Race and the Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, no. 2

Sean Lucas

[For an explanation of this series and the first post, see here.]

Even with Taylor and Bell's moderation on racial issues, there were those in conservative ranks who were determined to maintain racial integrity. W. A. Gamble, stated clerk of Central Mississippi Presbytery and sometime contributor to the Journal, was incensed by the recent softening on racial separation in the magazine since Taylor became editor. Board member John R. Richardson tried to calm Gamble down by writing, "We realize there has been some dissatisfaction. I am grateful, however, to tell you that I feel that in basic convictions all connected with the Journal have not changed nor will change in the future" on segregation. As a way of backing that reassurance, the Journal board issued a statement were they insisted "that the integrity of each race should be a matter of paramount importance and grave concern that much today which purports to be 'Christian race relations' has nothing to do with Biblical Christianity but works toward the destroying of racial integrity as it has developed in the Providence of God." As a result, the board reaffirmed "voluntary segregation in churches, schools, and other social relationships," which was all for the "highest interests of the races." In fact, "forced interracial social relationships, rather than being the ideal to which the church should work, are actually compounding the problems they seek to solve. Racial integrity is something to be preserved, not broken down."[1]

Even while defending racial integrity, southern Presbyterian conservatives valued social order even more. Violence, whether defending segregation or promoting integration, was unacceptable. In 1961, East Alabama Presbytery declared itself against the mob violence that engulfed the Freedom Riders in Birmingham and Montgomery: "We express our deep regret and emphatic disapproval of mob violence for whatever cause." Likewise, Nelson Bell was appalled by the lawlessness on the part of both sides in Birmingham in 1963. "One of our chief concerns is the effect these demonstrations are having on young people, both Negro and white," he declared. "Many white boys and girls, encouraged no doubt by their parents, have participated in counter demonstrations involving insults and violence. At the same time many Negro young people are being led into a psychological blind-alley--following the idea that 'rights' can be secured by mob action." Not mob violence, but adherence to the law was the way forward: "where laws perpetuate injustices, they must be changed."[2]

 On the other side, the pursuit of racial justice did not legitimate law-breaking either. When the 1965 PCUS General Assembly endorsed a range of Civil Rights activities, including peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins, over sixty commissioners filed a dissent. Nelson Bell presented it to the assembly, arguing that "some of the methods sanctioned in the document are 'contrary to or go beyond the jurisdiction of the Church.'" Even if the church desired to support "worthy goals" like racial justice, Aiken Taylor noted, that did not mean that it could do so through "radical measures" or "extremism or vindictiveness." Later in 1965, Bell worried again that peaceful demonstrations were a small step from civil disobedience and "the step from civil disobedience to riots and violence is even shorter." Willfully breaking laws, even for a worthy goal, is wrong: "No nation should permit injustice and discrimination to be a part of its accepted way of life. But no nation can survive which placidly allows people to make of themselves prosecutors, jurors, and executioners--and this applies to all citizens." Means do not justify the end: breaking the law, whether to support segregation or integration, was never right.[3]

 Sometimes defending racial integrity, or at least defending the South's approach to racial issues, required an active engagement of those who disagreed. In 1963-64, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was a key center for voter registration efforts in which northern Presbyterian ministers worked. The three Hattiesburg Presbyterian ministers--William J. Stanway, Newton Cox, and Ed Jussely--sought to engage their Yankee counterparts, both in the local press and by their willingness to debate the issue on their home turf. As a result, these three ministers along with two ruling elders went to Charleston, Illinois, to speak to Presbyterians there about the racial situation throughout the Deep South. Even more, they communicated their commitment to the spiritual mission of the church: "The church as an organization has no business taking part in political and sociological affairs." That was not to say that the Gospel did not have social implications; it most assuredly did. However, Hattiesburg Presbyterians pointed to Scripture to show that it did not justify civil disobedience nor did it countenance northern Presbyterians' "invasion" of Hattiesburg to promote racial justice. If northern Presbyterians desired to help blacks, they should preach the Gospel to them, which would in turn promote their social and economic wellbeing.[4] 

[1] John R. Richardson to W. A. Gamble, 12 August 1960 and 15 August 1960, both in L. Nelson Bell Papers, Box 69, folder 13, Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton IL; "Journal Day Attracts Throng of Supporters," PJ (31 August 1960): 5.

[2] "Presbytery Expresses Regret Over Incidents," PJ (14 June 1961): 22; L. Nelson Bell, "A Plea for Communication," PJ (26 June 1963): 8. On the Freedom Rides, see Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). It is note-worthy that the moderator of the PCUS distanced himself from the March on Washington in August 1963 for fear that "mass demonstrations...often generated race hatred and served mostly to gratify radical extremists" ("Churches' Part in March a Mistake Says McCorkle," PJ (11 September 1963): 19.

[3] "Assembly Endorses 'Civil Rights' Action," PJ (12 May 1965): 7; G. Aiken Taylor, "Evaluating the 105th Assembly," PJ (12 May 1965): 14; L. Nelson Bell, "Danger Signals," PJ (29 September 1965): 15; Bell, "The Road to Lawlessness," PJ (24 August 1966): 15; Brice T. Dickson, "What About Civil Disobedience?" PJ (14 June 1967): 12; Samuel T. Harris, Jr., "The Problem of Civil Disobedience," PJ (6 December 1967): 8-10.

[4] G. Aiken Taylor, "The Heart of the Matter," PJ (11 March 1964): 10; [Leonard Lowrey,] "The Church and Its Purpose," Hattiesburg American (22 February 1964). For more on this historic debate, see Robert Patrick Rayner, "On Theological Grounds: Hattiesburg Presbyterians and the Civil Rights Movement," (M.A. thesis: University of Southern Mississippi, 2009), 55-67. An account of the 1963-64 Hattiesburg voter registration movement can be found in Mark Newman, Divine Agitators: The Delta Ministry and Civil Rights in Mississippi (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004), 46-67.