White Supremacist Concepts Have Historic Roots In U.S. Christianity

White Supremacist Concepts Have Historic Roots In U.S. Christianity

Two blood-splattered Freedom Riders, John Lewis and James Zwerg, stand together after segregationists attacked them in the early 1960 s in Montgomery, Ala. Lewis, then a young civil liberties activist, would later end up being a member of Congress from Georgia.

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2 blood-splattered Flexibility Riders, John Lewis and James Zwerg, stand together after segregationists assaulted them in the early 1960 s in Montgomery, Ala. Lewis, then a young civil rights activist, would later end up being a member of Congress from Georgia.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images.

When a young Southern Baptist pastor called Alan Cross arrived in Montgomery, Ala., in January 2000, he knew it was where the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had his first church and where Rosa Parks helped released the well-known bus boycott, but he didn’t understand some other details of the city’s function in civil liberties history.

The more he learned, the more troubled he ended up being by one event in specific: the savage attack in May 1961 on a busload of Black and white Liberty Riders who had actually taken a trip defiantly together to Montgomery in a challenge to partition. Over the next 15 years, Cross, who is white, would frequently take individuals to the old Greyhound depot in Montgomery to highlight what happened that spring day.

” They pull in right here, on the side,” Cross said, standing in front of the depot. “And it was peaceful when they got here. But then as soon as they start getting off the bus, around 500 people come out– guys, women and kids. Male were holding the Freedom Riders back, and the females were hitting them with their handbags and holding their children as much as claw their faces.” Some of the guys carried lead pipes and baseball bats. Two of the Flexibility Riders, the civil liberties activist John Lewis and a white ally, James Zwerg, were beaten unconscious.

Though he had actually matured in Mississippi and was familiar with the history of racial dispute in the South, Cross was frightened by the story of the 1961 attack on the Freedom Riders. Montgomery was referred to as a city of churches. Fresh out of seminary, Cross had come there to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

” Why didn’t white Christians appear?” he remembered questioning.

To his dismay, Cross discovered that a lot of individuals in the white mob were regular churchgoers. In the years that followed, he made it part of his ministry to inform his fellow Christians about the attack and trigger them to assess its meaning.

” You think about the South being Christian, but this wasn’t Christianity,” Cross said. “So what happened here in the white church? How did we get to that point?” It’s a question he checked out in his 2014 book, When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus.

The answer to the question lies partially in U.S. history, starting in the days of slavery and Jim Crow partition, but not ending there. Components of racist ideology have long existed in white Christianity in the United States.

Bigotry from the pulpit

Less than three weeks after the 1961 attack on the Liberty Riders, Montgomery’s most popular pastor, Henry Lyon Jr., provided a fiery speech prior to the regional white Citizens’ Council, knocking the civil liberties protesters and the cause for which they were beaten– from a “Christian” viewpoint.

” Ladies and gentlemen, for 15 years I have had the opportunity of being pastor of a white Baptist church in this city,” Lyon stated. “If we stand 100 years from now, it will still be a white church. I am a follower in a separation of the races, and I am none the less a Christian.” The crowd praised.

” If you wish to get in a battle with the one that started separation of the races, then you come face to face with your God,” he stated. “The distinction in color, the distinction in our body, our minds, our life, our mission upon the face of this earth, is God offered.”

Lyon saw himself as a devout Bible follower, and he was far from an extremist in the Southern Baptist world. A former president of the Alabama Baptist Convention, his Montgomery church had more than 3,000 members.


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How highly regarded individuals of God might honestly promote racist views was a question that would difficulty many Southerners in the years that followed. Amongst them was a young woman growing up in East Texas in the 1970 s, Carolyn Renée Dupont. The girl’s grandma took her routinely to church, made her listen to sermons on the radio and offered her a quarter for every single Bible verse she remembered. The grandmother thought simply as deeply in the superiority of the white race.

” I asked her about that once,” Dupont recalled, “and she stated, ‘I just do not think Blacks need to be dealt with the like whites.'” Dupont, now a historian at Eastern Kentucky University, said the experience with her grandmother spurred her to focus her research on the racial views of Southern white evangelicals. “I wished to understand what appeared like a central riddle about the South,” she stated. “The part of the country that was the most impassioned about spiritual faith was also the one that practiced white supremacy most enthusiastically.” It was the same concern that troubled Cross as a young pastor in Montgomery.

Slavery and the Bible

At an earlier point in American history, some Christian theologians presumed as to argue that the enslavement of human beings was justifiable from a biblical perspective. James Henley Thornwell, a Harvard-educated scholar who committed substantial areas of the Bible to memory, regularly safeguarded slavery and promoted white supremacy from his pulpit at the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., where he was the senior pastor in the years leading up to the Civil War.


James Henley Thornwell frequently defended slavery and promoted white supremacy from his pulpit at the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C.

A.H. Ritchie/The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell,1871

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A.H. Ritchie/The Collected Works of James Henley Thornwell,1871

James Henley Thornwell routinely protected slavery and promoted white supremacy from his pulpit at the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C.

A.H. Ritchie/The Collected Works of James Henley Thornwell,1871

Thornwell was a servant owner, and in his public pronouncements he informed fellow Christians they need not feel guilty about oppressing other human beings.

” The relation of master and servant stands on the very same foot with the other relations of life,” Thornwell firmly insisted

Amongst the New Testament verses Thornwell could cite was the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where he writes, “Slaves, obey your human masters, with worry and shivering and sincerity of heart.” (Biblical scholars now discount the relevance of the passage to a consideration of belongings slavery.)

Thornwell’s peace of mind was profoundly crucial to all those who had a stake in the existing financial and political system in the South. In justifying slavery, he was speaking not just as a theologian but as a Southern patriot. In the First Presbyterian cemetery, Thornwell’s name appears plainly on a monument to church members who served the Confederate cause in the Civil War.

” Slavery, in the minds of many, was essential for the South to thrive,” stated Bobby Donaldson, director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research Study at the University of South Carolina. “So Thornwell utilized his pulpit to safeguard the South versus charges by the North, by abolitionists. … He supplied the intellectual defenses that many slaveholders required.”

Thornwell’s First Presbyterian congregation included slave owners and entrepreneurs and other members of the political and financial elite in Columbia, and as their pastor he represented their interests. A belief in white supremacy was a fundamental part of Southern culture, which is one factor some otherwise devout Christians have stopped working to challenge it.

The Southern way

Lyon’s opening prayer before the white Citizens’ Council meeting in Montgomery consisted of words starkly reminiscent of the Civil War era. “We base on the spiritual soil of Alabama in the cradle of the Confederacy of our precious Southland,” he said. “Help us to understand with all of the fervency of our heart and mind that every inch of ground we base on tonight is spiritual and respectable.”

A worry that their regional culture was at danger lay behind much of the opposition to the civil liberties movement amongst Southern Christians. Cross, the Montgomery pastor who was puzzled by what he discovered of the attack on the Liberty Riders, eventually decided that the very best description for the involvement of Christians was that they were acting on the basis of their viewed self-interest.


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A “do not- rock-the-boat” philosophy can have a powerful appeal among individuals who are tense by the prospect of social change, and church leaders may feel powerless to counter it.

In 1965, Lyon’s more moderate child, Henry Lyon III, was called to lead an all-white Baptist church in Selma, Ala.

” Selma wasn’t ready for it,” Sara Jane Lyon informed NPR in an interview.

Sara Jane Lyon volunteers at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery. She states her late hubby, who led an all-white church for 21 years in Selma, Ala., felt that pushing for combination would disturb his parish and “achieve nothing.”.

Stephen Poff for NPR.

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Stephen Poff for NPR.

Churches operate within a cultural context.

In his preachings, Sara Jane Lyon remembered, her partner would inform his congregation, “I have actually not come here to change your heart.

The church and the status quo

After leaving Selma, the Lyons moved to Montgomery and signed up with the First Baptist Church there.

Pastor Jay Wolf leads a prayer service at First Baptist Church in Montgomery in2019 He states he has “no concept” how many African Americans are in his churchgoers. “We are the body of Christ, and we require Jesus, which’s all I require to understand,” he says.

Stephen Poff for NPR.

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Stephen Poff for NPR.

Pastor Jay Wolf leads a prayer service initially Baptist Church in Montgomery in2019 He states he has “no concept” the number of African Americans remain in his parish. “We are the body of Christ, and we need Jesus, which’s all I need to understand,” he states.

Stephen Poff for NPR.

” When I came to know the Lord, I became colorblind,” Wolf stated. When some visitors asked Wolf the number of African Americans attended his church, he stated he had “no idea.”

” I don’t know the number of white members we have,” Wolf informed NPR. “Like, does it make any distinction? I feel in one’s bones that we have people, crafted in the image of God. I am totally resistant to this concept of breaking things down on a demographic basis. We are the body of Christ, and we need Jesus, which’s all I require to know.”

On the other side of Montgomery, where African Americans are concentrated, Pastor Terrence Jones likewise preaches about requiring Jesus, though with a message attuned to a multiracial parish. The kid of a Black Southern Baptist preacher, Jones stated he believes the Christian church is partially to blame for America “dropping the ball,” in his words, on race concerns.


Terrence Jones, pastor at the Montgomery church Strong Tower at Washington Park, states Christians require to focus on bigotry more seriously.

Brooke Glassford.

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Brooke Glassford.

” The message of Jesus is a unifying message,” Jones stated. “According to Ephesians 2, he take down ‘every dividing wall of hostility’ through his death on the cross. I believe we’ve done a poor job of showing the world that, since we have actually been so segregated.”

Jones argues that Christians need to concentrate on racism even more seriously.

” When people get shot, when our president states something racially charged, people get pushed into their corners, and they do not battle with what does this mean for me as a minority, what does this mean for me as a white person, but likewise, what does this mean for me as a fan of Jesus?”

At the time of the civil liberties motion, King argued that church leaders needed to take a broad view of their mission and accept duty for dealing with social inequity. In his 1963 Letter From a Birmingham Jail, written in longhand from his jail cell, King regreted the failure of “white churchmen” to defend racial justice when it indicated challenging the local class structure.

” So typically the modern church is a weak, inefficient voice with an uncertain sound,” King composed. “So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disrupted by the presence of the church, the class structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s quiet– and often even singing– sanction of things as they are.”

A theology of inaction

Some white Christian leaders have actually even provided ethical and theological reasoning for their unwillingness to challenge the existing system. Evangelicals in particular typically prioritize an individual’s own salvation experience over social concerns. The primary objective of the church in this view is to win souls for Christ. Working for racial justice, on the other hand, may be viewed as a “political” problem.

” Because configuration, immorality just resides in the private person,” stated Dupont, the religious beliefs historian who grew up in Texas. “There’s no conception of systemic oppression and systemic sin.”

Civil liberties activists who pointed out the Bible in assistance of their cause were typically dismissed as “a lot of theological liberals,” Dupont stated. “And after that it ends up being an argument about who actually thinks the Bible. If Christianity is actually about specific salvation, and the mission of the church is to win the lost, then [it is said that] these individuals who are telling us we need to get involved in the civil rights motion are just attempting to lead us astray.”

The rejection of a “social gospel” remains popular amongst those conservative evangelicals today who see advocating for Black Lives Matter or immigrant rights as political activities. It is an argument with roots extending back to the faith of Thornwell and similar faith scholars of the 19 th century.

” What, then, is the Church?” Thornwell asked in his 1851 Report on Slavery “It is not, as we fear too many concern it, a moral institute of universal good whose organisation it is to wage war upon every type of human ill, whether social, civil, political or ethical.”

Such pronouncements have made Thornwell popular among “orthodox” Christian theologians who rebel versus liberal analyses of the church’s objective in the modern-day world. As soon as his declarations on slavery and race are ignored, Thornwell’s theological views still resonate.

Among the buildings on the grounds of his former church in South Carolina is Thornwell Hall. Up until it closed due to issues over the coronavirus, the structure was used for children’s education. The First Presbyterian ministerial staff has not been extremely worried that by honoring Thornwell, it may be upseting potential African American members.

” As far as I understand, it has not kept individuals from our doors,” said Gabe Fluhrer, an associate pastor at the church.

Fluhrer has actually studied Thornwell’s works, a number of which are extremely advanced, and he is shocked that the theologian’s views on slavery and race have actually made it harder for people to value his wider biblical insight.

” If it were an obstacle [to someone],” Fluhrer stated, “I would enjoy to speak with that individual and state, ‘Look, we need to condemn what is wrong with him, and we require to commemorate what is good.’ He got a lot right on the Scriptures and everything wrong when it comes to race.”

Getting whatever wrong with regard to race, nevertheless, can be an unforgivable stopping working for people whose life experience is formed by racism.


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For several years, African American worshippers were relegated to the First Presbyterian balcony. Church authorities later permitted them to have a church a few blocks away where they might worship individually under the supervision of the First Presbyterian elders. It ended up being known as Ladson Presbyterian Church, after one of the church’s early pastors.

The church has just a couple of lots active members nowadays, but the parish is close, and the Sunday services make love and joyful gatherings. There is no longer any connection to the original church.

” I don’t know anyone who goes to First Presbyterian,” stated Rosena Lucas, 88, a long time Ladson member. “I’ve never had any interest [in attending].”

Nor has Hemphill Pride, an older in the Ladson congregation. “I see that church as a stranger, really,” he stated. For Pride and other Ladson members, the Thornwell connection still pollutes the moms and dad church.

” It’s an affront to me,” Pride stated. “[To have] structures named after individuals who analyzed the Bible in that way is ill-mannered to all Black people.”

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