Review: No Jim Crow Church

Kevin Boland Johnson

Kevin Boland Johnson is Assistant Professor of History at Grambling State University.

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Kevin Boland Johnson, "Review: No Jim Crow Church," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Louis Venters. No Jim Crow Church: The Origins of South Carolina’s Bahá'í Community. Gainesville and other cities: University Press of Florida, 2015. 321 pp. ISBN 978-0-8130-6107-8.

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In No Jim Crow Church: The Origins of South Carolina’s Bahá'í Community, Louis Venters reconstructs the twentieth-century racial, social, economic, and political environment of South Carolina as a radically new religious group called the Bahá'í Faith attempted to spread its beliefs in a region dead-set against challenges from outsiders. Venters shows that the Bahá'í community steadfastly believed in singularity of humanity and religious belief despite great human diversity. Quite obviously, any such religious movement would have difficulties spreading its message to a Deep South population dedicated to strict racial, class, and gender separation. Venters argues that the South Carolina Bahá'í community provided “a deceptively subtle challenge to the ideology and structures of white male supremacy and to the Protestant orthodoxy with which they were inextricably linked” (xiii).

Since many readers may be unfamiliar with the worldwide Bahá'í movement, some defining beliefs are important. Most notably, and consistent with Venters’s purpose, Bahá'ís uncompromisingly believe in the oneness of humanity despite great ethnic, class, and gender diversity. Believers also profess adherence to the idea of unity of world religions. Similar to mainline faiths, Bahá'ís are monotheistic with origins in Iran and, like major world religions, they have Zoroastrian roots. The Bahá'í Faith originated with a charismatic, nineteenth-century Persian prophet named Bahá'u'lláh and his son `Abdu'l-Bahá. The faith is centered upon the idea that the existence of Bahá'u'lláh constituted the return of Christ (158).

Venters begins his narrative with these basics. His first three chapters cover the development of the Bahá'í religion in the United States. From a larger original community in Washington, D.C., itinerant messengers took the faith to all parts of the country. Given that the Deep South maintained an ideological commitment to white supremacy, Bahá'í proselytizers hoped to establish an interracial community in the belly of Jim Crow. The final three chapters and coda highlight the rapid changes experienced by both South Carolina Bahá'ís and mainstream society as racial apartheid was “dismantled” due in part to robust challenges by activists, black and white. Venters claims that the Bahá'í community offered South Carolinians “a new model of community, identity, and polity” (242).

Several key actors inform Venters’s analysis of the Bahá'ís origins in South Carolina. Louis Gregory was an African American itinerant teacher who made initial contacts, laying the groundwork for a religious community dedicated to full and complete integration in the faith as well as in the larger society. Several transplants to South Carolina also contributed to the expansion of this fast-growing religion. Margaret Klebs, Marie Kershaw, William Bidwell, and Josephine McDonald—all white, professional-class believers—developed interest by putting the Bahá'í First Seven Year Plan into action. These Bahá'í advocates faced difficulties spreading their message to black and working class South Carolinians. Venters explains that sometimes Bahá'ís assented to the strict racial atmosphere of Jim Crow society. Yet world Bahá'í leader Shoghi Effendi—grandson of `Abdu'l-Bahá—sent directives to local Bahá'ís to guard against accommodation to racial segregation.

Venters highlights several small successes in the Bahá'ís challenges to the racial order. Having to operate their fireside interest meetings and study sessions amidst segregationist crackdowns and neighborhood spies who could potentially broadcast interracial religious meetings in private homes, the Bahá'ís of Greenville appealed to Mayor Kenneth Cass. He then offered use of the city council chamber, freeing the Bahá'í community from having to advertise mixed-race religious services in area newspapers. For Venters, this anecdote demonstrates the Bahá'í community’s commitment to the oneness of humanity as well as their courageous devotion in the face of a society determined to maintain white supremacy.

The author shines when he covers the racial, social, and economic milieu of South Carolina at midcentury. Venters’s final chapters on Cold War massive resistance and the national collapse of Jim Crow in the 1960s accomplish his goals of offering a “fresh and coherent” history of the state’s civil rights era, examining these great changes through the lens of South Carolina's Bahá'ís (14). Furthermore, Venters excels in demonstrating the Bahá'ís unique insistence and commitment to interracialism in religious practice. By examining the Bahá'í Faith in such a way, Venters succeeds in producing a history of religious dissenters that is devoid of “bizarre theology, charismatic leaders, financial controversy, withdrawal from society, and unusual sexual practices” (4). Too often, historians of religion have focused on Shakers, Quakers, Mormons, side-holes, and other religious outsiders to borrow the title of R. Laurence Moore’s 1986 collection of essays.

Venters’s No Jim Crow Church demonstrates that the Bahá'ís constitute a very unusual group in American religious history. First, they are decidedly not Protestant. Second, unlike many Protestant Evangelicals, Venters’s Bahá'ís refused to accommodate the racial order and economic status quo in the interest of self-preservation. Evangelical and Pentecostal faiths remain segregated and are the largest American denominations as the Bahá'ís continue to grow.

In the United States, where many citizens assert the ideal of a Christian nation that dates back to the founding, Venters offers in No Jim Crow Church a deceptively subtle challenge to American mainline faiths. The irony is inescapable that a post-millennial movement that began in Iran and then spread to the West has shown more devotion to the one-world, one-God, one human race ideal than most of the American Protestant and non-denominational faiths that seemingly pick and choose which of Christ’s teachings to follow based on acquiescence to class, racial, gender status.