Getting Right With God: Southern Baptists and Desegregation, 1945-1995by Mark Newman
This groundbreaking study finds Southern Baptists more diverse in their attitudes toward segregation than previously assumed.
Focusing on the eleven states of the old Confederacy, Getting Right with God examines the evolution of Southern Baptists' attitudes toward African Americans during a tumultuous period of change in the United States. Mark/i>
This groundbreaking study finds Southern Baptists more diverse in their attitudes toward segregation than previously assumed.
Focusing on the eleven states of the old Confederacy, Getting Right with God examines the evolution of Southern Baptists' attitudes toward African Americans during a tumultuous period of change in the United States. Mark Newman not only offers an in-depth analysis of Baptist institutions from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and state conventions to colleges and churches but also probes beyond these by examining the response of pastors and lay people to changing race relations.
The SBC long held that legal segregation was in line with biblical teachings, but after the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision in favor of desegregating public institutions, some Southern Baptists found an inconsistency in their basic beliefs. Newman identifies three major blocs of Baptist opinion about race relations: a hard-line segregationist minority that believed God had ordained slavery in the Bible; a more moderate majority that accepted the prevailing social order of racial segregation; and a progressive group of lay people, pastors, and denominational leaders who criticized and ultimately rejected discrimination as contrary to biblical teachings.
According to Newman, the efforts of the progressives to appeal to Baptists' primary commitments and the demise of de jure segregation caused many moderate and then hard-line segregationists to gradually relinquish their views, leading to the 1995 apology by the Southern Baptist Convention for its complicity in slavery and racism. Comparing Southern Baptists to other major white denominations, Newman concludes that lay Baptists differed little from other white southerners in their response to segregation.
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Getting Right with God
Southern Baptists and Desegregation, 1945â"1995
By Mark Newman
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2001 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
The Southern Baptist Convention and African Americans, 1845–1944
Disgruntled white southerners formed the SBC in 1845 after the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions refused to appoint slaveholders as missionaries. The sectional split among Baptists prefigured the divisions of the Civil War. Southern Baptists endorsed secession and the Confederate cause. After the South's defeat, many celebrated the Lost Cause. Constituting nearly one-third of Southern Baptist membership, African Americans formed their own churches during Reconstruction, when whites refused to grant them equality within biracial churches. Southern Baptists endorsed segregation as God ordained, as they had once done slavery, and defended southern disfranchisement of African Americans. Most Baptists believed in black inferiority and supported white supremacy, although some Baptist bodies denounced lynching. Consistent criticism of enforced racial inequality, but not segregation, emerged in the SBC and many Baptist state conventions only in the late 1930s and 1940s. The demands and successes of the nascent civil rights movement for equality, and the fight against Nazi Germany, engendered a growing sensitivity about racial injustice within America. Yet in 1944, few Baptists saw any inconsistency between segregation and their primary commitments to scripture, evangelism, law and order, and public education.
In the late eighteenth century, slavery had some vigorous critics among white Baptists in the Upper South, but, as the institution expanded across the South during the next century, the region's Baptists increasingly defended it as biblical and a means by which they could evangelize heathen Africans. Baptists enjoyed the greatest success of any denomination in recruiting African Americans. Many slaveholders encouraged conversion in the belief that the emphasis Baptist preachers placed on obedience and morality might render their slaves more subservient. By contrast, slaves found in the Baptist faith, which they fused with African belief systems, a means to combat dehumanization.
Nearly all antebellum Baptist churches in the South were biracial, and, in some congregations, black members spoke in disciplinary procedures against whites. However, white churches normally allocated slaves a separate area during worship services. At white insistence, slaves often convened in separate services presided over by a slaveholder or white minister. African Americans preferred their own worship meetings, held outside white control. Some slaves participated in clandestine services on the plantation away from their masters. Southern white churches also spawned over 150 antebellum African-American churches in which blacks enjoyed autonomy in worship services.
Although white ministers sometimes trained African-American slaves for missionary activity and even emancipated a few of these missionaries, they defended the peculiar institution. Stung by increasing abolitionist sentiment among northern Baptists during the 1830s and 1840s, those in the South became increasingly strident in their support of slavery. The attempt of the General Convention to maintain an uneasy neutrality over the issue came unstuck in 1844 when the Georgia Baptist Convention sponsored slaveholder James E. Reeve as a missionary to the Cherokees in a test case. When the General Convention's Home Mission Society rejected Reeve's nomination and its Foreign Mission Board affirmed later in the year that it would not appoint a slaveholder, southerners concluded that abolitionists had seized control of the convention. In response, they met in Augusta, Georgia, in May 1845 and organized the SBC.
As the issue of slavery and its expansion split the nation in the 1850s and 1860s, white Southern Baptists rallied to the South's defense. The South Carolina Secession Convention first met in Columbia's First Baptist Church. The degree of enthusiasm Baptists held for secession reflected that in their particular states, with those of the Deep South first championing secession. Once the eleven southern states had seceded and the Civil War broke out, white Southern Baptists lauded the Confederacy's cause. In May 1861, the messengers to the SBC adopted a resolution that declared: "We most cordially approve of the formation of the Government of the Confederate States of America, and admire and applaud the noble course of that Government...." Southern Baptists reconciled their belief in law and order with secession by arguing that they were acting in defense of liberty and so enjoyed God's approval. The Confederacy's military victories in the Civil War reflected His blessings and its defeats His chastisement for southerners' failings. In 1863, the SBC described the war as "just and necessary" and detected the "divine hand in the guidance and protection of our beloved country."
Convinced that theirs was a holy cause, Baptist ministers remained confident of ultimate victory. Defeat, then, required a religious explanation, which white southerners found in the Lost Cause. As historian Charles Reagan Wilson has explained, a substantial body of southern clergymen, many of them prominent leaders within their denominations, became prime exponents of this myth. They "interpreted the Civil War as demonstrating the height of Southern virtue, as a moral-religious crusade against the atheistic North." Southern whites, their clergymen told them, were a peculiarly virtuous people chosen by God, and their religion was the most pure form of Christianity. The Confederate defeat did not mean that the Almighty had abandoned the South, rather it was part of God's plan, "a form of discipline," that would prepare southerners for a more glorious future, if they maintained Christian-Confederate values.
Race, Wilson contends, was connected to but not central to the Lost Cause, which focused primarily on the religious virtue of the Confederates. Southern whites had fought the war, their ministers contended, not to preserve slavery but to defend a godly, southern society and the principles of the American Revolution. Throughout the century, southern white clergymen nevertheless continued to defend slavery as part of God's plan to evangelize African Americans. But the Almighty, they maintained, had also decreed emancipation in 1865. Many Baptists argued that God had ended slavery because it had achieved His purpose by converting and civilizing blacks, a prerequisite for their return to Africa to evangelize the continent. Some Baptists claimed, more pessimistically, that emancipation represented God's judgement for their failure to fulfill adequately their evangelistic duties to the slaves.
After the Civil War, most Southern Baptists intended that African Americans should remain within their denomination but in a subordinate, segregated position. Unwilling to accept a continued inferior status within the church, blacks withdrew from biracial congregations to establish their own. White Baptists initially opposed separation. They feared that African Americans, as Baptists in Edgefield County, South Carolina, explained in 1865, might become subject to "the guidance of ignorant, unqualified, and unauthorized persons." However, by the late 1860s, most white Baptists regarded separation as both inescapable and desirable, and, sometimes, they helped in the creation of African-American churches.
The SBC's annual meeting in 1869 revealed that a consensus had emerged in favor of excluding African-American churches from Southern Baptist associations and conventions. In debate, the messengers firmly rejected biracial organization. Outside Maryland and Florida, few black churches remained in Southern Baptist associations after the early 1870s. Several thousand African Americans maintained their second-class membership in predominantly white congregations, but their numbers gradually declined; by 1902 none officially remained on church membership rolls. Except for a few African Americans who continued to attend its churches, the SBC had become almost entirely white, as it was to stay until the 1950s.
The Southern Baptist rejection of biracialism reflected fears that it would involve racial equality within the church. In 1869, the SBC declared that the Bible recognized "social distinctions." Behind the fear of social equality lay a dread of miscegenation. Jeremiah B. Jeter, senior editor of the Religious Herald, a Southern Baptist weekly newspaper published in Virginia, warned in 1869 that black equality within the church would lead to "the mongrelization of our noble Anglo-Saxon race...." As African Americans departed from their churches, Southern Baptists exhibited decreasing interest in their welfare. They listened to convention reports that called for black ministerial training but developed few evangelistic or educational programs for African Americans until late in the century.
Northern whites, following in the trail of Union soldiers, took the lead in missionary activity among the former slaves. Southern Baptists feared that the missionaries would instill radical, egalitarian ideas among the freedmen. Their concerns seemed justified when the American Baptist Home Mission Society proposed a joint program of missions with the SBC in 1868 that would "lift up the millions of freedmen to the exercise of all the rights and duties of citizenship and Christian brotherhood." The convention promptly rejected the northern approach, and the society continued its missionary program alone.
The weekly newspapers of Southern Baptist state conventions frequently criticized northern missionaries for bringing, as the Atlanta-based Christian Index complained, "influences from abroad estranging the colored population from the white for political ends." Southern Baptists opposed the Reconstruction policies of the federal government, designed to create a biracial democracy in the South by adding the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, granting citizenship to the native-born, and outlawing racial discrimination in the franchise. Inaccurately, they charged that southern state governments were dominated by African Americans, who, hampered by political inexperience, fell victim to the machinations of northern white carpetbaggers and southern-born Republican scalawags. Editors of Baptist newspapers seized upon instances of corruption among Republican-controlled state governments in the South to condemn Reconstruction and black suffrage.
Southern Baptists also denounced the biracial thrust of Reconstruction, just as they had rejected integration within their churches. They maintained that God had intended for the races to be separate. Although Baptists agreed that all humans were descended from Adam and Eve, most argued that God had created differences between the races that made African Americans inferior. Misreading Genesis 9:25–27, they claimed that God had cursed Ham and his descendants with black skin and condemned them to perpetual servitude. Southern Baptists believed that whites had a duty to maintain their blood untainted, since miscegenation would create an inferior, hybrid race in defiance of God's plan for racial purity. Accordingly, Baptists lambasted the civil rights bill of 1875, which forbade segregation in public accommodations.
The violence of the Ku Klux Klan represented the most extreme form of white resistance to African-American equality during the Reconstruction era. Although there is little direct evidence that Baptist ministers joined the Klan, Baptist newspapers did not condemn its activities and most ignored them. Occasionally, they asserted their belief in law and order but argued that, in their supposed absence, the extralegal methods of the Klan were understandable.
A series of federal Enforcement Acts and mass prosecutions undermined the Klan in the early 1870s, by which time southern Democrats had already redeemed several states from Republican rule, with the use of intimidation and violence. By 1876, the Republicans had lost control of every southern state but Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina. Reconstruction finally ended when incoming President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South and allowed the last Republican governments there to fall in 1877. With the restoration of Democratic rule in the South and the overturning of the Civil Rights Act by the Supreme Court in the Civil Rights Cases (1883), Southern Baptists believed that whites had reestablished the divine order in race relations. In the late 1880s and 1890s, they shared and contributed to an emerging southern white consensus that a new generation of African Americans, unschooled by slavery, had become too assertive.
Baptists fully supported southern disfranchisement of African Americans in the wake of the Populist movement that had raised the specter of a biracial coalition of impoverished farmers. Although most Baptist newspapers did not discuss the South's adoption of Jim Crow laws in the 1880s and 1890s, upheld by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), they frequently defended segregation as God's will. The Christian Index declared in 1889 that "The color line remains just where the Almighty put it, and there it will remain." Baptists supported public education, but they insisted that the races should be educated separately. African Americans, in their view, should receive sufficient education to allow them to read the Scriptures and secure employment as laborers. Baptists claimed that both races supported segregation. According to the Christian Index, "The line of demarcation is observed as rigidly by Negroes as by whites."
African Americans who did not exhibit the subservience whites expected of them risked being lynched, often for the spurious accusation of raping white women. Lynching reached its peak between 1890 and 1915. At first, some Baptists viewed lynching, as they had once seen Klan violence, as a regrettable but understandable response to an absence of effective law enforcement. However, as lynching became more frequent, most Baptist newspapers and many state conventions condemned the practice, which offended their commitment to law and order. Although they rejected lynching and other forms of white violence, Southern Baptists placed the responsibility for racial harmony on African Americans, who, they believed, should acquiesce in their subjugation. The HMB argued in its 1891 report that evangelism would encourage blacks to accept a "subordinate place" that would "settle this race question forever." Limited, uncoordinated and disparate, Southern Baptist missionary work among African Americans seemed to enter a new phase when, in 1894, Northern and Southern Baptists agreed on a coordinated approach to evangelism with black Baptist state conventions, known as the New Era Plan. However, the plan only operated in six states. By 1900, it stood largely in abeyance, a casualty of the unwillingness of whites to offer black Baptists the egalitarian relationship they desired. In the meantime, African-American Baptists had created their own national organization, the National Baptist Convention.
The WMU worked closely with female leaders from the National Baptist Convention. In the 1890s, it began operating a program of industrial schools and mothers' meetings for African-American women with support from the HMB. The WMU influenced the formation of the Woman's Convention in 1900, an auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention, which parallelled its own function within the SBC. WMU leader Annie Armstrong persuaded the HMB to hire female African Americans as field workers for the Woman's Convention.
Excerpted from Getting Right with God by Mark Newman. Copyright © 2001 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Meet the Author
Mark Newman is Professor of American Studies at the University of Derby, UK.
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