In There Goes My Everything, which I first wrote about here, Jason Sokol discusses a challenge facing some southern pastors during the Civil Rights movement. Compelled by their call and their conscience to faithfully discharge their pastoral duties and to preach God’s word as they understood it, even — perhaps especially — when their congregations did not want to hear such a message, many pastors who spoke with even a modicum of sympathy for desegregation or civil rights activism ended up preaching themselves right out of a job.
In this post, I want to discuss the phenomenon of these dissenting pastors in more detail. In one or two follow-up posts, I want to draw some connections not only between that historic response and current civil rights discourse, but also between the dilemma of pastors and the dilemma of historians who take seriously a professional obligation to give a truthful account of the past, whether or not that account offends the popular pieties of historical memory.
First, I should probably spell out a few basic facts about church polity that might not be familiar to people who don’t work on some aspect of the history of Christianity in America, or who didn’t grow up in a tradition where such things mattered, but that might be helpful in framing pastoral work in the civil rights movement. To scholars of religion in American history, the following summary may seem like a gross oversimplification, and to everyone else it may seem like picayune hairsplitting. But for the sake of those “weaker brethren” in the historical profession who don’t regularly chew on this stuff, I’m going to err on the side of lumping. All of our colleagues who work on religious history are welcome and encouraged to provide additional nuance to the description outlined below.
Broadly speaking, there are three basic models of church governance; they might be characterized as hierarchical, oligarchical, and (more or less radically) egalitarian. In this horribly general scheme, the Catholic church would be hierarchical. The Episcopal church is (on paper) almost completely hierarchical but shades toward the oligarchic. The Methodist, the Presbyterian and the Lutheran denominations are oligarchic. Churches associated with the Southern Baptist Convention are — or have been — radically egalitarian in the sense that there is no official mechanism of church governance beyond that of the local congregation. This is true as well of “Bible” churches, which often pattern themselves after Presbyterian polity in terms of local congregational governance, but have no larger body to whom they answer. I can’t speak to the polity of “Pentecostal” churches — Pentecostalism is a movement, not a denomination per se, and some denominations associated with that movement shade more toward the oligarchic, while others are more radically egalitarian in terms of congregational governance.
Now, why does all this matter? It matters because pastors who spoke in favor of desegregation or who used their sermons to call their congregations to live out or live up to the notion that if Christ would welcome all, they should welcome all, may have done so with the expectation different degrees of institutional “protection” or support. “Many pastors,” writes Sokol, “were forced to negotiate between the stances of their national church bodies and the sentiments of their congregations….Ministers either had to flout church policy or enrage their constituents” (50-51). Flouting (national) church policy was not a problem for Baptist ministers, because there was no top-down “policy” they were expected to follow, nor a top-down hierarchy to whom they answered. Baptist ministers answered only to their local congregations, which were often quite at odds with “national” confessional bodies. As Sokol points out, at the June 1954 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention — that is, the gathering of representatives from Southern Baptist Churches across the United States — delegates voted in overwhelming support of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, affirming that “‘this Supreme Court decision is in harmony with the constitutional guarantee of equal freedom to all citizens, and with the Christian principles of equal justice and love for all men'” (52). Sokol notes that 9,000 delegates voted in favor of this resolution; only 50 voted against it.
The resolution expressed a noble collective sentiment that was badly out of touch with local convictions. Writes Sokol, “The majority of white southern clergy, like white southerners in general, opposed the rising civil rights movement. At the nation’s largest Baptist church, Dallas’s First Baptist, Reverend W.A. Criswell lampooned the ‘bunch of infidels’ who ‘sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches’ “(52). He was talking about the SBC delegates, and the overwhelming majority of Baptists in the South, it seems, agreed with Criswell’s sentiments. Thus, Baptist pastors who spoke in favor of desegregation knowingly spoke at peril of their jobs. With rare exceptions, such pastors were summarily dismissed — as were many Methodist and Presbyterian pastors who challenged Jim Crow on moral or spiritual grounds as a betrayal of the bonds of Christian fellowship.
One interesting exception came later, in the midst of the bus boycotts in Albany, Georgia. As part of the civil rights actions there and elsewhere, Blacks took part in “kneel ins” in local churches. Basically, a few African-Americans would attempt to visit an all-white church on a Sunday morning and join the congregation in worship. This was a prophetic act aimed at challenging white Christians to live up to their own language of God’s universal welcome to “whosoever will” come to Him. Sokol describes the kneel in at First Baptist Church of Albany, and its peculiar aftermath:
On Sunday, August 19,  Albany authorities arrested three blacks who showed up for services at the city’s First Baptist Church….[A]n usher denied them admittance. When they refused to leave the church steps, they were arrested. Reverend Brooks Ramsey was at the pulpit, unaware of the incident as it was occurring. He later made plain his disagreement with the actions of the usher and the police. ‘This is Christ’s church and I can’t build any walls around it that Christ did not build, and Christ did not build any racial walls….the church doctrine of love to all men transcends any racial consideration.’ This was no endorsement of the civil rights movement, Ramsey made clear, but a belief about the freedom to worship where one pleased. ‘I haven’t been a radical in this situation. In fact, I’m not in agreement with all their (the Negroes) methods. I’m not even in agreement with kneel-ins. They hurt the moderates.’ It was a position that many whites held: while nobody should break the laws of God, neither should blacks push too strongly or swiftly for integration. Ramsey insisted he did not believe the civil rights crusaders ‘are right in coming at all,’ but ‘Christian courtesy demands that anyone–even our worst enemy’–had the right to worship where he wished (81).
That is perhaps a disappointingly “nuanced” stance — “I don’t believe in civil rights, but I believe in Christian hospitality, and even though ‘the Negroes’ are being too pushy, we should welcome them anyhow” — but it was a bold stance for that time and that place. The church’s Board of Deacons met a few days later and voted unanimously to support the pastor, affirming “the right of individual members of this church and its pastor to arrive at their own Christian convictions on all spiritual matters which may or may not be in agreement with the customs of the church.” If you are wondering where that language came from in “this bastion of Jim Crow,” as Sokol terms it, you need look no further than the “Baptist distinctives” of “soul competency” and “the priesthood of the believer”: the traditional belief that each individual believer was (rendered) competent by the Holy Spirit to hear the will of God in scripture and in his own conscience, and that there was no spiritual authority or magisterium standing between the believer and God. In this case, the Deacons chose to affirm the confessional tradition of the local congregation over the cultural tradition of Jim Crow — even though that cultural tradition was intertwined with their confessional community. While disaffected members of the church agitated for the pastor’s dismissal, “Ramsey retained his position; the board and the congregation upheld his right to interpret the Bible as he saw fit” (82).
That Baptist pastor, like many other pastors, was compelled by the nonviolent actions of civil rights protesters to take a stand on a contemporary political and moral issue. If three African-American Christians had not showed up at his church, he might have been able to take to his pulpit Sunday after Sunday throughout the 1960s and never address the burning civil rights issue of his era. Though the church might have preached that “God so loved the world,” that “all are precious in His sight,” the congregants could have continued (and perhaps did continue) to interact with blacks during the week in patronizing or menacingly hierarchical ways that denied such beliefs in practice. But what compelled the pastor to speak — and, perhaps, what compelled the collective conscience of the congregation to rally in his support — was the “problem” of a forced proximity. The radically egalitarian principles of Baptist tradition and polity were put to the test by the presence of “social/racial inferiors” in a place of worship where all stood equal before God. This particular congregation, while not necessarily welcoming of the Others in their midst, affirmed the right of its members and its minister to follow their own conscience in the matter, whether or not that conviction lined up with the church’s segregationist practice.
That is a very small fissure in the seemingly impassable wall of a hegemonic social order. But a fissure it was. Into that seam between profession and practice, that needle’s eye opening between a shared calling and a mutual alienation, Martin Luther King Jr. wedged his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” How effective the appeal to conscience was in changing not just the outward practice but underlying assumptions of white Southerners is obviously debatable. But, judging from current conservative Christian discourse on gay/queer issues, I’d say that some leaders realize the “danger” of accepting the Other in one’s midst. In this sense, the civil rights movement offered lessons for everyone.
And now I’ve hit 1600 words, which is plenty long for a blog post. So I’ll leave the discussion here. The next time I take this topic up I will discuss the challenges posed by and to a pluralistic society — or to the pluralistic enterprise of contemporary historiography — by the presence and proximity of the “Other.” And I will eventually come back around, I think, to the responsibilities of the professional historian as belonging not only among the “community of the competent” but among the culture as a whole.