Search this blog

The movie Selma reminds us that white clergy protested and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and other African Americans in the 1960s on behalf of Civil Rights. But it also reminds us—as Anthony Bradley recently observed—that many of those clergy were from the North and were Protestant mainliners, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, and Roman Catholic. One has to wonder: where were the conservative evangelicals?

I recently posed the following questions to several historians who have studied segregation and religion in the Southern United States during the years of Jim Crow and during the Civil Rights Movement.

Did white evangelicals in the South respond to the Civil Rights Movement in different ways from their counterparts in other parts of the United States? Is it fair to say that the majority not only refused to engage but actively opposed it? If so, what historical forces formed their particular responses and attitudes? How did evangelical theologies form or undermine their engagement?

I will be posting the historians’ answers at this blog throughout the week.

The first respondent was Matt Hall of Southern Seminary.

SMLToday I’m pleased to welcome to this forum Sean Michael Lucas (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary), who is an associate professor of church history at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS, and the senior minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church, Hattiesburg, MS. He is the author of Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life and the forthcoming For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America.

* * *

While it is the case that conservatives in the old Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS, often called “the Southern Presbyterian Church”), taken as a group, opposed the Civil Rights movement, the story is a little bit more complex than that in two ways.

First, there were different positions on how to think about racial integration; and, second, there was also change over time for the movement as a whole.

1. Positions

That there would be differing positions on the most explosive issue to face the American South is not surprising. What perhaps is surprising is that these differing positions are reflected in a generally conservative religious and political subset.


WAGW. A. Gamble, stated clerk of Central Mississippi Presbytery, represented hardline racial intransigence. Featured in Citizen’s Council events in the Jackson area, Gamble frequently defended Jim Crow laws, warning that “it cannot be forgotten that the removal of segregation laws, and the consequent mingling of the races more and more, will inevitably result in miscegenation.” He also held that those who opposed “segregation by law” would be complicit “in developing a mongrel population, a development I believe God disapproves.” Racial traditionalists like Gamble tried to frame their defense of segregation in theological terms, appealing especially to Acts 17:26; however, their most powerful arguments were emotional, playing on white fears of mixed race marriages.


BellLNWhile Gamble’s position was likely held by a wide number of southern Presbyterian conservatives, there were other positions. L. Nelson Bell, the long-time associate editor of the Presbyterian Journal and founder of Christianity Today, held what was viewed to be a moderate position. On the one hand, “forced segregation is un-Christian because it denies the rights which are inherent in American citizenship.” In addition, as Bell’s son-in-law Billy Graham demonstrated, the Gospel needed to be preached “to all on an unsegregated basis.” To demand continued legal segregation would undercut the preaching of the Gospel in America and abroad. On the other hand, though, forced integration opened the door to the possibility of race mixing that was unthinkable. Better to do away with the legal barriers for blacks’ participation in American society, but then let Christian love and prudence take its natural course.


hillWEThere were still others, and especially among the younger generation who would take PCUS pulpits in the 1960s, who believed that segregation in society and church was repugnant to the Gospel and that the church should work toward modeling an integrated community. Bill Hill, who pastored West End Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, Virginia, simultaneously, worked toward racially inclusive meetings, especially in his evangelistic work during the 1940s and 1950s. In many ways ahead of his time, Hill modeled the same race-blind evangelistic imperative as Billy Graham.

Likewise, Donald Patterson, James Baird, and Kennedy Smartt—all members of the steering community that would birth the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 1973—all worked toward racial inclusion in their respective ministries. These PCA founders, along with Frank Barker and D. James Kennedy, made it plain that the continuing Presbyterian church would not be a “white man’s church” nor stand for racial solidarity. Like Hill and Graham, these founders believed that the Gospel should produce a racially inclusive church.

2. Changes

This last group represents the second point: that there was change over time on the racial issue for these southern Presbyterian conservatives. While there were very few southern Presbyterian conservative voices in the 1940s urging racial inclusion, by the late 1960s, it was unthinkable to most young conservative leaders that the church would remain racially separated. The question to ask is why: why were the larger theological and cultural arguments for continued racial segregation unpersuasive to the younger leaders who would form the PCA?

Billy Graham

martin-luther-king-sin-billyI think the answer comes back to Billy Graham. For southern Presbyterians, Graham represented what they most wanted for their church: a thorough commitment to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, a gentle and winsome evangelical theology, and a determined zeal for evangelism and missions. When Graham determined in 1952-53 that he could no longer preach the Gospel to segregated meetings because that would represent a betrayal of the Gospel itself, younger southern Presbyterian conservatives nodded their heads in agreement. They too would work toward preaching the Gospel to all men and women regardless of race because the Good News was for all.

But Graham also modeled their thoughts on cultural engagement. Committed to the “spiritual mission of the church,” even these younger southern Presbyterians believed that the way to effect cultural change was through preaching the Gospel. Graham’s crusades brought such social effects, not because he preached a “Social Gospel,” but because he preached the true Gospel—and changed men and women brought about a changed society. By preaching the Gospel to racially inclusive groups like Billy Graham did, southern Presbyterian conservatives hoped that the Gospel itself would produce the “beloved community” that they too wanted for their country. They longed to see an America that reflected the Gospel itself.

Of course, that does not mean that the founders of the PCA or their sons and now grandsons have seen that sort of transformation. Far from it—our own theological beliefs have still been trumped far too often by other deeper-seated commitments to race, class, or region. However, from a historical perspective, this explains why I believe that the PCA—the continuing, conservative mainline successor to the PCUS—must continue to work toward racial reconciliation and inclusion that the Gospel itself demands.

Editors’ note: The 2015 Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission Leadership Summit, sponsored by The Gospel Coalition, will address “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation” to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families, and their churches. This event will be held in Nashville on March 26 and 27, 2015. To learn more go here. Save 20 percent when you use the code TGC20.


View Comments


9 thoughts on “Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and Southern White Evangelicals: A Historians Forum (Sean Michael Lucas)”

  1. Curt Day says:

    I like the idea of this post. But from my own experience growing up outside of Philly during that time, Southern White evangelicals were not the only ones who to be studied. I say that because not only were there no Blacks in my school, there were no Black families allowed to buy property in my school district. It wasn’t until my senior year that this was undone. At the same time, I do not remember the minister at my Presbyterian church saying a word about that segregation. Opposition to the Civil Rights movement was not the only sin to be accounted for here. Silence should be to.

  2. Phil Wade says:

    Curt raises a good point. I’m not one to advocate political topics in the pulpit and overturning years of sinful views on race is not political, but it may have been seen as one for too long. A good pastor’s silence on this issue is a sin of omission. We need to preach, teach, and model the natural application of the second great commandment to race relations and civil policies as appropriate, but perhaps a better step would be to stand publicly with those Christians who are working to promote justice and equality in our cities.

  3. Denny says:

    Thanks for this post. Is there a good book you could recommend on this topic?

  4. adam says:

    Perhaps Bell’s views evolved? One of his less “moderate” statements from 1947 “We [at the Journal] distrust an organization which seeks to solve the difficult race problem by declaring segregation un-Christian and which advocates a non-segregated society.”

  5. Sam says:

    The simple answer for why southern white evangelicals weren’t more supportive of civil rights was because they needed to be brought on board too. Oh, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. As Malcolm X put it “Stop talking about the South. Everything below the Canadian border is the South.”

  6. Peter Slade says:

    I believe there are at least two areas in Lucas’s article that might prove misleading to readers not familiar with Southern Presbyterian history.

    1. It is certainly true that there were a number of the ministers “among the younger generation who would take PCUS pulpits in the 1960s” who, through a desire for effective evangelism, came to have a more moderate view on racial segregation. However, Lucas’s article gives the impression that these views were in the ascendency when the PCA split from the PCUS in 1973. They were not. You only have to read through the primary documents in John Edwards Richards’, The Historical Birth of the Presbyterian Church in America, published in 1986 to see that even in the mid-eighties, some in the establishment of the PCA were still openly proud of the denomination’s formation in the support of white supremacy against “the racial amalgamationist” (51).

    2. Lucas writes, “our own [PCA] theological beliefs have still been trumped far too often by other deeper-seated commitments to race, class, or region. ” This is certainly true in its way but it also perpetuates a dangerous misconception: that PCA doctrine is pure and undefiled and it is only when members allow “deeper-seated commitments to race, class, or region” to trump this doctrine that there are problems. However, the truth is that commitments to race, class, and region actually shaped some of these doctrines. One doctrine in particular, the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, (that Lucas seems to hold in high regard), is a prime example. In a long chapter in my book Open Friendship in a Closed Society (OUP 2009), I show how:

    The doctrine of the spirituality of the church is a sophisticated theological resistance to systemic change: it is not an innocent doctrine misused. The development of the doctrine. . . is inextricably embedded in the history of maintaining first slavery, then white supremacy and segregation (120).

    These two points are supported in a number of well researched scholarly histories including: Chapell, A Stone of Hope (UNC Press, 2005); Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour (OUP, 2012); Alvis, Religion and Race: Southern Presbyterians, 1946 to 1983 (University Alabama Press, 1994); Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975, (NYU Press, 2013).
    I hope, for the sake of his readers, that in his forthcoming book For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, Lucas is careful to be clearer regarding these matters.

  7. Sean Lucas says:

    I so appreciate that Dr. Slade took the time to respond to a short 900 word blog post on what is admittedly a complex issue, one that I treat at great length in my forthcoming book. If I could offer a short rejoinder, I would simple say a couple of things.

    1) I did say at the beginning of this blog post that when taken as a whole, conservatives in the PCUS opposed the Civil Rights movement. That was true in the 1940s and that was true in the 1960s. And of course, John Richards was a prominent example who continued to support segregation (there were others as well; I talk about them in the book). However, what Dr. Slade may not know, is that the younger leadership whom I referenced were very concerned about Richards’s leadership in Presbyterian Churchmen United exactly because he was a segregationist and they didn’t want any hint of that in the new church. In addition, at the 1969 PCU Rally, Frank Barker explicitly denounced those who hoped a new church would stand for racial segregation. I can multiply examples. It is not as forthright as I would like and it was not as a position in the ascendency, but it was a consistent developing theme and can’t be ignored.

    2) Dr. Slade doesn’t practice careful exegesis in the sentence in critiques in his second point. I wasn’t defending “the spirituality of the church.” In fact, I was agreeing with his larger points–as well as Chappell’s–on Presbyterian conservatives’ cultural captivity and the way we have demonstrated significant cultural blind spots on racial justice. As a cultural historian who pays attention to race, class, and gender issues, I surely recognize how cultural systems develop in ways in which purported beliefs fail to make the difference historical actors desire.

    However, I would suggest that a significant lack in Slade’s account of these matters, as well as Alvis’s and Dupont’s–although importantly not in Chappell’s–is any sense of change over time. That’s to say, “the bad people” aren’t always the bad people, determined to thwart progress; and “the good people” aren’t always good people and their actions don’t match their words (for example, Union Seminary in Virginia, the progressive seminary whose professors promoted racial integration didn’t actually admit black students until 1969, which obviously is very, very late).

    A cultural history approach recognizes that historical actors can be right in one area and wrong in others ways and that history always has a sense of tragedy connected with it. All to say, not every historical telling is faultless–and of course, that applies to mine as well. And every telling is contested–including Dr. Slade’s and others. Which is why we need lots of folks working on these issues and trying to tell the story as truly and carefully as possible. And that’s what I’ve tried to do.

    1. Peter Slade says:

      Dr. Lucas,
      Thank you for you gracious and thoughtful response to my comments and for clarifying that you were not defending the doctrine of the spirituality of the church!

      I do want to respond to one point you make. I share your view as a cultural historian that, as my wife says, people are big places. As an historian I am aware that we are all sinners in the hands of a gracious God. Those we write about are not characters to be consigned to simplistic categories of “good guys” and “bad guys”. I am mortified that people can read my work and not think I see change over time. In my book, I do in fact go to great lengths to show how people who defended segregation in the 1960s came to support racial reconciliation initiatives in the 1990s. As part of my research, I interviewed Robert C. Cannada (a founder of RTS) and heard how he changed his position from being a director of Jackson’s Citizen’s Council to being a key supporter of Mission Mississippi. I met with Rev. James Baird and heard how he moved from a fearful and ignorant (his words) acquiescence to the segregationist convictions of his congregations in the 1960s to a carefully gradualist position on race in the succeeding decades. Both their stories are included in the book.

      What I did notice in my research was the persistence of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church even in the thinking of those members of the PCA who had become advocates for racial reconciliation–men like Cannada and Baird. They seemed unaware of the intent of those who formulated the doctrine and the ways that the doctrine had been and still was being utilized. To quote from Open Friendship in a Closed Society again:

      Masquerading as one of the doctrines of Southern Presbyterianism, the spirituality of the church is in fact the time tested political strategy of powerful men to perpetuate an unjust status quo free from moral censure.

      It was this commitment to a problematic doctrine that was thwarting progress and preventing Mission Mississippi from even using the word “justice” in its work of racial reconciliation.

      So that is why I am glad to hear that I was mistaken in thinking you were defending the spirituality of the church. I recognize that as an insider historian and a preacher in the PCA, you have a particular opportunity and responsibility to help your own denomination contextualize its understanding of its beliefs and practices. I am looking forward to reading your work and following its influence on the PCA.

  8. Miles Smith says:

    Wonderful post. Maybe rephrase calling Gamble a racial traditionalist since American “conservative” Protestantism has always had a progressive streak. Hard to see much of a tradition of this type of racism before the 17th or even 18th Century.

Comments are closed.

Search this blog


Justin Taylor photo

Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

Justin Taylor's Books