Review: The Rise to Respectability
Calvin White, Jr. The Rise to Respectability: Race, Religion, and the Church of God in Christ. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2012. xii + 190 pp. ISBN 978-1-55728-977-3.
Our knowledge of African American religious life during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially in that vast region known as the Mississippi Delta, continues to deepen as new works explore its varied and different dimensions. More specifically, the origins and growth of Holiness movements and Pentecostalism in the South has been documented by a number of scholars from the work of William E. Montgomery’s Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree: The African-American Church in the South, 1865-1900 (1993) to John Giggie’s After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion Delta, 1875-1915 (2008). Calvin White’s Rise to Respectability adds to this rich literature, providing a moving account of the early battles of Charles Harrison Mason and the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) in the court system over church property and money, fierce debates about racial uplift and sanctification, and disagreements about the role and responsibilities of Christians in a time of war. Grant Wacker’s Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (2001) reminded us over a decade ago how the primitivist impulse within early Pentecostalism was tempered by more pragmatic and prosaic concerns. One finds clear evidence of this tension in White’s book, particularly his chapter on Mason and other COGIC leaders quibbling in court about property ownership and whether or not sanctification was a false doctrine. Though COGIC members may have longed for the fullness of spiritual gifts as they searched scriptural passages such as I Corinthians 12, more often they had to deal with more quotidian and less lofty pursuits as Paul’s admonition (in I Corinthians 6) not to take each other to civil courts (places that Mason found himself in more often than he would have liked).
The “rise to respectability” is the overarching theme of White’s narrative. The story he details is well known, but its highlights are the following: Mason and other leaders of what became COGIC were deeply disillusioned with denominationalism; they engaged in heated debates about black religious traditions that were rooted in slavery, leading to fierce disagreements among younger, educated and progressive clergymen who wanted a more dignified religious expression over against Mason and his followers; these early holiness leaders like Mason and Charles Price Jones rejected the modernization of black religious practices and gained widespread support from rural uneducated blacks in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Somewhere along the way (and here the narrative becomes less compelling and quite incomplete), COGIC itself developed into a respectable mainstream black denomination. Ironically, COGIG became a denomination despite the founders’ disdain for denominationalism (28). White also asserts that COGIC’s missionary work in parts of Africa emphasized uplift and respectability and engaged in a major critique of African religious and cultural practices, another ironic development for White because it was reminiscent of white critiques of black southern religion as uncouth and uncivilized, and even those of black middle class Baptist and Methodist clergy who excoriated the “excesses” of holiness and Pentecostalism among blacks in the South (93).
Respectability has become a much used explanatory category, made prominent and illuminating by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (1993). For Higginbotham, middle class black Baptist women espoused a “politics of respectability” that was inflected along lines of class and status. It allowed black women to condemn what they perceived to be the negative practices and attitudes among poorer blacks in the South, motivating them to engage in educational projects among poorer black women and campaigns to elevate their morals and manners. The outward dimension of this politics of respectability aimed at conforming blacks’ values and manners to the dominant (white) society’s norms. Higginbotham is emphatic that we should not regard this as “an accomdationationist stance toward racism, or a compensatory ideology in the face of powerlessness” (187). While she argues that black women did not escape the influence of dominant societal norms, which cast blacks as emotional, uncivilized, and in need of uplift, these church women vigorously protested social injustice and circumscriptions against themselves in churches and in the broader society. Yet, the concept of respectability is not often treated with this kind of nuance in later works. In White’s book, respectability seems entirely a negative expression which describes either conscious or unwitting capitulation on the part of COGIC to dominant negative images and perceptions of black Americans. Respectability is the equivalent of wholesale adoption of Western values. For example, White argues in his discussion of COGIC missionary activity: “In essence, COGIC, to a large degree, had adopted the values of as well as religious standards of Western behavior” (86). One wonders how or if White’s work addresses Anthea Butler’s Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World (2007) contention that it was black women’s belief in God and their reading of scripture that led them to emphasize piety, purity, and manners. Scholarship has not done a good job of teasing out these distinctions very carefully. There has been a tendency to render respectability in an all or nothing dichotomy, whereby whiteness so haunts the black imagination that any attempt to propose uplift, etiquette, or manners is seen as an ancillary part of religious education and inculcation and thus a capitulation to the ethnocentrism and racism of Western values. But can we so easily delineate, as White does, “values” from “religious standards” of Western culture? Are impossible standards being imposed upon oppressed historical actors situated in a particular culture when historians seemingly operate under the notion that deportment of the body, decorum, and recommendations for etiquette can be demarcated neatly from religious practices and standards?
Although White’s work is tied together by his attention to respectability, the narrative is too incomplete and inconclusive to bear the weight of its major assertion about the origins and development of respectability among COGIC. The Emmett Till murder, the sanitation workers’ strike, and a few other nationally renowned events are treated insufficiently as causative factors in the rise of COGIC to respectability (here one thinks that public notice is the same as respectability for White). The hasty treatment of these events and the ambiguous relationship that they have to actual changes within the denomination should give the reader pause as to whether they tell us what White asserts they do. The general narrative does provide a basic timeline of the growth of COGIC and some of its major public struggles. What is not convincing to this reviewer is that respectability is appropriately defined or that it is the most compelling way to chart this change in this rapidly growing denomination. Even so, White’s narrative, with its attention to the multiple fractures with black Christianity, should certainly be added to those works that conclusively demonstrate that there is no good reason to continue using such an empty and generalized expression as “the black church.”