Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars

Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews situates Doctrine and Race at the intersection of several currents that defined the United States in the early twentieth century: (1) the rise of Protestant Christian fundamentalism in response to such theological “modernisms” as the social gospel and human evolution; (2) America's involvement in World War I to establish democracy around the world; and (3) the virulent racism that motivated bloodthirsty lynch mobs. Mathews asserts that fundamentalism was not primarily about race, but she nevertheless argues that leading white fundamentalists were imbued with the notion that African Americans were highly impressionable and easily misled. White fundamentalists regarded themselves as real Christians and viewed modernism as just another word for apostasy. By looking closely at white and black Baptists and Methodists, whose separate denominational trajectories passed close to one another from time to time and on certain issues, Mathews shows how differently whites and blacks responded to the new Protestant fundamentalist movement. White fundamentalists claimed to be defenders of the Protestant faith, that is, of biblical inerrancy, the divinity and virgin birth of Jesus Christ, righteous living, and the certain, literal return of Jesus to a doomed world. Black Baptists and Methodists did not necessarily disagree; in fact, they often sided with white fundamentalists and secular black leaders about how crucial “righteous living” was to race progress. But African Americans did not embrace the “fundamentalist” label despite their oft-stated preference for “old time religion.” African Americans were less worried about “modernism” than about social justice, which fundamentalists largely ignored. Christ beckoned everyone and promised salvation irrespective of race, and for black Baptists and Methodists, that was what fundamentalism should mean. Without that, African Americans could hardly have been less interested in fundamentalism. Doctrine and Race builds on pioneering research into the history of African American churches over the last thirty years that informed such books as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham's Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (1993), William E. Montgomery's Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree: The African-American Church in the South, 1865–1900 (1993), and Paul Harvey's, Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities among Southern Baptists, 1865–1925 (1997). Mathews's book should find its rightful place alongside Christopher Z. Hobson's The Mount of Vision: African American Prophetic Tradition, 1800–1950 (2012), Barbara Dianne Savage's, Your Spirits Walk beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (2012), and Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey's, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2012). The strength of Mathews's argument about doctrine and race is somewhat limited by the fact that—for justifiable, practical reasons—she primarily utilized the records and publications of the two National Baptist Conventions and the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches despite these organizations representing less than half of all black Protestants. Nevertheless, Doctrine and Race is an important contribution to the growing body of scholarship on African American religion and churches. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The Journal of American History Oxford University Press

Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0021-8723
eISSN
1945-2314
D.O.I.
10.1093/jahist/jax508
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews situates Doctrine and Race at the intersection of several currents that defined the United States in the early twentieth century: (1) the rise of Protestant Christian fundamentalism in response to such theological “modernisms” as the social gospel and human evolution; (2) America's involvement in World War I to establish democracy around the world; and (3) the virulent racism that motivated bloodthirsty lynch mobs. Mathews asserts that fundamentalism was not primarily about race, but she nevertheless argues that leading white fundamentalists were imbued with the notion that African Americans were highly impressionable and easily misled. White fundamentalists regarded themselves as real Christians and viewed modernism as just another word for apostasy. By looking closely at white and black Baptists and Methodists, whose separate denominational trajectories passed close to one another from time to time and on certain issues, Mathews shows how differently whites and blacks responded to the new Protestant fundamentalist movement. White fundamentalists claimed to be defenders of the Protestant faith, that is, of biblical inerrancy, the divinity and virgin birth of Jesus Christ, righteous living, and the certain, literal return of Jesus to a doomed world. Black Baptists and Methodists did not necessarily disagree; in fact, they often sided with white fundamentalists and secular black leaders about how crucial “righteous living” was to race progress. But African Americans did not embrace the “fundamentalist” label despite their oft-stated preference for “old time religion.” African Americans were less worried about “modernism” than about social justice, which fundamentalists largely ignored. Christ beckoned everyone and promised salvation irrespective of race, and for black Baptists and Methodists, that was what fundamentalism should mean. Without that, African Americans could hardly have been less interested in fundamentalism. Doctrine and Race builds on pioneering research into the history of African American churches over the last thirty years that informed such books as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham's Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (1993), William E. Montgomery's Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree: The African-American Church in the South, 1865–1900 (1993), and Paul Harvey's, Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities among Southern Baptists, 1865–1925 (1997). Mathews's book should find its rightful place alongside Christopher Z. Hobson's The Mount of Vision: African American Prophetic Tradition, 1800–1950 (2012), Barbara Dianne Savage's, Your Spirits Walk beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (2012), and Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey's, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2012). The strength of Mathews's argument about doctrine and race is somewhat limited by the fact that—for justifiable, practical reasons—she primarily utilized the records and publications of the two National Baptist Conventions and the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches despite these organizations representing less than half of all black Protestants. Nevertheless, Doctrine and Race is an important contribution to the growing body of scholarship on African American religion and churches. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

The Journal of American HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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