Race and the Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, no. 4

Sean Lucas

[For the explanation of this series and the first post, see here; see here for installments two and three. There will be a final application post tomorrow.]

Even as the 1960s came toward a close, Nelson Bell continued to advocate what he took to be racial moderation. "Forced segregation was wrong, forced integration is equally wrong," he reiterated. However, behind his continued commitment to the idea that "Christian race relations proceed from love, not force," he actually had travelled a long way from the late 1940s and early 1950s. He recognized that the Supreme Court had no choice to void Virginia's statute against interracial marriage; he observed that churches had no business enforcing "closed door" policies, banning blacks from corporate worship, a practice that was "un-Christian." He also admitted that society needed to provide "the right of equal opportunity" to all of its citizens, a commitment that could only be the result of Christian morality shaping social policies. All of these positions were far beyond what he could have imagined twenty years prior. And yet, he continued to believe to the end of his days that the civil disobedience practiced by Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King worsted the cause of race relations. Bell could not see that if it was not for the willingness of King and others to disobey Jim Crow laws in order to gain racial justice, then racial moderates like Bell would have never come to defend equal opportunity regardless of race or color.[1]

No doubt, Bell traveled toward greater racial moderation because of the force of the cultural moment. However, the effect of his son-in-law's example of integrated crusades undoubtedly played a part as well. When Graham declared in Jackson, Mississippi, that "there is no segregation at the altar" and that there should be none in the church either, he began to shift the ground upon which Bell, as well as other younger southern Presbyterians, would stand. When these younger southern Presbyterian conservatives met to form the Presbyterian Churchmen United (PCU) in 1969, they included in their seven-point "Declaration of Commitment" a statement that emphasized a spirit of "love, concern, and neighborliness toward all races of men without partiality and without prejudice." D. James Kennedy stressed that theme at the PCU rally in December 1969 when he "made it plain and simple that the continuing church movement was about faithfulness to the Scriptures, to evangelism, and to world missions and not about preserving a segregated way of life." When these younger leaders began working to form a Continuing Presbyterian Church, many of them were determined that the new church would be racially inclusive. When the Continuing Church steering committee met in 1971, Ben Wilkinson stressed, "We are not a racist group seeking to build a racial church." While recognizing differences of opinion, Wilkinson wanted to know "black pastors and elders who might be interested in the Continuing Church." Wilkinson was typical of these younger leaders: to a man, they desired a break with the southern way of life and a church that reflected the Gospel itself.[2]

To be sure, there were other prominent leaders in the Continuing Church movement who would continue to defend segregation. Increasingly, they were viewed as a liability, both for the new church, but more importantly for the advancement of the Gospel itself. And yet, it is safe to say that over the past forty years since its founding, the Presbyterian Church in America has not done enough to address this more recent past. The 1960s are not dead; they are not even past--they continue to shape our conversations and to impact what kind of church God is calling us to be.

[1] L. Nelson Bell, "Fruits of Mistakes," PJ (9 August 1967): 13, 20; Bell, "Civil Disobedience," PJ (22 May 1968): 9. On this point, I agree with David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

[2] Steven P. Miller, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 27; Declaration of Commitment," Presbyterian Outlook (6 October 1969); Smartt, I Am Reminded, 54.