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Presbyterians, Civil Rights, and the Spirituality of the Church: A Brief Historical Survey

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2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the climax of the modern civil rights movement in the United States. In 1963, activists marched on Washington, four young girls lost their lives at 16th Ave Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, Martin Luther King Jr. said “I have a dream,” and George Wallace said, “segregation now … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever.” Cities across the nation have commemorated this anniversary with a number of events this year, prompting a great deal of historical reflection.

Amidst the national reflection, some Protestants have been led to critically reexamine the doctrine of the “spirituality of the church” which has had a foothold within segments the Presbyterian Church for nearly two centuries. Emphasizing the church’s responsibility for the salvation of the individual rather than social and political engagement, the “spirituality of the church” played a significant role during the civil rights era. Unfortunately, much of the theological conversation around “spirituality of the church” lacks concrete historical references to contexts in which the doctrine came to the fore. Accordingly, my aim here is to highlight a few of the prominent figures, movements, publications, and associations which necessarily engaged with the relationship between “spiritual” and “political” dimensions of the gospel within the context of the modern civil rights movement. For the sake of brevity, I will limit my survey to just a few of the notable figures and movements within the Presbyterian Church.

The Southern Presbyterian Journal
Divisions between theological liberals and conservatives during the first three decades of the 20th century were often along the lines of social responsibility and civic participation, the relationship of faith to the “secular.” However we might make sense of these divisions, the reality is that when organizations like the National Council of Churches emerged, acquired broad support, and made specific social and ecumenical declarations, conservatives formally withdrew, voicing dissent and disapproval.

It was from within this context that the Southern Presbyterian Journal came out swinging in its first issue in 1942 with founder L. Nelson Bell writing, “The (National) Council has caused confusion and resentment by constant meddling, in economic, social and racial matters….” In 1945, Bell wrote of the inverse relationship between ecclesiastical focus on social issues and “evangelical power,” insisting that the Gospel of Jesus Christ concerned not ethics, morality, and social policies.   And again in 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.” Such pronouncements were common among the contributors and editors of the journal, who frequently voiced distrust of the “liberal” direction in which they believed the denomination was headed.[1]

All this is not to say that the Journal’s editors, contributors, and readers were not concerned with race and civil rights. They simply insisted that the scriptures – and indeed the gospel itself  – did not provide warrant to disrupt the status quo. The Journal acknowledged on several occasions the shortcoming of the church with respect to  race , but they maintained that the system of segregation was not inherently anti-Biblical or morally wrong. The Reverend William Frazer of Charlotte, North Carolina, went as far as saying that God endorses “social separation of the races,” and that a failure to maintain segregation would cause hatred, bloodshed, lesser offspring, and ultimately the weakening of America. Notably, Frazer’s statements marked a subtle divergence from Bell; For Frazer, the gospel is quite concerned with morality, just not in the ways articulated by the growing contingent of anti-segregationist Presbyterians [2].

 

1953-54
At the General Asssembly level, there was a rather different sentiment. In 1953, The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church US  appointed a committee to consider segregation. The committee drafted a “A Statement to Southern Christians,” declaring that segregation was contradictory to Christian faith, and that “the Christians’ conduct toward others must be guided by the law of neighborliness which seeks the welfare and happiness of all people.” It further recommended:

  1. “That the General Assembly affirm that enforced segregation of the races is discrimination which is out of harmony with Christian theology and ethics and that the Church, in its relationship to cultural patterns, should lead rather than follow.
  2. “That the General Assembly, therefore, submit this report for careful study throughout the Church, and that it especially urge:
    1. That the trustees of institutions of higher education belonging to the General Assembly adopt a policy of opening the doors of these institutions to all races.
    2. That the Synods consider earnestly the adoption of a similar recommendation to trustees of institutions under their control. “

After the paper passed by a vote of 239 to 169,  the General Assembly called for the desegregation of its boards, agencies, and committees.

In 1954, with the looming prospect of reunion with the northern PCUSA church, the PCUS turned attention to a report “Concerning the Church and the Supreme Court Decision on Racial Integration of Public Education, ” in which the General Assembly stated:

“Since segregation of the white and Negro people continues to diminish it is time to determine the Church’s relationship to this trend. The state of flux is due to two dynamic forces at work, the Federal Constitution and the Christian conscience, the one legal and the other spiritual, the one finding expression in statutes and court decisions, and the other in personal conduct, in the voice and policies of the Church. If it be judged that segregation is not merely the separation of two peoples, but the subordination of one people to another, we can, on good evidence, observe that the courts have shown more sympathy toward the Negro than has the Church. The Church would then find itself in the embarrassing position of having to adjust its sense of morality to measure up to the mores of the state. This would belie its pristine nature. Our Christ was and still is ahead of the times; the customs, traditions, and laws of it. The Church must strive to keep apace of its Master or become bereft of His spirit.”[3]

The Assembly’s opinion however was not necessarily indicative of the views of Southern Presbyterian parishioners. No one was being forced to desegregate their churches. In fact, in many cases the vote further alienated  southern Presbyterians. First Presbyterian, Jackson, MS, was merely emboldened, and reacted by strongly supporting Mississippi’s state legislature in their challenge to the federal ruling on 1954’s Brown vs Board of Education. As such, the church was one of two church sessions in the PCUS that unanimously dissented from the denomination’s support of the court’s decision. In the years following, First Presbyterian, Jackson, would maintain its position stating:

“The Session does not feel that the Presbyterian Church in the United States should take any action with reference to current social, political and economic problems… an organized church should exist only for the purpose of stimulating and strengthening its members and for coordinating and implementing their activities in bringing others to know Him and serve Him.”[4]

 

Rev. Dr. Randy Taylor and “The Fellowship of Concern”

Dr. J. Randolph Taylor, a graduate of Union Seminary in Richmond and the University of Aberdeen (Ph.D. New Testament), served as pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C. beginning in 1956. Given the church’s national prominence in American Presbyterianism, Taylor’s involvement with the civil rights movement would prove significant. His most influential involvement would be with “A Fellowship of Concern.[5]

Prior to the March on Washington in the summer of 1963, Rev. Taylor had agreed to host two visiting delegations that planned to attend. Given that the National Council of Churches (NCC) had already voted to participate in the march, he was frustrated when PCUS delegates to the NCC voiced disapproval of the NCC’s participation in the march. Rev. Taylor was in good company, however, as a number of other concerned Presbyterian clergy decided to gather and discuss the church’s role in American society, specifically with respect to segregation and civil rights. In November 1963, a group of 24 clergy and laypersons gathered at the Westminster Church in Lynchburg, VA, and established “A Fellowship of Concern.”On January 6th, 1964, the Presbyterian Outlook printed an article announcing the Fellowship and outlined the group’s statement of purpose:

  1. “To interpret the Reformed doctrine of the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ in its authentic and historic application to all of life.
  2. To seek for our Church a more vital role in the struggle for social justice and the search for Christian unity.
  3. To take appropriate action in our own particular congregations and beyond to bear Christ witness in the face of contemporary issues.
  4. To help the Church to assert moral leadership in the changing patterns of racial and cultural revolution.
  5. To support those who have been put under extreme pressure because of their faithfulness to the Church’s social witness.
  6. To support and strengthen the courts of the Church, their institutions and agencies, and those in places of responsibility who are giving guidance along the lines set forth in this covenant.”

In one of their first newsletters, the Fellowship explicitly rejected the “spirituality of the church:”

“Reformed theology finds its foundation in the understanding that God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ is the sovereign of all of life. The false interpretation of ‘the spirituality of the church,’ which has so gripped our denomination from the time of slavery, has vitiated this theological understanding of the sovereignty of God and has helped us to withdraw from the practical affairs of the world.” [6]

The most influential effort of the Fellowship was their involvement in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A filibuster led by Presbyterian Senator Richard Russell of Georgia had delayed passage of the bill for months. A letter was drafted by the Fellowship, and some 435 signatures later – including 165 PCUS clergy – the letter was read on the senate floor. By June, with over 1000 signatures, Senator Russell was persuaded, citing the letter signed by countless southern Presbyterian constituents. [7]

In April 1968, the Fellowship was disbanded after mounting hostility from groups such as “Concerned Presbyterians,” who believed the Fellowship had lured the denomination from its “primary mission – winning the unsaved for Christ and nurturing all believers in the faith.”[8]

 

In light of this brief survey, a few observations:

  1. For some, the “spirituality of the church” not only prescribed how the church should or shouldn’t be involved in the affairs of the world, but declared the gospel is not concerned with ethics, morality, or social policy. It follows, therefore, that the church has no responsibility other than to recruit people to know and serve Christ. This of course begs the question of what is meant by “serve,” given the retreat from society.
  2. Conversely, following the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, proponents of desegregation went as far as to insist that trustees of institutions of higher education belonging to the General Assembly integrate their respective institutions.  This is, historically speaking, rather remarkable. Generally, proponents of this view claimed that those who adhere to the “spirituality of the church” rejected the sovereignty of God.
  3. In one of the more interesting selections above, the GA noted “two dynamic forces at work, the Federal Constitution and the Christian conscience, one legal and the other spiritual…” The appeal to the conscience, which cannot be so neatly relegated to individual “sin and salvation” highlights the difficulty of applying the “spirituality of the church” doctrine.

It is notable that the Presbyterian Church’s response to events during the civil rights movement was often ahead of other denominations across the country. At the General Assembly Level, these responses were often deemed “liberal” in terms of social and political approach, while much of the broader constituency of the southern PCUS were quite reticent – and some outright hostile – to the idea of engaging with the state as an expression of faith. This saga, however, offers an instructive example of how theological convictions have both been shaped by prevailing cultural norms, and have succeeded in reshaping those norms.

 

Rev. Adam S Borneman serves as pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL. He is a graduate of Samford University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (MDiv ThM). His primary research interets are Reformation and 19th Century American theology, and he is the author of Church, Sacrament, and American Democracy: The Social and Political Dimensions of John Williamson Nevins Theology of Incarnation. Rev. Borneman also spends an disconcerting amount of time and energy following professional baseball.
 

[1] Kenneth Taylor, “The Spirituality of the Church, Segregation, The Presbyterian Journal, and the Origins of the Presbyterian Church in  America, 1942-1973,” Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 9, Number 34 (August 19 to August 25, 2007), cit. L. Nelson Bell, “Why,” The Southern Presbyterian Journal 1 (May 1942): 2-3, quoted in Frank Joseph Smith, The History of the Presbyterian Church in America, 2d. ed. (Lawrenceville, GA: Presbyterian Scholars Pres, 1999).

[2] Petersen, David, “Southern Presbyterian Conservatives and Ecclesiastical Division: The Formation of the Presbyterian Church in America,1926-1973” (2009). University of Kentucky Master’s Theses, cit. Rev. William H. Frazer, D.D., Litt.D., LL.D., “The Social Separation of the Races” The Southern Presbyterian Journal, 15 July 1950, pp. 6-7.

[3] Minutes of the Ninety-Fourth General Assembly meeting in Montreat in 1954.

[4] Peter Slade, Open Friendship in a Closed Society, Oxford University Press 2009.

[5] For the following, see Marthame E. Sanders III “’A Fellowship of Concern’ and the Declining Doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church in the Presbyterian Church in the United States,” The Journal of Presbyterian History (1997-) Vol. 75, No. 3 (FALL 1997), pp. 179-195.

[6] Ibid, 183.

[7] Ibid, 184.

[8] Ibid, 188.

Rev. Adam Borneman is a graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He currently works with Macedonian Ministry, an Atlanta based organization that provides leadership development training for clergy nationwide. 

(6) Comments

  1. A well-written and timely post. I so appreciate the way in which Borneman’s survey brings to light specific issues, people, and institutions in recent Presbyterian history. Borneman’s point about the sovereignty of God as a theological motivation for social justice is especially interesting and important. I would love to see more discussion about this vis a vis Luther’s idea of the two kingdoms. How do these different theological principles yield differing conceptions of religious engagement in the social sphere?

  2. Thanks for this analysis … came across this notion a good many years ago, and have always been disturbed by how eagerly Presbyterians in the South, with some very notable exceptions, relied upon this doctrine (if it can be called that) to separate the gospel from the horrible social milieu of the South with its segregated society and horrible poverty. The South still suffers under this bifurcation of faith from life, and it’s very much a part of the current distress in our nation.

  3. Excellent article! The doctrine of the spirituality of the church has, I think, provided convenient cover for those wishing to ignore the grave social problems of the time. One of the interesting points I discovered in my research was the differences in opinion between the majority in the PCUS General Assembly and the lay people; this was not only evident in discussions regarding race, but also in Vietnam War and women’s ordination debates.

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