Review: Born of Conviction

Colin B. Chapell

Colin B. Chapell is an Instructor in History at the University of Memphis.

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Colin B. Chapell, "Review: Born of Conviction," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Reiff, Joseph T. Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi’s Closed Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. xxi + 384 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-024681-5.

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In Born of Conviction, Joseph Reiff provides an in-depth look at the conflicted convictions of Mississippi’s white Methodists during the Civil Rights era. Rather than offering an optimistic view of faith’s power to provide courage and succor or a dystopian vision of the use of theology to retain unjust structures, Reiff writes a nuanced history in which the clergy and laity, conservatives and progressives, individual pastors and ecclesiastical structures ground their thoughts and actions in theological convictions. In Born of Conviction, students and scholars will not find simplistic formulations, but a complex study about the importance of religious belief.

Divided into four parts, Reiff organizes his work in general chronological order and begins by outlining the general structures of both Mississippi and Mississippi Methodism in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The first part of the book also introduces many of the men who would eventually sign the “Born of Conviction” statement. That manifesto outlined the beliefs that Methodist preachers needed freedom to voice their convictions and that the church should welcome people of all races. Moreover, the statement went on to support an integrated public school system while affirming opposition to communism. By presenting the background of many “Born of Conviction” signers, Reiff demonstrates how many individuals, perhaps unwittingly, had profound influences on future pastors, leading them to take a stand for racial justice in Mississippi’s closed society.

Part II looks specifically at the months surrounding the release of the “Born of Conviction” statement itself. Along with an account of the statement’s writing, Reiff turns to the immediate response both from congregations and communities throughout Mississippi. Beginning in this portion, Reiff confronts the “spoke out, forced out” narrative head on, demonstrating that, while a majority of the signatories did eventually leave Mississippi, few were truly forced out. However, this carefully made argument never minimizes the pastors’ real sense of isolation and feeling that their communities had rejected them.

The chapters in Part III of Born of Conviction follow individual pastors in the decades following the 1963 release of the “Born of Conviction” statement. Here, Reiff continues to confront the “spoke out, forced out” narrative. In addition, he follows the career trajectory of ministers who left Mississippi, while also exploring the lives and ministries of those few who stayed. Reiff makes clear that, while those who left often experienced lower levels of stress in the immediate aftermath of the “Born of Conviction” statement, those who stayed in Mississippi generally had deeply fulfilling ministerial careers as well.

The final part of the book examines the memory and legacy of the “Born of Conviction” statement within both Mississippi Methodism and the United Methodist Church generally. Here Reiff explores the resentments of some signatories who stayed and felt that those who left had abandoned them for greener pastures. Rather than focusing on this aspect of the story, however, Born of Conviction ends by recognizing that speaking truth to power, standing for justice, and fighting against oppression are continuing battles.

This narrative moves effortlessly between an individual and institutional focus, a great strength of the book. Readers will walk away understanding the issues facing the Methodist Church in the 1960s, while simultaneously seeing how individuals fit into that larger picture. There are occasional moments when individual biographies of pastors blur the larger story, and extended vignettes may distract some readers. However, in detailing the lives of so many individuals, Reiff presents a balanced picture of the power of a principled, faith-based stand.

While scholars such as David Chappell and Charles Marsh have emphasized the power of prophetic faith, more recent additions to the conversation from Carolyn Renée Dupont and Stephen Haynes demonstrate how faith was used as a tool for segregationists. Reiff balances this conversation by showing how both segregationists and racial progressives used faith as a starting point in Mississippi. In this complex and nuanced history, scholars and graduate students will also find that Reiff brings the story up to date by including the United Methodist Church’s struggle over same-sex marriage, relating how some of the same “Born of Conviction” pastors have responded to those controversies.

Born of Conviction is a nuanced, mature study that takes the faith stances of both progressives and segregationists seriously. While undergraduates may get lost in some of the individual stories, graduate students and scholars of religion, southern culture, and the Civil Rights Movement will appreciate Joseph Reiff’s study.