Thursday, February 7, 2013

The "Quandary of African American Evangelicalism"

Over at the Anxious Bench I have been wondering why there is not more scholarly work on the history of African-American evangelicalism.  See my posts here and here.

I am pleased to see that Miles Mullin of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a scholar who knows more about this subject than I do, has decided to weigh-in.  Check out his post, "The Quandary of African American Evangelicalism."  Here is a taste:

In the twentieth century, African American leaders recognized that a successful struggle towards full equality depended upon solidarity, and they turned the racial identity hoisted upon them by others to their own purposes.  As they struggled towards full equality, they embraced race vis-à-vis any denominational or pan-denominational (e.g. evangelicalism) as their primary self-identity.  Early in the century, works written or edited by black intellectuals set the trajectory for this reality.  Volumes by W.E.B. DuBois (The Negro Church, 1903), G. Carter Woodson (The History of the Negro Church, 1921), and Benjamin E. Mays and Joseph Nicholson (The Negro’s Church, 1933) demonstrate the manner in which doctrinal differences were subsumed by racial solidarity.  Organizers and activists of a later generation followed in the same mold. Thus, Orthodox Presbyterian Minister C. Herbert Oliver, theologically progressive Baptist minister Martin Luther King, Jr., and atheist A. Philip Randolph all made common cause in the freedom struggle for African American equality.

These historical developments in the twentieth century shaped the historiography of both African American religious history and evangelical history of the late twentieth century in two important ways.  First, racial solidarity became the dominant historiographical lens through which African American religious history was assessed.  For instance, despite the fact that groups such the Nation of Islam (NOI) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) differed in practice, religious commitment, and goals, the hegemony of race as an interpretive paradigm led many historians to synthesize and find continuity between the groups.  Both Gayraud S. Wilmore’s acclaimed Black Religion and Black Radicalism and Baer and Singer’s useful African-American Religion in the Twentieth Century: Varieties of Protest and Accommodation serve as examples of this approach.  Religious particularities were subsumed under rubrics such as the “black church.”  Second, historians told the history of twentieth-century American evangelicalism largely without reference to African Americans. For example, one would be hard-pressed to find references to race or African Americans in the histories produced by Timothy Weber, George Marsden, Joel Carpenter, D.G. Hart and others in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.  As evangelical historians spilled much ink over the issue of evangelical identity in the 1980s and 1990s, they largely ignored race as an important element of that question.  Thus, history and historiography excluded African Americans from the twentieth-century evangelical narrative, just as it excluded any meaningful implementation of evangelical as a religious category from twentieth-century African American history.  As a result, there is a paucity of works on African American evangelicalism qua evangelicalism.

For all its foibles, the racial reconciliation movement of the last few decades demonstrates that there is something that draws evangelicals together across racial lines, and recent historical works give hope that things are trending in a different direction historiographically.  For example, A.G. Miller (Oberlin College) has written on Fundamentalist African American Bible Schools and studies of black Pentecostalism have proliferated, while historians of evangelicalism have intentionally embraced race as a category of analysis.  (Mark Noll’s American Evangelical Christianity and God and Race in American Politics are good examples.)  Hopefully, additional works of this sort will continue to emerge, eventually leading to a general work on black evangelicalism in the twentieth century.  If it does, I suspect we will learn some things about evangelicalism—black and white—that we did not know before.

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