Race and the Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, no. 1

Sean Lucas
Over at Justin Taylor's blog at the Gospel Coalition, I contributed to a historians' forum that sought to answer certain questions on southern evangelicals and their failures on Civil Rights. My answer particular focused on southern Presbyterian conservatives, many of whom would form the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). 

Of course, a 900 word blog post (I was over the requested amount by a 100 words!) can't do justice to a complex issue--especially when I was trying to offer a little bit of nuance into the overall discussion: namely, a) not every southern Presbyterian conservative was a hardboiled segregationist and b) there was change over time, especially for the younger generation that would lead the steering committee that produced the PCA. 

In my forthcoming book, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, which will be published later this year by P&R, I devote a lot of space to southern Presbyterian conservatives and race. However, I have offered shorter summaries of that material in many open forums, from the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and the University of Southern Mississippi to the PCA General Assembly. One such shorter summary, done this past summer at a pre-GA conference sponsored by the PCA Historical Center, was called, "Race, Civil Rights, and the Southern (Presbyterian) Way of Life." 

Because the audio of the meeting costs $25 and because some feel that PCA historians are not forthright on these issues (although I talked about these issues also in Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life), I am going to post this paper in four parts here and then follow it with a final application post. I hope that by telling the truth about the past--both its ugliness and its hopefulness--we can begin an important conversation about our future, both in my own denomination and in evangelicalism at large.

From the time the Southern Presbyterian Journal was founded in 1942, it had stood steadily for several key commitments shared widely by southern Presbyterian conservatives. Best articulated by long-time contributor J. E. Flow, these commitments included the "old school" interpretation of Scripture and the Westminster Standards; the Presbyterian form of church government; the grassroots principle of church oversight, symbolized in the role of diaconal care; the spiritual mission of the church; and "the purity and integrity of the White man of North America upon whose shoulders are laid the burdens of the world."[1] Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the magazine had run scores of articles and editorials that had defended racial solidarity and segregation as part of a larger conservative religious and political worldview, which linked together anti-integration, anti-communism, and anti-centralization. Racial conservatism was a factor in the defeat of reunion with the northern Presbyterian church in 1954 and it continued to be an issue that divided the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) in the years that followed.[2]

However, new winds were blowing in the church as well as the culture at large. In 1952, in Jackson, Mississippi, southern Presbyterian favorite and Nelson Bell son-in-law Billy Graham announced that he would integrate his crusades, a promise he kept the following year at Birmingham, Alabama. Southern Presbyterian conservative Bill Hill continued to pursue an integrated ministry in his churches in Hopewell, Virginia. And a younger generation of conservative ministers was beginning to realize that racial segregation was a betrayal of the Gospel and served to undercut missions at home and abroad. That did not mean that the conservative worldview that had marked southern Presbyterians would change quickly; it did mean, however, that the future trajectory was toward racial inclusion and interracial exchange and away from racial solidarity. Sadly, the change has come slowly and has been betrayed at countless points along the way.

No one better embodied some of the contradictions and possibilities of this era than G. Aiken Taylor, who became editor of the Journal in 1959. Born in 1920 to missionary parents in Brazil, Taylor returned to the United States when he was fifteen to complete his education. He graduated from Presbyterian College in South Carolina in 1940 and spent the war years in the Army as a captain and company commander in the 142nd infantry. After the war, he graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary and then Duke University with a Ph.D. degree with a focus on John Calvin and religious education. When he was at Columbia, Taylor had served a church in Smyrna, Georgia, and while he was at Duke, he served the Northside Presbyterian Church, Burlington, North Carolina. After his graduation from Duke, he would go to serve the Presbyterian church in Alexandria, Louisiana, for five years before he was approached to take on the editorship of the Journal.

One of the questions that he had in taking on this role was whether he would have to agree with and promote the Journal's aggressive position on racial segregation. Growing up on the mission field caused Taylor to have a different attitude about segregation than most southerners. He told Nelson Bell, "I don't like agitation on the social question from either side. I am not an integrationist, neither am I a segregationist. My position on this issue is that a view point of whatever kind should not be made the criterion for determining the place or the worth of a man...or a church paper." In reply, Bell assured him that there was a range of opinions on segregation among the board of directors for the magazine and that he would not be required to hold to a particular party line. That said, the older man also counseled him not to push his more moderate racial views either: "I feel you would be utterly foolish to come to the Journal as editor and make race an issue--certainly at this juncture. There are so many more important things which need to be faced." As it would happen, Taylor's position on race, as evidenced in his writing and editorial practice, would largely harmonize with Bell's own racial views: downplaying forced segregation, dismayed by outside agitators who stirred up the racial issue, and concerned not to let racial politics divert attention from the largely doctrinal and social issues of the day.[3]

The first notice of race relations after Taylor became editor of the Journal actually came from Nelson Bell. Once again, he worried about the effects of "interracial marriage" and "mulattos," issues that he had raised many times over the past fifteen years. But there was a new note as well: "We believe that we who live in the South must come to terms with changes which, while having taken place gradually, are now actualities. To those who have made educational and economic progress to the place where they need public services, these should be granted, not grudgingly but as a matter of course." In addition, Christians needed to view blacks as those who have souls "as precious in God's sight as that of any other person." Evangelism was being hindered by the racial agitation; justice needed to be done.[4]

At the same time, conservatives needed to make sure that such racial moderation would not divide the church. Taylor urged the church to vote down to overtures coming to the 1960 General Assembly, seeking to reopen reunion conversations with the northern church. Among his reasons were pronouncements by the northern church on race issues: "Some of the pronouncements, such as those on race relations, have been sufficiently explosive to produce a wide-open split in a Church such as ours." Racial moderation did not necessarily mean advocacy for integration nor did it commit individuals to agitate the church on the issue.[5]

[1] J. E. Flow, "Positive or Negative?" Southern Presbyterian Journal (29 September 1954): 8-9 (hereafter SPJ). Strikingly, these issues, including segregation, were cited in a recent essay by a participant in these struggles: see Morton H. Smith, "The Southern Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America," in Interpreting and Teaching the Word of Hope, ed. Robert L. Penny (Taylors, SC: Presbyterian Press, 2005), 206-12.

[2] On this see, Sean Michael Lucas, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America (Phillipsburg: P&R, forthcoming), chapters four and five.

[3] Paul Hastings to G. Aiken Taylor, 17 March 1954, G. Aiken Taylor Papers, Box 114, folder 22, PCA Historical Center, St. Louis, MO; G. Aiken Taylor to L. Nelson Bell, 29 May 1959; L. Nelson Bell to G. Aiken Taylor, 15 June 1959, L. Nelson Bell Papers, Box 75, folder 16, Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton IL.

[4] L. Nelson Bell, "One Southerner Speaks," Presbyterian Journal (hereafter PJ) (13 April 1960): 9, 18.

[5] G. Aiken Taylor, "Church Union an Issue," PJ (20 April 1960): 11.