Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars
Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews
Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 2017
White privilege. I am not a racist. Both are statements I’ve made numerous times in my life. Mary Bet Swetnam Mathews challenges these affirmations as she digs deeply into the roots of the label I wear as a Southern Baptist pastor. Her investigation into the vast differences between white, fundamentalist reaction to modernity and the way African Americans reacted demonstrated clearly and sadly a racist, white-privileged approach from my doctrinal forefathers.
“fundamentalism itself was a racialized term. The men who coined the term were whit, and in their worldview, and indeed in the worldview of most white Americans of the era, Christianity was defined by the goals and aspirations of white, middle-class educated Protestants.”
Throughout the book she demonstrates with quotations from white pastors, theologians, and editors of Christian news-journals demonstrating how their own upbringing suggest a superiority to and a patronizing air toward African Americans.
The author reminds us that black Protestants had walked out of white Protestant churches in the South and had formed their own denominations, which were well established by the end of WW I. Instead of dialogue, white Protestants spoke and wrote about the need to preserve the difference between the races and they often positioned themselves as experts of what they mistakenly considered a divinely inspired racial boundaries.
Throughout the thoroughly researched book Mathews illustrates over and again from newspaper articles, sermons, and other methods of communication how white Protestants insisted on their moral and doctrinal superiority when it came to defining what it truly meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ and part of His church. African American Christian leaders held to similar positions to white Protestant fundamentalist on the social ‘ills’ of their time: dancing and drinking. However, African American writers and preachers “were unified in their belief that religion spoke to the racial conditions in the United States.”
Perhaps the most telling quote is from Benjamin Jefferson Davis, editor of the National Baptist Union-Review (the voice of the National Baptist Convention) as he asked
“how the white man’s religion permits him to hate his brother because he is black” when for a black Christian, “religion teaches him to live his white brother not because he is white, yellow, or black, but because Christ has taught him to love his neighbor as he loves himself.”
As a seminary student I was schooled in the ‘fundamentals,’ the focus of a series of essays defending orthodox Christian belief against what we were told was the highly subversive German theological method of ‘higher criticism.’ While I appreciate my education in these issues, I must have missed the lectures and/or class on how my white forefathers refused to acknowledge the accomplishments of African American pastors and theologians as they combated the same tendency toward theological drift while fighting a losing battle against the embedded racism of their culture.
I am saddened by what I read. Mathew’s book is a first step in coming to terms with my past, with my fundamental convictions. As I read her work I wondered, where are the Native American voices in our denominational culture? Where are the Asian American voices in our culture? The Southern Baptist Convention has publicly repented of our own denominational history of racism. The messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention elected Fred Luter, a noted African American pastor and leader from New Orleans, LA as president in 2012-2014. There is much more to be done in order to clear up our own misunderstandings of our own history. Dr. Mathews has contributed a valuable resource for taking small steps forward in my own understanding of racism.