Joseph T. Reiff is Professor of Religion and Chair of Religion Department at Emory & Henry College. This interview is based on his new book, Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi’s Closed Society (Oxford University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Born of Conviction?
JR: I grew up in Mississippi Methodism and knew a couple of the signers of the “Born of Conviction” statement when I was a child in the early 1960s. Though I did not know about the statement then, I was certainly aware of tensions in the white church related to the race issue and the civil rights movement, and in October 1963 I witnessed an interracial group of visitors get arrested at the front steps of my church simply for attempting to worship there. In the mid-1970s at Millsaps College I became friends with two fellow students who had family members involved in the Born of Conviction controversy. I first saw the statement in 1983 when I was a United Methodist pastor in Mississippi, and I photocopied it. When I began teaching, I used the statement as a case study of the clash between a dominant culture and the Christian faith, or more accurately, between cultural Christianity and an attempt to be faithful to the Christian gospel even when such a stance challenges the cultural status quo. When historians Wayne Flynt, Andrew Manis, and Joel Alvis presented papers at a symposium on Southern religion on my campus in 2002, I was inspired to pursue the project, and I began interviewing surviving signers of “Born of Conviction” in 2003.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Born of Conviction?
JR: Though its language seems mild now, the publication of the “Born of Conviction” statement by 28 white Mississippi Methodist ministers in January 1963 caused a significant crack in the false façade of white unanimity in support of segregation in Mississippi. Most of the many brief published mentions of the statement have summarized it as “the signers spoke out and were forced out of Mississippi,” but that is too simple for a number of reasons: the signers received a good deal of affirmation for their stand, though much of it was private; the 20 signers who left Mississippi did so for a wide range of reasons, often involving free choice; and eight of the signers remained in the state for the rest of their careers.
JF: Why do we need to read Born of Conviction?
JR: It is a powerful story of some white Methodist clergymen who spoke against the tide when massive resistance in Mississippi was at its peak. The white church there usually not only failed to support the black freedom struggle, it also often actively resisted it; here is an alternative narrative: ministers who spoke to a statewide audience in support of change. The negative response to their effort was predictable, but the book offers a complex view of white attitudes on race relations in 1963 Mississippi by examining the responses to the statement: from individuals and congregations in public and private ranging from negative to ambivalent to positive. It is a thick description of white Methodism in Mississippi in the civil rights era and also looks at church efforts to help create the “new Mississippi” after 1964.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JR: My training and experience is in practical and pastoral theology as well as qualitative
religious research. When I started a religion Ph.D. program after five years as a local church pastor, I wanted to center my work on pastoral and ecclesiological issues. My dissertation was a study of an unusual United Methodist congregation in Atlanta’s historic Grant Park neighborhood; the church came back from near death in the mid-1980s due to an influx of “cultural left” Baby Boomers and their children, and I was there to study it as an observer-participant. Because the church was founded just after the Civil War, I wove historical research into my consideration of social ethics, ecclesiology, and Christian formation in that congregational subculture. The fundamentally interdisciplinary character of history makes it an excellent platform on which to explore a variety of ethical, pastoral, and ecclesiological issues in Born of Conviction.
JF: What is your next project?
JR: I am planning to write a biography of Roy C. Clark, a Mississippi Methodist pastor who left the state in 1963 and was eventually elected a United Methodist bishop. Clark grew up in Mississippi as the son of a Methodist Episcopal Church, South pastor and graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1944. He was a great preacher and classic Southern theological moderate/liberal; Davis Houck and David Dixon included a sermon of his in the second volume of their Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement. I look forward to interviewing people who knew Clark in Mississippi, Memphis, Nashville, and South Carolina, and to diving into his voluminous papers in order to tell his story and explore his theology, preaching, and leadership in the embattled context of the mid-20th century South.
JF: Thanks, Joseph!