Review: Doctrine and Race

Matthew J. Zacharia Harper

Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Mercer University

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Matthew J. Zacharia Harper, "Review: Doctrine and Race," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018):

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Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2017. 204pp.

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In this succinct, well-written volume, Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews asks how early twentieth century black Methodists and Baptists responded to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy that split many white denominations at the time. She studies the periodicals of four national churches: the National Baptist Convention (Incorporated), the National Baptist Convention (Unincorporated), the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AME Zion) Church. Despite the considerable diversity she found within and across denominations, Mathews makes several conclusions about black Protestants as a whole. Her work demonstrates clearly that white fundamentalists framed their movement in ways the excluded, even disrespected, African Americans. Though many black Protestants found parts of fundamentalism attractive and criticized the theological innovations of modernism, they never fully joined either movement. They considered modernism a theological problem that white people created and while  they argued for “old time” religion, this was not the same thing as fundamentalism. Black Protestants rejected dispensational pre-millennialism, a new doctrine that became a hallmark of white fundamentalism. Black evangelicals, contra white fundamentalists, embraced the social justice dimensions of the gospel as a traditional, not modernist or liberal, teaching. They used biblical literalism to condemn drinking, dancing, and gambling, as white fundamentalists did, but also to condemn white racism. Indeed, Doctrine and Race tackles complex theological positions that defy categorization, yet we are never in want of clarity or organization.

Mathews’ approach has several other advantages. Her extensive knowledge of white fundamentalists and print media—the subject of her first book—sets her up to make rather insightful analyses of race within those sources. In her first chapter, she ranges broadly across sources to show how leading white fundamentalists marginalized would-be black allies. They endorsed segregation uncritically, caricatured black people in sermon illustrations, and spoke of black people’s dependence on whites, musicality, and simple-mindedness. Though white fundamentalists often ignored black Protestants, when they did pay attention, they feared that African Americans could be easily swayed by theological error. The book demonstrates Mathews’ deep knowledge of the the theological crises of the interwar period. Readers will learn quite a bit about white Protestantism along the way.

Her decision to limit the study to four independent black denominations allows her to profile each denomination with nuance. Of the four, the NBC (Unincorporated) publications identified most closely with fundamentalism. The NBC (Incorporated)’s Voice featured more writers sympathetic to theological liberalism. The Christian Recorder (AME) published more mixed reviews of modernist ideas than did the more traditional Star of Zion (AME Zion). Yet even those AME and NBC (Incorporated) writers who argued for middle ground between fundamentalism and modernism never comfortably identified as modernists. The book unfortunately leaves out Holiness and Pentecostal churches, which Mathews admits would be “a fine complement to this study,” (9) as well as those black Protestants in denominations with white congregants or close relationships to white churches—such as the Methodist Episcopal Church or the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. These black Protestants, because of their entanglements with white church politics, may have related differently to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.

The book’s most important contribution comes from rethinking how to categorize black religion. Were black Baptists and Methodists conservative, liberal, traditional, progressive, fundamentalist, or modernist? The writers in Mathews’ study defy neat categorization. As Barbara Savage and other scholars have reminded us, historians too often fixate on the “progressive” anti-racism work of black churches, choosing to ignore black Protestants’ many conservative impulses. Mathews agrees, while asking us also to abandon the liberal/conservative nomenclature.

Take for example black ministers’ position on social issues like drinking, gambling, and dress. Here black Baptists and Methodists seemed firmly in the fundamentalist camp. Like white fundamentalists, they fixated on the behavior and appearance of women. But even on these issues, the camps were not so simple. Black writers saw these behaviors as threats to racial uplift and respectability. In fact, black Protestants’ concerns over dancing may have even predated those of white fundamentalists, because for them the issue was about not only individual morality but also group advancement. Black Baptists and Methodists also differed from white fundamentalists because they listed lynching and segregation as national sins right along with speakeasies and divorce. At times, Mathews notes, they had to choose between individual moral issues and the good of the race. As Democrats offered more support for civil rights and less support for Prohibition, many black ministers warned their parishioners to not limit their moral vision to a single issue like alcohol.

For Mathews, evolution provides another good example. Although most of the writers in black church newspapers remained critical of theological modernism, they did not reject human evolution. Black newspaper editors warned readers not to become reactionary antievolutionists, lest they be seen as backwards or simple-minded. To Mathews, many denominational leaders wanted to chart a middle path between modernism and antievolutionism, as did W. J. Walls of the Star of Zion: “We must keep ourselves from the religious bigotry of the middle ages when popes and priests attempted to throttle thought and dam up science and liberty, and we must also save our people form the peril of agnostic metaphysics”(89). Some scholars have suggested that evolution drew black secular intellectuals and ministers into conflict, but as Mathews shows, it was not that simple.

To move us beyond categorizing black religion as conservative or liberal, Mathews suggests using the terms traditional and progressive. Black Protestant stances on religion were traditional; their views on race relations were progressive. But even these terms fail to capture the nuance and diversity within just four denominations’ periodicals. We need to understand black churches in this period on their own terms, and to that end, Doctrine and Race serves the field well.