Mississippi Praying

Matthew Tuininga
Carolyn Renée Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975. New York: New York University Press, 2013. 303 pages. $55.00 ($26.99 on Kindle).

Carolyn Renée Dupont's Mississippi Praying, is a thoroughly stimulating analysis of the ways in which the theology and faith of Mississippi evangelicals shaped their opposition to the civil rights movement. A professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University, Dupont argues that, in contrast to the widespread assumption that southern religious opposition to the civil rights movement was the result of the church's cultural captivity to a racist society, white evangelical theology was the decisive bulwark of segregation in the years 1945-1975. Because civil rights activists often relied on the social gospel for their critique of segregation, white evangelicals viewed the battle over segregation as a battle for theological orthodoxy. They stressed that social change would only follow the regeneration of individual souls, not the interference of apostate religious liberals from outside the state. 

Not that most southern pastors and theologians espoused racial violence or explicitly defended white supremacy. The crass apologists who appealed to the curse of Ham or to Israel's separation from the nations as evidence of a biblical mandate for racial segregation were always in the minority. But the vast majority of southern religious leaders interpreted the faith individualistically such that the Bible could at least allow for racial segregation. Given widespread assumptions about race as a natural phenomena, a product of God's divine providence, it was enough to emphasize that the New Testament did not condemn segregation as unChristian. 

In a state in which eighty percent of the population regularly attended church, Mississippi's evangelical churches became the comfortable home of the state's elite citizens, including those who formed the Citizens Councils that so stridently defended segregation. Reverend Douglas Hudgins was the star pastor of Jackson's First Baptist Church, where staunch segregationist Mississippi governor Ross Barnett taught Sunday School, and where the state's most influential media magnates, the staunchly segregationist Hederman family, attended. Hudgins did not promote segregation from the pulpit, but he rejected charges that segregation was unChristian, and he used his clout in the Southern Baptist Convention to prevent ecclesiastical actions that challenged it. 

Just as prominently, Presbyterian leader Dr. G. T. Gillespie delivered what became the most famous defense of segregation, an address widely published as "A Christian View of Segregation," embraced by the  conservative beacon Southern Presbyterian Journal as "a 'fine and rational' elucidation of the periodical's own viewpoints." In it, Gillespie rejected the Presbyterian Church of the United States's (PCUS, the southern Presbyterian Church) endorsement of Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court mandated the integration of public schools, on the basis of the Presbyterian doctrine of the spirituality of the church. This doctrine, Gillespie claimed, forbade the church from addressing social and political matters. Yet, somewhat inconsistently, Gillespie went on to argue that America faced a choice between "the Anglo-Saxon ideal of racial integrity ... and the Communist goal of amalgamation." He appealed to natural law and a myriad of biblical proof-texts as evidence of "biblical blessings on racial separation and purity (pp.75-6)."

Such examples could be multiplied. The bulk of Dupont's book is a fascinating survey, rich in detail, of just how the civil rights saga played out in white Mississippi churches over three decades. In contrast to some southern states, Mississippians were nearly monolithic in their opposition to integration. The battles that tore apart the Methodist churches, and to a lesser extent the Presbyterian and Baptist churches, were not over the morality of segregation, but over just how it should be defended, whether or not it could be criticized, and if black Christians should be permitted to worship in white churches. Most Mississippians rejected the violence that engulfed the state during the mid-1960s, but they also successfully silenced pastors inclined to say anything positive about integration.

Dupont shows that "not only did white Christians fail to fight for black equality, they often labored mightily against it (p.5)." Not only did they bitterly oppose the sit-ins, the protests, and the voter registration drives of the civil rights movement, they also rejected what they saw as the source of the problem: the liberal activism of the mainline denominations of which most Mississippians were a part, liberalism that showed itself in denominational proclamations on social or political issues, denominational literature, and Sunday School materials. Each of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the PCUS, and the Methodist Church publicly supported Brown v. Board of Education decision, but their Mississippi branches would have none of it. Pastors who defended the Supreme Court's decision, or who defended the freedom of the pulpit, were forced out of their posts.

Perhaps the ugliest display of this resistance was the refusal of virtually all white Mississippi churches to admit African Americans to their worship services during the early 1960s. When black and white civil rights activists sought to integrate Jackson's flagship churches by attending worship in 1963, they were prevented from doing so, if necessary by the police. Dozens of would-be worshipers were thrown in prison, and several received six-month jail sentences. Some of Jackson's most prominent pastors, such as Dr. William Bryan Selah, of Galloway Methodist Church, opposed their churches' rejection of black worshipers (though Selah did not oppose other forms of segregation), but their congregations forced them to resign. Only the Catholic and Episcopal churches consistently admitted black worshipers.

In the end, of course, Mississippi's white evangelicals failed to resist integration. But Dupont points out that the turmoil of the civil rights era destroyed the inclusive prosperity of the South's mainline denominations. The progressivism of the Southern Baptist Convention sparked a sharp backlash. Fundamentalists eventually won control of the SBC bureaucracy, a victory that set the stage for the SBC to emerge as the bastion of the Christian Right in the 1990s. Presbyterian conservatives had no hope of winning back their denomination, so in the late 1960s they began the work of building a new denomination. In 1973 they founded the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), emphasizing the new denomination's commitment to the doctrine of the  spirituality of the church. Methodist conservatives failed to establish a significant new denomination, but they left what became the United Methodist Church (UMC) in droves, often for various independent evangelical congregations. 

Dupont admits that during the 1980s and 1990s southern evangelical denominations vigorously rejected racism, have promoted inter-racial congregations, and have even fostered high-profile black leaders. Still, she argues, these significant changes took place after the legal and political revolution of the civil rights era. In other words, it was not the gospel that changed southern evangelicals' views on race, but social forces to which these Christians gave way begrudgingly. And this is a point with which evangelical leaders have failed to come to grips. SBC and PCA leaders today downplay the racial dimension of the bitter church conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s, insisting that the real issue was the nature of the gospel. As a result, they continue to conceive of the significance of the Christian faith in individualistic rather than social terms, still insisting that the regeneration of human beings is the key to solving world problems. 
For the most part, in this way of thinking, systems emerge only as the product of individual actions. Sin resides in people, not in the configuration of the society around them. The notion that the world might work in exactly the opposite way - that social, political, and economic arrangements might exert profound evil on individuals, limiting their destinies and proscribing their choices - hardly enters in (p.229).
Mississippi in the 1960s was one of the most evangelical and devout places in human history; if there was ever a place where Christ's rule in the hearts of regenerate human beings should have led to social justice, it was this. Yet the result was otherwise.

Dupont thinks the emergence of unified conservative evangelical churches and denominations was an essential prerequisite for the emergence of the Christian Right. In contrast to traditional Baptist and Presbyterian doctrines that stressed the a-political nature of the church, evangelical churches increasingly became publicly vocal on a range of matters from abortion to gender roles and sexuality. Meanwhile, their continued individualism and their suspicion of liberal government interference made for an easy alliance with the economically conservative Republican party.

Dupont exaggerates the significance of segregation as a factor in the takeover of the SBC and the formation of the PCA. She pays no attention to the myriad of other issues evangelical conservatives took even more seriously than race, issues revolving around the infallibility and authority of scripture, except insofar as she thinks they related to the defense of segregation. Just as problematic, her theological sympathy toward social gospel Christianity over traditional evangelicalism is obvious throughout. Still, Dupont's book is a must-read for anyone interested in seriously wrestling with southern evangelicalism's complicity in segregation. It should also be read by anyone interested in the ways in which different interpretations of the gospel shape, or fail to shape, social and political engagement. 
Matthew J. Tuininga teaches politics and core studies at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, and was recently appointed assistant professor of moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a licensed exhorter in the United Reformed Churches of North America and he blogs at matthewtuininga.wordpress.com