Review Essay: Mississippi Praying
Carolyn Renėe Dupont. Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975. New York and London: New York University Press, 2013. 290 pp. 978-0-8147-0841-5.
Editor’s Note: Prior to her appointment as book review editor with JSR, Carolyn Dupont had been assigned Stephen Haynes’s The Last Segregated Hour to review. Her own work on white Christians in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era made her a good choice for Art Remillard, who served as our book review editor. Since Haynes had been slated to review Dupont’s Mississippi Praying prior to her arrival at the JSR, we have followed a different protocol for these two reviews. The Editor handled all publication decisions regarding these reviews, which is typically left to the book review editor’s discretion.
“As a religious history of white Southern Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians during the civil rights era, [this book] examines [Mississippi] evangelicals’ two great enthusiasms—ardent devotion to the Christian gospel and equal zeal for what can only be described as white supremacy—and explains how these commitments interacted with one another” (2). So begins Carolyn Dupont’s Mississippi Praying. As Dupont points out, her approach is unusual inasmuch as it takes with utmost seriousness the “relationship between white supremacy and white religion,” a theme that is featured “only incidentally…if at all” in the historiography of massive white resistance (3). Under implicit attack in this approach are the views that white religion “passed the civil rights years as a silent, passive or unimportant player” and that white evangelicals’ support for segregation was limited to “preaching the biblical case for it” (4, 6).
Generally speaking, Dupont discredits the notion that white responses to the civil rights movement can be explained in terms of “cultural captivity” (as an earlier generation of scholars of southern religion maintained), and notes that this perspective obscures the ways white religion created and sustained the South’s system of oppression. Dupont shows that although Mississippi evangelicals vehemently defended their apolitical character and condemned coreligionists who confused the goal of social change with the gospel mission of changing “one heart at a time,” evangelical doctrine concealed a specific political orientation concerned with deciding and justifying which Mississippians would “have access to its resources, power and privilege” (8).
Throughout Mississippi Praying, Dupont suggests that faith’s largest service to white supremacy may have been the individualistic ethos it embraced and embodied “so expertly that collective actions seemed to disappear” (17). This ethos allowed white Mississippians to interpret blacks’ inferior education, poverty, low political participation and high incarceration levels as “the inevitable expressions of black inferiority rather than as props for the parts whites forced them to play” (27). Mississippi’s white Christians did not eschew moral concerns, of course, but “their careful structuring of these concerns kept segregation from appearing in any catalogue of sins” (35).
In a chapter titled “Responding to Brown,” Dupont tells the stories of how Mississippi’s major Protestant denominations—the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church in the United States—each endorsed the Brown decision in the months after it was handed down. As a result, many white Mississippians were forced to conclude that national religious institutions could be “as menacing to the Southern way of life as the Supreme Court.” Accordingly, Mississippi churches quickly joined the opposition to integration (65). Resistance strategies of choice included cries for local autonomy (which, Dupont points out, bore a strong resistance to the political principle of “interposition”), condemnations of ecclesiastical judgments on matters “purely civic,” critiques of top-down decision-making, and warnings of denominational schism. Assertions that segregation was “time-tested and proven” were oft-heard, as were claims that segregation was not discriminatory, that blacks “preferred their own churches,” and that segregation was for the good of both races. Not surprisingly, the specter of interracial marriage and miscegenation lurked just below the surface of these arguments.
Resistance to integration in post-Brown Mississippi, Dupont observes, was characterized by a “holy symbiosis” between white evangelicalism and black subjugation (16). Thus, when grass-roots organizations such as the Mississippi Association of Methodist Ministers and Laymen (MAMML) sprung up to protect local prerogatives and protest the “integration propaganda” (132) flowing from denominational agencies, their leadership inevitably overlapped with that of Mississippi’s Citizens’ Councils; similarly, when a leading Presbyterian divine offered a forceful defense of racial separation in late 1954, it was published by the Citizens’ Council as “A Christian View of Segregation.”
Naturally, a signal Christian contribution to massive resistance involved making a biblical/theological case for segregation. “Because religion now jeopardized segregation,” Dupont writes, “segregationists called on religion to defend it” (80). The result was a proliferating “segregationist folk theology” that was typically articulated by “layfolk and ministers without denominational connections” (81). Dupont cites a number of examples, particularly from the 1950s, of Christian spokesmen who developed biblical apologies for segregation in Mississippi; but generally, she writes, segregationist folk theology “announced itself in the ordinary operations of life; it wove itself into workday exchanges, peppered private ruminations, and bubbled up in conversations” (86). This conclusion is based on her study of a variety of church documents, newspaper articles, diary entries and private correspondence.
In the second half of Mississippi Praying Dupont details the growing tensions between Mississippi Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians and their co-religionists in other parts of the country, tensions that were exacerbated by the pro-civil rights stances taken by denominational agencies such as the SBC’s Christian Life Commission. White Mississippi Baptists, not wanting to appear unconcerned with the welfare of African Americans in the state, tended to favor the SBC’s Department of Negro Work, which supported the separate training of black ministers while “operat[ing] firmly within the accepted practices and structures of segregation” (122). Baptist pulpits were other sites of opposition to denominational trends. Pastors like Douglas Hudgins of First Baptist, Jackson (“the very epicenter of Baptist life in Mississippi,” where Ross Barnett and other leaders of mass resistance worshipped), is profiled as an exemplar of the sort of tall-steeple preacher who rarely preached about race, but whose relentless emphasis on individualistic spirituality made him an effective advocate for “the old ways.” Though he claimed to eschew politics in the pulpit, Hudgins “made abundantly clear his sympathy with political ideologies that elevated the efforts and rights of individuals” and cast government as a “morally corrupting force on otherwise hard-working individuals” (117). According to Dupont, Hudgins’ preaching “remade African Americans’ legitimate appeals for federal protections as encouragement for their own degeneracy. More subtly but more powerfully than a sermon on the curse of Ham, Hudgins’ explication of Christian America offered blacks no effective path for ending the oppression they suffered” (119).
Dupont illumines “the travail of Mississippi Methodism” with reference to the controversy over the “Born of Conviction” statement signed in January 1963 by twenty-eight young ministers who were native Mississippians. The statement affirmed support for the official anti-segregation stance of the Methodist Church and claimed that Christ “permits no discrimination because of race, color, or creed” (127). Moderate Mississippi Methodists like the signers of “Born of Conviction” were characterized by “institutional loyalty and theological flexibility” that put them in dangerous opposition to the majority of their co-religionists in the state. The fallout pushed seventeen of the twenty-eight signers from their churches within six months; within a year, eighteen had left the state. As Dupont concludes, the firestorm over “Born of Conviction” is emblematic of the way Mississippi Methodists, particularly after the Meredith crisis of 1962, “passed the civil rights years in chronic, debilitating turmoil” (128).
In her chapter on “The Jackson Church Visits,” Dupont describes how beginning in June, 1963 activists from across the nation “took the movement to the church doors” of the Mississippi capitol (156). Others have told the story of church kneel-ins in Mississippi (and across the South). What Dupont adds is compelling evidence that “nowhere did activists assault sanctuary doors as relentlessly nor endure rejection as consistently, as in Jackson” (165). She stresses that these “kneel-ins” brought competing visions of the Christian faith into stark, dramatic contrast: on one hand, “a southern Christianity, in which a commitment to the racial hierarchy occupied a central place,” on the other “an emerging American version, in which an embrace of human quality was rapidly becoming a given” (165). Ending in April 1964, the Jackson kneel-ins presented an “ironic interpretive backdrop” for the “orgy of violence against people and property” that ensued in the summer of that year (172).
In a chapter titled “Race and the Restructuring of American Religion,” Dupont demonstrates the relevance of her study of Mississippi in 1950s and 60s for understanding white southern Protestantism in subsequent decades. With a variety of examples, she shows that after 1968 “the advocates of segregation often morphed into champions of a restrictive emphasis on literal biblical interpretation, as contests over theology and denominational identity moved to center stage in every religious communion” (200). Dupont argues, for example, that understanding the Conservative Resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention requires recognition of the fact that the champions of biblical inerrancy were fighting in part to preserve a denomination “committed to individualistic notions of social change through personal salvation” (202), notions that had come under attack during the heyday of the civil rights movement. Over time, the connection between the civil rights struggle and the struggle for the soul of the SBC became less visible as the ostensible issues turned from segregation and poverty to biblical inerrancy. But, Dupont contends, the connection is there.
Presbyterians in Mississippi provide another example of the way debates over civil rights became sublimated after the 1960s in disputes over the spread of “liberalism.” It is not coincidental, Dupont notes, that the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), founded in 1973 from disaffected PCUS congregations, began with more churches from Mississippi than any other state. As with Baptists, Presbyterians framed their dissent from the PCUS in theological terms, but it is not difficult to discern the PCA’s “rigid commitments to the theological ideals that had served the racial hierarchy” (214). Dupont notes, in fact, how some of the PCA’s founding fathers “contributed eagerly and meaningfully to the fight against black equality” (217). The link between race and theological conservatism is also evident in the fact that the PCA very intentionally reached back to the antebellum period to retrieve an emphasis on “the spirituality of the church,” a concept originally fashioned to keep ecclesiastical entities from passing judgment on civil arrangements (such as chattel slavery). In their quest to return to the spiritual origins of Southern Presbyterianism, Dupont concludes, “those who struggled to preserve their superiority over slavery’s descendants clung tightly to precisely this doctrine, praising their slaveholding forefathers as the devoted champions of a pure and uncorrupted faith” (220).
Among Dupont’s conclusions, one for which her book provides a great deal of evidence, is that in civil rights-era Mississippi “moral suasion…proved largely fruitless” (231)–that it was only after laws and customs were altered that whites’ racial views began to change. This points means that the regeneration of souls is the only hope for the world, which is still voiced by conservative Protestants in Mississippi and elsewhere, does not bring about positive change. Dupont notes that such individualistic views of sin, morality and responsibility structure thinking in ways that “obscure and discount collective and corporate responsibility” (232). Thus the irony that although Mississippi evangelicals in the post-civil rights era have added “racism” to their standard catalogue of sins, they continue to cling to the very individualist theology “that sustained the racial hierarchy and informed the defense of segregation” (229).
Mississippi Praying is a powerful and important book; it is thoroughly researched, carefully argued and beautifully written. It sheds considerable light on the response of white Protestants in Mississippi to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and it dares to draw connections between those responses and the positions taken by conservative Christians in the state in the years since the 1960s. Many of these people continue to tell themselves and others that their dissent from more socially conscious elements of their denominations “wasn’t about race”; Mississippi Praying shows that the matter is not that simple.