Today I am interviewing Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews about her new book, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars. Mathews is associate professor of religion at the University of Mary Washington.
[TK] In the early twentieth century, white Protestants engaged in a theological war known as the “Fundamentalist-Modernist conflict.” Instead of clearly aligning with either faction, however, you say that African Americans “created their own traditionalist conservative evangelicalism.” What were the chief characteristics of that kind of black evangelical Christianity?
[MBSM] White fundamentalists framed the conflict they had with modernists in an all-or-nothing way. If you, for example, denied the virgin birth or read the Bible as a literary remnant of a long past group of believers, then you had departed the Christian fold. White fundamentalists tended to believe that only people who embraced fundamentalist doctrines were Christians.
African-American evangelicals rejected this all-or-nothing approach, even as they issued their own ultimatum—that to be a Christian, one had to treat all people as equals. They had no quarrel with, say, conservative white evangelicals’ rejection of modernism’s embrace of historical criticism, nor did they wish to see black Christians drinking, dancing, or gambling. But they insisted that a strict reading of the Bible, especially the New Testament, would produce an ecclesiology that taught that only those individuals who preached love and equality could truly claim the mantle of Jesus.
Why did most African-American Baptists and Methodists keep the fundamentalist movement at arm’s length, even as they construed theological modernism as a “white” phenomenon?
It was not so much that African-American evangelicals kept the “fundamentalist movement at arm’s length” as it was that the white fundamentalists never invited them to the table. White fundamentalists constructed a theological world in which the norms for everything were white: white leadership, white biblical interpretation, white organization, and so on. White fundamentalists explicitly believed that African Americans were incapable of making a meaningful contribution to the discussion. Instead, white fundamentalists thought that African Americans as a whole were so impressionable and easily misled that it was white Protestants’ job to protect black Christians from theological harm. The marginalization of African-American preachers meant that, even if they had wanted to join with the fundamentalists, they could never be a full-fledged part of the movement.
And most of the writers I studied rejected premillennial dispensationalism. (See below)
Can you tell us more about a specific African American church leader from this time period who illustrates your argument?
The Reverend Eli George Biddle, Civil War veteran and AME Zion minister, was one of my favorite writers as I did the research. Biddle was born and raised in Massachusetts, fought with the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment, and became a minister after the Civil War. By the time fundamentalism was emerging as a movement, Biddle had pastored several churches and wrote a weekly column for the Star of Zion. In it, he toyed with dispensationalism, drew from several different translations of the Bible, and recommended Reinhold Niebuhr to his colleagues. His columns showed how voracious a reader he was and how he adopted portions of his reading to advance the cause of African-American equality and salvation.
The writers and pastors you studied were sympathetic to most points of the white fundamentalists’ theology, with the notable exception of premillennial dispensationalism and its forecasts about the end times. Why?
To be fair, I should note that not all white fundamentalists were entirely comfortable with premillennial dispensationalism. J. Gresham Machen, notably, refused to call himself a fundamentalist in part because of this version of eschatology.
But for African-American Baptists and Methodists between the wars, there was a single theological objection to dispensationalism—it was, in their opinion, a newfangled and contrived way of reading the Bible. In this respect, they were more traditional than the white fundamentalists who claimed to only read their Bibles in traditional ways. For them, a recent (within the last 50 years) method of interpreting Scripture that required alternative meanings beyond the traditional literal and allegorical was a wrong-headed practice.
Augmenting this theological objection was the difference between how white and black evangelicals saw the world around them. While the events of First World War and concurrent and subsequent social and economic changes weighed heavily on African Americans, they were already contending with a whole host of issues that white Americans did not—racism, lynchings, segregation, oppression, and violence. White fundamentalists were more likely to see post-World War I events as signaling a sudden downturn in the world’s fortunes, while African-American evangelicals were already living in a dangerous world to begin with.
We often think of evolution as the defining issue for 1920s white fundamentalists, because of the Scopes Trial. How did the African-American Christians in your book react to evolution, and to teaching it in schools?
The Scopes Trial did indeed lead to the association in the American memory of anti-evolutionists with fundamentalists, although recent scholarship has questioned just how much white fundamentalists enthusiastically joined the movement against evolution and how much they were co-opted into it, thanks to William Jennings Bryan.
For the African-American ministers in my book, however, evolution was a thorny subject. Many of these ministers were well-educated, and they respected the scientific progress of their era. To deny evolution would risk being seen as uneducated or backwards. But to embrace it meant that they would have to give up a literal reading of the creation accounts in Genesis. Doing so smacked of the theological modernism they disdained. In the end, many straddled the fence—refusing to condemn evolution outright while also insisting that the Bible is divine revelation and crucial for the salvation of its readers.