One of the most interesting and important questions in the history of evangelicalism is why African Americans who share many of the same doctrines and practices as evangelicals have not been studied as evangelicals. In other words, why does race trump religion as an identity, and is does this divide reflect the history or the practices of historians? I first came across this question in the work of Ed Blum and Paul Harvey. In the past couple weeks John Fea has asked “Where are the Studies of Twentieth-Century Black Evangelicalism,” providing a preliminary list of literature in that post and in a follow-up post.
Two historical realities have contributed to the paucity of works on twentieth-century African American evangelicalism. The first relates to the history of evangelicalism as a movement. The second relates to the manner in which the struggle for full equality emerged as the centerpiece of African American history in the twentieth century.
The first reason was that the National Association of Evangelicals did want African American denominations to join, but was not interested in dealing with race:
Somehow, they expected African Americans to ignore the issue of race and unite with the predominantly white NAE based on core doctrinal agreement, an approach that smacked of the sort of paternalistic efforts that characterized white Protestants in their dealings with African Americans since the Civil War. As a result, few African Americans joined the NAE either as individuals or groups while many segregationists fit comfortably within its ranks. Further, the NAE’s leadership actively courted the SBC, a denomination whose grassroots support of segregation at mid-century is well-documented. In later years, as the NAE persistently avoided racial issues in order to avoid alienating the segregationist elements of its membership, the few African Americans that had joined left to form the National Black (née Negro) Evangelical Association in 1963.
The second reason was that African Americans unified across doctrinal lines in the civil rights struggle, including black scholars such as W.E.B. DuBois and Carter Woodson:
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. … 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.
Read the full post at the Anxious Bench.
Update: I see that Fea has already excerpted Mullin’s post. A more diligent blogger, who can find?