U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Pastoral Work in History: the Civil Rights Movement

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, [1962] 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.

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lora,

    To build onto your discussion of “profession and practice,” has there been any significant work done on self-professed (or historian-discovered) Christian Anarchists and their views on the civil rights movement and/or race relations in the South?

    I ask this because I’m a novice when it comes to the works of Jacques Ellul. I’m planning on reading a new biography of Tolstoy this fall, and I was curious if the stance of Christian Anarchists on politics and society had any contribution to the civil rights movement (in either the North or South).

  2. Mark, interesting question. I don’t have an answer for it — haven’t done any focused reading on Christian Anarchy. Maybe one of our religious historians will step up to the plate.

    I will say that I re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” this morning — partly in preparation for writing this post, and partly because I wanted to revisit when/how King shifts back and forth from “I” to “you” to “we.” (As with everything else about the structure of the letter, that is a very deliberate and very savvy rhetorical move.)

    I was struck once again by the scope of reference upon which King drew. He was addressing “the pastorate” of Birmingham in a broad sense — Catholic, high/low Protestant, and Jewish faith leaders — and his letter copes with the diversity of his audience by drawing upon a diversity of sources (which also serves to demonstrate his bona fides as a scholar and thinker, rather than an “agitator”). Old and New Testament passages, Doctors of the Church, Socrates, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, etc — these are the sources upon which King draws. And of course the whole letter is structured like (and quite consciously evokes) Paul’s prison epistles.

    So when King speaks of placing his faith in “the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, the ekklesia and the hope of the world” it is hard to say if his thought there runs along the lines of Jacques Ellul or of Augustine. Or both?

    Maybe Robert Greene or Mark Edwards could weigh in here — or anyone else who has looked closely at the intersection between religious movements and civil rights during this time.

    What I appreciate about Sokol’s account is his ability to capture this moment when people’s usually quite compartmentalized beliefs are drawn into a dialectic tension. Jim Crow or the priesthood of the believer? Probably equally deeply held. Not a moral dilemma for most of us, but a real dilemma for some. Sokol does a good job of understanding these people’s epistemic crises from their point of view, and he shows real intellectual empathy with his subjects. It’s a good book.

  3. Fascinating case! I’m interested to see how it develops over the course of several posts. There’s so much to consider when it comes to religion and Civil Rights. I particularly like that you’re considering the tensions between individuals and their faith community. I see how you’ve delineated church structures and it comes together given how you discuss it here. I imagine you would receive challenges to the choice of “egalitarian” as your third model. To avoid glossing over social structures within congregations that relegate women and other minorities to the sidelines, perhaps “congregational” may be a better term. Nevertheless, if this is indicative of what you’re thinking of broadly, then you’re certainly participating in an interesting historiographical moment (as I see it) among American religious historians who are taking religious institutions more seriously (fascinating in part because Americans, esp. younger generation, are choosing _not_ to affiliate with institutions). Both the winter meeting for the American Society of Church History and the #RAAC2013 conferences called for scholars to return to the study of institutions. The recent past in the field has been concerned with “popular” religion, that is religion lived and expressed beyond the clergy, but there seems to be a turn toward considering the pull and push of institutions (church, state, parachurch orgs included) on both sides of the pulpit. In particular, Laurie Maffly-Kipp drew upon her own research on African-American Christians in the nineteenth century who continued to remain members of church institutions that did not call for equality.

  4. Yup, interesting stuff and I too look forward to more posts and greater discussion. I mentioned in another post that I like David Chappell’s book, A Stone of Hope, and wonder what your take is on his view of this general situation. It seems to me that Sokol has gone much further into the personal actions of congregants and in doing so demonstrated not merely the phantom of Southern white unanimity but the tremors of activity among whites that allowed their black neighbors to see fissures unnoticed before. What interested me about Chappell was his ability to place “non-action” or “neutrality” into historical context. He saw the question of why violence did not erupt more often or more pervasively as a way to see these fissures. My further sense is that Sokol takes more time with the personal relationships his historical characters had with their religion than Chappell does, though I am sure reading the two books together would be quite fruitful.

  5. Thanks for the comments, Cara and Ray — and I will post more on this, though not sure if that will happen next week. Next week might be some version of, “OMG, I start teaching the survey on Monday!!!!”

    Cara, you are correct about “congregational” as a better technical term for “low-church non-liturgical Protestant” governance. However, it is a term that only applies to an ecclesiological situation, and I wanted to be able to characterize the sociology of various forms of church polity as broadly as possible.

    Also, I think it’s important to note that forms of church governance proceed from underlying assumptions, and congregationalism as a form of church governance is built on some underlying egalitarian assumptions. The de facto marginalization of women and minorities in many of these churches represents one of the “fault lines” between faith and practice — but I’ll get into that more in subsequent posts.

    In any case, I’m very glad to know that I’m catching a historiographic wave.

    Ray, I think I should have been more clear — Sokol does not focus on churches or church people per se. Some of his actors are pastors — one of the white parents, for instance, who continued to take his children to the New Orleans school where Ruby Bridges attended was a Methodist minister — but Sokol doesn’t “do” much with the religious tension beyond noting it, and noting that it was rare for people to support or even tolerate civil rights activism for religious reasons.

    Sokol draws from journalistic accounts at the time reporting on the discomfort and difficult situation that many moderate pastors found themselves in, but he does not offer an analysis of the sources of their conflicting beliefs. So the interpretation of the FBC Albany decision as an expression of “Baptist distinctives” was my own. Sokol just noted that it happened; I tried to put it in an ecclesiological/theological context.

    But that’s not to knock Sokol — his book is brilliant, I think, at demonstrating that “adjusting to,” never mind “accepting,” a transformation of social relations at even the most perfunctory and superficial level involved a major epistemic crisis. In a way, Sokol’s argument is a demonstration of James’s observation that people will alter their beliefs as little as possible to account for new experience. At the same time, he shows that the gap between their beliefs and their experience was too wide to cross without peril or pain.

  6. Sorry that I’m just responding to this blog post but now that I’ve finally had a chance to respond—well done, first off!

    As for the changes in attitude among white Southerners, and the role religion played in that (sometimes far too subtle) shift, this post allows us to ask further questions about how it happened, and when. More importantly, it’s interesting to think about how this affects how we as historians look at Southern conservatives who become key members of the Religious Right in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m thinking about books such as “Jimmy Carter, The Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right” by J. Brooks Flippen, which explains how a devout man like Carter could still lose the support of evangelical Christians by 1980 not just due to his policies, but also due to the particular strain of Baptist thought he derived his beliefs from. Namely, a particular brand of Southern Baptist ideology that made sure to separate religion from politics and accommodate most aspects of modernity.

    I’m also glad Sokol, and you in this blog post, have highlighted the massive disconnect between the SBC leadership and their congregations. I’m not sure if anything has been written to unify this strand of the SBC’s history with that of the 1970s and 1980s, when many of those same Southern Baptists become culture warriors, but it would be an interesting analysis.

    One last thing: I can’t help but think of the moral language used by the Religious Right fighting against abortion, and how it often draws parallels between itself and the Civil Rights Movement. That’s no coincidence, but Sokol’s work once again is a reminder of how much memory and, to an extent, previous limitations in historical scholarship, can create the impression of unified fronts in previous eras of social and political strife.

  7. Robert, thanks for the comment.

    I am sure there must be some “denominational” histories written — or being written — from within the SBC tradition about the conservative/Fundamentalist/neo-Calvinist/neo-Scholasticist consolidation of institutional power in the SBC. I would be curious to read the work of secular historians on this, but haven’t gotten to it yet. (Paging Mark Edwards!)

    As I hinted at in my post above, I think one “end” — and that could mean either aim or result, I haven’t quite decided which I would emphasize more — of this aim toward doctrinal homogenization by the SBC is precisely to close some of those confessional “fissures” that can provide an opening for interpretations of faith and practice that challenge the regnant order.

    But I’ll hold my fire for another post.

    • Hey L.D.:

      Interestingly enough, I don’t think there is anything in the works from within the SBC on the institutional consolidation of power by the conservatives/etc. There are a lot of impressionistic works written by participants, but nothing of a rigorous historical nature. The closest would probably be Greg Wills’ work on Southern Seminary (Oxford). I think we will have to wait another decade or so when the former belligerents pass from the scene to get a rigorous historical evaluation from within. Those writing now (even some who are younger) are simply too close to the action to have the requisite distance. From outside, Hankins’ Uneasy in Babylon remains the best, although participant conservatives have always felt that Hankins emphasizes conservative American Culture too much and theological commitments too little.

      • Hankins’ “Uneasy in Babylon” remains the best

        Thanks for the reference, Miles! My first thought was indeed that the SBC has no reason for being anymore unless it’s conservative/orthodox. The Protestant mainline–which I reckon still owns the majority of American church infrastructure–has the other side covered.



        Whenever someone asks me why I am happy to be (and stay) a Southern Baptist, I usually point out three reasons. The first reason is theological. I agree with the Baptist Faith and Message (2000). The second reason is missional. I know of no better mission force in the world than the International Mission Board. What Southern Baptists have accomplished together for world missions is truly remarkable, and I offer hearty support to this effort. The third reason is historical. Thirty years ago, the trajectory of the SBC was heading towards liberalism. Our journey mirrored that of many mainline denominations. By God’s grace, we made a course-correction. I am thankful for the Conservative Resurgence and I hope we are seeing the beginnings of a Great Commission Resurgence.

        [On the theological tip, although its historical origins are undeniably Reformed, the SBC’s intramural ambivalence on Calvinism remains a fascinating battleground. Albeit uneasily, TULIPers continue to sit cheek-by-jowl with non-TULIPers.]

        [For now.]

  8. It’s interesting you should mention that, because I have a friend of mine here at South Carolina working on the SBC and it’s actions during the debate over the ERA in the 1970s. All in all, it’s good so many folks are looking at various religious denominations during and after the Civil Rights Movement.

  9. conservative/Fundamentalist/neo-Calvinist/neo-Scholasticist consolidation of institutional power in the SBC

    Jean Calvin and Thomas Aquinas locking arms? What an ecumenically beautiful thing, even if it is ecclesiastical fascism.

  10. Robert, that sounds like a promising project. My surmise is that your colleague will be able to draw an interesting through-line between the SBC on the ERA and the new and improved “Baptist Faith and Message” — the one about wives submitting.

    Indeed, I was surprised that Bethany Moreton didn’t quote that revision verbatim in To Serve God and Wal-Mart, since it explicitly uses the term “servant leader[ship].”

    In any case, while it can be distasteful to muck around in some of this stuff for the uninitiated (and perhaps even more distasteful for the initiated) it’s important to understand where these kinds of ideas come from, what supports them, and what they in turn support.

    I keep going back to Kazin’s bio on Bryan — asking “what’s the matter with these people” is the wrong question. “What matters to these people, and why?” — that’s a better question.

  11. I’m just now getting caught up from last week.

    Great job summing up the difficulties faced by church leaders in congregational polities, L.D. It is largely misunderstood by those who have not ever sat through a contentious “church business meeting.”

    Bass’ chapter on First Baptist Birmingham in Blessed are the Peacemakers gives a good taste of this as does Marsh in his chapter on First Baptist Jackson (MS). Bass is a bit more sympathetic to that quandary faced by congregational pastors, Marsh a bit less so. Marsh also captures how certain leaders managed to get delegates managed to pass the resolution supporting Brown v. Board…

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