During the violent years of the late 1950s through the early 1960s virtually nothing is published regarding the massive moral crises facing America and the church. In the Firm Foundation it was apparently the policy of Reuel Lemmons not to publish articles on the subject of racial justice and integration. He writes “we have received scores of articles on the subject of integration, both pro and con. Up until now we have not published any of them” [18]. Lemmons’ editorial is insightful because it reveals several key themes. Lemmons denies that addressing “social structures” is the work of the church; he pointed to what he believed were segregation practices in the first century; and finally he flat denied that racism and segregation was a problem was in Churches of Christ. He states “we do not believe that segregation has ever been a problem with the Lord’s church” [19].

In the same March 31, 1964 issue of Firm Foundation James Fowler published his views. Fowler argued that New Testament Christians had no interest in “social” reform of slavery or other evils. Indeed Fowler comes close to defending the status quo when he writes:

They did not turn from their primary purpose of preaching Christ to become involved in revolutionary demands and social reforms … While they were brethren in the church they were still “Master” and “slave” …

Fowler the suggests the church is not to be involved with the Civil Rights Movement:

[N]either can I find it within the spirit of Christianity to join the church to organized movements whose ends are not always clear, and whose methods and motives are not always above reproach, and whose values in the cause of justice is questioned …” [20]

Unlike Lemmons, and many other white church leaders, who denied there was a problem, the Black Churches of Christ brought in the “minority” report. R. N. Hogan, editor of the Christian Echo, set out the contradiction in bold relief:

It must be agreed that we have the same kind of people in the Church of Christ today. There are the prejudice segregationists in congregations all over the brotherhood whose hearts are filled with hate because of the color of another man’s skin” [21].

Andrew Hairston, an African-American minister, attacked head-on the common theme among white church leaders that racial justice was simply a “social” matter and not a matter of the Gospel.

The race issue is no more a social issue and to be divorced from the life and preaching of the true church today than it was when Christ died for the demolition of that wall separating man from man …

Hairston argues the lack of interest in moral justice is not because it is unbiblical, but because it is a cross the white brethren are not willing to pick up.

There is little doubt that when the complete truth is revealed, the reason for the Church of Christ not speaking out against racial segregation … will not be because the issue is SOCIAL and is therefore no responsibility of the gospel. It will be because to take as firm a stand on this issue as we have on baptism will cost too much in terms of social and economic reprisal” [22].

Hairston’s view could not be more diametrically opposite that of Lemmons and Fowler.

March 7, 1965 was “Bloody Sunday” as Dr. King led a group of peaceful marchers toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Fred Gray once again was a key figure in the legal battles in the aftermath of that day representing King, John Lewis and many others [23]. For our purposes the episode highlighted once again the radically divergent views of social concern in Churches of Christ. When Rex Turner, President Alabama Christian College, learned that apparently a some ministers supported King’s march and peaceful protest, he condemned them. Martin Luther King was simply seeking to “displace the gospel of Christ with a social gospel … that has little or no concern with the fundamentals of Christianity.” King was simply a “rank modernist” as were any who supported him [24].

Several years went by and there was another “burst” of articles appeared. The death of Marshall Keeble gave Lemmons the opportunity to analyze the current state of the crises. Lemmons contrasted the methods of Keeble and especially Martin Luther King Jr. Eulogizing Keeble, Lemmons said:

He never lead a riot; he never burned a block of buildings; he never marched on Washington. But he marched toward heaven from the day he obeyed the gospel, young in life and following him a great throng of peaceable people …”

Just as the Firm Foundation editor had previously claimed there was no prejudice among Churches of Christ in 1964, so now he restated his convictions. “If he ever knew there were segregation lines he never indicated it. Indeed, because of his life and work there has been an infinitesimally small amount of racial prejudice in the Churches of Christ” [25].

Lemmons did not go unchallenged in his glowing appraisal of Keeble’s experience and racism. Norman Anderson, a black preacher, wrote Lemmons rather pointedly. “I have searched myself deeply, trying to decide if the editorial based upon unbelievable racism on your part, gross ignorance of … the conditions very much in evidence in the Church, or maybe you were so emotionally upset by the death of Marshall Keeble that you lost sight of reality” [26].

The Gospel Advocate published a special Marshall Keeble memorial edition on July 18, 1968. Just as in Lemmons’ eulogy, Karl Pettus contrasted Keeble’s approach with the Civil Rights Movement. “He never led a march or demonstration, peaceful or otherwise. He never connected with a riot … he didn’t march for school integration, but he worked and spend himself” in the cause of Christ [27]. The Advocate’s approach to the moral crisis seems to have been to ignore it. Not until September of 1968 did the Advocate acknowledge in a half-hearted way the upheaval around the Churches of Christ [28]. B. B. Baxter’s article is vague and not until the end is the raging crises even mentioned and then only in a highly individualistic manner.

Several months later Hugo McCord added his dissenting voice against “artificial integration.” McCord responded to black Churches of Christ that were perceived as too vocal about the obligations of the church. He argued that the apostles did not preach “that love requires artificial integration, nor do they preach that a congregation is not a New Testament church if it is not integrated” [29]. He writes that though Jesus had immeasurable compassion on the poor that was not his mission! Indeed these black brothers are, according to McCord, slipping dangerously close to the dreaded “social gospel.” They

would make the unthinking say that any Christian or any congregation not going all out for the social gospel is hypocritical. Whereas the inspired apostles refused to leave the word of God to serve tables (Acts 6:2), apparently this speaker would make human relief the first order of business [30].

Coming from the opposite point of view, Walter Burch published an article in the spirit of Carl Spain’s speech in the Firm Foundation on June 11, 1968. In a country that had been rocked by the assassination of Medgar Evars, the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the slayings of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andy Goodman in Neoshoba, MS and the brutal beatings of children in Grenada, MS., the Bloody Sunday in Selma, and finally the murder of King himself – Burch wondered aloud where the voice of God’s people might be.

Tragically, the most flaming moral issue perhaps in the history of Christianity is evaded, ignored, or shunned with maddening indifference by the Church of Christ — and generally speaking, without any visible pangs of conscience or remorse or agony expressed by the leadership within the white church. Apparently — and this is an incredible thought — no clear cut moral issue or scriptural principle is at stake at this time!

Burch states that the church will get very vocal over a high school dance or the theory of evolution, but “public opposition to racial injustice? No! The camel has been swallowed” [31].

A vanguard responded to Burch. Lemmons himself lead the way in an editorial entitled “The Racial Problem.” Lemmons again denies any corporate responsibility, he denies that prejudice is a problem and finally he labels any attempt to work toward justice as the “social gospel.”

Much is being said about what part the church should play in racial problems which would indicate that the speakers and writers have swallowed the “social gospel” idea. We repeat that we what we have said before: the church is about to forget its evangelical thrust” [32].

In the same issue B. B. Harding wrote “Articles like the above title by Walter Burch in June 11 disturb me, but not in the right way. One should be provoked to good works, not to wrath or disgust.” Moving from his critique of Burch, Harding turned to King who had been killed just a few weeks prior,

To compare King to Jesus or say he didn’t make violence as it was already here is foolish. Why did violence always follow his efforts? Jesus Christ didn’t die defying the courts or “giving people all the hell he could”; and riots and violence didn’t follow him everywhere he went [34].

Ron Goodman also responded to Burch. Far from being a “non-violent leader,” King was really a “rabble rouser.” He questions Burch “in what city do we find Paul marching the streets with disgruntled Jews, slaves or anyone else? Where are the “passionate sermons” on the subject.” Burch is doing nothing more than selling out to “the social gospel” which has always been opposed by sound brethren [35].

The Christian Chronicle, unlike both the Foundation and Advocate, consistently pointed Churches of Christ to the crises around them. The Advocate ignored the death of Martin Luther King and ignored the race relations workshops held in various cities like Atlanta [36]. Denton Crews wrote that many preachers were “scared stiff on the subject.” The response of our leaders, Crews opined was “pussyfooting about human relations” and to “beg the problem to go away” [37].

The murder of Martin Luther King Jr provides another interesting barometer of attitudes in Churches of Christ of this period. Frequently reactions, as we have already seen, to King were quite harsh. James D. Bales, of Harding College, wrote a large book exposing King. The work is an apology for right wing politics and contends that King was a pawn of the Communists … even if he was possibly unaware of it.

Whether King is aware of what he is doing or not, the final outcome would not be changed. His contribution to anarchy within the United States,his cooperation with Communists within the United States, and his efforts to render us defenseless … all add up to defeat for freedom and victory for communism if he and others like him prevail” [38]

Several articles and letters appeared in the Christian Chronicle following King’s murder. African-American Calvin Bowers lamented his loss. He stressed King’s Christ-likeness, his love and commitment to non-violence. Bowers echoing Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, in contrast to Bales, claimed “he made clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and those in prison major goals in his life” [39]. Two letters however from white women were less than mournful. Mrs. Virgil Todd labeled King a communist [40] while the other accused him of being a violent political preacher [41]. Perhaps most revealing of the letters came from Truman R. Clark. Clark compared Keeble and King and found the latter wanting.

Marshall Keeble was a great man, but one of the main reasons why he was so beloved by our Southern brethren was that he knew how to keep his place. He would never have been so un-scriptural as to teach that brotherhood in Christ should pervade everyday life, in such things as schools, jobs, public restrooms, or — perish the thought — calling a black man something other than “boy.” [42]

Scott does not give any reason why “brotherhood in Christ” should not change our relationship with people on a daily basis. Keeble was great simply because he “knew his place” in a deeply entrenched cultural church and King apparently did not. For Scott the eschatological reality of a new humanity has no bearing at all on the real day to day world.

The reaction of black leaders among Churches of Christ than those of many of their white brothers and sisters. Eugene Green writing in the

Calvin Bowers

Calvin Bowers

Christian Echo had (like Bowers) a very different point of view:

In recent weeks Dr. Martin Luther King was killed, why? Well someone has said it was a sick mind, I say it was a sick society, because all who opposed Dr. King in his non-violent movement was just guilty as the one who fired the shot that killed him.

But let us not forget one thing, killing Dr. King did not kill the cause, if he was wrong in what he was teaching, then there would have been no need to kill him, the cause would have died itself, but if he was right … we know he was. It might be asked where do I stand, well, I stand with God. Now about riots in the city, it is wrong, but if you treat people like an animal they will act like one. I do not hate my White Brethren, I love them very much, because I know that is the only way for me to see my fathers face in peace [43].

Green’s view is radically different than that of Lemmons and Clark. He sees corporate responsibility for the death of King and civil unrest. Green believed that opposition to “the cause” is tantamount to opposition to God himself. The practical division between white and black Churches of Christ is further evidenced by the reaction of some well known preachers to promotion of justice on the part of black churches. John Waddey scolded African American leaders saying they were leaving gospel ground. “Those churches whose preachers have quite preaching the Bible and turned to social and political issues will not long stand.” Truly biblical churches will avoid the world of “politics and social reform” [44].

One last voice needs to be noted before our study moves past the King Years. John Allen Chalk, speaker for the Herald of Truth radio program, had attended the race relations workshop in Atlanta and was encouraged to speak out on the subject. As a result Chalk preached

John Allen Chalk

John Allen Chalk

his famous (or infamous) series “Three American Revolutions” which lead the way for several other sermons dealing with America’s crisis of justice. Chalk forthrightly attacked racism:

Racism in America has defrauded the minority person of his personal dignity; has destroyed his sense of personal worth; has crushed his expectations … has encouraged destructive futility and rebellion; and has continually confronted him with the “lie” of inferiority. [45]

Chalk adds “Jehovah God is not a racist. The Christianity practiced in the first century, as explained in the New Testament, rejected racism” [46]. The Herald of Truth sermons on race evoked the largest response of any previous lessons on that program [47].

In the King years Churches of Christ pretty much fell in line with the prevailing cultural values of the South. Voices are heard crying in the wilderness from time to time about one the greatest crises of justice in American history. Few, however, could critique the church from the perspective of the kingdom of God. Others simply denied there was a problem to be dealt with and any attempt to do so earned the label “liberal” or “social gospeler” or the charge of attacking the Lord’s church. Glen Wallace’s comments on the race relations workshop at the Simpson St. Church of Christ in Atlanta during June 1968, perhaps sums up the majority view. Writing in First Century Christian, Wallace charged the workshop with the desire to “RESTRUCTURE the church. They want our pulpits to ring with the social gospel theme. They want the “urban ministry” to become the cry of our day. They are tired of the story of the “old rugged cross” [48]. It simply was not within Wallace’s purview that the the “old rugged cross” just might have vital connections with the pervasive theme of justice throughout scripture.

TOWARD THE NEW MILLENNIUM

Following the trauma of the 1960s there were only sporadic attempts to deal with racial issues in brotherhood journals. One article is significant for its negative evaluation of Black Power and affirmative action is Rubel Shelly’s in 1980. Shelly addresses the surging racial bigotry following the Iranian hostage crisis. For Shelly, affirmative action is simply equated with his understanding of Black Power which was designed to either hurt or punish white people. “And while there ought to be something which helps achieve the stated goals of socalled affirmative action programs, many of these have degenerated into black tools for punishing and denying whites’ [49].

Some writers began to there had been an over reaction to an ill defined and nebulous social gospel. Larry James for example thought this misconception had greatly hurt the church.

Our over reaction to a “social Gospel” of sort (real or imagined, it matters not) has paralyzed the body in many places and has prevented our making the legitimate and necessary response to the real plight of people in need. [50]

In the 1980s and 1990s the new journals IMAGE and Wineskins began to address racial justice from a more holistic doctrine of creation and a deeper grasp of the mission of the church. Contemporary justice issues were dealt with rather than swept under the rug as in the 1960s. When African-American houses of worship were being burned across the South in the early 1990s IMAGE published a piece by Larry James directly confronting the matter [51].

What sort of person would burn a church? The question itself causes my stomach to knot up. Yet since 1995 almost fifty churches have been torched across the South … Most of these burned church buildings are small, poor, rural African American congregations.

James does not merely point to the problem, he suggests concrete steps that Christians should take to overcome hatred. These steps include honestly evaluating our attitude toward other ethnic groups; taking the time to openly talk and listen on the subject of race with a person of different color; learning to relate to others on their terms; take steps to change our behavior; and finally taking a stand for the gospel truth and teaching our children to love and respect all God’s image bearers [52].

In the same issue of IMAGE, Rick Atchley addressed the fallout between African Americans and whites over the O. J. Simpson trial. Atchley believed that the root of the problem was not merely education but reconciliation.

Education alone will never solve the problem. Education has its place — ignorance does breed prejudice — but education cannot demand that people get to know one another. Reconciliation requires relationships. And relationships are not built spontaneously, but deliberately. Are we being intentional about racial reconciliation. [53]

Wineskins has addressed the problem of social justice and racism on several occasions. Rubel Shelly had moved beyond previous understandings and argued that Christians must take the lead in the monumental moral issues facing the church today. This, however, Shelly is quick to point out is not selling out to the dreaded social gospel. Rather,

It is an appeal for us to face up to the social implications of the true gospel. We have neither the right nor credibility for offering people a better prospect in the new heaven and earth if we are not actively concerned about justice for them in today’s anguish … The things that are concerns of God will not be neglected by his people. It is a “mark of the church” to teach and practice justice and for its members and to be advocates for the powerless” [54]

John Allen Chalk reflected upon the 1960s stating that though “we got the theology right, and some of us preached it but didn’t practice what we preached. And our voices faded with the coming Worldly Church” [55]. Chalk recognized something very few Church of Christ leaders have believed and that is “racism is bigger, stronger, deadlier than any single individual.” Therefore racism had to be attacked on both an individual level and an institutional level [56].

One of the most radical, and interesting pieces, written during the time covered by this study was Larry James’ “Remembering a Martyr: Malcolm X and America’s Struggle for Racial Justice” in August 1992. James believes that Malcolm X provides a unique venue for whites to contextualize the “rage, anger and pent up frustration of millions of black Americans who live in the great cities of our nation.” By reading Malcolm, white folks can “glimpse the daily roadblocks black people must break through in their attempts to move beyond the despair and hopelessness of poverty and social alienation.” Finally, James urges Christians to know Malcolm because his story demonstrates how Christian apathy about justice destroys the impact of the Christ [57].

Malcolm X

Malcolm X

Fred Gray, who was ignored by the brotherhood papers in the fifties and sixties, has in recent years been rewarded for his faithfulness to the gospel. His story was summarized twice in 1998. Michael Casey stated that not only did Gray try to defeat racism through the court, he did so through his preaching ministry. The two congregations in Tuskegee, Al merged on the first Sunday of November 1974 to become the Tuskegee Church of Christ [58].

Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech was reprinted in Wineskins along with a themed issue on the Civil Rights Movement [59]. Gary Selby reflected on his visit to the Lorraine Hotel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, in Memphis where King was murdered. Selby was moved to the core of his being. His reflection is worth quoting at length:

Mostly, I felt shame. Shame for what these people felt. Shame for the humiliation and abuse they endured. Shame at being a member of a system — no, a beneficiary of a system — which brought such misery upon so many people. I thought about the ways I have participated, knowingly and unknowingly, in this oppression. I thought of pronouncements I have made about matters which I didn’t understand. Jokes I have told or laughed at. Conclusion I have reached about others because of their appearance. Being there forced me to admit how quickly I still judge a man “by the color of his skin rather than the character of his heart.” I remember my own reluctance to get out of the car when I realized what section of town the Lorraine was in — a section mostly poor and black. I who have so wanted to be seen as above all that. The museum forced me to see that issue for me — maybe for all of us — is not, “Am I prejudiced?” The question is simply, “In what ways?” [60]

CONCLUSION(S)

We began this study by noting the social context of the Lost Cause in which Churches of Christ thrived. The primary tenant of the South was white supremacy as Wilson has shown. In investigating the area of “social concern” with regard to racial justice among Churches of Christ, one quickly learns there simply is not much of it. Churches of Christ were a deeply enmeshed Southern Cultural Church on matters pertaining to race.

Several themes have surfaced throughout this overview. First is the view of Reuel Lemmons there simply is no problem at all. Second is that any engagement in racial justice is a manifestation of the “heresy” Wilson points to … the dreaded social gospel. Third when solutions were attempted they were highly individualistic and only rarely placed within a larger structural paradigm. Fourth, justice was believed to be neither evangelism or benevolence and thus not part of the mission of the church. Fifth we see pervading the literature a continual failure to grasp how a platonic wedge is driven between the physical and material greatly limiting the power of eschatological ethics to impact the identity of the people of God. Sixth it is deeply apparent that “race” actually factors in whether one believes there is a race problem or not, the divergent perspectives on King make this glaring. Finally there is a marked political conservativism, even a tendency to equate conservative politics with Scripture especially among white brethren.

Some themes, like the dichotomy between physical and spiritual, seems to be waning. Other themes like the denial that there ever was or is a problem continues. For example the Gospel Advocate recently did a themed issue on “Christian Activism” [61]. There were articles on moral decline in America; the need for Christians in government and Paul’s teaching on government. But in these articles there is not a single sentence regarding social justice of any kind.

There have been persistent voices crying out for justice throughout the history of Churches of Christ. They have often been drowned out by the culture around them, they have often been abused and accused of being social gospelers but they have been steadfast. For the bravery of these voices we can be thankful. We can only hope they can continue to help us see the message of Scripture more clearly than ever before.

ENDNOTES

[1] Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980), p. 100. Interestingly enough Wilson cites a “Reverend T. B. Latimore” (p. 45) which turns out to be either a misprint or he misquotes his source. Latimore is none other than legendary Church of Christ evangelist T. B. Larimore

[2] Ibid., p. 101.

[3] R. O. Kenley, “Ku-Klux-Klan Gifts,” Gospel Advocate 64.47 (23 November 1922): 1128.

[4] J. D. Tant, “In Kansas,” Gospel Advocate (5 February 1898): 71.

[5] S. R. Cassius, “The Race Problem,” Christian Leader (1 October 1901): 12. Ida Wells-Barnett (born into slavery in Holly Springs on July 16, 1862) published her expose of religiously backed lynching in 1895, A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, a convenient excerpt is found in Deirdre Mullane, Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing, pp. 395-401.

[6] According to Garrison and DeGroot the Disciples owned 101,000 slaves. The Baptists and Methodists held more in real numbers but not percentage, The Disciples of Christ, p. 468.

[7] See the succinct, though theologically slim, review of Shannon’s 1855 speech at the Proslavery Convention in Lexington, Missouri in Barry C. Poyner Bound to Slavery: James Shannon and the Restoration Movement (Star Bible, 1999), pp. 112-118. Fortunately there were those who took strong anti-slavery stances, Pardee Butler; Ovid Butler and others. See Elder Jonas Hartzel’s Bible Vindicated: A Series of Essays on American Slavery (Cincinnati: John Boggs, 1858) and the series of discussions in Is Slavery Sinful? Being a Partial Discussions of the Proposition, Slavery is Sinful by Jeremiah Smith (Indianapolis: H. H. Dodd & Co., 1863).

[8] For the dilemma Campbell found himself in see Jesse O. Hale, “Ecclesiastical Politics on a Moral Powder Keg: Alexander Campbell and Slavery in the Millennial Harbinger, 1830-1860,” Restoration Quarterly 39.2 (1997): 65-81. Campbell’s views on slavery are complex yet he provides a good example of how a person’s racial background and social location can indeed filter one’s biblical interpretation. See the very insightful article by D. Newell Williams, “Disciples Biblical Interpretation and the Fugitive Slave Law: Ovid Butler vs. Alexander Campbell,” Encounter 59.1&2 (1998): 3-22.

[9] Wilson, Baptized in Blood, p. 117. Wilson also cites the role of Baptists and Methodists.

[10] Foy E. Wallace, “Negro Meetings for White People,” Bible Banner (March 1941): 7.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Fred D. Gray, Bus Ride to Justice: Changing the System by the System, The Life and Works of Fred Gray (Black Belt Press, 1995), pp. 52, 55-60.

[13] Ibid., p. 257.

[14] William S. Banowsky, The Mirror of a Movement: Churches of Christ as seen through the Abilene Christian College Lectureship (Christian Publishing, 1965), p. 385.

[15] Carl Spain, “Modern Challenges to Christian Morals,” in Christian Faith in the Modern World, Abilene Christian College Lectureship (1960), pp. 217-218.

[16] Banowsky, Mirror of a Movement, p. 387.

[17] Jimmy Allen, “Christ, The Prince of Peace,” in The American Crisis and Other Sermons (Self-Published, 1971), pp. 101-102. For more on “Jim Crow” see C. Vann Woodward’s classic The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Second Revised edition (Oxford University Press, 1966).

[18] Reuel Lemmons, “The Church and Integration,” Firm Foundation (31 March 1964): 194.

[19] Ibid.

[20] James F. Fowler, “From the Midst of the Crises,” Firm Foundation (31 March 1964): 199. The dates of these articles are significant in that Medgar Evers had been murdered in Mississippi in June of 1963.

[21] R. N. Hogan, “Tradition Versus God’s Commandments,” Christian Echo (July 1963): 1.

[22] Andrew J. Hairston, “Is the Race Issue Social?” Christian Echo (June 1964): 5.

[23] Fred Gray, Bus Ride to Justice, pp. 221f.

[24] Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Eerdmans, 1996), p. 297.

[25] Reuel Lemmons, “Marshall Keeble,” Firm Foundation (14 May 1968): 306.

[26] Quoted in Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith, p. 296. Hughes also quotes the letter of Howard White to Lemmons. According to White Keeble was always discriminated against. Never being invited to join luncheons or dinner, his students being ropped off like cattle but Keeble because of his great spirit suffered these indignities in silence.

[27] Karl W. Pettus, “The Memorial to Marshall Keeble,” Gospel Advocate (18 July 1968): 449.

[28] See Batsell Barrett Baxter’s “The Problem of Prejudice, No. 1,” Gospel Advocate (5 September 1968): 561, 566; Part 2 is in Gospel Advocate (3 October 1968): 629.

[29] Hugo McCord, “A Sorry Viewpoint,” Gospel Advocate (20 March 1969): 190.

[30] Ibid., 191.

[31] Walter Burch, “Neglecting Weightier Matters,” Firm Foundation (11 June 1968): 372.

[32] Reuel Lemmons, “The Racial Problem,” Firm Foundation (9 July 1968):: 434.

[34] B. B. Harding, “Neglecting the Weightier Matters,” Firm Foundation (9 July 1968): 436.

[35] Ron Goodman, “Afterthoughts on ‘Neglecting the Weightier Matters,” Firm Foundation (9 July 1968): 437.

[36] The Christian Chronicle seems to have covered these events regularly. The June 14, 1968 Chronicle covers the Dayton workshop and the July 12 has a report on the Atlanta workshop.

[37] Denton Crews, Jr. “Brookline, Massachusetts to the Editor,” Christian Chronicle (18 October 1963): 2.

[38] James D. Bales, The Martin Luther King Story (Christian Crusade Publications, 1967), p. 199. In my judgment rare is the book that so grossly misunderstands King and his work. Bales has no conception or appreciation that King was working for freedom. Nor did Bales see that the very system he was seeking to defend against the “Communists” was one of the most oppressive in the world.

[39] Calvin Bowers, “Reflections on the Death of Martin Luther King,” Christian Chronicle (19 April 1968): 2.

[40] Mrs. Virgil Todd, Dell City, Oklahoma, to the Editor, Christian Chronicle (10 May 1968): 3

[41] Mrs. Sam R. Hershey, Midland, Texas, to the Editor, Christian Chronicle (10 May 1968): 3.

[42] Truman R. Clark, Villanova, Pennsylvania, to the Editor, Christian Chronicle (14 June 1968): 2.

[43] Eugene Green, “The Trouble with Skin,” Christian Echo (July 1968): 5.

[44] John Waddey, “A Plea to My Black Brethren,” Christian Echo (February 1970): 2.

[45] John Allen Chalk, Three American Revolutions (Carlton Press, 1970), p. 79.

[46] Ibid., p. 85.

[47] Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith, p. 302.

[48] Glen Wallace, “The Atlanta Conference,” First Century Christian (October 1968): 3.

[49] Rubel Shelly, “Must I love My Neighbor If He is a Different Color?” Firm Foundation (1 January 1980): 5. For Black Power see James Cone’s Black Theology & Black Power (Orbis, Second Printing 1999) and Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998 (Beacon Press, 1999). Cone will, as they say, rock your world and make most of us uncomfortable.

[50] Larry James, “The Church and Good News to the Poor,” Firm Foundation (17 October 1978): 666.

[51] Larry James, “Christians Should Lead the Way in Overcoming Hate,” IMAGE (Sept/Oct 1996):7

[52] Ibid., p. 8.

[53] Rick Atchley, “Reconciling Differences,” IMAGE (Sept/Oct 1996): 23.

[54] Rubel Shelly, “Passion for Justice is a ‘Mark of the Church,'” Wineskins (August 1992): 3.

[55] John Allen Chalk, “Racism and the Body of Christ,” Wineskins (August 1992): 10.

[56] Ibid., 11.

[57] Larry James, “Remembering A Martyr: Malcolm X and America’s Struggle for Racial Justice,” Wineskins (August 1992): 24-26.

[58] Michael Casey, “Bus Ride to Justice: The Story of a Faithful Gospel Preacher and Martin Luther King’s Lawyer, Fred Gray,” Wineskins (July/August 1998): 16.

[59] Martin Luther King, Jr, “I Have a Dream,” Wineskins (May/June 1998): 9-10.

[60] Gary Selby, “A Visit to the Lorraine,” Wineskins (May/June 1998): 13.

[61] Gospel Advocate (October 1995).

25 Responses to “Social Concerns in Churches of Christ: Trends Since the King Years, 1950-2000”

  1. janney Says:

    thank you for reminding us this is still an incredible problem in the church and society.

  2. Randall Says:

    Great post, but oh how tragic.
    Randall

  3. Missionary's Missionary Says:

    Removed to correct a misspelled word –

    What an indictment! Thanks for posting…

  4. kingdomseeking Says:

    Thanks for sharing this…and I hope Christians in our fellowship and beyond continue the pursuit of racial/ethnic justice.

    Grace and peace,

    K. Rex Butts

  5. Keith Says:

    Thanks Bobby. A message we all need to be reminded of. How ironic the those accusing other of preaching a “social gospel” were the ones who were most influenced by their contemporary society.

    How did the Disciples of Christ fare during this same period?

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Nice post and this fill someone in on helped me alot in my college assignement. Thank you for your information.

  7. cwinwc Says:

    Thank you for sharing with us. Reading research such as yours should humble us as well as renew our efforts to be the bearers of the Gospel’s good news and not the instrument that pervades accepted social customs when they conflict with the teachings of Jesus.

  8. Gary Cleveland Says:

    Hey Bobby,
    Thanks for posting this up. I remember talking about some of this with you over lunch at one our Milwaukee Preacher’s Gatherings. Glad to get to read the whole thing.

    On a related note: My wife, Deb, has completed her latest writing project titled: Man From Macedonia – see more at http://www.manfrommacedonia.org The book is a collaborative biography of Dr. Aaron Johnson, a Baptist Minister from North Carolina. He was a part of the work of Dr. King. He later became the first African/American to be appointed Secretary of Corrections in North Carolina. Deb has done a masterful job in writing his story. It reads like a novel. Dr. Johnson will be preaching at Oakhaven on March 28 and doing appearances locally for book signings etc. The web site mentioned above has some video and audio resources to give you more of a flavor of the story.

    Hope you are well. I missed having you around in Wisconsin during the Crimson Tide’s amazing football season!

  9. Anonymous Says:

    i easily adore your posting type, very helpful,
    don’t give up and also keep writing since it simply nicely to follow it.
    looking forward to browse more and more of your content articles, have a good day 🙂

  10. Roy Davison Says:

    Ran across your blog doing a search on Carl Spain.
    You do not do Marshall Keeble justice. He broke down many barriers. He reflected the Spirit of Christ. He stood tall as a representative of God and never licked the boots of any man. I had the privilege of hearing him speak twice. Listen to some of his lessons: http://www.oldpathsmedia.org/Speakers/Keeble/Marshall/

  11. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Roy,

    Welcome to my little corner of cyberspace. I am sorry that you feel that I have slighted MK somehow. That was not my intention and I do not know how or where in my essay that i have. I have no doubt that MK hated racism as much as R. N. Hogan or S. R. Cassius or many other folks. He was often the victim of it. He worked differently than G.P. Bowser (of whom I said little because of the times covered) and he had a vastly different approach than others. My views on Keeble though are based on the research in the footnotes. I recommend them, especially Edward J. Robinson’s “Show Us How You Do It: Marshall Keeble and the Rise of Black Churches of Christ in the United States, 1914-1968” (available on Amazon).

    Shalom,
    Bobby Valentine

  12. Peter Gray Says:

    Thanks for this article! Both enlightening and challenging!

  13. MaxShelby Says:

    Excellent commentary from a an amazing mind.

    The attitudes of the Deep South and racial injustice run deep–even today.

    I find it sad that far too much of this attitude exists in the COC in the 21st century.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Thank you so much for doing this research! I’m a graduate student and member of the Church whose work in social and economic justice over the last 10 years has left me often disenchanted with the Church as a moral AND social institution. Your post has led me down a fabulous rabbit hole of information.

  15. decentralist.wordpress.com Says:

    I’m not sure if this article is honestly or dishonestly biased, but certainly horribly devoid of the most essential knowledge of the subject.

    If you start with 1865 and accuse the Church of Christ of Lost Cause…but then start your evidence ~1950, you’ve got a problem.

    The Church of Christ refused to participate in the Civil War and WW1. David Lipscomb called it “blasphemy” (yes that exact most powerful word) for a McKinney, TX congregation to think blacks should be in separate congregations.

    What happened was that at Lipscomb’s death in 1917, McQuiddy at the Gospel Advocate was threatened by Pres. Wilson to stop all anti-war and anti-draft articles or have mass arrests, have all property of the GA and churches confiscated, etc. and McQuiddy gave in to persecution. Without willingness to fight the greatest enemy of the CoC (US government) it was only a matter of time till a pure anti-Christian like FEW Jr. would make a 180 and oppose everything the Church of Christ stood for. As Lipscomb wrote, nothing he “ever wrote was more important to the salvation of the world” than his book on Civil Government.

    There are no observant Christians save anarchists. Lipscomb independently discovered economic truths it took the anarchist movement 100 years to develop.

  16. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Decentralist,

    I welcome your comments and your input on my blog. Next time you want to comment I only ask that you sign your real name or I will not let it be posted.

    Now a reply or two. I have been away from my pc for a few days so I apologize for the delay in your comment appearing. I am even now at the public library in Florence Alabama responding to you.

    I do not think my post is either biased or misguided or devoid of the “most essential knowledge of the subject.” First the Churches of Christ are more than David Lipscomb and the Nashville Bible School Tradition. David Lipscomb was in many ways ahead of the game on the matter of race relations. I have written on that matter extensively both on this blog and in a book with John Mark Hicks titled “KINGDOM COME: EMBRACING THE SPIRITUAL LEGACY OF DAVID LIPSCOMB and JAME HARDING.” Lipscomb’s views were not shared by the vast majority of the people in the pews whether in Tennessee or Texas.

    Second, your appeal to McQuiddy being visited by the Attorney General’s office really has no bearing on the subject at all. The GA was seen as promoting seditious material because of a few articles on conscientious objection not race relations. Lipscomb did oppose war in all its manifestations … but my essay has nothing to do with that matter though I have written on that as well.

    Thank you for dropping by and I hope you will read further in my blog. YOu might find quite a bit on Lipscomb and his compatriots like James A Harding or S. R. Cassius or Pardee Butler … whose stories are linked even in this blog.

    Shalom,
    Bobby Valentine

  17. Anonymous Says:

    Very informative article. Well documented. How sad that we claimed one thing and practiced another. I was just as guilty and slow to open my eyes.

    • Joseph Ingram Says:

      It sad that we hide behind so many excuses in the churches of Christ when it comes to racism. The church has and will continue to suffer until it is openly and truthful addressed among us with the word!

      Joseph L. Ingram

    • Joseph Ingram Says:

      It’s sad that we hide behind so many excuses in the churches of Christ when it comes to racism. The church has and will continue to suffer until it is openly and truthful addressed among us with the word!

      Joseph L. Ingram

  18. Joel Elliott Says:

    Thanks for this article, Bobby. I found it after reading Hugh Fulford’s sanitized & generously selective memory of race relations in the CofC as published in his letter to The Tennessean recently (6/19/2012; source: http://is.gd/DNNsts).

    Glad to hear candid voices like yours willing to tell the truth about these years of complicitous silence and systematical “bullying” by CofC leaders to suppress opposition and protect their status quo. If any healing or real progress is possible, it must start with telling the unvarnished truth to the best of our abilities, however embarrassing or shameful it might be.

    Thanks for your candor.

  19. Steven Harper Says:

    One point I take issue with is the implication throughout the article that this was a “South” problem; as one who grew up in “the South,” I know there was prejudice, but I also know it was prevalent EVERYWHERE, and still is. I can tell many stories of prejudice witnessed and experienced by brothers and sisters in Christ in every corner of this country, back then and even now. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it was “someone else’s” problem by noting only prejudicial behavior and teaching in other places, when it most likely existed very near us. It’s easy to cast stones when it is far from us, but not so easy when the stones land at our feet.

    • Profile photo of Bobby Valentine Bobby Valentine Says:

      Steven I am honored to have you read and respond. I have no doubt that racism is endemic and not cloistered in the South. But this essay is about the Churches of Christ who are for the most part in the “South.” But I do not recall trying to make this a Southern problem because I do not think it is. It is both a human one and an American one. Thanks for the feed back.

  20. Steve Wolfgang Says:

    Bobby, as with so much else written recently on “Restoration” history, this focuses on the Tennessee-Texas axis, where decades of Lost-Cause/Jim Crow environments produced predictable results. It ignores some of the efforts of the likes of Daniel Sommer and his racially-integrated Bible Readings from Pennsylvania to the Midwest (Indiana-Illinois-Kansas etc.) dating back to the 1870’s. Not to say there was no racism in those areas, but the story is more nuanced than ignoring such evidence might indicate. Sommer was held in such contempt by his Southern brethren (“they have a ‘Dixie’ feeling,” he said) that he and other preachers he worked with and trained get no respect even today.

    • Profile photo of Bobby Valentine Bobby Valentine Says:

      Steve you are quite right. I wrote this piece back in 2000 and my own situation in Mississippi was on my brain. I do not claim this study is exhaustive by any means. But the bulk of the period covered is post Sommer. I have since this piece gone through the Christian Leader which was, at one time, a popular paper from the North. There are similar but not identical trends there as here. But I have to get down one day and just systematically go through Sommer’s mass of writings. I have read “lots” (a relative term here) but nothing like in the Texas-TN axis. I have much learning to do yet. I appreciate your perspective and sharing it.

  21. jon atkins Says:

    Thanks for sharing–I enjoyed reading this essay. Couple of points worth considering: 1. The 1860 census shows that David Lipscomb owned five slaves–I don’t know what historians or others have said about it. 2. Steve Wolfgang’s point is right (though I’m not a fan of Daniel Sommer!). The Southeastern Michigan church I grew up in was much more racially mixed than any Southern church I’ve been in–I’m thinking at least a third of the members were African American, and the majority of whites I would guess were migrants from the Southern states. That’s a personal anecdote, so I don’t know how much value it has, but Churches of Christ in the Northern states, including their race relations, definitely need much closer study. 3. I may be wrong on this point, but I think Charles Reagan Wilson grew up in a Church of Christ–I remember seeing an article once in which he discussed his career and interest in Southern religion, and I think I remember seeing something about his CofC roots. I don’t think he stayed in the church as an adult, and it’s kind of interesting that he doesn’t say much about the Stone-Campbell tradition in his book Baptized in Blood.

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